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Free Expression at the Crossroads

By Jeffrey Eric Jenkins

As we ponder sharing a message of hope and human connection on World Theatre Day in 2023, our thoughts race across the globe to communities and nations that strain under the yoke of oppression and aggression. Some wring their hands and say, “So sad, but, ah, nothing to be done. Let us hope for better days.” But can we not lift our voices in support?

Czech playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel told a group of German booksellers in 1989, In the beginning of everything is the word. It is a miracle to which we owe the fact that we are human. But at the same time, it is a pitfall and a test, asnare and a trial. More so, perhaps, than it appears to you who have enormous freedom of speech and might therefore assume that words are not so important.

In the 2022 World Theatre Day message from the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), we noted the advance of the Russian military into the sovereign territory of Ukraine and its impact on global relationships. This aggression was denounced by the Russia section of IATC in a letter to their
colleagues in the arts in Ukraine. In solidarity with our colleagues in Russia and Ukraine, the IATC amplified the message as we witnessed the valiant defense of the Ukrainian nation.

At this writing, Ukrainians continue to fight, with aid from countries for which democracy and freedom of expression are fundamental values. Russian artists continue to be censored, arts events that do not follow official policy are canceled, the respected journal Teatr is no longer published, and hundreds of artists and writers have fled their homes.

A week ago, more than 90 million Iranians in their native country and throughout the global diaspora celebrated the festival of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of the Persian New Year. In the United States, President Joe Biden hosted an historically festive celebration in the White House to mark the new year with words of encouragement for the possibility of freedom. The president’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, roused the gathered celebrants with the words “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“Women, Life, Freedom”). This phrase has been inscribed on the hearts of millions of people throughout the globe since the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, at the hands of authorities last September.

We in the United States, of course, still have work to do when it comes to upholding the ideals underpinning freedom of expression. Law students at prestigious Stanford University recently shouted down a presentation by an invited federal judge because they believed he had a history of making wrongheaded or immoral judicial decisions. While that judge may be the opposite of a progressive voice in American life, forcing the termination of his talk and hurling insults at him in a classroom run counter to the tenets of free expression. As the law school’s dean, Jenny Martinez, later wrote in a ten-page public memo, “The First Amendment (to the United States Constitution) does not give protesters a ‘heckler’s veto.’”

If this were an isolated incident, it would not be worth entioning in a statement on free expression to mark World Theatre Day when we should be celebrating global theatre and the kinds of interpersonal connections that build bridges between our diverse cultures. In a March 24 article in the New York Times, however, David Leonhardt notes, “Over the past few years, some American universities have seemed to back away from their historical support for free speech.” Free expression is at risk nationally, in many nations, and globally.
When it comes to free expression, we stand at a crossroads and wonder which path we shall take. There is, of course, no such thing as absolute freedom. Expression that causes harm or endangers lives may not be proscribed, but it may have consequences should harm arise.

Authoritarianism is often an outcome of desire for orderly hierarchies. But it may also be a product of those who refuse to engage in civil discourse and would rather muzzle opinions they find repugnant.

The Black former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass often spoke and wrote on the topic of free speech. In the wake of a violent altercation in Boston, which prevented Douglass from delivering a scheduled speech in 1860, another event was held a few days later. When he was finally able to give his speech, Douglass added a few remarks related to the earlier censorship: To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.
As we celebrate 2023 World Theatre Day, let us continue to raise our voices in support of free expression as we attempt to bridge the divisions of culture, aesthetics, and politics. The future is counting on us all.


Jeffrey Eric Jenkins jest prezesem Międzynarodowego Stowarzyszenia Krytyków Teatralnych (AICT-IATC), profesorem teatrologii na Uniwersytecie Illinois w Urbana-Champaign oraz członkiem wydziału Discovery Partners Institute w Chicago (Twitter: @crrritic ; e- mail : jej@illinois.edu )

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