In some countries, people want more freedom of speech. In others, they feel that there is too much.
- In green: where people like free speech the most. In red: where free speech is not popular.
- Despite continued strong support, this recent survey shows approval of free speech declining in the U.S.
- Free speech helps create prosperity, but if forced to choose, people prefer prosperity over free speech.
September 24th, 1933: Communist Member of Parliament Saklatvala Shapurji addresses a crowd at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park.Credit: Keystone / Getty Images
Who loves free speech? As this world map shows: not everybody — at least not in equal measure. Of the 33 countries surveyed, free speech gets its highest approval in those shaded green. Approval is "medium" in yellow countries and lowest in red ones.
Some democracies are more nominal than others
- Some of the highest-rated countries are what you might expect: in North America (U.S.) and northern Europe (UK, Denmark, Norway, Sweden). Also on that list: Spain and Japan. Surprising inclusions: Venezuela and Hungary, two countries not recently noted for the fair and balanced nature of their public discourse.
- Countries with "medium" interest in free speech are scattered across Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina), continental Europe (France, Germany, Czechia, Poland), the Middle East (Israel), Africa (South Africa), and the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea).
- Interestingly, all the countries on the red list, professing the least interest in free speech, are nominal democracies, although some are more nominal than others. They include countries in Europe (Russia, Turkey), the Middle East (Lebanon), Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria), and Asia-Pacific (Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia).
Global variation in the Justitia Free Speech Index. Maximum score: 100.Credit: Justitia
Orwell, defending the Freedom of the Park
The survey, conducted in February 2021 for Danish think tank Justitia, is about popular attitudes rather than legal frameworks. That is relevant because, as George Orwell observed in "Freedom of the Park" (1945), free speech depends less on the law of the land than on the will of the people.
Justitia's report, titled "The Future of Free Speech", opens with a quote from Orwell's essay:
"If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them."
To find out about those attitudes, Justitia weighed the responses of a total of 50,000 people across 33 countries worldwide to several potentially controversial statements, including:
Government censorship should not apply to
- what people say;
- what the media reports;
- how people use the internet.
People should be able to
- publicly criticize the government;
- publicly offend minority groups;
- criticize the respondent's religion and beliefs;
- voice support for homosexual relationships;
- insult the national flag.
The media should be able to publish information
- that might destabilize the economy;
- about sensitive aspects of national security;
- that makes it more difficult to handle pandemics.
George Orwell at the BBC in 1940. He sensed that free speech depends less on what laws dictate than on what people want.Credit: Public domain
Russians among the least pro-free speech
Some key findings of the report:
- Of the nationalities surveyed, Scandinavians and Americans are the most supportive of free speech. The least supportive are the Russians, Muslim-majority nations, and the least developed nations.
- Support for free speech in general is typically expressed by great majorities and has remained stable or has even increased since 2015. There is one exception: the U.S., where the acceptance of unrestricted criticism of the government has declined. The report specifically notes that young people, women, the less educated, and people who voted for Joe Biden are generally less supportive of free speech.
- While support for free speech is strong in the abstract, it drops when specific controversial statements are mentioned. In general, left-leaning individuals are more accepting of insulting national symbols and right-leaning individuals of offending minority groups, particularly in Western countries.
- In all countries surveyed, a majority would like to see social media subjected to some kind of regulation, but only a few respondents want governments to take the sole responsibility for this.
Free speech deficits and... surpluses
When matching Justitia's Free Speech Index (which measures attitudes) with a separate Freedom of Expression Index (which measures regulations) developed by an organization called V-Dem, it turns out that there is a clear and positive association between both.
- In other words: in countries with strong popular demand for free speech, there typically are good government provisions for the supply of free speech. For example, Scandinavia, the U.S., the UK and Australia all score relatively high on both indexes, while Pakistan, Malaysia, and India get relatively low marks on both indexes.
- There are exceptions, in both directions. The popular demand for free speech exceeds the actual level of freedom of expression in Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. You could call this a classic free speech deficit.
