By Katja Budich
Living in a democracy like Germany has given us the impression that expressing our opinions is something easy and casual, something that everyone does frequently and a lot of people do excessively. The ways in which we can express our opinion today are diverse. Whether you write professionally for a newspaper or online news site, whether you’re socially or politically active or just like to express what you believe on social media – you have the possibility to do as you like.
And while it sometimes feels like some people should really rather not have the right to an opinion, the fact remains that free speech and thought is one of the greatest values of democracy, and one we must protect at all costs. So, why do I write? The answer is pretty simple: because I can.
When I was 14, I read George Orwell’s “1984” for the first time. My dad had given me his copy, a special edition published in 1984 when he was eighteen. It was worn and battered, read many times, a favourite of my father’s, who used to read to me and my younger sister, take us to museums and memorials and never thought us too young or too inexperienced to deal with difficult historical and social topics. I read the book with interest, but back then, I didn’t really know what to make of it. The book was strange, intimidating and scary and didn’t seem to quite fit into the world I was living in. We were on holiday in France, Paris to be exact, and the world was sunny and bright and full of free people with free thoughts and opinions. The book was an escapade, but one that didn’t have anything to do with me.
Today, however, I have my own copy of “1984” and know better. Because while the world depicted in the book is still a dystopia, many things Orwell imagined aren’t far off from situations occurring today – and that is scarier than any dystopian book could ever be.
We can see similarities and trends developing in certain directions like depicted in the book in many situations today. Take Putin’s war on the Ukraine, for example. The Russian leader and his staff have managed to spread so much propaganda and fake information that a lot of people, especially young, impressionable users of platforms like Tik Tok, have trouble making out who is actually fighting whom and why. Who is the aggressor, who is in the right? A very similar thing happens in “1984”, where no one actually knows which other nation they are fighting at the moment and just hate whoever the government tells them to hate. The same goes for those who the “1984” government labels as traitors – without question, the people accept that and start hating. This is dangerously close to what some leaders today do. Putin does it, Trump does it, raising his republicans into an army willing to believe whatever he tells them to believe – his “Truth Social” is a concept that might as well stem from Orwell’s “1984”.
“Free speech” and, most importantly, “free thought”, is a concept that doesn’t fit into a dictator’s world view. That is why the government from “1984” established the thought police – a concept that scares me to death. The many ways in which “Thinkpol”, the people searching for citizens who seem like they might commit a “Thoughtcrime”, meaning a thought or idea unapproved by the Party, are able to spy on the people of Oceania always scared me, because so many seem familiar. Microphones in the walls and telescreens that supervise you at any given time or place? That is basically just Siri, Alexa, Amazon Echo and our very own phones, mine currently lying right next to me and watching me write this. People pretending to be on your side to spy on you and report to the thought police? That’s what China made their point system for, where the more obedient and silent you are and the more neighbours you betray, the more points and amenities you get.
Dictators all over the world are slowly but surely turning their own states into Orwellesque places full of surveillance, oppression and thought control. And even in democracies like our own country, free speech is harassed increasingly. Germany recently fell to place 16 in the global ranking of press freedom. And while we are still one of the best countries for journalism, like many other countries in Europe, attacks on journalists and reporters have increased significantly. People that are claiming no one can say their opinion out loud anymore are the ones attacking people that are responsible for saying opinions out loud. And why? Because they have a different opinion. That, to me, is called Fascism.
And here we have the problem with free speech – everyone has to get it, whether we agree with their opinion or not. And still – if we want to keep our world from becoming even more like Orwell prophesized, we have to protect free speech at all costs, and we have to protect everyone’s free speech, as ridiculous and useless it sometimes seems. As Voltaire ingeniously put it: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
And that, finally, is why I write. Why everyone who is able to should write, should express their opinion on any topic they like – because we can. So many people cannot freely express their opinion without fear for their lives. So, because we can, we have to. And maybe, someday, slowly, things will change again, and more people will be able to write. And maybe, it will be because we did write. Because we could.