2. 4. 2020

English version | Freedom in the times of cholera

by Mónica Bozinoski

 

We have more access and more possibilities than ever. We have less walls and less limitations than ever. But are we really freer than ever? 

© Photography by Felipe Posada | @the_invisible_realm

When this topic came up a few weeks back, I was far from imagining that I would be writing about it in this place, under these circumstances. When this topic came up a few weeks back, I was far from imagining that I would be writing about it in a desk that fits not three, but one. When this topic came up a few weeks back, I was far from imagining that I would be writing about it during a quarantine, an isolation, a social distancing. In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, the answer I always thought I had to the question “are we really free?” started to make less and less sense. It started to seem less accurate, less certain. It started to raise more doubts, more questions. In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, the world stopped going out. At least, it stopped doing it in a physical way, with its own two feet. In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, the world was forced to bound itself to a single place. To limit the exercise of all those things that always seemed so steadfast, so indestructible. In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, the world was forced to move in a different pace. To think and rethink in a different way, to act and react in a different way.

As I write these words, sitting in a desk that fits not three, but one, restrained to this quarantine, to this isolation, to this social distancing, existing in a world that is not new in any way, but that seems novel in every sense, I remind myself that this is not about any virus, any disease, any pandemic. As I write these words, sitting in a desk that fits not three, but one, restrained to this quarantine, to this isolation, to this social distancing, existing in a world that is not new in any way, but that seems novel in every sense, I remind myself that this is about freedom, about having more or less freedom today, about being more or less free today. But now, in the aftermath of the state of emergency, in the aftermath of all the news telling was we can and can’t do, in the aftermath of a world that we associated with a dystopia rather than reality, it’s almost impossible to separate this virus from all those questions about freedom, about having more or less freedom today, about being more or less free today. More than that, it’s almost impossible to separate this virus from all those questions about our freedom when all of this is over, when all of this is nothing but a distant memory, when all goes back to normal – that is, if there will be such thing as “normal” when all of this is over, when all of this is nothing but a distant memory.

"In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, all those freedoms that I have always taken for granted ceased to exist."

When this topic came up a few weeks back, I was far from imagining that I would be writing about it in this place, under these circumstances. In a blink of an eye that was as slow as it was quick, all those freedoms that I have always taken for granted ceased to exist. Even if temporarily, and even though we don’t know for how long that temporarily will be, they ceased to exist. As I write these words, sitting in a desk that fits not three, but one, restrained to this quarantine, to this isolation, to this social distancing, existing in a world that is not new in any way, but that seems novel in every sense, I open The Washington Post’s to read a piece written by Allie Funk and Isabel Linzer in the 16th of March, titled ‘How The Coronavirus Could Trigger A Backslide On Freedom Around The World’.

Scary? Even though there are scarier things happening in the world right now, it’s only fair to say that this is a thought that makes chills run up and down my spine. “Certain limitations on fundamental freedoms are unavoidable during public health crises. But such restrictions must be transparent, and necessary and proportionate to limiting the outbreak”, wrote Funk and Linzer, detailing how the current pandemic was giving way to misinformation, censorship and possible misuses of power. “Temporarily curbing mass gatherings can be justified, as long as authorities are transparent and provide details about when restrictions will be lifted. Yet much of the enhanced surveillance and censorship of recent weeks does not meet these standards.” And they continued, stating: “If governments are allowed to impose indefinite and disproportionate restrictions on access to information, free expression, free assembly and privacy in the name of stopping covid-19, the negative effects will extend far beyond this outbreak. People will suffer a lasting deterioration in basic freedoms, and they will lose confidence in the institutions tasked with protecting them. That means that when the next public health threat emerges, both governments and citizens may be even less prepared to respond appropriately.” 

"Even though we’re forced to stay in our own homes, we still have access to the infinite possibilities of an equally unlimited digital world. We still get to experience that boundless world that we call our screen."

