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Opinions of Saturday, 27 December 2014

Columnist: Amuna, Paul

Reflections on Power, Privilege and Freedom of Speech

: Part One

Dr Paul Amuna
24th December 2014

In this season of goodwill, let me start by wishing all readers a very Merry Christmas and a 2015 in which I hope all of our aspirations come true and our contribution to our neighbours, community and society makes us feel proud.

I have chosen in this series of articles to reflect on our use of the ‘powers we apparently possess’ privileges we enjoy and our good old-fashioned ‘freedom of speech’ and how we exercise these. In my reflections, I will use real life happenings some of which readers may be familiar with, to help us learn a few lessons of self-preservation and our responsibilities to ourselves and to countless others we may or may not even know. Among examples I will be analysing are notable happenings in America, Europe, Asia and Africa; and recent happenings in Ghana, including the Ivor Greenstreet ‘goodwill rant’ at the 2014 National Democratic Congress (NDC) convention in Kumasi and the reactions and lessons we can all learn from each of these scenarios.

Our ‘freedoms’ though sometimes taken for granted, are firmly enshrined in the UN Charter of 1948 and subsequent Articles, Resolutions, Affirmations and Commitments which over the years have become necessary reminders, especially to reinforce those freedoms where they have been abused or were in danger of being taken away from us. The fact still remains that sadly, there are countless millions who are still denied some (or all) of these freedoms through various means including slavery, servitude and other forms of bondage as we have recently witnessed e.g. @BRINGBACKOURGIRLS, the many teenage school girls who are still unlawfully held in captivity by Boko Haram, the fundamentalist non-conformist group in Nigeria, and the more than 140 school children and their teachers who were recently murdered in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban.

For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the ‘full complement of our freedoms’, and those in positions of privilege and authority, the question is: how do we view ourselves? How do we value our privileged positions? How do we use our positions of power? And how do we use the freedoms that we so often take for granted?

At no time in our human history have these questions about how we use our freedoms especially ‘of speech and expression’ been more important and acute than in this ‘Age of the Social Media’ with so many platforms and gadgets which by the touch of a button, enable us to transmit messages to literally billions of people world-wide as long as they have access to such media. But with these apparently ‘easier’ means of communication, how many of us pause to think about the RESPONSIBILITIES that accompany our freedoms, privileges and powers? If recent troubles faced by individuals and various groups are anything to go by, many of us have a lot to learn in how to (or not to) use our freedoms.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the Modern Social Media platforms and the channels we have for communication including email have been shown to be both useful tools and similarly a ‘trap medium’ for unnecessary exposure, notoriety; and can damage reputations, social standing and even livelihoods. Recently the English Premier and football League officials and footballers e.g. Rio Ferdinand and (our own) Mario Balotelli have been charged and punished by the English Football Association Disciplinary Panel for inappropriate tweets, Facebook, email or Instagram messages which were deemed offensive and / or RACIST even when some of these individuals (e.g. in the case of Balotelli) thought or intended their posts to do the very opposite!



Now to my main chosen focus:

In America, a “communications Director” called Elizabeth Lauten working for a Republican Congressional Representative from Tennessee was forced to resign her post following the huge backlash from a Facebook post in which she attacked the First Family in a manner which most neutrals found most REPREHENSIBLE, irresponsible and unbefitting someone working ‘on Capitol Hill’, the seat of Congress in Washington. The story was simple enough:

Every year during the so-called “Thanksgiving holiday” which falls in late November, the sitting president is allowed to ‘pardon’ a turkey in a symbolic gesture and on this year’s occasion, president Obama invited his two teenage daughters – Sasha and Malia to help him ‘do the honours’. As the live event unfolded and by the power of the Social Media, there were various live commentaries including some critical comments on e.g. the ‘choice of dress by the teenagers’ and ‘their body language’ during the event.

Then along came Ms Lauten, the so-called “communications Director”, with her post:
“…. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar” in her contribution to suggestions that the girls’ dresses were “rather short”.

Ms Lauten could have left it at that and got away with it unnoticed for after all, she was not the only one who had made such a comment. But as if that was not enough, what did she do? She said:

“ …. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much or the nation for that matter, so no guessing you’re coming up a little short in the good role model department ….. Act like being in the White House matters to you”.

Clearly she had gone too far and the reactions to this extension of her post were swift, sharp and devastating. Even the mainstream media got in on the act and she was condemned in no uncertain terms, for justifiable reasons:

Quite apart from the fact that the comments were unnecessary and uncalled for, they were blatantly FALSE, hurtful (even the American people) and demonstrated a clear abuse of privilege and freedom of expression. Blatantly false because, let’s face it, who in their right mind would deny that the Obama’s are a ROLE MODEL (even far beyond America) and in the STYLE department, who in their right mind would have the nerve to accuse Michelle Obama (and by extension her gorgeous daughters) of lacking in style or dress sense? That is not to talk of the individual and collective intellectual and political achievements of the current US First Couple, perhaps the most highly educated American First Couple in the history of that country (by sheer academic achievement alone, except perhaps the Clintons!!!). Add to this the inspiration that they both continue to be to countless millions of young people growing up everywhere. Does that mean they are perfect or have no faults? Certainly not, but did they deserve that appalling rant and treatment? Absolutely not and did Ms Lauten deserve what she got? Absolutely!!!

In her apology and resignation speech, this is what Ms Lauten had to say: “…when I first posted on Facebook, I reacted to an article and I quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayers, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were. Please know, those judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart.”

She went on to say: “Furthermore, I’d like to apologise to all those who I have hurt (presumably she was thinking about her parents, family and friends as well as her party and employer at this stage?) and offended with my words, and I pledge to learn and grow (and I can assure you I have) from this..”

In their own reaction to this embarrassing and most unfortunate misuse of freedom of expression on a Social Media platform, Sean Spicer, Communications Director of the Republican National Convention said: “children, especially the First Daughters are off limits.”

In reflecting on this abuse of the freedom of expression, I wonder if I am alone in feeling that there was something fundamentally missing in the whole ‘apology thing’ and even the comments of the RNC Communications Director. For me, I’m afraid, the issue at stake and what incensed many around the world was the outrageous, false, ridiculous and most preposterous suggestion of Ms Lauten that the Obamas were a ‘bad example for the children and Americans!!
“…Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much or the nation for that matter, so no guessing you’re coming up a little short in the good role model department.”
That to me is at the very heart of the matter. It demonstrated a distinct lack of respect for the Office of the President, disdain for the occupants of the White House, a complete lack of respect and disregard for the facts and an attempt to suggest that the President and his family are not fit to occupy the White house!!!

This aspect of the matter seems to have been lost to many, even mainstream commentators (and especially the right wing press) with the focus solely on ‘The Obama Girls’ rather than the (in my view) more serious and unwarranted political statement that Ms Lauten was trying to make here and her complete lack of respect for, and appreciation of the role and place of the President and the First Lady in America and the rest of the world.

In Part Two I will cite other fact-based stories from afar and from home and provide some take home messages for readers. In the mean time here is some food for thought:

1. No matter what Media you use, always remember that you are not alone, and whatever your motive (s) remember how hurtful your use of words can be.
2. Remember that with freedom of speech and expression come responsibilities and irrespective of who you are, you must always bear this mind.
3. Remember to re-read all drafts and even if it means taking a break and coming back to read and edit your original comments written in the ‘heat of the moment’ that extra five minutes can save you and a whole lot of others pain, headache, embarrassment, your joy and your job.
4. You must never take your freedoms for granted and always put self-respect and respect for others first even where you have to be critical of other people’s actions.

Merry Christmas to One and All.