01/06–The Day That Tested American Democracy

Article by Urmi Sen

In 1949, George Orwell wrote a novel Nineteen Eighty Four, where the ‘Thought Police’ was used to monitor citizens of a country who may or may not have posed a threat to the authorities. He mentioned the concept of ‘policing your thoughts’, whereby thoughts which did not suit the narrative of some powerful people were considered criminal acts.

Very few of us imagined that a day might come, when we would begin to wonder if there indeed was something called Thought Policing in our society. The whole world witnessed what transpired in the last few days in the US with shock and disbelief.

As we were noting the events of that winter afternoon on January 6th 2021, what unfolded later was what shook our conscience. We watched helplessly as a group of people took decisions on the democratic norms and values of the oldest democracy in the world. They got to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, they tried to define for us ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of expression’. This is something that none of us are going to forget anytime soon and the repercussions of this will be felt far and wide.

Freedom, Liberty and Equality — the three words that probably exist in the constitutions of every great democracy in the world, the words that form the cradle of all other rights, the basis from which all other democratic privileges derive value. But what is freedom of speech and freedom of expression? It is respecting our true self, it is our own uniqueness and it is each of our fundamental right to be “me”. Whenever we face a situation where this freedom is compromised in any way, that is when we see the beginning of censorship.

People may say that the technology giants are private firms, and that we don’t own our content and what we share — these companies do and as a result they can do what they want with that information. In the current climate, it has become imperative to understand the consequences of such power, when a private company has taken upon itself to decide what or who is right or wrong. The surveillance technologies of the top platform giants today have outpaced democratic controls.

The very tools that were created to connect billions of ordinary citizens, the voiceless and the vulnerable all over the globe are suddenly being used to dispirit them. When we get to a place where we are constantly targeted or judged for speaking our minds, slowly but gradually, the thoughts falter and the creative spark of our humanity erodes, we stop thinking, we stop caring, we stop sharing and we ultimately stop growing and evolving. In other words, we stop those essential things that mark us out as human beings.

The sanctity of our ideas and thoughts does not come from the technology companies, it comes from our own belief that we can explore them with society and can conclude if they have any relevance. Let there be debates, let people challenge us, let there be criticisms and squabbles. But that is what it boils down to — the freedom to be heard in an open society. This is the very basis on which true progress takes place, this is the only way for the human society to attain excellence.

But what happens when a society starts to grow and to evolve? Well, in simple terms it ‘diversifies’. It becomes something novel and hence it also gets erratic and uncertain. From a very agreeable and safe place, suddenly we get into uncharted waters where there is a lot of volatility and even vulnerability.

This may not be an ideal place to be in, it may hinder the stability of society, but this is the only way true transformation, adaptation and advancement of humankind can take place. Not knowing what might happen tomorrow, the ambiguity of the future — this is actually the real aftermath of liberty and freedom.

How the US recovers post 1/6 remains to be seen. The events of the past few days should be used as a warning for all the democracies of the world. The political landscape of the country will see some major changes in the coming years. Surely the might and the power of the Silicon Valley giants will be tested. Whether and how they survive, only time will tell — but there is a fight ahead. The big question is — how many of us are truly ready for it?

Fast forward to 2024 — the year when 3 of the most important nations on the planet — India, USA & UK go to polls, in what might be one of the single biggest election years in the world. Almost 2 billion citizens will be exercising their democratic right of choosing which path they want their nations to take. The influence of the technology giants in global politics isn’t a matter of debate any longer, it is imminent. What we can do about it — well that’s a discourse for another day.

Article by Urmi Sen

Leave a Reply