MAGAZINE
In emergencies we give away our essential freedoms lightly. Do we need to rethink?
21 Apr 2020
BY RACHAEL JOLLEY

Keeping our heads down can mean that hard-won rights can easily be lost. Sometimes we choose to stay quiet, but often we are complicit without realising, says Rachael Jolley

Credit: Marco Verch Professional Photographer and Speaker

“It is easy to part with or give away great privileges, but hard to be gained if once lost,” said Quaker William Penn, who went on to establish the state of Pennsylvania in the USA.

Far more recently, another wise man, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Judge, said: “There are still many countries in the world where what we happily call our rights remain privileges waiting to be won and entrenched.”

These thoughts are the cornerstones of the theme of this issue – the idea that we can give away our rights if we do not stand up for them.

We can be complicit in letting them erode if we feel they are not important enough or let other things take precedence, and many are willing to give away freedom for security.

The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that the root of the English word “complicit” comes from the Latin word “complicare”, meaning “to fold together”, and that it has evolved over time into meaning helping to do wrong or to commit a crime in some way – in other words, allowing ourselves to be folded into a bad idea.

In allowing ourselves to be complicit, we potentially allow those in power to take away some of our rights forever.

As Lord Judge also points out in his book The Safest Shield, we should be careful never to assume that liberties, rights and justice can be taken for granted.

Complicity is our theme for today because, in 2020, there are multiple powers that like us to give things away – our privacy, our knowledge and even our power to say no. They try to get us to fold into their purpose, to agree it and let them move forward.

It comes at us in many forms.

Many of us are complicit in giving away lots of information about ourselves, such as our contacts and photo albums from our phones. We do this in exchange for free use of software apps – Facebook or Google Maps, for instance.

We do a deal with their owners that they will let us use their stuff, and not charge us, but all along, deep down, we probably guess there is some pay-off.

We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so why would there be free email or free software? The answer is: there isn’t. There is a price to pay – you exchange your knowledge and contacts for that which is “free”.

And, as Mark Frary investigates on page 31, taking some decisions – such as being logged in all the time – means you are giving away more than you might imagine.

Frary tracks how much information Google is storing about him and his movements, and realises that it knows 700 places which he has visited in the past six years. That’s a lot of knowledge about  him, his movements and where he might be going.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think back to a time when that would be a treasure trove to a government wanting to know more about its citizens because it wanted to prevent them having information, passing it to others and knowing what was going on.

Let’s take the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, where journalists and many others were “disappeared” for asking the wrong questions.

What if that kind of information had been available to those governments? What extra power would it have given them to track down dissenters and to send in the police?

Shift forward in time to Venezuela today, from where Stefano Pozzebon reports for us on why the media and activists feel afraid. Threats and imprisonment are being used by the authoritarians in charge of this troubled nation to silence those who disagree with them.

And that government could try to access individuals’ whereabouts from Google Maps simply by putting in a request to Google. The company doesn’t always hand over information to governments which request it, but many times it does. Imagine for a moment what that might feel like.

Pozzebon said: “For those who don’t want to join the almost five million Venezuelans who have already left, not saying anything about anything becomes the only way to cope.”

When we are afraid we are most at risk from the pressure that others might place on us not to speak out or criticise. We can be complicit in attempts by the powerful to change society and remove those rights that Penn set out.

Of course, acting out of fear is understandable. It is easy for those far away who are not risking their lives, or those of their families, to say: “Oh you must do this, or stand up for that.” It is not so easy to do that once you know what, and whom, you put at risk.

This desire to quiet your anger and put it away until a less dangerous time is something that most humans can understand.

The petition said she demanded the imprisonment of scholars who had signed a 'Peace Petition'. The thing was, she didn't

That’s why Kaya Genç’s article from Turkey is so important. In it he describes the moment that changed one academic’s attitude dramatically. The name of Anıl Özgüç, a professor of medicine at Istanbul’s Aydın University, was added to a pro-government petition without her knowledge. The petition said she demanded the imprisonment of scholars who had signed a “Peace Petition”. The thing was, she didn’t.

And by that action, her attitude – which had been to keep quiet and hope for the best – changed.

She had reached her tipping point and she was no longer prepared to shut up: it was a step too far to take her name from her. Like John Procter in The Crucible, giving up her name was too much.

Suddenly she put aside her fears and spoke up. She is now an open critic of the government’s attempts to restrict academic freedom.

This chimes with new research from Jennifer Pan, at Stanford University, who looks at repression in authoritarian countries. Her research found that arrests of outspoken activists in Saudi Arabia had the effect of silencing the individuals but, surprisingly, did not deter others from speaking out. In fact, it motivated more people to criticise the government and the monarchy, and stepped up calls for change.

So while outsiders might expect the opposite to be true – that people would be cowed – Pan’s research shows that there is a tipping point and it can prompt more outspoken calls for change.

Complicity is not an easy topic. We should all be able to see there are sometimes reasons for not challenging the powerful, and times when it would be understandable to feel afraid or at risk.

Many around the world take that responsibility very seriously, and choose to make brave choices – even when it might put them in danger. It is these people whom Index often profiles, and we are in awe of those who can be incredibly brave when the odds are stacked against them.

Complicity is a challenge for us constantly, and in small and large ways we will be confronted by it all our lives. The question is: what is our response?

The piece is part of the 2020 spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Buy a copy or subscribe here.

Why and when we chose to censor ourselves and give away our privacy

The spring 2020 Index on Censorship magazine looks at how we are sometimes complicit in our own censorship

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Rachael Jolley

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