Erosion of rights a threat to human progress

Rights matter most for those ‘beginning the process of progress’

Universities have long been a forum for open discussion, a place to openly challenge the status quo. On Monday, January 9, the University of Waterloo welcomed Edward Snowden (via videoconference), a former CIA employee who sparked a global debate over mass surveillance, government secrecy and the balance between national security and information privacy.

The following is an excerpt from Snowden’s lecture, delivered at Beyond 60 — a special kickoff event launching a year-long celebration of Waterloo’s 60th anniversary.

“Privacy is the fountainhead of all rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean very much unless you have a space within yourself, within your home, within your community, within your university, within your class, within your head to figure out what it is that you believe. What it is that you want to say. Privacy is the right to the self. It’s the right to a free mind. …

“If we’re going to have individual rights, we have to protect them for everyone, even those with which we disagree. If you’re defending rights, you’re never going to be defending what’s popular because the majority position doesn’t need defending. The majority can change the laws. … People who are rich and powerful and privileged can reshape society in accordance with their desires. They have the influence, the tools, the capabilities to do what they need.

“But rights matter. They matter especially and intensely for people who are different. For people who are a little bit unusual. For people who don’t fit in quite right. For people who are changing. For people who are leading the way. For people who are beginning the process of progress. It’s the minorities to whom rights matter the most. It’s the vulnerable to whom rights matter the most and if you say, ‘I don’t care about this or that because it doesn’t matter to me in this moment,’ what you’re saying is that you don’t care about democracy. You don’t care about a free and open liberal society. All you care about is protecting your own interest. All you care about is the dressings around the idea of democracy. …

“When freedom comes, when rights expand, in every case it is a challenge against power. It is a challenge against the structures, the hierarchies, the orthodoxies of the day. …

“If you permit powerful groups, whether they be governments, whether they be corporations, to exempt themselves, to shelter themselves from the challenges of minorities; if you make everyone who has an idea that’s a little bit new, that’s a little bit different, that’s still being researched — if you render them powerless, what you’re doing is you’re saying, ‘We’ve gone far enough. The story of human progress can end here because I’m comfortable right now in this moment … .’

“Remember that liberty is about being able to decide something, anything for yourself without asking for permission. Liberty is about freedom from control. Liberty is about freedom for choice.

“And if you want to be able to have those choices, if you want your children to be able to have those choices, if you want to be able to participate meaningfully in society, to have some influence, not just over your community, not just over your choices, but over the direction of the future, we need to be able to know what’s going on and we need to be able to shape it.”

This was not a lecture free from controversy. We encourage thoughtful and respectful debate. Send us your comments and feedback for publication to