What are the New Threats to Free Speech?

By | February 18, 2015 at 10:50 am | No comments | Events | Tags: , ,

As part of our efforts to increase our national presence, PEN Canada has planned events in cities across the country. In 2015, we will be holding events in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Halifax. Our first PEN talk in Calgary took place on February 5, 2015 at Shelf Life Books.

Chris Turner and Patrick Finn on free speech at Shelf Life Books

In the age of social media where anything can be said publically, do we still need to worry about free speech? Author Chris Turner and performance theorist Patrick Finn tackled this from all sides in PEN’s first Calgary talk at Shelf Life Books. Moderated by Mark Migotti, the talk focused on new ways that speech is being controlled, especially in places where imprisoning writers for their ideas is not the norm. The conversation began by highlighting how shifts in terminology can alter public perception – terms such as “tar sands” have slowly become taboo in Alberta for example, forsaken for the cleaner and brighter-sounding “oil sands”.

Changing use of language and strategic messaging were often brought up as the new enemies of free speech, with simplistic arguments being a key issue of concern. Lack of nuanced debate and complex arguments in the political arena were also discussed, with changes in the education system being one source of the problem. With the shift in the education system’s focus to workplace skill-building from thoughtful analysis, we could be producing graduates who are more likely to be happy simply digesting political sound bites instead of engaging with issues more complexly. This would allow savvy political parties to create simple, palatable messages that resonate with large swaths of the population, who would be inadequately trained to critique or unpack these ideas. The lack of training in writing, where students learn logic and the art of creating arguments to tell a story or make their point, was also identified as problematic: students are now able to take classes in Writing for Business, Writing for Science, and Writing for Engineers, but these specialized classes drop much of the training in analysis and critique that is necessary to parse through the abundance of messaging.

Finally, the conversation moved to more subtle changes in how we think about freedom of speech. It is clear that the Internet and social media allow anyone who wishes to express himself or herself publically, but all agreed that this should not be the measure of free expression. Rather, in the digital age where there are myriad narratives publically available, the key measure is not whether people are able to speak publically, but whether they can be heard.

Photo credit: Lewis Collard

Wikimedia photo from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Farm_fence_in_Watlington.jpg

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