Freedom of speech is widely believed to be an exceedingly important component of democratic societies, supporting the right of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. However, censorship has also always had a place in society, at times showing itself boldly and violently and at others seeping discreetly around us. Today, much of this censorship is magnified through the internet and as this new dimension remains novel to us, we are not fully aware of its effects.
Political correctness is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offence or disadvantage to members of particular groups in today’s society. I believe political correctness is positive, but it is a double-edged sword. In the 1950s the much adored Elvis Presley was seen as offensive as a result of his ‘inappropriate’ dancing that scandalised the American public. This led to his attempted censorship, and Elvis was truly seen as a threat to some, and overruled as dangerous.
So, who decides what is ‘offensive’? Where do you draw the line? Opinions cannot be aligned to the comfort of everybody else. They are supposed to be views or judgements formed about something, not necessarily based entirely on fact or knowledge, as individual experiences and beliefs influence them too. Up to what point is political correctness limiting social interactions? Especially when the consequences to an opinion being ‘inappropriate’ or just plainly wrong are often so disproportionate. To what extent is political correctness invading the basic necessity of debate? Many believe that some opinions ‘incite’ hatred towards causes or communities, yet, are these opinions inciting these ideas, or revealing them?
Although we supposedly live in the ‘golden age’, however democratic your country may be, a person’s words may be brought to public attention to be condemned. An example of this censoring occurred recently when Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’, ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ were to be ‘rewritten’ to suit current standards. Books now go through sensitivity readers who decide what could be offensive. Roald Dahl’s novels were revised as a result of potentially offensive physical descriptions, such as ‘enormously fat’. Some of Agatha Christie’s novels have gone through the same process because of potentially offensive language, such as insults and references to certain ethnic groups, so new editions are to be published. Literature is a product of its time, it should not be censored just because it is not agreeable to the present. What has been written, has been written. Respond to the work, talk about it, form your own judgement and interpretations but don’t censor it.
In this day and age, ‘cancel culture’ is entrapping us all in this epidemic of self-censorship, with an unsettling undertone. The firing of professors or cancelling of political commentators are events that get media attention and become responsible for the general chilling of our atmosphere. Peter Boghossian is a philosophy professor specialised in critical thinking who taught at Portland State. He said that in 2012 the university campus had a sudden ‘explosion’ of different viewpoints, therefore, he brought in speakers from diverse ideological schools of thinking into his class. Amongst other speakers, Bogossian brought Phil Vascher, the Christian cartoonist, famous for ‘Veggie Tales’, to his atheism course . Whilst there, he gave his opinion on the ‘woke campus orthodoxy’ and these two actions made him a target for the students that had been offended. He was met with a range of accusations as well as frightening threats from students, both in person and online. He fought back against these accusations to clear his name, and by September 2021 joined the University of Austin that values ‘academic freedom’. This was after having faced nearly 7 years of constant defamation and baseless accusations. Before he left he said, “Our institutions are irretrievably broken, so now I’m trying to build something new”.
Self-censorship has become contagious as it manifests itself online as well as in public denunciations via the press. During China’s communist regime, there would be public spectacles during which people accused of being “class enemies” were publicly humiliated, accused, beaten and tortured, even by people who they knew and would eventually disappear. Of course, it does not happen on this scale but today, many people disappear metaphorically. During the 20th Century, under the regimes in China and Russia, Literature and the Arts were monitored strictly and if they were not compatible with the regime’s way of thinking, the artists and authors were declared ‘political enemies’. Today, platforms are shut down, people lose their jobs and find it terribly difficult to find another. The more frightening or oppressive authoritarian regimes are, the easier it is to challenge, because you know where you stand. You would think that hushed voices in the workplace, the fear of asking the wrong questions at school, or university and the careful picking of words whilst in public were traits of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or presently of President Putin’s regime.
Today, at times it can seem as if what defines a person is solely their political ideas. The demand for censorship, that calls itself ‘political correctness’, can prevent valid and constructive criticism and the development of our thought processes, particularly as young people. In many cases, the people silenced may be deeply hateful people who are not up to listening, but a large part of the victims are not necessarily ‘bad people’. We eagerly decide to put people into boxes and do so with such ease. As the rules of ‘political correctness’ tend to be vague and in some cases follow trends, one can easily step out of line without even realising it. Perhaps some things many people say lack truth or understanding but we are all guilty of that at some point. So, to obtain more of this knowledge and develop opinions we must put them to the test, and encourage healthy debate rather than shutting opinions down.
If somebody tweets that they don’t believe in Climate Change, their job shouldn’t be at risk of he chop. It is vital to remember that challenging something is not a sign of weakness but, on the contrary, a sign of strength, as it encourages doubts to be calmed and a range of facts and perspectives to be heard. Debate encourages understanding and social interactions. It gives us a chance to listen, particularly for those who need to listen.
Digital technology companies claim to encourage freedom of speech, yet those who give their opinions are allowed to be met with threats, insults and in some cases, the end of their careers when a large number of people do not agree with them. The internet, being so strange and relatively new, ought to be handled with caution because, very frequently, we seem to forget how much it affects real life.
There should be an alternative way of facing consequences instead of being attacked so personally. Opinions should of course be unpicked, rebutted and broken down, but your personal life shouldn’t be beaten up so ruthlessly; the sense of proportion is being lost. Some opinions may hold only shreds of truth, or none at all, but everyone has the right to share them. This right does not, however, mean that the speakers are immune to criticism. Offensive opinions must be contested enthusiastically and by robustly civilised opinions in order to allow people to see all sides to the story. Otherwise, we would be mistakenly limiting ourselves to believing the loudest side as the truest. Well-rounded and educated opinions may start off being obnoxious opinions, but for this growth to occur there has to be debate.
If anything, social censure is counterproductive as, consequently, the only space of freedom becomes your mind, therefore enforcing limitations on the development of every individual and, overall, creating stagnation of thought in our society, which provides no change, and encourages intolerance. Keeping our ideas in our heads only serves to shrink and polarise them. The worn-out phrase ‘I’m offended’ used whilst in debate, erodes freedom of speech, contaminates the atmosphere with a self-censorship that evades debate. Simultaneously, it encourages like-minded people to mirror their opinions in echo chambers because these are the only places they are listened to, making constant agreement with, and even praise of your ideas something people come to expect. I don’t believe that free speech and debate is about one side ‘beating’ the other. On many occasions, it should be about the merging of two points of view. This epidemic has blurred the lines between harm and offence, as well as attacking the values of disagreement. Disagreement is an aspect of life that contributes positively; therefore, it should be protected against the silencing of discussion, which leads to the assumption of one side always being right.
Censorship is counterproductive because when opinions are banned and platforms are shut down, they are also given a glow of truth. It risks converting those accused into martyrs, and a martyr is difficult to confront. Instead of censoring these books, speeches, opinions and ideologies, they must be debated, because the goal is truth not comfort. We have become helpless to our addiction to comfort. If opinions are censored, then there are topics left undiscussed that stop us from reaching understanding and becoming fully enlightening.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the renowned Nigerian novelist, rightly stated that freedom of speech is the ‘bedrock of open societies’, as its absence leads to the extinguishing of creativity and learning. She also said that ‘bad speech’ should be responded to with ‘more speech’. Most importantly, she said, ‘We are not angels, we are human.’ One of the first things that you are taught in primary is to learn from your mistakes. How are we supposed to do this if we are not allowed to make them to begin with?
Micaela G, Year 12