Free Expression as Moral, Social, and Political Action – On Discovering Foucault

As a undergraduate student of Communications, I’ve had an opportunity to see how communications theory is approached at a couple of different schools. Now studying under the Digital Media Literacy program (online) at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, at Arizona State University, happily I’ve been introduced to the writings of Michel Foucault in relation to concepts of freedom of expression. I would not want to throw shadow about the school where I began studying communications. Candidly, I’m glad that I transferred.

The program in Digital Media Literacy may be relatively new, as it was introduced at ASU in 2021. If anyone may be interested in studying the topic without a commitment to a full degree program at ASU, there’s a public course available via News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School at ASU, Mediactive: How to Participate in Your Digital World. The degree program, of course, might provide an opportunity for a further depth of study about concepts in mass communication and digital media literacy.

On Discovering Foucault’s Philosophy of Freedom of Expression

With regards to ethics in communication, Foucault’s conceptualizations of parrhesia and isegoria might provide a helpful sort of philosophical premise for understanding the nature and significance of free expression, today. The concepts are introduced in a series of lectures by Michel Foucault at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983.

Candidly, if I myself may have developed only a sort of ad hoc conceptualization about free speech, over the years, perhaps I may wish to defer to Foucault and other authors, presently, if trying to describe a concept of free expression in society and of free expression in theory.

Foucault’s juxtaposition of parrhesia and isegoria is further explored by Teresa M. Bejan in the article, Two Concepts of Freedom (of Speech). This article was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2019, after a 2018 symposium: Democracy Today: Ancient Lessons, Modern Challenges.

To a question of whether freedom of expression may be more singularly a public or personal value, I believe Foucault’s lectures at Berkeley may be considered as describing a sense of value in each respect. Initially, Foucault describes a civic sense of parrhesia, like of Speaking Truth to Power so to speak, as well as a sense of isegoria, or of equality with regards to expression. Both of these concepts might help to illustrate a sense of a social meaning about freedom of expression.

Foucault then describes – very briefly – a sort of transition in ancient Greece, generally away from forums and towards a sort of monarchical parrhesia. Here, the text introduces a metaphor of advisors to a king speaking truth, and the king’s obligation for attention to the advisors.

Subsequently, Foucault introduces a concept like of a personal sense of parrhesia such as in relation to a concept, generally, “The care of oneself” or epimeleia heautou.

If we may endeavor to explore how freedom of expression might find a sense of meaning today, Foucault’s approach to these concepts might help to shed a sort of epistemic light towards our contemporary predicament. Considering Foucault’s approach, I believe we can say that there are personal and social aspects to the value of freedom of expression.

Parrhesia and Self-Identity

How does freedom of expression find an association to a sense of identity? Foucault’s rendition of concepts of parrhesia might find a sense of meaning here, as well, in a generally civic sense of “Speaking Truth to Power.” Albeit, the social construction of concepts of “Power” and of “Truth” might vary within different environments in which the concept may be represented – such as generally of a privileged class of political actors, or of a dispossessed, underprivileged, and generally oppressed class in society, of persons becoming political actors in essence as a tactic for survival.

The “Culture Warrior” meme, such as developed during the Presidency of Barrack Obama – generally after a book of that title, by Bill O’Reilly – this might serve as an example of the concept of parrhesia being appropriated by a privileged class, albeit not necessarily in fulling the concept of truth represented in Foucault’s rendition of parrhesia.

The mass protests after deaths of Black citizens at the hands of Police might be considered as representing parrhesia in a manner fully accurate to Foucault’s rendition of the concept, parrhesia – generally of a selfless action of speaking truth to power, even at the expense of one’s own personal safety and immediate well-being.

In both areas, freedom of expression might find a close association to a sense of personal and political identity – albeit perhaps differing widely, in how a sense of identity might be ascertained in its personal and political construction.

Concerning a concept of Privilege, in free expression – broadly, as a concept in ethics – perhaps there may not have been any notable discussions of such a concept, in ancient Greece, whether at the forums, in the offices of empire, or among the rest of Greek society. Perhaps Foucault was not unaware of the concept, however, considering his later works in regards to ethics.

If a concept of privilege may find any close relevance to a concept of identity, in any forms of free expression, perhaps one must look generally outside of the literary structures of a privileged class to understand the construction of privilege as such.

Protecting Freedom of Speech – For Some of Us, It’s About Survival

From my own perspective, the protection of freedom of speech might seem like a generally rhetorical idea, in a sense. If I have not ever experienced any severe impediment to my own freedom of speech, I might believe it must be an easy concept for everyone. Fortunately, my own education has not been absent of studies about socially marginalized and disenfranchised groups in contemporary society. Considering the question, today, of whether freedom of speech should be protected, I believe it may not be so much as a question.

When any social, political, or governmental institutions have historically eliminated peoples with impunity – formally, of “Qualified Immunity,” as with police officers acting in the wholly disproportionate loss of Black lives – and all we may have left is the freedom of expression, against this systemized travesty? perhaps it may not seem like much of a question then. When freedom of expression has ascended from a rhetorical fixture, to a scale of a moral and practical relevance as a matter of survival, perhaps it cannot be reduced again to an abstraction of social ethics. However remote the events may seem, in a perspective of a local community, but if it is a matter of survival to some, then is it not just as much so, to us all?


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