Free Speech and the Consequences of Suppression

Diego Horisberger, Staff Writer '19

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Free thought is a foundation for many things, such as the expression of art, literature and journalism itself . Without it, we would be making a grave mistake, and be opening the doors leading to the suffering of many. In the most extreme of forms, it has been shown various times during the 20th century. Totalitarian governments arose, the USSR and Nazi Germany being the two most prevalent. These governments, as well as others of the 20th century relied on the suppression and manipulation of speech. Yousef Hindy’s essay, published by the Stanford Freedom Project called, The “Terrible Simplifiers” of Totalitarianism: How Certainty Can Ruin a Population states that, “one of the most important developments in terms of curtailing the freedom of the populace came in the form of restricting freedom of speech and information”. The methods in which they restricted freedom of speech and information were plentiful. In its more extreme methods, authors like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were sent to the gulag camps during the regime of the USSR for criticizing Stalin. These camps were known for inducing hard labour and inhumane practices. For example, In Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago, which talks about the Soviet Union and the gulag camps that surrounded the country, he talks about one of the ways prisoners were interrogated and punished stating, “The bedbug-infested box has already been mentioned. In the dark closet made of wooden planks, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bed bugs, which had been allowed to multiply. The guards removed the prisoner’s jacket or field shirt, and immediately the hungry bed bugs assaulted him” (Solzhenitsyn 52). He then goes on to say, “But after several hours he weakened and let them drink his blood without a murmur”(Solzhenitsyn 53). In Nazi Germany, authors like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway, were banned to read during the Nazi occupation of Germany, the books they they had written were also burned. Amongst these, distortion of ideas also occurred. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who is arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, stated in his book Modern Man in Search Of A Soul that “No language exists that cannot be misused. It is hard to realize how badly we are fooled by the abuse of ideas”. This statement is true with “the Degenerate Art Exhibition” (or Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst” in German), which was hosted in Munich, Germany on November 1937. These were pieces of art that were not in compliance with the nazi ideology, and the plan was to put artistic movements such as modern art in poor light, and degrade them entirely. Words like “Jewish,” “Degenerate,” and “Bolshevik” were also used to label these art compositions in a negative way, according to the Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Totalitarianism has also crushed individuality, since its primary focus is that of a collective. This is shown by an “us vs them” ideology, which employed scapegoats. In the Nazi ideology the scapegoats were mainly the Jews, amongst various other types of minorities like the Gypsies and homosexuals. In Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf he described the Jews as people “who were corrupting the nation”. In the Soviet Union the scapegoats were that of the rich, commonly referred to as the bourgeoisie. Vladimir Lenin stated at the end of one of his writings titled Comrade Workers, Forward To The Last, Decisive Fight! which was published in January 17th, 1925 stated that the kulaks, which were peasants wealthy enough to own land as “those bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who batten on famine”. As a result people lose their individuality as both side of the “us vs them” ideology are reduced to a single label, rather than the overall complexity of an individual. The essay The Terrible Simplifiers of Totalitarianism: How Certainty Can Ruin a Population furthers this idea, stating that “Someone subscribing to any dogma immediately limits him or herself as they are choosing a framework of truths that does not allow for any flexibility” also stating that “the totalitarian government intends to eliminate any semblance of the individual and freedom of choice”. On top of all this the results of such ideologies can make the people go into what is deemed as a herd mentality, where people behaviors and actions conform to that of a group to which they see fit. Tamara Avant, who’s a psychology program director at South University elaborates on the subject in the schools publication, South Source “When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity”. With this totalitarian government could theoretically dismiss anything a person says as part of a scapegoat.

What can be most taken from 20th century history and the advent of totalitarian doctrine within it is that characteristics of it can still be seen. For example, in 2017 Evergreen State College in Seattle Washington planned “Day of Absence” where white students and faculty take a day off of campus. Typically the “Day of Absence” was an event hosted at the university where people of color took the day off at campus to show the importance of those who were gone during the event. However in an email chain biology professor Bret Weinstein questioned the new structure for the “Day of Absence” event, he states in the email that “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles, and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” he then begins to clarify “The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, cripping to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself”. From this he decided to not participated in the event, and was faced with backlash from the students. The situation was captured on video (video here, and the New York Times article that linked it), where it depicts him with a crowd of students. In the video Bret Weinstein states “There is a difference between debate and dialectic” where he then was interrupted by the crowd of students. He then goes on to say “wait a second – debate means you are trying to win, dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I am not interested in debate I am interested only in dialectic, which does mean I listen to you and you listen to me”. The student crowd then retorted “we don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion you have lost that one”. This event resulted into “literal anarchy” as the professor puts at a meeting with the Board of Trustees of Evergreen State College. Describing the protester’s occupation of the campus and school president’s office (video here, and the New York Times article that linked it). Some students even felt afraid of voicing their opinions, as showed by VICE, who conducted an interview with students from the college. “I’m afraid of having a nuanced opinion because I’m afraid that my opinions and I will be stigmatized.” says Kirstin, one of the students from Evergreen. She then continues “So I feel that I do not have the ability to speak, if I have disagreements with the methods that are being used in the protests”. This event at Evergreen shows a very grim picture, as it shows the effect of what can happen in a mob mentality. The overall rejection of hearing other opinions is very similar,although not to the extremity of totalitarian governments, it has similarities of foundational totalitarian thought.

Around November 20th, 2017, Lindsay Shepard, a TA at Wilfrid Laurier University showed her class two clip of a television debate, who showed two University of Toronto professors who gave opposing views on the use of gender-neutral pronouns. One of the professors in the clip was Jordan Peterson, who has been gained attention over his refusal to accept a controversial bill called “Bill C-16” in Canada. Shepard presented the clips neutrally in an effort to stimulate the discussion in a communications class about how language can affect the lives of everyday people. Shepard was then reprimanded later with her supervisory professor who told her that “students had complained about the video and that it had created a “toxic” environment for transgender students” according to an article from the Times Higher Education, a magazine focusing on news relating to higher education. She then had secretly recorded the meeting, which has gained attention from the media and the internet, you can see the recording on various video/audio sharing platforms such as Soundcloud or YouTube. However, Deborah MacLatchy, the President of Wilfrid Laurier University written in a statement that “In fact, the meeting never should have happened at all. No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video.” when hiring an “external fact-finder” as stated in the article. Whatever opinions one may has on this, it is evident that this poses an interesting discussion on speech and authority.

From these examples of the rise of totalitarianism/collectivist ideology in the 20th century, we can come to a conclusion that the denial of speech can harm people, since there is no way one can limit it without some kind of force. Examples shown such as the suppression of speech like book burnings, inhumane punishments from disagreement of thoughts, and labeling as a form of scapegoats. As a result the suffering of millions happened. While there are opinions people can disagree on it is important to engage in a dialogue and debate, not doing so can lessen a person’s exposure to the world. In a confusing time where there is a hyperinflation of information on the internet and elsewhere, it is important to remain critical of viewpoints. Since people in high school are the most likely to influence the future later on in the world, it is important remain informed in the world. Denying the opportunity of sharing thoughts would be a grave mistake.

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