I wrote a piece for “The Persian Impediment”.
It ends with this paragraph:
Iran is a society filled with thoughtful and outspoken individuals. Only the bravest or the most desperate have the nerve to organize. The rest exercise their freedom of speech in taxicabs and butcher shops; at parties and swimming pools; in poems and through blog posts. There is no dearth of conversation and debate here. The dearth is in the legal protection to debate and the social will to support those who publicly disagree.
I realize that this ending is more of a provocation than a conclusion. So here I am to provoke:
“I thought I was fighting for free speech but when I came to live in the Netherlands, I found myself upset when I heard opposing views,” this is what an extremely enlightened, extraordinarily brilliant, and fantastically wonderful Iranian-born friend told me. “I realized that free speech was also for people who disagreed with me! Not just for me.”
This is not an Iranian problem, this is a universal problem. We tend to like and trust people who agree with us more than people who don’t. We forget that free speech applies even to those with opinions we reject.
I once marched in a small, quiet anti-war rally (except for one guy who had to have been a plant: his slogans were too militant and offensive for the rest of us) that was met with anti-anti-war protestors yelling “We’re fighting for our rights, and this is the way you repay us?!” Yes. I repay you by exercising my rights. What could be more appropriate?
Free speech requires legal protection. Yes. It also requires public will and a culture of debate. These two aspects of free speech do not just miraculously appear with a change of government or law. They have to be exercised, learned, and constantly renewed.