Freedom of thought is more important than freedom of speech

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Stembile Mpofu

After University I had the opportunity to spend several months living in the United States. My time there was divided between New York City and Springfield, Illinois in the Midwest. It was an eye opening experience in many ways as I was exposed to both the fast paced city life and the more laid back midwestern lifestyle.

When it was time for me to return I boarded my plane and sat next to a middle aged American woman who asked me how I had found my time in the US. I remember telling her how privileged I’d felt to have had this time. My visit had provided me with the opportunity to demystify my perception of America. I had had a chance to experience America not as a tourist but as any ordinary person living there. Real life in the US was much harder than what was portrayed in the sitcoms and soap operas we had grown up watching on television. It was about working two or three jobs to make ends meet for some; it was about credit card bills maxed out from buying things one actually didn’t need. It was about seeing some of my fellow countrymen living in the squalor of a Harlem apartment using car seats as sofas and proclaiming that they would only come back home if they won the lottery. It was about shopping malls and the consumers who kept these malls alive by buying more and more “stuff” resulting in ever-spiraling debt.

I didn’t tell the American lady sitting next to me most of these things being mindful that this was her home country. I do however, remember telling her that as much as I had enjoyed my stay in America I felt a sense of relief to be returning home. My relief came from the fact that throughout my stay I felt that I had not had space to think. I told her that during my time there I felt I was not given an opportunity to form an opinion. The example I gave was related to music. Being a young person one can imagine that listening to the latest music was a very important activity. Many songs were released during my time there but I noticed there was always a select group of songs that would take up all the space on television music shows, talk shows, comedy shows, news shows, radio shows and billboards. It was the same information being continuously fed to people from different sources and there was no escape. In the end one found themselves singing along, then dancing along, then jumping up in excitement whenever those particular songs were played. There was no space to think and ask yourself whether or not you genuinely liked the song.

When I related this example to her, she agreed with me wholly and went on to tell me that when she became a parent she made the conscious decision not to have a radio or television in her house. She had not made that choice for religious or moral reasons but because she had wanted to create a space where her children had the freedom to think. At the time I was quite surprised at the coincidence of having sat next to someone who could fully relate to what I had experienced. Even though I had thought to myself that her actions were a little too drastic, a household with no television and radio?

Some years later I realised, after watching an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, that her decision may not have been too radical. Oprah was interviewing two marketing experts who visited different family homes and were able to tell which products they would find in the pantry and refrigerators. Based on how they marketed a certain product they knew who would buy it. This astounded me because with the amount of products on supermarket shelves I always found it difficult to make a choice between products. After watching this show I realised how few of our thoughts, opinions and choices are genuinely ours. As time went by I came across many indicators that pointed to the fact that we are constantly being told how to think.

The consumer culture that feeds economic growth requires people to spend their money whether they can afford it or not. It tells you which songs you like so that you buy the latest album, attend the music concerts and buy all the merchandise associated with a particular artist. This seems benign because it is the entertainment industry and is something that we can choose not to engage with as my fellow plane passenger did. But what if, as I have discovered with time and through research, these same methods are being used in other areas of our lives that are not as easy to disengage with. What if our education system is giving us information that makes us form certain opinions? What if that information creates a particular perception that may or may not be to our advantage?

With these thoughts in mind I began to filter the information I received and ensure that I would not repeat the US experience of my youth. It also required that I look for alternative sources of information beyond the mainstream and compare the different narratives. It required that I be a bit more discerning about the information I consume because as they say in health circles, you are what you eat and a balanced diet is always highly recommended.

Looking at the world through this lens was instructive. I noticed that my son’s O’ level/ IGCSE economics textbook listed reliable information sources at the end of each chapter. At the top of the list on each Chapter the first source listed is the CIA World Fact Book, a source that “ provides information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military and transnational issues for 267 world entities.” With that consistent messaging being passed on to a young mind over the two years of study, what is the probability that the child will ever question information that is given to him through that source?

I wondered in what other educational spaces intelligence agencies were at work feeding us with information. It was interesting to find that George Orwell’s book Animal Farm was a propaganda tool for the CIA’s predecessor, Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) and British Intelligence. In the fight against communism the OPC acquired the film rights to the book after George Orwell’s death. They went on to adapt some of the material in the book to better suit their cause and produced an animated film of the book. The American intelligence agencies provided funding for the film and the translation of the book into many different languages to ensure their anti-communism agenda reached the citizens of the world. As we speak the book Animal Farm remains a staple on educational syllabi across the world.

Interesting lessons emerged from the Animal Farm encounter. The first was learning that during the 2nd World War the intelligence agencies of Russia and the West established psychological warfare departments within their organisations. Their intent was to influence the minds of citizens so that they think in a way that is to the advantage of the country carrying out the warfare. It was then that the phrase “Winning the hearts and minds” was coined. US declassified documents from this time reveal how radio stations like the Voice of America and the BBC sat at the centre of the propaganda machine.

Current reports on today’s practices show how the methods used then have evolved to include other communication mediums like movies and social media. An article written by Matthew Alford and published in September 2017 in the Independent UK reveals that films like the Transformers, Iron Man and the Terminator all received support from the US Government’s Department of Defence (the Army). It also reveals that the Pentagon has had an entertainment liaison officer since 1948, a position the CIA formally set up in 1996. In many cases the intent of these agencies is to create a positive image of America to Americans themselves and the world at large. Unfortunately the battle with Russia continues and it seems the Russians have used social media to carry out their own warfare. Using the larger than life sense Americans have created of themselves, they have launched a social media campaign to make Americans believe their way of life is under threat and only Donald Trump can save them. The consequences have been dire as Donald Trump works to weaken America’s position on the international stage.

It is at this point that I ask Zimbabweans to consider who has influence over their thoughts. The majority of the local and international media fill the information space with negative reporting about the country. The constant negativity affects the morale of every citizen and all creativity is quashed leaving us with little hope for the future and diminished self-belief. We believe that only external funding and investors can rescue us because as we are, we are unable to do for ourselves. We believe this because our school textbooks have told us that, as have Aid programmes, reports from international agencies and news programmes. Zimbabwe like most other African countries is always in need of assistance our narrative has been a negative one. This is unlike the CIA’s programme that successfully promotes America to the extent that a Zimbabwean living in squalor in Harlem genuinely believes that his life is better in America than at home.

Our fight must be for the freedom to think because freedom of thought is far more important than freedom of speech because we can only say what is in our minds. Perhaps it is time we switched off the proverbial “televisions and radios” in our lives just like my fellow passenger did for her children. Let us create time to form our own opinion about our country and ourselves. Perhaps we will find that the thoughts we develop will not be negative. Perhaps they will result in words of hope emerging from our mouths and through that create the mindset to build a better country for ourselves.