The importance of universality
12 Dec 08

This article was first published on Comment is Free

On 13 December, 1948, Frederic Warburg typed up his comments on the manuscript of George Orwell’s recently completed Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Orwell has no hope, or at least he allows his reader no hope, no tiny flickering candlelight of hope. Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except perhaps by the thought that, if a man can conceive
‘1984’, he can also will to avoid it.
‘For what is ‘1984’ but a picture of man unmanned, of humanity without a heart, of a people without tolerance and civilisation, of a government whose sole object is the maintenance of power, by every
contrivance of cruelty.’

At the same time Orwell was working on his ‘study in pessimism unrelieved’, others were fomenting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an unparalleled statement of optimism and faith in humanity.

Article 19 of the UDHR states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.’

A great deal is, rightly, made of the first clause of this statement. But equally important is the assertion that we have the right to seek information. Orwell’s Winston Smith, you will recall, was employed by the Ministry of Truth to destroy information, to deny people the right to seek out historical fact and truth, to bring to an end the very concept of fact and truth.

The rewriting of history is central to the project of state censorship. Only last week, we saw a brazen attempt by the Russian authorities to destroy the records of the Memorial project, which seeks to document the atrocities of the Gulag. The pessimist would say that very little has changed since 1948.

But of course that is untrue.

When Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, and even when Index on Censorship began publishing 25 years later, there seemed almost an easy clarity about opposing censorship. Censorship, by and large, was a political project carried out, by and large, by Soviet bloc governments against pro-democracy writers, thinkers and activists. The enemy was in plain sight, and his motivation unambiguous.

Flash forward, and we are confronted with a very different landscape. Of course, most calls for censorship are still, at core, political, but they can as easily be well-meaning as malicious. What has seeped into our consciousness is censorship masquerading as a protective, rather than oppressive force. Most pernicious is the notion that ideas, like people, should be afforded protection. We forget that the UDHR was borne out of the horror of a war in which millions had died precisely because ideology took precedence over the integrity of the individual.

We also forget the ‘universal’ part of the UDHR. So, on Comment is Free, in discussions on Free Speech and the Internet, we find Digby Anderson lauding social censorship, without considering what social censorship might mean in a society less liberal than our own.

We also find Jonathan Rée, alluding to Internet debate, wondering ‘if “freedom of speech and belief” can really be such a big deal any more, in a world where thought itself has become no more than a game.’

I’m glad it’s now just a game: I hope someone’s told the Egyptian police who lock up bloggers, or the Burmese censors who launch cyber attacks on refugee news sites, to stop taking it all so seriously.

This kind of narrowness, of glibness, serves only to diminish the principle of Article 19 of the UDHR. We must not allow it to be diminished so far that we lose sight of it: and we must not allow the
principle of universal free expression to be lost down the memory hole.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.