Analogue leadership in a digital world

The House of Protection, Utøya

The island of Utøya is owned by the Workers Youth League in Norway and has held annual Summer Camps for young people there since the 1950s.

On 22nd July, 2011 a right wing Norwegian extremist killed 69 of those young people together with a further 8 in Oslo after he blew up a major government building.

Since 2011 Norway has slowly dealt with this event, the deadliest mass shooting worldwide committed by a single perpetrator, and the island of Utøya is a monument to how challenging the process of reconciliation with hate and horror is, but also how time and patience can help those left behind begin to heal.

The island continues to be used as a meeting place and learning centre for young people fighting for democracy, human rights, peace and reconciliation – locally, nationally and globally and in May 2024 was one of the key venues used by The World Freedom of Expression Forum, WEXFO 2024.

WEXFO’s aim is

to inspire progress for freedom of expression on all levels of society – internationally, nationally and locally and seeks to be a forum where the challenges to freedom of expression can be discussed and debated.

WEXFO 2024 comprised four complementary events.  As well as the main conference held in Lillehammer, Norway, there was also:

  • The WEXFO Youth Network Conference which focuses on youth freedom of expression and seeks to assess the current state of Youth Freedom of Expression through a platform of co-operation in order to facilitate the sharing of insights.
  • WEXFO Young Experts which targets 18 to 35 year old innovators, activists, and community leaders with the aim of increasing young people’s participation in their societies. This is held between Utøya and Lillehammer.
  • WEXFO Youth Voices brought around 1000 secondary school students from Lillehammer and surrounding areas to come to the Scandic Hotel to learn about freedom of expression, engage in discussions, and truly express themselves.

I knew nothing of WEXFO before our Intersticia Fellow Abeer Abu Ghaith was asked to speak at it and prior to my arrival I really had no idea what to expect.

WEXFO has largely been created and supported by a collective of literary organisations including publishers, libraries, the Norsk Literature Festival and organisations such as ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network. Predominantly the focus is on the inter-relationship between literacy/reading and the nexus between freedom of expression and Democracy.

Reading is democracy’s and freedom’s most important weapon. (WEXFO CEO Kristenn Einarsson)

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.  

The challenge of course is how this works in practice balanced with the cultural norms and values of the societies in which it takes place.

Free speech and expression is the lifeblood of democracy, facilitating open debate, the proper consideration of diverse interests and perspectives, and the negotiation and compromise necessary for consensual policy decisions. Efforts to suppress nonviolent expression, far from ensuring peace and stability, can allow unseen problems to fester and erupt in far more dangerous forms. (Freedom House)

WEXFO 2024 opened with a focus on the state of Democracy and the rebuilding of trust in institutions, particularly in the age of rapidly evolving forms of information technology and innovation.

According to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer the loss of trust in governments and institutions within countries with more democratic forms of government is striking, and most particularly in the abilities of governments to regulate innovation and technologies.

Historically the probability of a Western politician getting re-elected is around 35%, historically it was 70%. (Ruchir Sharma, How To Academy, June 2024).

To put this in context we need to define and understand what “The West” is in the 2020s.

I’m going to begin by using Joseph Henrich’s definition of WEIRD),

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic—aims to raise people’s consciousness about psychological differences and to emphasize that WEIRD people are but one unusual slice of humanity’s cultural diversity. WEIRD highlights the sampling bias present in studies conducted in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

The reason I feel this is important rather than just listing countries deemed to be ‘democratic’ is that being Western is as much a mindset as it is a geography, and it is peculiar to The West to consider this so.  This democratic mindset may be defined as

Democracy is the sharing of cultural, economic and political rights.  Democracy a constructive space for deliberation. (Alpa Shah speaking at Institute of Art and Ideas, The Indian Century)

In his talk about the status of freedom of expression in 2024 political scientist Staffan Lindberg gave a stark overview of how things are changing in the world.

Drawing from the most recent research of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg Lindberg spoke to these major trends:

  • The level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world in 2023 is down to 1985-levels; by country-based averages, it is back to 1998.
  • Since 2009 – almost 15 years in a row – the share of the world’s population living in autocratising countries has overshadowed the share living in democratizing countries.
  • The decline is stark in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean goes against the global trend: Democracy levels increase, and large countries are more democratic than smaller ones.
  • The world is almost evenly divided between 91 democracies and 88 autocracies.
  • 71% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – live in autocracies – an increase from 48% ten years ago.
  • Electoral autocracies have by far the most people – 44% of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people.
  • 29% of the world’s population – 2.3 billion people – live in liberal and electoral democracies.
  • Israel falls out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in over 50 years.

