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Why the arts matter in a democracy


AROUND the world, democracy has been receding. Authoritarian States have expanded their powers to limit the rights of citizens, while democracies have either seen greater nationalist populist sentiment that aims to restrict the rights of certain groups in their countries or citizens have elected leaders with authoritarian characteristics to positions of power.

This has shifted the international balance of power in favour of authoritarian strongmen and their supporters. Freedom of speech and expression has been the one democratic right that is under attack across nations.

Whether it’s through the Patriot Act in Zimbabwe, or recently Belarus diverting a plane to arrest a single journalist, or artists across the African continent being censored. The right to speech and methods of expression are under threat. Defenders of democracy need to understand that the arts are a vital tool to creating and defending democracy.

Why the arts matter

Great art can be used to educate and provide public debate which creates empathy and that empathy leads to people changing their views about social issues thus resulting in social change.

From answering questions such as what is the meaning of life, why was I created to promoting the rights of women, and questioning social norms, and creating greater accountability within society.

To an artist whose mission is to tell a story, these questions can be profoundly felt in their work.

It is through works of art that citizens can be exposed to social ills. In Pakistan, it is a documentary about a teenager called Saba Qaiser that made the public question “honour killings” within its society; In Zimbabwe, it’s through music that helps the youth express their frustrations about their impoverished lives. Silence sometimes is seen as consent, but it also confirms a people oppressed in a society where speaking out is sometimes reserved for the privileged and brave few.

Today on many social issues from the feminist movement, to Black Lives Matter and the social and economic injustices in Zimbabwe, artists voice their concerns through artistic displays of people refusing to be silenced, and rightly so. Freedom of speech and expression are fundamental to speaking truth to power and coming up with the debate that is necessary in creating and maintaining a democracy.

Envisage a world without music, literature and visual arts. How would we be able to empathise with minority groups if pictures of oppression were never taken?

How would we understand women’s rights without the literature to help us better understand women’s vital roles in society?

How would we have made calls to action for racial, social and economic justice without the music that tells the story of people’s plight? The arts are a part of the human condition and are important to our everyday survival as breathing.

What is in it for you

A story told eloquently can move a people towards radical social change. To have the power to be heard gives you the power to vote, the power to vote enables you to be represented in society.

That ability to represent ourselves through the arts allows us to voice our concerns. That is why the arts, whether paintings, sculptures, poems or literature and debate is vital for young people to be exposed from an early age.

It is through storytelling that we are exposed to heroes and right and wrong; it is exposing the young to material that helps them determine fiction from fact and makes us accountable to those facts, think critically about the facts about our systems of government and having the courage to listen to others’ opinions in a peaceful manner.

If we are to create a lasting democracy, the arts will help us present coherent arguments, enabling us to be listened to legitimately, and preserve our vital freedom to speech and expressions.

Nhimbe Trust

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