- In contrast, there are three countries where there seems to be a free speech surplus: in Kenya, Tunisia, and Nigeria, the relatively high values on the Freedom of Expression Index are not matched with equally high values on the Free Speech Index.
Support for free speech is generally stable or improving, except in the United States, where the acceptance of unrestricted criticism of the government has declined.Credit: Justitia
Choosing between free speech and prosperity?
Justitia also asked its interviewees how they thought their freedom of expression had evolved over time. The results are mixed.
- People in Tunisia, Pakistan, and Kenya reported the greatest improvements in their freedom of expression.
- Despite significant "democratic backsliding" in the Philippines and India, people in those countries also reported improvements.
- The greatest perceived losses in terms of free speech were reported in Hungary, Poland, the U.S., and Turkey. As the report points out, all of these countries are highly polarized with (present or recent) leaders very critical of independent media.
- People in France and Germany also reported shrinking space for free speech.
"Fortunately (…) much evidence speaks in favor of (a positive) association (between freedom of expression on the one hand and human welfare and prosperity on the other) — particularly, when free speech is combined with effective electoral rights over longer periods of time," the report concludes.
However, "the numbers indicate that, if people believe they cannot have both, many are willing to sacrifice free speech." Disconcertingly, "support for free speech might be shallower than one would expect — and hope for — in relation to this fundamental right."
Strange Maps #1094
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The skeleton of the world's oldest known shark attack victim exhibits telltale wounds.
- A team of researchers has determined that a man died of wounds from a shark attack 3000 years ago.
- The 790 wounds on his remains, including a missing leg and hand, are consistent with this hypothesis.
- Given how rare shark attacks are, this find is truly remarkable.
Trying to learn about the distant past is often difficult. The remains of ancient humans can sometimes seem baffling, and trying to determine how they ended up in strange places or why they have such odd items with them in their graves can drive archaeologists batty. But when a confusing case suddenly begins to make sense, it shines a light on a small part of human history that would otherwise be lost to the ages.
Such a discovery is described in a new paper published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. It examines the death of a man living in what is now Okayama Prefecture in southern Japan 3000 years ago. It is also the earliest known case of our species having a run-in with sharks.
We're going to need a bigger boat
A multi-angle map of the injuries and completeness of the skeleton. Red points are bite marks, orange ones are overlapping striations, and the purple are fracture lines. White et al.
The remains of the unfortunate person, known as individual 24, were found as part of a larger excavation of the remains of ancient hunter-gatherers in the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site. The skeletal remains are incomplete, and a close inspection reveals no fewer than 790 deep wounds to the bones. They show no signs of having healed but do appear to have been inflicted before death.
The researchers were initially baffled by this. After ruling out a number of possibilities, including that the man was attacked with contemporary weapons or by a land-based animal, they arrived at the notion that he was attacked by a shark. Given the area, it was likely a tiger shark or a white shark.
The likely location of the initial bite, the pattern of bite marks, and the serrated nature of the wounds all support the shark attack hypothesis. His missing left hand is also consistent with a shark attack, and the authors speculate that it was removed while he tried to defend himself. The researchers posit that the man was alive when attacked and died quickly from blood loss and shock. His remains suggest that his body was recovered by his compatriots quickly and was buried in the manner typical of the Jōmon period.
Using updated techniques, the researchers also were able to more precisely date the remains to sometime between 1370 and 1010 BCE. This would make individual 24 a member of a fisher-hunter-gatherer community, likely explaining why he was in the water in the first place.
Does this change our understanding of history?
"The Neolithic people of Jomon Japan exploited a range of marine resources... It's not clear if Tsukumo 24 was deliberately targeting sharks or if the shark was attracted by blood or bait from other fish. Either way, this find not only provides a new perspective on ancient Japan, but is also a rare example of archaeologists being able to reconstruct a dramatic episode in the life of a prehistoric community."
