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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Freedom of speech is meaningless for those without the freedom to hear

Freedom of speech is among the most venerated freedoms we enjoy in the West. Rarely, however, do we speak about the importance of the freedom to hear.

For example, 30,000 of the world’s poorest children will die today. Their parents, through no fault of their own, most likely did not have the opportunity to hear that the diseases claiming their children were, in nearly every case, completely preventable. Few among the 80% of the world’s population that live on less than $10 a day will be able to avail themselves of the benefits directly derived from the freedom to hear that their life could be dramatically different.

Poverty, conflict, intolerance and oppression create a deafening silence among the world’s poorest peoples.

How, for example, does a family returning home after decades of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo hear that life can be different for them? How do orphan children, roaming the back alleys of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hear that there is tangible hope for them, despite their terrible loss?

You and I know that we are speaking words and dispensing knowledge that can literally save lives, but what if the people who need to hear our words are unable to hear them? Are we willing to work at removing the barriers – inequity, poverty, conflict, intolerance, and oppression, to name just a few – that make it impossible for people to hear the life-saving words we are saying?

The next time you think about our freedom of speech, take a moment to think about the freedom to hear. The next time you place a value on the freedom of speech, why not use the degree to which people are free to hear as the real measure of the value and effectiveness of our freedom to speak.

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