As a complement to this Felicia Anthonio from AccessNow described the current state of internet shutdowns linked to elections and violence, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.  Their 2023 Report is disturbing reading, particularly in a year billed to be the biggest election year in recorded human history.

One of the most troubling aspects, particularly given the lack of trust in government and institutions, is the growing influence of smart information technologies and it was sobering to hear Sam Gregory of WITNESS describe the what he sees as the major challenges but also that alluded to some glimmers of hope

Sam Gregory with a message of hope

First and foremost in this is that we are not passive witnesses to what is happening around us, we are active participants.  We do this individually and in groups but we are co-creating the world and therefore we have a responsibility to take some ownership of the outcomes.  This is the message we have been trying to give through our Brave Conversations and Web Science because those glimmers of hope come from forums such as WEXFO but also the work that so many institutions around the world are doing to develop we humans within this digital age.

Democracies need not merely freedom to think and talk, but universal information and vigorous mental training, (H. G. Wells).

Part of this mental training comes from, firstly, realising that for those of us who live in functioning democracies that Democracy, as children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson stated, is a VERB not a NOUN.  It is an ACTION state.

Freedom of Expression is like a muscle which needs to be constantly exercised, it is an active choice.

Irene Khan reinforced the ACTIVE nature of freedom of expression

There are numerous ways in which this muscle can be exercised and strengthened.

One of them is Deep Reading, a term coined by Sven Birkets (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) where

every book a portal to a different universe where we allow ourselves to enter through our imagination and a state of mindfulness that helps us experience the book on a much deeper level.

Another is to teach and promote active Critical Thinking for all generations.  This is what organisations such as Sitra and people such as Anil Dash are doing and is a major focus in education for the government of Finland.

It is what underpins the The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto which states that:

Higher-level reading is our most powerful tool for analytic and critical thinking. It exercises metacognition and cognitive patience, expands our conceptual capacities, trains cognitive empathy and perspective-taking – social skills which are indispensable for informed citizens in a democratic society. Signatories of this manifesto call to acknowledge the permanent significance of higher-level reading in the digital era.

As I sat and listened to all of these speakers, spoke with young people during the breaks and pondered the fragility of our Western inheritance I began to think more and more that it is not Democracy that we should be focusing on but human dignity.

This dignity comes not from the particular political system within which we live but is as much about how we view ourselves and others within that system.

Whilst in 2024 we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights they are something to be viewed as incredibly precious but only of value if we stick by them and implement them. This requires all of us to take a good long look at our own systems and to be prepared to stand up for what we see as insufficient rigour in this self-examination, something that is proving to be beyond our currently governance systems to do.

Our humans systems are designed to serve our societies and they must adapt and evolve as our needs change.  As a part of this we need to provide evidence to the populace that their vote does count, that their voice can be heard, and the brightest light in 2024 thus far as been that in the largest democratic elections of 2024 the people did speak (see Indian elections 2024).

All of these are difficult and challenging issues to deal with and challenging conversations to have, but have them we must if we are to be able to deal with the ever increasing complexity of the years ahead presented by climate change, increasing migration and the growing capability of artificial intelligence.

WEXFO was an opportunity to sit back, to listen to challenging and sometimes controversial viewpoints, and to quietly reflect.

We in the West can be hugely judgemental and arrogant when it comes to other forms of government, and our history is littered with our determination to proselytise and impose it on others.  We consider it right for us, but it is not the only way to be governed and since only 8% of us live in a “full democracy” perhaps we should be more sensitive to and aware of the threats to our own systems rather than focusing on converting everyone else.

We have a lot of work to do in ‘The West’ to get our younger people to participate and engage in the democractic process, to step up and proactively create the societies that reflect their values, and to take responsibility for the rights that they have, not merely take them for granted.

So on top of reading and literacy we need to educate and empower our young people about government and governance, policy and politics, civics and civilisation and ther role in creating it.  We need to not just listen to their voices, but to integrate those voices in to our systems and processes at all levels.

This is what I felt was the value of WEXFO 2024, taking the time to think about what we value in what we have, and determine to work towards keeping it.