No Such Thing as a Free Speech


I discovered an extract of Oxford University Professor Timothy Garton Ash’s book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World on aeon.com this week. In it, the academic marvels at the strength of certain people throughout history who have risked everything for their beliefs.

I was especially drawn to the photo he chose to exemplify those who take a stand. According to Ash, it shows a Hamburg dockworker at the launch of a German naval vessel in 1936. Unlike the rest of his coworkers, who are all saluting their fuhrer, the man stands with arms folded, presumably in defiance of the Nazi regime.

Even in those times, before the instantaneous development of images, he took a great risk by not participating. There is of course a possibility that the photo simply didn’t come to light at the time, and his dissent may have gone unnoticed by anyone else for ever if it weren’t for providence and technology. According to Ash, the photo did not become widely circulated until 60 years after it was taken. So, why did the man stand there, openly defying a regime that was to become associated with human genocide? And what on earth does this have to do with writing?

This man decided to stand out from the crowd. He decided to put into action his sense of self-dignity; to do something he really believed in; just like any writer who takes the plunge and puts the first words on a page.

Someone once told me that a book is like a fart, in as much as everyone has one inside of them. The crude, yet funny association has always stuck with me, mainly because it’s so true. When I mention to others that I’m a writer, people will often regale me with the plot line of the book they’ve always wanted to write.

So, what separates me from them? Certainly not necessarily that I’m better at writing than them. Hell, I may have been making idle chit-chat with the next Ernest Hemingway for all I know! It is only that I put pen to paper in the hope that a new short story, or novella, or novel, (or blog post) will shake out. Sure, being a writer takes practice. Becoming proficient at anything usually does. And not just any practice, but the appropriate practice. You have to learn drive the car before you can win the Grand Prix!

For writers that means writing; writing in the knowledge that the work may never be read by another soul; writing because it makes you feel good, even when you know the content sucks. You can’t stand out from the crowd unless you make a conscious effort. To be the brazenly defiant man in the picture, you have to believe what you say is important. Not necessarily in a best-seller, instant recognition kind of way. But in a way that connects you to a readership. Successful journalists, essayists, novelists, non-fiction writers and bloggers will tell you, if you want to be a stand-out, you have to at least step up!

Footnote: According to Ash’s excerpt, the man in the picture’s name was August Landmesser. He was expelled from the Nazi party for marrying a Jewish woman. After his release from prison for ‘dishonoring the [German] race,’ he was drafted to fight in WWII and never returned.

What do you think of the picture? Is it only iconic in retrospect? Or do you think his actions were dramatic even back then? What do you think the backstory to the picture was? (Now there’s a great writing prompt!) Feel free to share below!

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