One of Americans’ most cherished—and most misunderstood—rights is the right of free speech. Most of us are at least vaguely aware that there are limits to public free speech, but how many of us stop to consider how these boundaries have radically shifted? Until the last several decades, it was acceptable, for instance, to tell jokes about minority races, women, and handicapped persons. On the other hand, profanity and vulgarity were unacceptable. Now the reverse is true. A public university professor may use as many four-letter words as he wishes in his lectures, but may lose his position over a single real or perceived racial slur. I’m not passing judgment on which is better; I’m simply pointing out the radical shift.
Free Speech in Russia?
American politicians and news media lead the public to believe that there’s little free speech in Russia. Wherever I speak in America about my work, the question comes up: What about free speech? Can you say what you want?
My answer is, Yes, I can. And so can others. There is indeed free speech in Russia. It’s just that the limits are set in quite different places than in America. Americans need to understand this if they want to grasp the real significance of news and events in post-Soviet Russia.
The “Evolution” of Free Speech
I’ve contemplated this for some time, but it came rushing into my consciousness again recently as I watched a program on a major Russian TV network called The Darwin Code: Curse of the Apes. The main thesis of the program was that Darwin’s theory of evolution is untrue. This was certainly no religious program. Using a mixture of facts, hypotheses, suppositions, and legends, it attempted to show that Darwin’s theory was promoted for political reasons, that the Masons lay behind its propagation, that Darwinian evolution was the root of the totolitarian movements of the 20th century such as Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, that some evidence suggests that apes descended from man, and that the apes are unhappy with the suggestion that man came from them.
Some of this is quite outlandish. That’s not the issue. The point is that such a program aired on and was produced by a mainstream, non-cable, non-religious TV network. I simply cannot imagine this happening in America. While Americans are free to express disagreement with the theory of evolution, this is pretty much limited to churches, religious media, and private educational institutions. In the secular American media, evolution carries the day as established fact, even though it’s a theory. Any other view, if it comes up at all, is subject to ridicule. It’s just possible that some mainstream cable network would carry an anti-Darwinian documentary as paid programming, but probably not. The cost to the network’s reputation would be too high.
No One-time Fluke
The aforementioned TV program was no isolated case. Last year the state-run channel Kultura aired a series of lectures by a professor of philosophy and religion from Moscow State University. At the end of a lecture in which he had outlined the history of Christian thought, a young woman asked him, “What about humans’ descending from apes?” The professor explained that there’s no evidence for this and gave his reasons, and then affirmed his belief in the Genesis account of creation. You may agree or disagree with him. The point is that his view was set forth in the public arena as scholarly and respectable. I simply cannot imagine anything like this airing on National Public Broadcasting, America’s nearest equivalent to Kultura—even though NPB isn’t government run, as is Kultura.
Educated Free Speech
In America the “unscientific” view of creationism is mentioned in public schools and universities only to be scoffed at. It is the exception indeed where a non-evolutionary view can be presented to public schoolchildren as an alternative. It’s simply not accepted public discourse in the environment of public education. In Russia, on the other hand, it can be. A number of years ago, one of the young church women here, a graduate in biology from Novosibirsk State University, got the science faculty to arrange a lecture from an American Lutheran professor on creationism. Some of the biologists and physicists openly declared their belief in creation. At what public institution of higher education in America could this happen?
The same is true of religion. Religious expression, while not hindered in the U.S., is limited to religious institutions and frowned upon or banned in public schools and businesses. In Russia no one says you can’t wear a cross or other religious symbol. In some places they teach religion in the schools, from a Russian Orthodox standpoint, allowing Muslims and others to opt out. Courses on the Bible as literature are fairly common. One of our Lutheran clergy has had some success in arranging lectures in public schools about Christianity. Such things are almost unheard of in America, and nearly always subject to legal challenge.
Political Free Speech
This brings us to political dissent. In America we’re still free to express our dissent in all kinds of forums. In Russia there is also free political speech, but, like “politically incorrect” speech in America, political dissent is limited to certain venues. By now most of America has heard of the feminist punk-rock group who “performed” in an Orthodox cathedral, and of the harsh prison sentence the women received. The American media tend to report this as an example of political repression. This is far too simplistic, even naïve. The girls could have voiced their dissent in some other public forums with fewer or no consequences. Yet they chose their venue deliberately, hoping that it would cause an international scandal, which it did. Dissenting groups who wish to hold political rallies can do so if they go through the right channels and obtain the proper permission to gather and demonstrate. Representatives of opposition parties in parliament constantly express their disagreement with the policies of the government, at election time even harshly so. All this is aired in the media.
It has become clear to me that in some regards Russians enjoy greater liberty to express themselves publicly than do Americans. I know some Russians who have spent time in America, who marvel at how “politically correct” Americans must be in their discourse. In America the pressure for that “correctness” is increasingly felt even in the churches, where pastors and laity alike sometimes must tread lightly when expressing agreement with the Bible’s teachings about creation, the role of women, or homosexuality.
If Americans wish to be critical of the limitations of free political protest in Russia, we should at the same time examine the state of our own house. We need to be aware of how many aspects of our free speech have been pushed into a corner, and how that corner may be growing ever smaller. It’s always a matter of debate where free speech must be curbed for the greater good of society and where it must be allowed. Both here and there, let the debate at least take place!