babies, language, and the overarching concept of freedom


the pro-life installation of gruesome juxtapositions of children’s suffering during historical events such as major draughts or the second world war, to unborn, aborted fetuses arrived promptly at a time when many conversations on the freedom of expression were taking place around me. walking through the diag, past the signs  warning of the images to come, you would hear young women shouting out comparisons of abortion to the holocaust, and women to nazis – quite horrific indeed. yet, you also witnessed a number of small groups gathered around different corners of the installation, where people spared the time to discuss the issue in a manner that could only be described as civility.

my friend dmitri, although i was not there at the time to witness it, was one of the people who stopped to express their opinions to the pro-life demonstrators. he tells me how excited he was to see the installation there, following up on a recent conversation we’ve had on what the extent of freedom of speech should be. he thinks freedom of speech exists if and only if any and all kinds of thoughts can be expressed in a given society – no exceptions. once you start placing exceptions, he argues, it becomes very subjective and the judgment of what is demeaning and what is not is left to the hands of the majority. thus, the voice of any marginal or opposing group is suppressed. his ideas, he fears, are likely one of the first to be obstructed.

i find it difficult to oppose with these claims, except that it reminds me of hate crimes. and by hate crimes, i do not refer to the actual crimes of physically damaging people out of spite, but the so-called crimes that often lead to the point of causing physical harm. expressions of discrimination, insults based on social group membership, instigating and provocative propaganda regarding certain groups of people, showing them as targets. these are the “hate crimes” i refer to.

as a country suffering through the many pains of democratization, or something like it, turkey has recently been dealing with battling issues of discrimination and acceptance of multiculturalism. one non-governmental organization that takes active part in the social movement towards decreasing segregation and hate is the DurDe! initiative (the name literally means “say, stop!”). one of DurDe!’s major campaigns is to screen all types of turkish media for hate statements and expose them to the public as a means of fighting against verbal hate crimes. kurds, lgbtt groups, religious minorities, and women are among those who suffer from the most discrimination and stereotyping in turkey. however, hate crimes become particularly scary when they target certain controversial groups, such as the kurds. due to the on-and-off active conflict that has been present between kurdish guerilla groups and the turkish military, any little spark in the media often leads to crowds organizing in lynching attempts of kurdish citizens. even in less “hot” circumstances, like the situation of intellectuals like salman rushdie or orhan pamuk, expressions of hate can quickly turn into concrete threats to wellbeing.

examples of similar situations where hate crimes do lead to concrete action are countless across the world, of course, and examples like these are what make the debate on the extent of a freedom of speech more intricate than it first seems. so, while ventures like DurDe! fight for the rights of the underrepresented and oppressed, they are also, inadvertently, fighting against freedom of expression.

now another aspect of this issue that i find interesting, is the relation between speech and thought. what it is that we are seeking the freedom of depends somewhat on how you define the relation between thought and language. does thought precede language? is language necessary to convey thought? while it often seems difficult to even imagine formulating thoughts in the absence of linguistic expression, experimental studies done with preverbal infants and nonverbal adults suggest that thought does exist without language. however, the centrality of the role of language in thought formation is indisputable. then, when we mean freedom of expression, do we actually mean freedom of thought?

many are probably familiar with the sapir-whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity that is often revisited and often refuted. simply put, the hypothesis suggests that the language we are born into influences the way in which we think. (phenomena oft cited in support of this argument are the words that are not quite translatable. bilinguals can probably think of many such words off the top of their heads.) the phrase “freedom of speech” translates to turkish in two ways: ifade ozgurlugu, which literally means freedom of expression, and dusunce ozgurlugu, which means freedom of thought. while the two are used interchangeably, i suspect that freedom of thought is used more commonly, and people who are persecuted for expressing the “wrong” thoughts are called thought criminals (dusunce suclusu).

this makes me wonder whether the freedom we talk of in two different languages, is actually conceptualized in our minds as two different things. can it be that while english-speaking people understand that it’s okay to think whatever you like as long as you don’t express the “wrong” ideas, while turkish-speaking people simply think that you shouldn’t be thinking certain ideas (e.g., that the armenian genocide did indeed take place).

(if you think about it, it might not be such a good idea to prohibit the expression of certain ideas, yet allow people to think those ideas as long as they don’t verbalize them. then you don’t know what people are thinking, and do not have the means to prepare for possible harmful outbursts. maybe instead, you should just make sure that no one thinks the prohibited thoughts in the first place!)


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