After reading Boler and some of the past blog posts, I thought that a short reflection might at least help me understand some distinctions between my own experience and those already covered. Meg Boler’s experience with Tim Russert and subsequent concerns about media dominance, bring to mind a distinction between speaker or listener. In most cases, there are always more listeners than speakers. Indeed, Boler’s experience with Russert is, possibly, where two “speakers” or points of view collide. Essentially, the broader perspective is “empowered” individual free speech. I am mindful that Boler isn’t exactly a nameless face in the internet “crowd”. Moreover, the delivery and tone might also have an effect. However, we all have some experience of what constitutes “free” speech; and, that is exactly what Boler was doing no matter her delivery or informed “tone”. Russert, on the other hand, was more of a spokesperson by virtue of position and subject. Clearly, Russert didn’t feel obliged to listen. I’ve often been impressed with the fact that free speech does not require active listening and can as actively be disregarded. However, it’s a bit harder to ignore the speaker when it is the voice of the multitude. While Boler wasn’t the multitude, she was expressing a common perspective.
I had a similar experience last week when I engaged with Nawaf Obaid a spokesperson for the Saudi Information Ministry and Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies.
I suggested that the Saudi government did not “encourage” or welcome free exchange in the internet blogesphere. His reaction was swift and angry; but, it was only momentary. Four other Saudi citizens agreed and challenged his assessment. It was interesting to observe the difference between my tone and theirs.
While I didn’t consider my response particularly confrontational, there was a difference both in tone and position. They were believable. I could be disregarded as “ill informed”. The four Saudi citizens were credible and trying very hard to be polite, yet authoritative.
Subsequent, non-Saudi speakers were challenged as being ill informed or out of touch. That’s easy when non-Saudi’s are excluded from full participation. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s preference to actively embrace his political opponents.
Thus, the environments of discussion can and frequently do become confrontational. What happens next is important. In the hacker domain, it seems that we frequently see an attempt to “punish” by an attack on the infrastructure — i.e., denial of service attacks, server hacks, “leaks”, etc. This ability to punish is enabled by technical tools not normally used by individual speakers. Then, these attempts seem to go beyond “free speech” where the ability to exact “punishment” is frequently not deemed to be “protected” speech. The same is true of verbal heckling and audio protest.
Thus, the position of the pulpit becomes important; and, the ability to make pronouncements is, itself, powerful and threatening. Clearly, Boler makes this exact point in her explanation of media dominance. How to overcome such dominance is at issue and can become disruptive to the process of free exchange.
The mass rallies during the periods of “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria are examples of massive responses. Here free speech seems to be an expression of group audio “voting”, becoming a revolution — viz. Gustave LeBon and Sampedro. In all cases, these confrontations are often difficult for the participants on both sides. After working in the public sector for many years, I’ve been in many confrontations as the government’s spokesperson. None are pleasant. All exchanges are important and necessary.
At least in the USA, we have developed an idea for what comes after “free speech”. We have already discussed the obligations of the government to listen and act accordingly: Administrative Procedures Act and Title VI (Civil Rights Act); and, the equal protection provision of the Constitution. I’m glad to be a part of that environment — as a US Citizen. The Saudi citizens at the Harvard meeting felt that their only choice was to leave their own country to enable their voice! There was one grim outcome from the meeting, however.
The Saudi spokesperson, Nawaf Obaid, speaking to Iranian members of the audience indicated that Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear capacity if Iran continued its nuclear program. Indeed, Saudi’s acquisition would be for the purposes of nuclear weapons as would its other middle eastern allies. That threat seemed to trump all others. It further demonstrated how frightening such confrontations cam become. It makes living in Massachusetts seem like a real blessing!