Free speech in Russia has never been particularly favoured. The Romanov dynasty remained in power long past their expiration date by suppressing waves of free thought, from the ideals of the Enlightenment, to the anti-capitalist ideals of Marx and Engels. At least, until the 1917 Revolution. And even then, the Bolsheviks continue to suppress dissent for the entire seventy-something year history of the Soviet Union. Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union promised change. But the change was fleeting.
Now, Russia is waging a brutal unprovoked war in Ukraine; and Vladimir Putin has used this crisis - one entirely of his own doing - to suppress any vestiges of freedom of expression in Russia. Famously, a young woman was detained in Moscow for displaying a small card on which she had written два слова (literally “two words”.)
This has completely changed my opinions about free speech. Sure, I cheered after the January 6 attempted coup at the United States Capitol when Donald Trump was finally deplatformed. After years of his ignorance, clownishness, and gross incompetence, I was happy to have a break. But the problem doesn’t lie solely in Trump’s malevolent stupidity, although that’s certainly in abundance. The problem is shared with an anti-Enlightenment public that can’t distinguish fact from fiction, that can’t step outside of their own muddling of facts and values, and can’t abide a world in which they don’t always “win.” But suppressing dissent or even nonsense isn’t the solution. A recent editorial in the New York Times would have us do away with the so-called “cancel culture”, but in their formulation of the problem, opinions should be free from shaming and shunning. Coddling ideas and giving them a blanket of insulation against criticism is just another form of censorship. As painful as it can be, I’d rather open the floodgates and allow discourse to flow freely.1
Relatedly, I’ve also changed my mind about punishing artists for political transgressions. In recent weeks, both soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev of the Metropolitan Opera and Munich Philharmonic respectively have been dismissed because they failed to unequivocally and publicly disavow support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Anna Netrebko refuses to condemn the war? Well, she has her reasons. Maybe she believes the what the Russian media is spewing. Maybe she doesn’t, but she wants to keep her options open. Who knows? But punishing her amounts to a spiteful act that does nothing to change the course of the war.
Let art stand on its own. In advocating for art being a protected space, I’m not endorsing the New York Times' opinion that ideas should be protected from criticism. If you put something out into the world, you take the good and the bad. As they say: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
But I also advocate for non-algorithmic availability and presentation of content. Discourse can only thrive openly, if power-holders and their algorithms aren’t actively curating content. ↩︎