Monday, January 17, 2011

Freedom of Speech and the Responsibility to Listen (Brian E. Konkol)

During the past year South Africa’s ruling political party proposed a “media tribunal”, which among other things, would hear complaints against the press and possess authority to impose legal penalties upon journalists. As an African National Congress (ANC) official stated, "The existing self-regulatory system with the press ombudsman and press council is ineffective and needs to be strengthened.” The plan arose as Parliament also considered a Protection of Information Bill that would give the government an ability to classify information and impose jail terms of up to twenty-five years for publishing. As to be expected, the proposed measures were praised by the government as necessary steps to “assist” the media towards social transformation and limit false reporting. On the other hand, fears have risen amongst the press and general public of a government campaign to suffocate the freedom of speech guaranteed in South Africa’s constitution.

According to Reporters without Borders, South Africa is currently placed 38th out of 178 countries in terms of press freedom. This reality shows a decline (South Africa rated 33rd in 2009, and 26th in 2004) over recent years. In addition, the influential human rights organization, Freedom House, recently downgraded South Africa’s press freedom from “Free” to “Partly Free”. Among other motives, Freedom House cites as their reasons the new above-mentioned legislation and increased harassment of journalists, as well as government attempts to silence corruption scandal stories uncovered by the influential Mail & Guardian newspaper. Freedom House also noted with concern that the SABC, the state broadcaster, is increasingly losing its independence in the face of increased government and ruling party control. In response, the South African government has pushed forward with its various proposals, for leaders insist they do not wish to restrict freedom of speech, but rather, they desire to hold media outlets accountable through a more effective process of “outside” evaluation. As the government Minister of Higher Education and Training stated, “If there is one serious threat to our democracy, it is a media that is [only] accountable to itself."

The debate surrounding freedom of speech, while simple at first glance, is rather complicated when analyzed deeper and viewed from diverse viewpoints. For example, while freedom of speech is “an ability to speak freely without censorship or limitation, or both”, in practical terms there are numerous important restrictions, such as “hate speech” that may infringe upon the basic human rights of others. In terms of global agreements, the freedom of speech is recognized under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and accepted in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), for it argues that people shall have "the right to hold opinions without interference.” However, there are areas for much-needed discussion as to where free speech should be examined, for the lines between what is allowed and what needs to be restrained (and who has the power to make such decisions) is a constant area of discourse. The recent WikiLeaks publication of top-secret government documents is one of many examples that have brought such critical discussion on free speech to the forefront.

The United States of America currently ranks 20th in the above-mentioned Reporters without Borders international ranking (the top six nations include: Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland), as freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There are several exceptions to the rule, including hate speech that brings direct harm to others, copyright protection, the Miller test for obscenity, and greater regulation of so-called commercial speech, such as advertising. While some activists argue that the federal government has engaged in too many attempts to limit freedom of speech in a post-September 11th anti-terrorism environment, most would agree that USA citizens are given the right to freely express themselves without fear of legal reprimand. As the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

While it is tempting for USA citizens to grow proud and point fingers at various governments around the world that appear far too eager to limit free speech, humility is required, for there is something equally as alarming taking place in the USA and various other areas, even if it does not receive similar attention. While many (rightly) advocate for the freedom of speech, what is also important is the responsibility to listen. In other words, if we promote the freedom of speech throughout the world and fail to recognize and practice its companion, the responsibility to listen, we create a global environment where people express their own viewpoints yet are unable to consider the diverse views of others. The consequences of such imbalance leads to ideological arrogance, division, alienation, violence, and an even wider gap between the powerful (those who often do the speaking) and powerless (those whose voices are rarely heard). While freedom of speech is often considered a primary benchmark for democracy and fairness, perhaps it is time we paid more attention to the responsibility to listen as an equally essential standard for civility, peace, and justice.

When in reflection upon the critical companionship of speaking and listening, I believe there are three topics of conversation that seem to spark the most passionate debate amongst North Americans: religion, politics, and sports. In all three instances, there are various loyalties that one develops over time, and as such ideals grow with passing years, we too often reach a point when opposing points of view are no longer considered. While arguments over sport teams are clearly not as serious as political and/or religious dialogue, when people are unable to listen in one aspect of life they are more likely to carry over such behavior into other areas. Through it all, it would appear that we have experienced a dramatic shift in public and private dialogue, for rather than opening oneself to discussion and various considerations, we have witnessed toxic battles and an unwillingness to budge in opinion, “different” seems too closely linked with “wrong”, compromise is ridiculed and rejected, and those who open themselves to listen are often perceived as weak whereas those who “stand their ground” are strong. Clearly, such an environment polarizes, divides, and turns conversation into opportunities for competition rather than cooperation. As a result, those who are poor and marginalized often remain unheard, and many who have wonderful insights would much rather remain silent than enter the ring of battle.