After years of speculation a team of researchers has pinpointed the age of this ancient mystery.
- The Plain of Jars consists of over 90 sites containing thousands of jars scattered across Laos.
- According to new research, these jars were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
- In 2019, UNESCO named a cluster of 11 regions as a World Heritage Site.
The stone jar sites scattered around Laos are considered the most unique and important archaeological finds in all of Southeast Asia. In total, over 90 sites have been identified, with each site containing between one and 400 jars, some of which weigh up to 20 tons.
Carved of rock and cylindrically-shaped, the predominantly undecorated jars—only one features a "frogman" etched into its exterior—vary in shape and size, though they are predominantly constructed of sandstone. Other materials used include breccia, conglomerate, granite, and limestone. The jars range from one to three meters tall.
The purpose of these jars has long been debated. Given their proximity to funerary grounds, they might have served a ritual purpose or merely marked where the dead were buried. They might have housed cremated remains. A more pragmatic purpose has been put forward: to collect monsoon rainwater.
The Plain of Jars, as this network is known, was heavily bombed by the United States Air Force in the 1960s. In fact, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos (specifically, these jar sites) than in the entirety of World War II—a total of 262 million cluster bombs. Some 80 million remain undetonated, making them a daily threat to the population of Laos today.
Protective measures are now being taken. In 2019, UNESCO designated a group of 11 of these regions as a World Heritage Site. The organization notes that these sites represent a historical crossroads between the Mun-Mekong system and the Red River/Gulf of Tonkin system, noting that beyond ritual purpose, they could have been utilized by travelers in some capacity—hence the rainwater theory.
After decades of speculation and research, a team led by two Australian researchers and one Laotian researcher have dated these jars. Using a fossil-dating technology known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), the team examined sediment from underneath jars at 120 different locations, discovering that they were constructed sometime between 1240 and 660 BCE.
View to the southwest at megalithic jar Site 1.
Credit: Louise Shewan, et al.
Dr. Louise Shewan from the University of Melbourne explains,
"With these new data and radiocarbon dates obtained for skeletal material and charcoal from other burial contexts, we now know that these sites have maintained enduring ritual significance from the period of their initial jar placement into historic times."
How the jars were moved around Laos remains unknown. As with other ancient mysteries—the various henges around Scotland and England; the interconnected network of cities in the Harappan civilization—understanding the rituals associated with and technologies used to create awe-inspiring monuments remains a dream for many archaeologists.
The team behind this research plans on examining more samples from these Laotian jars—a particularly daunting challenge considering less than 10 percent of jar sites have been cleared of American explosives. Shewan is excited about the prospects of what further testing could reveal, however.
"We expect that this complex process will eventually help us share more insights into what is one of Southeast Asia's most mysterious archaeological cultures."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is just a few weeks shy of being one year old. Many people have been practicing social distancing, quarantine, and isolation procedures for most of that time. While these practices have had a real effect on case numbers, they have also had more than a few adverse side effects. In Japan, the government is blaming a recent increase in suicide rates on the difficulties caused by isolation.
Japan, which has done an excellent job of keeping COVID death rates low, saw an increase in the number of suicides among women and students during the last year. Despite the continued fall in the suicide rate for men, Japan still has the highest suicide rate among any G7 nation.
In hopes of attacking the problem at its perceived source, the Japanese government has taken the bold step of appointing a cabinet member dedicated to the loneliness crisis.
The Ministry of Loneliness
Tetsushi Sakamoto, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this month to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely individuals.
Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different ministries that hope to address the issue alongside a task force. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.
Hikikomori, often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many countries, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at risk of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and distress.
Kodokushi, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.
These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to smoking. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social problems. It is even associated with changes in the brain. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real consequences.
The virus that broke the camel's back
A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic.
Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation considered. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other countries.
American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly 3 in 5 Americans reported being lonely in a report issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years.
In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's final report paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.
The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in 2018, Tracey Crouch, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem.
The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.