One need not look far to encounter a hopelessly unproductive or hateful debate, whether on news, on social media, or ever so rarely face to face. To some, this phenomenon is a benign annoyance that can be avoided by means of disengagement or apathy. However, an increasing number of us deem it a serious problem that leads to dire consequences. Severe is our deficiency in employing rational discussion, neutralising radical ideas, and challenging orthodox modes of thought as individuals, groups, and societies. Censorship is at the heart of this pandemic.
Just over one year ago, atheist Ahmad Al Shamri was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Just like the recent case of Asia Bibi, no crime was committed and no violence incited. Rather, he condemned Islamic Prophet Muhammad on social media and paid for it with his life. Worryingly, atheists face persecution and execution in a staggering 13 countries. Execution is the most heinous form of censorship, but all forms are aiming to achieve the same goal: silencing controversial ideas being perceived as ostracising the majority.
Obnoxious methods of censorship, by which students are oppressed simply for holding minority views, can be detected on numerous college campuses in many countries, particularly the US and the UK – nations which are, ironically, supposed to be bastions of free speech. Indeed, in the UK a study found that 54 percent of universities now actively censor speech, 40 percent stifle speech through excessive regulation, and just six percent truly allow free inquiry and speech. A survey in the US found that students prefer, by a narrow margin, diversity and inclusion over free speech – 53 percent to 46 percent respectively.
College campuses are slowly becoming echo chambers and riddled with censorship. This issue should not only be acknowledged, it must be resisted by all those who value the ideal of free speech.
But what can we do to change this?
Universities are meant to be hubs of academic freedom. Indeed, the very origins of the word “university”, originating from the Latin word “universitas”, means “a whole”. Students must consider and challenge all perspectives within this whole, allowing the best ideas to develop, thereby emboldening progress. By opting for censorship, students leave room for misguided and potentially dangerous ideas to fester beneath the surface, gravely stunting progress. Open dialogue enables these perspectives to be properly challenged and ultimately debunked, even at a public level.
We should not forget that the majority of people express dissatisfaction with the way our governments operate, contending that all they do is argue, yell, and attack individuals on the other side of the aisle. College-educated youth have the opportunity to serve as a shining example of how healthy, productive discussion can break this cycle. Thus, is it not the case that there is an imperative to ensure that students be well-equipped with the invaluable tools to effectively invalidate and neutralise bigotry such as racism, homophobia and sexism? We might ask ourselves, how can young people challenge obnoxious narratives – whether that be university or the wider world – if they have been taught that narratives can only be defeated through muzzling them?
As I have learned through working at the Secular Student Alliance, we must collectively ambush censorship because it foments, inevitably, an environment that is incapable of expending real discretion. Afterall, censorship has the dire consequence of creating a legion of people who are unequipped with the tools to extol the distinction between, on the one hand, independence of thought and, on the other hand, subservience.
I recall philosopher Daniel Dennett who, in his book, Breaking the Spell, suggests that we study religion as a natural phenomenon. He suggests that the best way to take on this complicated project is through 1) rigorous, multidisciplinary scientific study; and 2) rational, open-minded, thoughtful discussion. I am reminded of this because this second point ought to be adopted on a grand scale, including all individuals, groups, governments, and societies.
In the case of my Secular Student Alliance chapter, absolutism that obstructs free speech is not tolerated. The secular humanist community is not, and never has been, an echo chamber. For example, some of my group members are pro-gun, and others are strong supporters of gun control. When debating topics such as these, we analyse evidence, speak from personal experience, learn something new from others, and reach a neutralised consensus. Although we may continue to disagree, we will still have expanded our knowledge and eradicated our ignorance of other viewpoints. If this latter point were to be prescribed as a sensible and self-correcting avenue, beneficial outcomes would surely follow.
Eloquently stated by a firebrand opposer of censorship, the late Christopher Hitchens, “There is a utilitarian case for free expression. It recognises that the freedom to speak must also be insisted on for the person who thinks differently, because it is pointless to support only free speech for people who agree with you. It is not only unprincipled to want that, but also self-defeating. For your own sake, you need to know how other people think.”