A Global History of Free Expression and Free Speech Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Jan 31

A Global History of Free Expression and Free Speech Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

This episode we explore the global history of freedom of expression, starting with the Cyrus Cylinder and early concepts of human rights. We discuss the different conceptions of freedom of expression across cultures and the importance of understanding these diverse perspectives.The episode also delves into the Western history of freedom of expression, focusing on ancient Greece and the Athenian Agora as a model for public discourse. The trial of Socrates and the limits on free expression in ancient Greece are examined, as well as the influence of Greece and Rome on Western concepts of freedom of expression.

Key Takeaways:
  • Freedom of expression has a complex and diverse global history, with different conceptions and perspectives across cultures.
  • Understanding the historical roots of freedom of expression is crucial for comprehending its significance in contemporary society.
  • The Western concept of freedom of expression has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome, with the Athenian Agora serving as a model for public discourse.
  • Limits on free expression have existed throughout history, highlighting the ongoing challenge of balancing different rights and priorities.

Taryn Ward  Hi. I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones  and I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines,

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the freedom of expression, or free speech, as it's sometimes known to better understand the role that social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  This is the first full episode in our series on the freedom of expression. Over the course of this series, we'll look back at how this freedom has been understood historically and evolved over time. Consider the difference between State and personal action, and whether this is important, now more than ever, or is an outdated framework, and discuss how social media companies try to balance concepts of liberty and security, and where we think there's room for improvement.

TW.  These first few episodes, like in our series about the existing social media landscape will be foundational. One of the challenges in discussing big issues like freedom of expression, is it too often we skip that step and jump straight into the most exciting bits. But before we can say whether something like Twitter or "X" is a good public square, or the new public square, it's important to understand what "public square" means and has happened, particularly in the context of free expression over time.

SJ.  In this episode, we'll start with a look at the global history of freedom of expression.

TW.  Right, so to start, there's no sense in hiding the ball. Let's start with our core question for today. What is the global history of the freedom of expression?

TW.  In many ways, there is no global history of the freedom of expression. Or rather, there's no straightforward global history of freedom of expression. That doesn't mean there's not a meaningful and formative history of the freedom of expression in many places around the world. Or even that it's not possible to trace the development of every different concepts of this freedom around the world. And throughout history. It's more that there's no way for us to trace each of these histories individually and tie them up together with a neat little bow in 25 minutes, or 24 hours, or even 25 days.

SJ.  And as much as we love doing these podcasts, we don't want to spend 25 days talking about this. So, remember that when, when ideas around freedom of expression developed, globalisation will even that pipe dream, there was no Internet, social media, there were no airplanes or high speed trains, or in many cases, even connecting roads. So, this concept developed separately in different places, sometimes about the same time, sometimes not sometimes at a similar pace, sometimes not. Point is really that we can't talk about a global history of the freedom of expression because it didn't develop that way, and even now, it's difficult to talk about a global framework for the freedom of expression because it well didn't develop that way.

TW.  Yeah, absolutely. Right. So, So let's back up a bit that let's back all the way up in fact, just for a moment to 539 BC, to the Cyrus Cylinder.

SJ.  Gosh, Taryn, what a surprise that we go back to 539 BC to the Cyrus Cylinder. I know one member of your family will be very happy that we've managed to work in ancient Persia. So, what did the Cyrus Cylinder say?

TW.  Yes, he is very excited. He might even listen to this episode. So, the Cyrus Cylinder is widely considered to be the first Charter of Human Rights, this declare that slaves would be freed, but also that people had the right to choose their own religion, and that different races living in the city would be treated equally. This was really groundbreaking, and in many ways, still is, you know, if only we could adhere to some of those early principles now. But that's that's a different conversation for a different day. This Cyrus Cylinder was really important because often when we think about human rights, we think about it not only as a western concept, but for a lot of us also, in the United States, I think we often think of it is starting with the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. But actually, this document was built on top of so many other things.

SJ.  You're saying history was important? I think I think the US public school system probably doesn't agree but I, I certainly do so ancient India and the Rigveda which celebrates knowledge and truth, and much later Gandi and the Islamic Golden Age and works from several influential Muslim scholars, the Tang and Song of dynasties in China Confucian teachings on speech and behaviour. African oral traditions, folklore, and the importance of storytelling culturally, and, and so many other traditions is impossible to list in one episode or even an entire series, you know, all impact the global development, right?

TW.  Absolutely! The larger point here, I think, is that some version of this concept has developed again and again, across cultures and time periods. This isn't surprising in a way given how important communication is in our lives, but it's worth clarifying that it didn't develop in the same way or for the same reasons everywhere, and this is where we start to really see a divide and so there are long and deep histories in many places have a concept of freedom of expression, very different to Western expectations and understandings.

