Anyone who's called a dissident in their own society is probably an honest person. There are things an honest person ought to be objecting to. Most people won't do it. They support them, or they join in carrying them out. There'll always be a scattering of people who try to point them out, and tell others, help other people object to them, and naturally they're going to be reviled, what else. - Noam Chomsky
It may seem strange to many that republicans should be found advocating free speech. Some would erroneously contend that our involvement in political violence was the epitome of everything but free speech. They could further flag up the fact that the traditional historical ensemble of republicanism has hardly been edificed on the concept. Indeed Sinn Fein's bogus opposition to the Dublin Government's Broadcasting Ban was not an isolated phenomenon. Frank Ryan once infamously asserted in the 1930s: 'as long as we have fists and boots, there will be no free speech for traitors'. The pluralistic notion that treachery lies in the eye of the beholder and is in many cases a matter of dates seemingly had little place in Ryan's formidable intellect.
Such streaks of republican authoritarianism have prompted the observation from one academic that 'ex-IRA leaders in power in independent Ireland often became enthusiastic censors, in what was possibly a related expression of anti-intellectualism and dislike of mental freedom'. Perhaps this is what inevitably results from opposition to authoritarianism - the latter reconstitutes itself in former opponents, and freedom-seeking poachers rush off with indecent haste to become shackling gamekeepers.
But what relevance does this have for us here in Ireland where the Northern parties have reached agreement 'on economic strategy which has so far enabled the Executive parties to continue to hold together, even when seemingly irreconcilable differences on other matters have looked likely to bring the edifice down'; and in the South where the economy is booming? Is the issue of free speech not merely the abstract concern of those once described as 'terminally disgruntled about everything'?
We need look no further than the political discourse pertaining to the equality agenda in the North where the focus remains emphatically cross-community rather than intra-community in that discourse centres on minimising inequality between the two Northern communities. Little is said about socio-economic antagonisms that exist within the separate communities. There is seemingly greater disadvantage within each community than there is between the two blocs. Both Brian Feeney and Eamonn McCann have drawn attention to our centre-right government at Stormont which seems intent on keeping matters as such. In the Republic, despite the roar of the Celtic Tiger, we find what Liz Curtis depicts as 'the land of saints and scholars (becoming) the land of slaves to dollars.' Consequently, we are confronted with a report which claims that there would be 6,000 fewer deaths among people aged under 65 every year if social inequalities were eliminated.
In a world where a totalising phenomenon of globalisation seemingly holds sway we may be excused for concluding that our politicians, on economic matters at any rate, look increasingly like the late Czech poet Miroslav Holub's 'crowd of dwarfs in the King's palace'.
And it comes as small comfort that what passes for the Left in Ireland may rejoice at the rejection of the Nice Treaty. Yet the all too familiar trends of Europeanisation are evidently already at work in Ireland in a manner which leads us to think 'Nice is dead - long live Nice'. Can it be truly said that - given the expressed concerns of John Gormley about 'now living in a culture of silence and acquiescence' - we are not already busy emulating the following? The French political class stress the 'coherence and rationality' of policies rather than the need to build consent for them, while the British Labour Party is in a 'process of constant, gentle strangulation that's done in the name of consensus and the unity of the party and winning the next general election.' And all the while looming ominously on the political horizon is Austria which in the view of Konrad Becker 'doesn't have a very big tradition of dissenting democratic structures and I'm very worried about the consequences'. Worry he should.
Of course the vast majority of people here either support or accept the prevailing situation. It is their right to decide for themselves what regime of truth they shall align with. As Mike Garde argues 'people have the right to believe in anything they like, but they also have the right to information which enables them to make an informed choice'.
Against this it would be highly imprudent to doubt the existence of what a recent Irish Times writer described as 'the increasingly sophisticated news and information control on the part of the political establishment'. Commenting on Thatcherite privatisation ripping through the Northern economy Eamonn McCann said 'If there has been public discussion of this proposed radical change ... many of us have missed it'. In the South a situation exists, described by Professor Kathleen Lynch, where 'there has been a neutralisation of public discourse and debate. A language of sameness prevails'.