Over the past years I have found the ability to listen with humility as an absolutely crucial aspect of life and ministry. As my wife and I serve as Country Coordinators for the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program in South Africa, we accompany North American young adults and southern Africans, which are two groups that – from a general demographic standpoint – do not always possess the most positive views of foreign missionaries. While the young adults and Lutheran Church hosts whom we serve alongside on a daily basis have been wonderfully accommodating and hospitable, we try to remain mindful of generalized perceptions from the broader population. For example, numerous surveys amongst young adults in North America show that people of faith, especially those in positions of organized religious leadership, are often perceived as judgmental and unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints. In addition, according to various Africans in the region, visitors from North America and Europe continue to speak and teach more often than listen and learn, and have thus developed a rather unattractive reputation. And so, as a result of such honest insights received from YAGM participants and local African hosts within the Lutheran Church and beyond, I believe the most important communication tool as a Christian missionary is not the mouth, but rather, the ears, for the experience of mission as accompaniment alongside local hosts and North American young adults requires a two-way exchange of faith, dialogue, and cooperation. Through it all, my hope is that over the course of our time in South Africa alongside YAGM participants and local hosts, we will encourage and practice the freedom of speech and responsibility to listen, for the result will be new ideas, deeper relationships, and by God’s grace, various presumptions will be altered and our global community of faith will be strengthened.

Along these lines, in the August 2010 edition of The Lutheran, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson reflected upon the concept of freedom, (and in my opinion, the responsibility to listen), in his article, “Freedom Rings in the Word”. Among other things, in response to a question, ("Bishop, in one word what is your vision for every member of the ELCA?"), he stated that freedom is a central aspect of Christian faith. He wrote that listening for the Good News received in God’s Word, “sets you free to serve your neighbor, to strive for justice and peace, and to care for God's creation with creativity and passion. It sets us free to serve in the ministry of reconciliation with confidence and joy.” In addition, Bishop Hanson went on to proclaim, “The way God brings this life of confident trust into being is through your ears. Think of your ears as the birth canal of faith, as Paul wrote: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). I find such expressions of wisdom to be incredibly relevant, not only for missionary pastors like myself, but for the global village of faith in general.

What I appreciate most about Bishop Hanson’s statements is the importance of our ears, or shall we say, the responsibility to listen. As Jesus is recorded as saying in Mark 4:9, "Whoever has ears to hear, then hear.” While much fanfare and praise is given to those in public positions regarded as engaging speakers, I would argue that an equally important aspect of leadership and life in general is found within the ability to listen (and to listen genuinely, not merely waiting to speak again!), especially when we are surrounded by those who possess different viewpoints. While the capacity to communicate ideas with charisma and clarity is extremely valuable and dearly needed, as a matter of Christian faith we are reminded that God comes to us through the Word, and the living Word is experienced through our ears (and of course, for those hearing impaired, they can “listen” non-verbally through experience and various others forms of communication). As I was once told, God gave us two ears, two eyes, and one mouth so we could listen and observe twice as much as we speak. In light of James 1:19, (“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry”), I find such guidance to be massively appropriate, for our faith grows in such ways, and so does our understanding of the world around us as well as those who live directly beside us.

In a world that is deeply divided and in need of healing, a message of inclusive faith and love offered by the Christian Church is not shared merely through spoken words, but it is often most effective when expressed through the humble and compassionate act of listening. As Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” When such acts of accompaniment are practiced, the Christian Church can faithfully and fruitfully participate in God’s Mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment in a world were considerate discourse and sustained peacemaking is far too rare. And so, as people of faith who believe in the amazing grace of God, may we promote the freedom of speech (and in doing so, may we choose our own words faithfully), but also, in response to a God who freely forgives and listens to our prayers regardless of who we are and what we have done, may we also encourage the responsibility to listen. When our conversations embody a balance of speaking and listening with open humility and boldness, God is active in and through the exchange, and the result is a positive conversion of the various connections within our global village. Through such interactions, one conversation at a time, good news is made known, relationships are valued and strengthened, and the global and local communities around us – as well as the heart and minds within us – experience a life-giving transformation for the better.