Freedom of Expression: General Theory and the Russian Tradition of Cultural Resistance
The language of freedom of speech is often invoked to defend those who speak truth to power. Free speech can be seen as the language of political resistance, as we saw when Vaclav Havel spoke up against the Czech Communist regime or when American football players kneel during the national anthem. But freedom of speech also is invoked to protect satirical criticism as in the case of Charlie Hebdo and the Danish Cartoons' depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. Today, free speech is frequently invoked in the name of conservative provocateurs like Geert Wilders or Milo Yiannopolous. Many see free speech as the fundamental right of individual liberty and self-expression, which is why it is guaranteed in Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human Rights. Even for those who reject the idea that unrestricted speech will lead to political truths, the free expression of competing ideas girds a pluralist society where disagreement and dissent are prized. However, uncensored speech can lead to dangerous and at times painful ideas. Should anti-democratic groups be free to argue democratically against democracy? Should racist and sexist speech be permitted when it cows certain people from the public sphere, thus limiting their right to public engagement? Questions of the freedom of speech and ideas are at the heart of our global, liberal, and democratic community. The incredible ferment around the extent of free speech today shows how unsettled this community is. One of the central elements that may be recovered from Russian cultural history of Modern Times is its axiomatic opposition of power and style, power and culture, state authoritarianism and artistic autonomy, which, without explicit formulation, requires no proof or explanation for the given community. This opposition has a deep historical tradition, which may be traced with confidence in one form or another as far back as the era of Alexander I in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and quite possibly all the way to that of Catherine the Great in the second half of the eighteenth century. In retrospect, the tradition of an intellectual, culturally oriented and stylistically orchestrated rebellion was shaped by a series of recognizable conceptual topoi, emphasizing primarily the cultural dimension of civic opposition to the state, that was understood as a repressive apparatus for the limitation of individuality and for bureaucratic unification. "Russian literature as a school for freedom of social thought and a space for social conflict," "Russian literature as the chief agent of Enlightenment in Russia," "The Poet as substitute for the saint in a secular era," "The intelligentsia as the salt of the earth,"—one might easily continue the list of common places, all of which boil down to the following: in circumstances of autocratic or authoritarian power it was literature (and culture in general) that was constituted in Russia as the single locus of relative autonomy of the individual from the state, as a realm of free self-realization, both in terms of individual creativity and in terms of social identity. For this reason, culture came to be recognized as a parallel and alternative sphere to that of the state—even at moments when the state was ostensibly in complete control of cultural life (and in fact, the state's elevated concern for the sphere of culture arose in response to the artistic and evaluative autonomy of culture as a site of alternative, non-state practical and political socialization).