TW.  That doesn't mean these other conceptions are bad or worse or less, it means that we can't assume that everyone in the world sees free expression the same way, not because other cultures don't value it or some version of it. But because it means something entirely different, and that meaning is just as deeply rooted in their history, and in some cases, much more deeply rooted in their history than our own concepts and understandings are rooted in ours. I want to be really clear here, because while there are some deep and impressive histories of free expression across the globe, we also know that in many places that freedom is under attack, and we don't want to dismiss or dismiss that reality either.

SJ.  My sister-in-law is Chinese, and she's lived in the UK for a very long time. But one of the things she said when we, when we were in China with her for her, her wedding to my brother-in-law was the Chinese and have a different perspective to the Westerners. Because when in, traditionally, when they read, they sort of like read up and down, which means you nod your head, and when you're watching video, we'll see I'm doing that, whereas we left to right, which means we constantly question and so there was this deep seated appreciation for authority and stability built into the Chinese concept of how they manage their country, and we have a history of questioning authority and, and objecting to pretty much everything, and anybody who sat through an academic meeting at a university will know how long academics, for example, can argue about the placement of the comma. That has an impact right, on, on, on what people are willing to accept. But also, it's possible for for, you know, authoritarian regimes to use that to sort of like, you know, suppress dissent, and I mean, we would certainly think that that is happening in, in China today.

SJ.  And in fact, even using its power, economic power to suppress contrary opinions outside of its national boundaries.

TW.  Yes, and I think that's important in China, China is a really good example. I think it's, you know, when you speak to people who who live in these different countries, I think it becomes clear really quickly, that they have a very different perspective of their own history of free expression and a different perspective on our history of free expression than then maybe what we might think. And this really is about balancing different rights and priorities against each other in every country, or nation state is going to do that differently, depending on on their own history, too.

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, it's, I think it's fair to say that, but both Xi and Putin point it though, the Western way of conducting politics with this constant argument has been chaotic and unstructured and unstable, and something which is to be, you know, feared, and that's based in their, their, their social history, I guess. And, and for us, it's like, well, this is the way you're supposed to do it, and it is very complicated. So, so okay, the bottom line is, there's no global history of freedom of expression, or at least no coherent, global history of freedom of expression that we can easily point to and say, we'll have that! That's just how freedom of expression developed. So, So what about if we focus more sort of centrally on the West, which is, you know, our shared experience.

TW.  So you're going to laugh again. But the concept of free speech and open debate and free expression in the West has roots in ancient Greece, like so many other things, and I think that's the best place to start. Any opportunity to talk about Ancient Greece? You know, most obviously, people think about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, because much of the point of what they were doing was around discussion and debate in having these conversations and getting at at some deeper truths or understanding. But you could also argue credibly, I think, that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were able to discuss and debate the way they did, because they lived in a society where these things were valued and protected already.

TW.  The Athenian Agora was a central public space where citizens could gather for a variety of purposes, including discussion and debate. And when people talk about this idea of a so called "Public Square", online public square, this is always what I hold in my mind is, is a picture. But there were already at least some democratic principles at work in Athens during this time, Aristotle wrote a bit about it. We can also read speeches by Demosthenes and others to understand more about the legal system and government structures more broadly.

TW.  One example that that I really like, is a speech called "Against Neaera", and it accuses this woman of, let's say, having a colourful employment history, and also of being an illegal immigrant. It's an interesting read for a few reasons. Not all of them relevant here. But it's really an opportunity to think about the freedom of expression, truth and evidence, and how far back are ideas about how this is supposed to work really goes?

TW.  One other really famous example is the Trial of Socrates. Right? So, things didn't end well for poor Socrates, you know, but this, this trial sets out Socrates' method of challenging conventional thinking and beliefs, which was permitted. But then, of course, Socrates was accused of impiety. So, disrespecting the gods, and corrupting the youth, and was eventually sentenced to death in these two things is sort of some some variation of impiety, and corrupting the youth is a theme we're going to see play out a number of different times, but but we'll come back to that.

TW.  When you think about all of this, keep in mind that this trial would have taken place in a public forum. So, public influence would have have heavily influenced the jury who did eventually find Socrates guilty. Just quickly, this is a terrible oversimplification and my ancient Greek philosophy professor would never forgive me for it. So, just a quick appeal, go and read some of these documents for yourself. They're available widely online, just give it a search and see what's out there.

