It’s a poignant cliché of post-communism that where subversive writing – and art in general – were treated with suspicion and censored by the old communist regimes, they were also powerful. The work could tear at the fabric of the world that was being constructed and promoted by the state, and demand the importance of the individual’s life, voice, pain, art, personality. And after the fall of communism, when individuals became (hypothetically at least) free to write, distribute, and be read – when this writing became easily accessible – people stopped reading it. It lost its power.
This is close to the situation we’re in, in this moment. What do we do with all of these voices inside capitalism? Commentary and campaigns, news journalism, politically charged fiction and poetry, countless social media platforms; just about any kind of writing is massively available to us and is overwhelming in the scale of its production and reproduction.
Frankly, it often feels as though no matter how much we write and publish about how rotten our system is, we can’t budge it. We can alter it, expose it, fix it in parts. But all of our voices don’t seem to be able to change our structures of power in a substantial way. Is this overwhelming amount of information and critique actually making us deaf to what we’re being told? Are we ambivalent or disengaged because of information-fatigue?
I can’t really imagine living in a situation where I wasn’t able to express myself politically. I’m writing this here, for one. I don’t know the experience of having state authorities intervene on the politics of what I write – though this is still a real experience in many places, and is much more bound up with authoritarianism in general, than with state socialism in particular.
…freedom doesn’t apply to all of us in equal measure. We’re all negotiating life inside various systems of inequality.
But as we know, policing isn’t only the prerogative of the state. We’re cops to one another all of the time. Another reason that I don’t feel the hot hand of suspicious surveillance and censorship over my words and actions as a matter of course: I’m white in Australia; derived from the colonists who insisted on centring their own ideas and experiences as constituting the norm from the beginning of the colony, whether those ideas be patriotic or critical. We’ve seen migrant and Indigenous Australian writers ganged up on, even forced out of the country, a number of times over in just the past several years: Yassmin Abdel-Magied or Osman Faruqi brandished as national enemies for anti-war and tongue-in-cheek tweets; poet Ellen van Neerven bullied by dim gangs of online teenagers who couldn’t cope with a poem by an Aboriginal poet in a HSC exam that outsmarted them.
We don’t all enjoy our right to freedom of expression equally, and our rights can be corroded in various ways. (This isn’t even addressing the forms of censorship our government does engage in, whether persecuting trade unionists or dissidents, or silencing the voices of refugees and their advocates, or limiting journalists’ abilities to access information and to report on it in ways that we, ironically, will never hear about.) Media voices, politicians and right-wing internet grubs would have us believe that it’s actually conservative and bigoted commentary that is suffering the most invasive repression in this political moment. (Strange then, that we’re always hearing about it, and that it’s often the most politically and economically advantaged being ‘silenced’.)
…the consumption of a right is not the same thing as the enjoyment of it, and its mere consumption does little to further it or defend it.
How then do we imagine this right to freedom of expression? What is it? Human rights, the tangible and the discursive, are both powerful and deceptive in their universality. They have to apply to all of us in equal measure, to have integrity and use. But freedom doesn’t apply to all of us in equal measure. We’re all negotiating life inside various systems of inequality.
And we have to choose our media well. I work for Overland magazine, a radical journal that has been publishing since the fifties, that focuses on publishing writers from the margins. The purpose of a radical journal, that receives no funding from advertising, is to promote the voices that don’t simply add to the noise of commentary, but attempt to call out across the top of it. To ask ‘why?’ of everything; to try to expose the mechanics of power that underpin our relationships, our knowledge, our ‘trends’; and to foster a community of writers and activists in the process.
Ultimately, the question is how do we deploy our freedoms, to write and publish, to read, to act? It’s always an option to consume, and over-consume, analysis and information, and to become exhausted by it. But the consumption of a right is not the same thing as the enjoyment of it, and its mere consumption does little to further it or defend it. Our rights are as real as we insist they are, as meaningful as what we do with them.