In a filtered or emasculated intellectual environment it does not follow that alignment to prevailing political and economic arrangements is necessarily good. Hannah Arendt observed that 'ordinary decent moral people adapted to Nazism with ease as soon as it became the established order.' While no one would argue that there is a comparison between Ireland and Nazism there is always a need to deconstruct and contest. In the culture of secrecy and filtered information transparency is hated and feared by those whom closure serves.
This underlines the democratic function of free speech. Censorship is rarely employed for the sole purpose of prohibiting speech. Its overriding objective is to prevent people hearing. Yet hear they must. For whatever political and moral theories exist to rationalise the current state of affairs, in the words of an Independent columnist, 'they will be inextricably tangled with political arrangements, so that the morality of any society by and large protects the powerful'.
Hilary Wainwright's observation, therefore, on the British Labour Party should not go amiss:
As is the way of all reforms that are not pressed for by a powerful and vigilant movement, secret wheeling and dealing has put pluralism on ice....politics without pluralism: essentially a court from which courtiers are sent out to gauge the feelings of the peasants and then organise pageants to show that the king has their innermost needs at heart. (there is a need for) an unsilenceable political force, a persistent day-to-day focal point in public debate.'
Even were such a force to be created and such a debate to occur and, which combined, managed to overcome that 'language of sameness' referred to by Professor Lynch, of what use would it be if it is determined by our inhabiting:
a culture of lies, the one law of which is that everybody, all the time, must pretend they are telling the truth …We have finally and fully adopted a world view in which there is no such thing as truth, only an infinitely modifiable system of competing discourses.
No doubt this is where the traditional, but thankfully irrelevant, Left would lead us with their notions of vanguardism and self-serving claims to exclusive ownership of yet another truth which they have been historically tasked to inflict upon the rest of us. And yet can we seriously dispute the need for an alternative discourse? For Michel Foucault 'discourse can be ... a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy'. That alone suffices to explain the need for free speech. Given the degree of closure from where else shall an alternative discourse emerge?
Are we who seek to remain republican, while differing seriously with other republicans, to acquiesce in both the language of sameness and the regime of filtered information for the sake of solidarity with the exploitative communalist politics that now prevail; all the while ignoring the stricture of Theodore Adorno against the 'throttling of thought' that 'solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight'? Do we really seek that comforting comradeship of 'a closed community with a closed mind'? Comforting because, as Adolf Eichmann found, 'a life of obedience, led by orders, instructions, decrees and directives, is a very comfortable one in which one's creative thinking is diminished'. If so then forget about change. As the historian A.J.P. Taylor claims:
conformity may give you a quiet life ... but all change in history, all advance, comes from the nonconformist. If there had been no troublemakers, no Dissenters, we should still be living in caves'
Manuel Tome, a general secretary of Frelimo has argued that 'nobody has the right to silence a voice that was speaking out against the ills of society'. Yet as Erich Fromm pointed out those who speak the truth 'mobilise the resistance of those who repress it'. Nevertheless, throughout history people have always come forward to prick the balloons of censorship. 'My duty is to speak out,' Emile Zola wrote. 'I do not want to be an accomplice'. Taslima Nasreen protested that 'I will not let myself be reduced to silence...Don't I have a moral responsibility to raise a voice in protest?' And oddly but admirably for one from his tradition, the Marxist mathematician Dirk Struik refused 'to place his fertile mind at the disposal of governmental technocrats'.
The anti censorship journalist Tom McGurk once argued that 'exile becomes both the essential physical and imaginative distance for the writer'. He could have added that it can also amount to social suicide. Yet in a society where 'politics and power are Darwinian zones where only the strong survive' those writers who are 'outside the inner circles and who are beholden to no one can act as important critical voices, or as advocates for those who otherwise would not be heard.'
In a society where the prevailing chant resonates with Thatcherite stridency 'there is no alternative', it is clear that the powerful's opposition to critique is not based on what they perceive as the absence of a prescriptive strategic alternative. A descriptive critique alone is enough to upset them. Because somewhere in there lies the seed that starts people thinking differently. And in an era where the repression of difference is a strategic objective of the powerful, it is imperative that republican writers do not succumb to the temptations of a quiet life. Silence is complicity.