Freedom’s the thing

The thing about dictatorships, and oppressive regimes in general, is that there is no freedom of speech.

I grew up in an oppressive regime called Rhodesia. I knew clearly from the age of eight that I did not like war, nor did I like the racism at the heart of the regime’s efforts to maintain power against those in the struggle for liberation and the right to vote. I was a kid, and I listened to the (censored) news, and I listened to the endless discussions of the adults. In those days, kids did not have opinions, you know. Any attempt to express an opinion, even a quite rational one, was quashed. As I have said before, history is a persistent bastard and cannot be explained.

History is also a complex prism, so the sense of justice made manifest that I felt at age sixteen, when the country I lived in became the independent Zimbabwe in 1980, had dwindled considerably by the time 1997 rolled around, and grassroots campaigns for constitutional reform gained ground, leading to the formation of an opposition political party two years later. The ruling party did not like dissenters. In fact, it was quite good at murdering thousands of innocent people on mere suspicion of uprisings. Then, in 2002, POSA, the Public Order and Security Act, bought into law what had already been a reality for years. An entire population no longer had the freedom of speech, nor the freedom to hold “public gatherings”. Depending on who you were, three people chatting on a street corner could be construed as a public gathering. POSA is still in force, by the way. I am leaving out vast swathes of history in the interests of examining the idea of the freedom of speech. Around this time mutterings could be heard in quiet corners of the word, “dictatorship”. A dictatorship in a country which was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a copy of which I carried in my purse at all times, as a precaution, if you like. I was no political activist; my little white skin knew its limitations.

In case you have ever wondered why so many Zimbabweans write so eloquently, let me tell you that Zimbabweans valued their education. Aside from that, if your speech is in shackles, you soon learn elegant ways to convey your message without coming under the sanction of POSA. Another linguistic point of interest is that there are many quotations from the Bible which serve as fine substitutes for more mundane, more direct ways of speaking. Indeed, many people were adept at turning a political conversation into a religious one at the drop of a hat. There is much to be said for evangelism.

In combating the enslavement of speech, the first step is to determine that you do, in fact, have freedom of thought. Even with all the advances in modern technology, no one can tell exactly what you are thinking. Even those rare beings who read minds would be hard-pressed to prove you are thinking something were you to deny it. In a world where you cannot speak, let alone write, your mind, you seek to preserve your freedom of thought. You also have to be very clear in your own mind as to what you actually do think and believe. This is a hard thing to do. It is like holding your breath under water, all the while pretending that you are breathing.

I left Zimbabwe ten years ago for economic reasons. (The annual rate of inflation two days before I left was 231,600,000% – that’s two hundred and thirty-one point six million per cent.) The economy was going down the drain, and festers there still. One could contend that the country’s economy was in such poor shape as a direct result of political policy, of course, but at the risk of going on a long Bible-punching spree, I shall shut the lid on that can of worms immediately.

My entry into the First World, for reasons of survival of my partner and I, came with several flavours of culture shock. I, the tolerant free-thinker, felt constantly bombarded with the barrage of free speech occurring all around me. Once I got the hang of understanding Portuguese, I was often amazed at the kinds of things people felt free to say on television, in parliament, in newspapers, everywhere. It took me several more years to realise that much goes unsaid too, for reasons of a different history and cultural norms that are no less complicated than the one from which I had emerged.

Despite my having freedom of expression, by virtue of my location in Europe, it has taken me many years to admit publicly that I feel that the country I lived in betrayed me. Not the people, but the people in power. It took nine years, until November last year, when the President of that country was compelled to resign. Years, and so many thousands of miles away, I can still sense that power he had, and feel the chains binding the freedom to speak about it.

I joined Facebook in 2010, and a few years later, a couple of groups where fellow translators chat. It is interesting to observe the various levels of etiquette in these different groups, and also the occasional lack of etiquette. In these groups, I enjoy freedom of speech to a degree to which I feel comfortable. I love a good conversation. I like to see how and what people think.

I have focused up till now on how the political denial of freedom of speech affected me in a way that I still feel incapable of making a personal statement on political matters, although I do follow world politics. I have not explored the more organic social constraints under which most people live, nor the diplomatic maze we all have to navigate in our professional and personal lives.

In my offline personal relationships in particular, I have always striven for honesty and clarity of expression. The same is true in my professional dealings. It also occurs , naturally, with online friendships and associations, and online and offline relationships frequently overlap. In other words, I say what I mean, and mean what I say.

Because of my personal imperative to say what I mean and mean what I say, I most often take care as to how I express myself. Taking care means taking time, especially in comments on forums and threads in social media.

I have noticed a trend lately of people deleting posts on social media, even after substantial discussion has taken place, with general etiquette observed by all, and even when there is nothing that could seriously be taken as offensive in the spirit of free speech. I have seen this happen across a range of groups (and not only translator groups).

Is this a new right of which I am unaware? Does the original poster (and not the group’s Admin, or Moderator) have the right to delete their post, as if they had never made it in the first place? I suppose they do. The problem with assuming that right – and tacitly allowing it to becoming the norm, is that comments by other contributors to that thread are also deleted. And I have a problem with that.

I have a problem with my comments being deleted along with the whole of the post made by the original poster (OP) because suddenly, the OP holds all the power. Before this trend started becoming quite so common, I had assumed that the OP and commenters were all on an equal footing, as a matter of principle. Comments and contributions to the original post are made voluntarily, I understand that. But I did not volunteer to having my speech, my words, taken away from me.

My free speech, although initially welcomed, as was the case on two separate terminology questions in two separate Facebook groups in recent months, is not so much constrained as obliterated entirely when the OP deletes the post. On both occasions, the original poster benefited from helpful contributions from several people, all of whom received some sort of slap in the face when the OP hit the Delete button.

I guess, in the case of the terminology questions, it might have been because the OP wished to save face, having realised from the various answers received that their question revealed a certain ineptitude on their part. What is far worse, in my view, than showing (momentary?) ineptitude, is shutting down any possibility of receiving help in the future from those more capable translator colleagues. The slap in the face the OP gave the helpful commenters, by deleting the post, has virtually guaranteed that those people have made a mental note of their name, and will not bother to lend a hand the next time they need help. Are such OP deleters really so selfish that they cannot leave the thread for other readers to learn from it later? Do they really want to shut down the free speech, and good free advice so freely given?

Sure, everyone is free to do whatever they like. But there is a rider to that: as long as it does not impinge on the freedom of others. So, how about treating that right to free speech you have in your back pocket with the respect it deserves? By all means use it as often as you can, and by all means do not deny others their right to do the same, or summarily delete something that was not yours to delete in the first place. And don’t try to shut me up. I have kept quiet for far too long.

©2018 Allison Wright

2 thoughts on “Freedom’s the thing

Add yours

  1. Yes, Allison, you have shone a light on more than one issue here. The evolving Zimbabwe story continues whoever is in power. I tend to leave any news from there alone these days, although that is the country of my birth.
    I’m bookmarking your post to read again.


    1. I saw a hashtag on Twitter the other day which said “same bus, different driver”. I tend to minimise reading news from Zimbabwe. I sought here to examine the mechanics of freedom of expression from my perspective alone, without being particularly political, but I suppose that was quite a tall order.


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