Often, when we Americans leap into a discussion about “free speech” — a phrase that has become so over-stretched that it’s ceased to mean much of anything – we find ourselves responding with belly-rubbing complacency: “Ah, things sure are bad over there, (too bad, too bad), but fortunately we are over here.” Nod, nod, end of paragraph.
Certainly, we should celebrate spaces that allow us to think, create, and freely share our creations without fear of government, social, or corporate reprisals. We should also (seriously, thoughtfully) support others who are trying to create such spaces. And no, I wouldn’t make some extreme relativist claim that casts censorships in dictatorships and those in democracies in the same light.
But an unreflective “lucky us” often has the effect of obscuring the walls looming around art both here and there, and muddling how we understand them, as at this recent reading of Arab theater in NYC. There, an easy belief that “we” must be the most “free” (in all forms of speech and performance) leads to a mis-reading of both our own performances and those of others.
The most useful starting point, I think, is for us to map out and consider our own censorships: Not just the walls that bind us (such as those to which creators like Laura Poitras can attest), but also the channels along which we are pushed, in form as well as in content. Why does talking about shriveled penises seem so revolutionary to us? And might that revolutionary feeling say at least as much about Americans as it says about Egyptians?