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An ingrained right to ask a public question

Having no voice, or no voice that extends very far beyond the hedges at the boundaries of our private lives. That is the topic. But the question is whether we start there or end up there–whether through the shaping forces of the society or our own choices or a combination of the two. In a postscript to an old posting, I summarized a friend’s view that people end up there, but until he said so I had been thinking that our position as citizens starts out with not much of a say beyond the private life.

Maybe there is some truth to both positions–starting there, ending up there–as well as both mechanisms–limits shaped by society, shaped by our own choices.

Maybe there is another element to consider. I remember the mothers of young people in South America who had been kidnapped and killed by government death squads–“disappeared” was the term. They lived private lives until they couldn’t take it any longer, and they began to stand in a public square and ask where their children were. They formed up into groups, so that was political, and they gathered in public places, and that was also political–actions they claimed for themselves. But a society with death squads is all about silencing voices like theirs, and yet day after day they could gather. Why is that? Jean Franco, a scholar who studied these events, suggests that the position of being someone’s mother entitles a person to care about her child, and this entitlement is so basic and so deeply ingrained that only the most grotesque of governments could refuse it. Ask the dictator: can a mother ask after her child? The answer seemed to be yes.

So there is some potential for public speech in our positions as family members, parents, siblings, children, or as friends. The web of social life was not so bastardized as to break down those bonds or stifle the expectation of caring and seeking answers about a loved one. To me that means that civil society has woven into it some degree of public right to speak, even though the powerful do their best to ignore and silence on many levels. So if you are human, we feel in our guts somewhere that you are entitled to speak about certain things. If a society forgets that gut-level right, that’s a shame, but it seems to be there a pretty far distance down the road into dictatorship. Not all the way down that road, though.

We’re not guaranteed the chance to ask a question of El Presidente at a press conference, say. But our common humanity grants us something of a place to speak from. As we see in many an episode from Nazi history, a brutal and passionate enough dictatorship will slash away at those who try to assert the right. But the less extreme cases suggest that speaking and asking go with being human in even a damaged society. People have to claim the rights or they will drift away.

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