"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
-John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859.
But sovereign are we, over our blogs and the contents and comments therein?
We are bloggers. We want freedom. But who are we?
Are we mere individuals, exercising our right to free speech? Or serving in a larger reserve corps of citizen journalists, doing the menial chores mainstream fleet streeters balk at, breaking community stories and spotlighting abuses that may otherwise be ignored?
If the latter, we are all scribes. But while our bold brethren scribing for broadsheets enjoy the protection of law for work, property and ideas, we tend to fall inebriated between the bar stool of individualism and the wooden pew of public reach. Even though we may be genuine aggregators and investigators of information, we are not offered the protection afforded to journalists, nor privy to the same outrage when one of us is hoisted out of the public sphere and into an anonymous cell.
If the former, we are individuals who generate, in part opine and pontificate and in part prevaricate. But in doing so, we meet the basic human need of self-expression and ask permission for the right to exercise freedom of expression. Thinkers like Stuart Mill have argued for liberty on the premise that it increases happiness. As beings capable of abstraction, rationalization, and expression, the life of a pebble is not for humans. The mere acts of creation, expression, and sharing offer joy. The artisan hews, the painter paints, the poet sculpts reality out of verse; thus, so should a blogger be permitted to throw together prose.
If either of the narratives above describes us, we shall call it our own, for both present obvious, pressing arguments for blogger rights: the first as foot soldiers for transparency, the second as mere individuals who wish to be individual.
But both narratives also imply a sense of duty, responsibility, and measure, which we ignore at our peril.
If we are to be journalists, we must then be very good journalists because we are our own editors, sources and type-setters. We cannot throw around accusations on whim and cast doubts on fancy, because we then fail our cause and cannot in good faith ask for the protection afforded to accredited and audited correspondents.
If we are to be mere individuals, we must recall that the right to swing our fists -- and opinions -- ends at the tip of our subjects' noses. Salaciousness, fabrication, and mendacity are not pleasing attributes, be they evident in real life or the blogosphere.
The world does not yet know how to treat us because we don't yet know who we are -- journalists, individuals, or both.
But of two points we can be sure.
First, bloggers the world over have been invaluable in offering perspective, insight, indignation and indeed new information that has held the world's attention and created pressure for constructive change in political as well as corporate matters. From Egypt to Iran, Dell to Etisalat, blogging has represented a democratization of information that, while it may not always be correct, offers empowerment that often translates into positive action.
Second, freedom of expression is the flimsy catch preventing functioning societies from sliding into autocratic tyranny. For that purpose alone, it should be encouraged. We will not stand up and insist that every single factual nuance ever noted by us is accurate and cross-checked as we'd ideally want. But we will, proudly and vehemently, insist on our right to expression -- not merely as bloggers but as humans -- without the fear of persecution.
So let the first blogger who dies in prison be the last. In fact, expand that remit. Let the next person who dies in prison for exercising expression in any form be the very last. Ever.
For more information on blogger rights, it may be helpful to refer this CNET article by John Conyers.
This post is in support of the March 18 movement for blogger freedom.
Follow Hisham Wyne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hishamwyne