My first freedom square!
My first freedom square! Touted as one of the highlights from last year’s Democracy Dialogue, I arrived at this year’s conference eagerly anticipating this open forum event. A salon. A think tank. An ideas café. I couldn’t wait to get started.
The setting sparkled. Big blue afternoon sky pitched against the brown-orange side of the plateau. All conference participants gathered around a microphone on three sides, overlooking the garden fresh in bloom with flowering plants alive in greens, pinks and reds. A gentle, dry breeze swept through the air on a perfect afternoon.
I opened my eyes and pricked my ears to take in the sights and sounds of freedom.
The 90-minute session ranged across the spectrum. Limited to two minutes apiece, participants shared ideas as varied as themselves. We heard Punjabi poetry, passionate advocacy campaigns, jokes, thoughtful questions on the nature of democracy, songs about coconut trees and pleas for ethical political leadership.
The scope was so wide that I found myself losing focus. The frequent changes from the deeply profound to the trite and trivial left me confounded.
I started to question its value as an exercise and tune out the buffet of offerings coming from the stage. Instead, I began to tune into my own line of thinking. Once there, I uncovered an old stone of truth and applied some new polish to it.
A long time ago, I heard a Taiwanese school administrator speak for a long time in praise of freedom. Once he concluded, a short pause ensued. From the silence, a wise woman raised her voice and countered his praise for ‘rights’ with a determined call for responsibility. Freedom needs a counter-balance she said. Freedom needs responsibility.
Sitting in the sunlight, I wondered what Responsibility Square would look like.
The real spirit of democracy is the responsibility to listen. Particularly for those who tend to be vocal. No matter the point, democracy demands that we make room – both personally and structurally – to hear the wide spectrum of ideas in society.
But the real spirit of democracy is also the responsibility to speak. Particularly for those who tend to be quiet. No matter the point, democracy demands that we make room – both personal and structurally – to speak our minds out loud.
And this is why this conference aims to be a ‘Dialogue on Democracy’. For a dialogue suggests that we both listen and speak – without being able to opt out of one or the other. We are obliged to both.
So for me, there was value in Freedom Square, though more in concept than content. It made clear the essential requirements of listening and speaking in a democracy.
It also clarified that, yes, freedom needs responsibility. Balance is critical. Of course, in that way, responsibility also needs freedom.