In defense of TFL and free speech


Graphic by Alexandra Parris

In 1759, French authorities prohibited the book “De l’esprit” (On the Mind) by philosopher Helvétius and ruled that it was full of the most dangerous doctrines. His old friend Voltaire defended Helvétius, saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In a very similar spirit, Thomas Jefferson — who wrote “every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty” — defended Baptist priests for their rights to preach the gospel. These principles were the reasons I always looked up to America as an exemplary country. I was able to pray to any God here and not be persecuted for it. I was able to criticize any religion and not be shunned for blasphemy. I was able to speak against the president and not be locked up as a traitor. This was the place where differences were always welcome, where individual liberty was held above all and where ideas flowed freely. Where I felt like a real player with options in deciding what to believe and what to say.

On the other side of the globe, however, the narrative was already defined and given. You either prayed as suggested or practiced your religion in the dark. The state was sacred, and the president was infallible. In my government-issued textbooks, Greeks were invaders, Armenians and Kurds were terrorists, Arabs were rebels, Europeans were imperialists. But Turks … Turks were always great but never unfair, always the hero or the victim but never the villain. The moment we disagreed, we joined the bad guys club. In one week, six people in my family were labeled as terrorists. In one month, three of them were jailed for baseless political charges. The passport I currently have will be seized by the Turkish government the moment I enter my country.

But you know what? I don’t care. Now, one of my best friends at the London School of Economics is Armenian and another is Greek. When I feel that freedom of thought, I say the passport, the money, the respect were all damn worth giving up. I am completely content with being stateless as long as I am free to choose the narrative I want to believe in.

I do fear, however, that these liberties are threatened by two forces in the current political climate of the US: poverty of expectations and polarization. By poverty of expectations, I refer to the lower standards of respect and tolerance we apply to people of color and different religions. When someone condemns Hitler or Mussolini, we rightfully do not ask the question whether any German or Italian is being offended. When the condemned is Mao, however, the act suddenly becomes racist. When someone makes fun of the Christian God or criticizes the Bible, it is freedom of speech. But when it comes to Allah or the Quran, we regard it as Islamophobia. We do not accept homophobia and polygamy here, but we put a blind eye when it is in the Muslim majority countries. 

As a person of color and practicing Muslim, I hate these double standards. They make it harder for us to acknowledge and combat the issues in our own communities. And, their very existence relies on the assumption that we are not capable of respect and tolerance as anybody else. I am not saying racism and Islamophobia are not real. They indeed are. But we make it harder to fight real racism and Islamophobia when we make it easier to label anything as such. 

Another current threat to individual liberty is polarization. There is no room for different opinions anymore. Everything and everyone is already defined: either blue or red. Whenever I try to defend one side, I am alienated by the other. When I say it is important to remain friends despite political disagreements, people tell me it is such a privilege to be able to not care about politics, or it is selfish to think friendships are more important. No, to avoid politics is not a privilege. It is, indeed, the opposite. If you look at any research on the topic, you will see that political engagement is highly correlated with social class and wealth. Simply put, the richer you are the more politically invested you become. And no, to value friendships is not selfish! The social links between otherwise-polarized factions are the very fibers that hold a society together. I lost all my high school friends except two because of politics. One was in Brazil and the other in China when the coup attempt happened in Turkey. Thank God they were not subject to the brainwashing of the government-controlled Turkish media. Families were torn apart because of polarization, because of the exaggerated and twisted views of the other side. Thousands of minors and more than 700 babies are in jail alongside their mothers right now. Why? Because their grandparents and relatives refuse to take care of a traitor’s bastard!

You think this cannot happen here? What do you think will happen if you treat all the Republicans as racist monsters and refuse to listen to them today? In the worst (but possible) case, a persecution, will you defend their rights or will you say they deserved it? And the same goes for any Republican who sees all the Democrats as communist thieves or atheist traitors. That is how the German people tolerated the Holocaust. That is how my classmates and neighbors tolerated more than a hundred thousand people being sacked in Turkey.

If all your friends agree with you, that doesn’t mean you are right. It means you are trapped in a single-sided approval network. If you only talk to people who will like your Facebook posts and retweet your tweets, then you demand self-affirmation, not friendship. If you think you are always the hero or the victim, then it is likely that you are becoming a villain. But don’t worry, I have a remedy for you: crack your shell and let some light in. Surround yourself with alien ideas, with what makes you uncomfortable. Only then, will you leave room for change in your narrative and not take the strongly defined one. Only then, will you be brave. Because bravery is to listen and respond with respect, not to silence and deem everything you disagree as racism.

I couldn’t disagree with TFL more, but I will defend their rights to speak what they believe in. Because that is the America I look up to, not one where people silence and demonize the other based on the slightest discomfort they can find.