SJ.  Sources are important. That was as you were, as you were telling that story.  I was thinking, "Oh, my God, this could play out today". You know what corrupting, corrupting the youth, this is the claim which is being made about certain types of books, and, you know, drag queens reading to children whose parents and schools otherwise wouldn't? Wow, how relevant is this? Is this sort of discourse today? I'm gonna I'm gonna, it's really interesting, I think, to see how many parallels we're gonna pull out of this and, and impiety as well, the same amendment that that secure the secures freedom of speech in the US is also the one that talks about freedom of religion, and yet, you see a lot of people being criticised for not having the right type of religious views currently in, in the in the US, which, which is rather ironic, isn't it? And particularly online, public square, the forum that Elon wants to create?

TW.  Well, don't worry, we're gonna get, we're gonna get deeply into that not not too, not too long from now. In fact, Ancient Greece just just for a moment, criticism and satire were welcomed and appreciated, and I think that's important to keep in mind, too. So, when we think about this idea that we want people to be able to be funny, that has really, really deep roots. Aristophanes comedies are worth read if if anyone's interested. But there were limits on all of this. So, just like there are limits now on on this idea of free expression or free speech, there were limits then to so, you know, to start with democratic participation was limited to male citizens, and it was these male citizens who were free to discuss and debate, and that was really it. There were also some clear laws against defamation and slander, and there were some very clear and well drawn boundaries about when when people could speak and about what.

SJ.  Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? When you think about it, logically, it was what 1918 before women were started to be given the right to actually officially take part in public discourse by by being given the vote even, and that was the earliest example I think in sort of like main Western Western countries, it took a while for it to filter through to everybody, and even then it was only women over the age of 30. I believe in the UK, when it first came out, it was like, young women are just not reliable enough to be part of the conversations.

SJ.  It's weird isnt it, and so yeah, limits. That's really interesting, isn't it? It's sort of, because there is this push, as we talked about, in the definitions to that absolute freedom of speech, is a bit of a buzzword, and everybody should check out that episode if they haven't listened to it already. But actually, very few people genuinely believe that absolute free speech should be permitted. Because, you know, you don't want people telling lies about you, even if you're willing to tell lies about someone else. I mean, that seems to be, you know, common, common human behaviour, who set up those rules and manage those rules in ancient Greece and who should be doing it in in modern times on social media.

TW.  I'm so glad you asked. Either this was it was a democracy so so people, well some people, voted, and they made these decisions that again, were rooted in their own history and understanding of the world, and this really was important because it set it laid the groundwork for what the Romans did, and, you know, the Roman approach to all these things really became what the European idea and in large part, the entire Western framework is built on top of, you know, they took these ideas and they carried them throughout Europe, and although, of course, they developed in different ways and took all kinds of interesting twists and turns, which we'll talk about too.

TW.  This was sort of the core beginning and it started in Greece, then moved to Rome underwent some other changes that, you know, we don't need to get into the nitty gritty, and or we will be doing 25 episodes on this. But but that's what what really created the foundation that spread and, you know, again, things developed differently in different places. But by 1215, we have the Magna Carta, and that's, again, doesn't directly refer to free speech or free expression, but it was so important. It set these limits on the power of the monarch, and established some foundational legal principles. And you know, whether it's the rule of law, justice or related concepts, without those things, you don't get free speech or free expression, either.

SJ.  Yeah, yeah. I mean, the Magna Carta is a really interesting thing, right? Where the most important documents like the Cyrus Cylinder, these declarations of what human rights are, they're just really important, and a friend of mine, actually a friend of our family's, moves to we're just outside of Runnymede at one point quite a while ago now and and my family went to visit and the only memorial to this really important milestone in British history, in world history, was erected by the American Bar Association. So, the British didn't really care about the Magna Carta, but it was this it was understood, you know that it was this fundamental sort of like building block of Western law, right? It's really if you want to see one of the original versions of the Magna Carta, you can go to Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House because it's on display in it on its vellum, sort of manuscript. It's really it's really, really cool. I lived in Salisbury for a while and i saw it, it's really awesome. Lots of reasons to go to Salisbury, but that is definitely, definitely one of them. Of course, King John did actually break that agreement, I think not long afterwards, right, leading to another war with his barons, but that is the nature of government, after all, making agreements and then ignoring them.

TW.  Yes, it really is, and sometimes it is late, it is about laying down these markers, and getting people to understand and appreciate the value of them, and it's two steps forward, and three steps back until you have eight steps forward, and then it and then it sticks. But sounds like it's worth a field trip, for sure, and I just want to say to American lawyers can do good things. And this is this is a great example. So, thank you for that. The next time I hear about lawyer joke, I'm going to pull this out. I'm not sure anyone will care, but it will make me feel better.

TW.  Next time, we'll continue our look at the history of the freedom of expression and free speech. We'll begin with a look at the first bill of rights, the French Revolution and why and how the American concept of free speech departed from the developing concept of free expression in Europe. In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website.

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward.

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headline

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