The opinion published on The Washington Post may seem quite gloomy – or, instead, it can be another way to look at our freedom in a post-Internet era. Even though we’re forced to stay in our own homes, we still have access to the infinite possibilities of an equally unlimited digital world. We still get to experience that boundless world that we call our screen. We still get to run free through the Internet. We still get to double tap on Instagram, to react to the quickness of an Insta Stories, to express what we feel on Twitter, to reconnect with friends on Facebook, to stock up on WhatsApp group chats. But what happens when the promise of social media starts taking more freedom than giving? What happens when cancel culture limits our freedom of speech and enhances the fear of speaking freely, without constrains or restrains? What happens when self-censorship bounds our opinions, our thoughts, who we are? What happens when misinformation creates a sense of panic that makes us question the nature of our most basic rights? What happens when the pressure of being connected all the time, of having the green light on all the time, limits our free will? What happens when we feel like we’re being surgically and constantly watched, without knowing how and by who? What happens when we feel trapped in something that was meant to set us free? 

Last November, a Vox article reported that “free speech and privacy on the internet declined globally for the ninth consecutive year according to the Freedom on the Net 2019 report by bipartisan watchdog and think tank Freedom House”, naming the “increased online election interference — by government and civilian actors alike — and increased government surveillance, both of which are spreading on social media platforms” as the two main reasons for this decline. “Of the 65 countries the report assessed over the past year, in a record 47 countries, law enforcement arrested people for posting political, social, or religious speech online; 40 countries featured advanced social media surveillance programs; and in 38 countries, political leaders employed individuals to shape online opinions, which was also a record high. Since last year, some 33 countries assessed in the report had an overall decline in their internet freedom score, a measure that factors in a country’s obstacles to internet access, content limits, and user rights violations. Only 16 countries registered improvements in their scores in the past year.”

"People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist."

In 2018, a year before the Freedom on the Net 2019 report came out, author Bruce Schneier explored the way that surveillance kills freedom by killing experimentation in a piece published on the Wired. “We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren’t as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.” And he went on, stating: “Privacy makes all of this possible. Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.”

The past looks gloomy and the present seems to follow. In February, The Times reported the worrying situation of self-censorship happening in British arts, referring to the news as shocking but not surprising. “In an anonymous survey of those working in the arts and cultural sectors, one in six respondents said that they had been subject to “gagging orders” as part of attempts to control “dissenting voices”, while 80 per cent felt that those who share “controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracized”. Controversial opinions in this context appears to mean anything from backing Brexit to expressing a view on the trans debate over gender, questioning public subsidies, or showing support for the Conservatives or any other right-wing party. The picture emerges of a deeply entrenched, rigorously enforced monoculture. (…) These are sectors that should be the bedrock of free speech, in which the right to express dissent and present challenging opinions should be not only protected but encouraged. Yet the only challenging opinions that are tolerated are those that fit a narrow world view.” A few paragraphs later, the piece finished with the following: “But this should be everyone’s fight. Without free speech there is no freedom of thought, and without freedom of thought there is no freedom at all.” 

"Today, in an era where we have more access and more possibilities, in an era where we have less boundaries and less limitations, the concept of freedom has become more complex, more subjective, more difficult to decode."

Today, in an era where we have more access and more possibilities, in an era where we have less boundaries and less limitations, the concept of freedom has become more complex, more subjective, more difficult to decode. Today, in an era where we have more access and more possibilities, in an era where we have less boundaries and less limitations, the questions that we have about that same concept of freedom have also become more complex, more subjective, more difficult to decode. As I write these words, sitting in a desk that fits not three, but one, restrained to this quarantine, to this isolation, to this social distancing, existing in a world that is not new in any way, but that seems novel in every sense, I can’t help but think and rethink. Do we have more freedom than ever? Are we freer than ever? It’s certainly ironic trying to answer these questions when everything around me is so uncertain. When I don’t know when I’ll be able to return to a café, to go to a movie theater, to buy a ticket and fly away from here. But the world that sits outside the window can wait.

As I write these words, sitting in a desk that fits not three, but one, restrained to this quarantine, to this isolation, to this social distancing, existing in a world that is not new in any way, but that seems novel in every sense, I think of all the freedom we’ve conquered, and all the freedom we will conquer. I think of the many ways we’ve taken it for granted. But nothing is unshakable, and certainly not indestructible. Times change. Wills change. Threats change. Today is a blocked comment, and tomorrow it will be something else. Times change. Wills change. Threats change. Today is someone that tries to control us with misinformation, tomorrow it will be someone else. Times change. Wills change. Threats change. We change. And freedom changes, too. But as long as we feel like we have freedom, we will always be freer. 

This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Freedom on Hold issue, from April 2020. 
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição Freedom on Hold, de abril de 2020, da Vogue Portugal