When three members of the Russian punk-rock band “Pussy Riot” were sentenced to two-year jail stints in mid-August for “hooliganism”, human rights activists in the West jumped to their feet. Everyone from the White House and 10 Downing Street to Madonna and Yoko Ono condemned what they deemed a disproportionate sentence for a 40-second protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin during a church service. But the attitude we take on the Pussy Riot debacle is hypocritical and is one of many examples of our condescending attitude towards countries we deem less free than our own.
The categorical condemnation of the Pussy Riot controversy was the right course of action for individuals and governments of Western nations to take. But Western nations taking the moral high ground on this issue don’t have a leg to stand on, given their own limitations on freedom of speech and instances of government abuse of legal authority. Rather than just criticizing human rights violations in other countries, we should see them as an opportunity to reflect upon and amend our own limitations on human rights. Our rightful denunciation of Putin’s repression needs to be taken one step further.
Suppose that a group similar to Pussy Riot disrupted a prayer service in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral or New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral rather than Christ The Savior Cathedral in Moscow. All three of these churches have public spaces around them where it would be perfectly legal to protest without interrupting a service within the church, which is illegal. The police forces of all three countries would most certainly arrest protestors who interrupt a church service, regardless of how worthy their message is. If you are still convinced that our state is a more benign about cracking down on protests than Russia is, think again. On December 10, 1989, the New York Police Department removed several protestors from St. Patrick’s Cathedral for disrupting a church service. The protestors were staging a “die-in” on behalf of the advocacy group ACT UP in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on AIDS. The measures taken against Pussy Riot are, in some ways, reminiscent to those taken against ACT UP—in both cases, activism held in an iconic location in protest of an issue already ignored by the government was crushed. Constant government repression of marginalized groups and radical ideas is clearly universal and is not limited to the developing world. Russia is not the only country that cracks down on “hooligans.”
In all fairness, we are lucky to have many freedoms that other people around the world do not enjoy. But the West should not feel so complacent about its own stances on freedom compared to other countries. Barack Obama gave a speech defending freedom of speech at the United Nations in light of recent protests in the Arab world against a YouTube video insulting the prophet Mohammed, while Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech defending the right to censorship in the name of religious sensitivity went largely condemned in the West. But during the 2011 riots in the United Kingdom, Parliament and the London Metropolitan Police seriously considered shutting down Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger in an attempt to prevent rioters from coordinating themselves. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that the “free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.” I see very little difference between Cameron’s and Morsi’s stances.
Similarly, in 2011, the San Francisco transit authorities preemptively shut down mobile phone services in subway stations after receiving a tip that a group would be staging a protest against the shooting of an unarmed man by the police at select subway stations. What makes this any different than former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shutting down mobile phone and internet services between January 25 and February 5, 2011, in an effort to frustrate the efforts of protestors? I do not defend the actions of dictators and those who wish to infringe upon our rights, but I refuse to defend our general naivety about our own rights violations, which allows us to have an uninformed, condescending attitude towards the rest of the world.
This is not just another plea for the improvement of civil rights in the developed world. This is a plea for us to apply our own values of freedom to ourselves in addition to our efforts to campaign for the freedom of those who live abroad. If the rest of the world can easily identify our hypocrisies, not only is our support for human rights weakened, but the values themselves lose also their appeal.
Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.