Part 1: The Case
George Orwell warned of the power of repressed speech and the rise of Big Brother in 1984. Yet today, in a culture of ‘woke’ values and virtue signalling, in times of cancel culture, the true sense of it becomes apparent. It is not the government but the ability for social media to control access to the digital commons that is at the heart of censorship in the twenty-first century. The development of new technology and the printing press opened up opportunities for change.
The advent of humanism in the fourteenth century introduced an intellectual atmosphere targeted at the emancipation of reason. With the innovation of the printing press, enlightened knowledge could move forward, and ideas became widespread. The reaction to it involved the introduction of legal controls and constraints designed to restrict access to print media. The Roman Sea instituted the index of banned books, which incorporated Galileo’s Dialogues until 1835.
Today society has transgressed from authoritarian and aristocratic control into the oligarchy of social media corporations. The new oligarchs control the public commons, and it is such new tyrants who place the rules on society. In 1512, Savonarola stirred the masses to fuel the vitriolic movement of the Piagnoni. Now, the leviathan of social media controls the masses more completely—and controls the printing press.
In a series of ideological purges reminiscent of Lucilio Vanini in Toulouse (1619), social media has virtually ripped the tongues out of people taking away their voice and silencing rational discussion. Following the historically inaccurate promotion of concepts by the Black Lives Matter movement, the right to free speech has been curtailed. In 2017, Professor Bruce Gilley published an article in the Third World Quarterly titled “The Case for Colonialism” (2017).
Gilley was subsequently accused of poor scholarship, faced threats of violence and death threats and had people trying to force the university that employs him to have him fired. The article was withdrawn from publication. The reason was simple. Gilley dared to provide a positive case for colonialism and Empire. A petition against the publication of the article called the views reprehensible (Patel, 2017). Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed (2017) reported that some people called the article clickbait and others that it was poor scholarship. As Flaherty notes, retraction is replacing rebuttal when it comes to unpopular research.
Sarah Hebel (2017) observes that the journal editors state that they removed the paper due to threats of violence. Yet, other editors on this publication, including Noam Chomsky (in Fog, 2018), have said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Yet, to claim the need to fight to ensure that even those we despise have a right to speech and then not to fight the habit published in a journal that you are the editor is disingenuous.
Equally, the feminist Germaine Greer has experienced censorship (BBC) after years of seeking to censor other authors herself (Heawood, 2010). So, the world is changing so that even those who used to call for the censorship of many ideas they disagree with while seeking to shock the public are themselves facing the brunt of political correctness. When reviewing the case of Gilley, it is necessary to note the introduction to his paper. It states, “For the last hundred years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. Colonialism has virtually disappeared from international affairs, and there is no easier way to discredit a political idea or opponent than to raise the cry of ‘colonialism.’”
The problem is that such an argument fails to meet standard tests of rationality. In stating that colonialism is terrible without defining any aspect of colonial systems and comparing different empires and cultures, the argument fails to the fallacy of composition and tu quoque amongst other problems. Cope and Kalantzis (1997) provide a critical analysis of the start of the debate concerning political correctness and the use of the Western canon in education. They note the incredible range and diversity of ideas and concepts and how liberal thought has developed through the Western world.
English literature and the Western canon sustain the concept of arguably some of the greatest history books. Gibson’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, and Alfred North Whitehead’s An Introduction to Mathematics all form part of the core of the Western canon. As such, it can be seen that English literature is not merely fictional stories or even the plays of William Shakespeare and the books of T.S. Eliot. Instead, English literature is away genre embracing a field that can encapsulate ideas in many forms. Pyke (1947) has provided a solid argument detailing how English historical writing is best looked upon as a literary endeavour.
The National Association of Scholars has reprinted this article by Gilley. The article is republished, and the controversy has led to many people who would never see the article having read it. There are aspects of the article that could be rebutted, and there are others that are definitively correct. However, to attempt to quash free speech does not, as can be seen, stop speech but merely stops discussion.
Not all academics support the Western canon. Hickey and Austin (2011) argued for the inclusion of indigenous systems in knowledge. In arguing that other forms of thought need to be introduced to extend modern (Western) science, the authors failed to understand that there are no such things as multi-logical ways. Science is not an ideology but a method. This very illogical process attempts to introduce cursory concepts of scientific knowledge that the authors don’t understand as an explanation for the arts that demonstrates the very nature of why rational discourse needs to happen and why such approaches fail.
In arguing that they cannot be a universal truth and that all truth is relative, the authors fail to understand the responses to relativism that have been provided by Plato, Aristotle and Democritus (Lee, 2005). These very authors who state that we should censor ideas fail to understand that it is the very liberal system developed through Western concepts of argument and debate that has allowed them to have their ideas in the first place.
Summary of Issues
Without the ability to discuss and refute ideas, knowledge of the truth would not be possible and modern society would not exist.
History is literature (White, 2003). Much of the Western canon incorporates factual works and the foundations of rational thought and modern society (Bloom, 2014).
Society has the freedom to argue for human rights stems from a Western liberal concept of freedom. To restrain such a position limits the ability of the authors who are arguing to maintain their justifications and build a just society.
As Biggar (2020) demonstrates through both a utilitarian perspective and a Burkean position, while natural moral rights do not exist, legal rights can be justified by natural morality. The requirement discourse and discussion between individuals defined the nature of rights.
Part 2: Analysis and Recommendations
In analysing the consequences of locking free speech, we need to consider all aspects of the debate. Those who have their speech curtailed are likely to feel less confident speaking and discussing their opinion in the future. This in itself is a form of harm. The discussion is not one of absolute free speech. There are no rights to falsities or to make up information to intentionally harm another.
From the utilitarian perspective, John Stuart Mill noted that where an author or speaker incites others into violence, they should be bound under the consequences of their actions. Under Mill’s principle of harm, the speaker would be allowed to act unless they are harming somebody else. The harm being mentioned is a direct harm and not merely being offended because you do not like what is being discussed. Mill was a consequentialist and, accordingly, sought to be bound and bind others based on the best long-term outcomes provided to society.
To the consequentialist, it is important to allow others to voice their views even if they are offensive. Where people are allowed to voice their opinion, even those views that are immoral can be displayed, allowing society to know how others feel and also to achieve the greatest opportunity of discovering what is true (Mill, 1998). There are limits to all knowledge, and none of us is infallible. As Mill noted, the silencing of discussion is the assumption of perfection.
Taking the perspective of Aristotle, the introduction of virtue ethics allows us to consider what we are about to say before we say it and whether this will lead to the best outcomes for society cause harm to others. Of course, the structure of virtue ethics is designed to improve ourselves and cannot focus other people on not harming society. Yet, the question is also focused on the long-term harm to society that may be created through the oppression of the truth.
In a section on the case for recolonisation, Gilley notes how imperialism can remain necessary even if it’s politically incorrect. Through this, he seeks to investigate whether the implementation of a colonial system of rule is better for the majority of the population or for the population over time. Such questions cannot be answered unless they are asked. In merely stating that people are being exploited, the question is being begged about how they are being exploited if the cost of colonialism is greater for the imperial company than the people who are gaining benefits.
The collapse of the British Empire did not happen merely because the British were no longer able to exploit the people in nations such as India. Instead, the collapse of these colonial nations occurred because of the expense to the people in England. As Gilley explains, the RAMSI program resulted in a $2 billion outlay directly payable by the Australian taxpayers. As soon as the Solomon Islands and started calling oppression and using anticolonial tropes, the Austrian government of people were more than happy to remove all of the colonial administration that was put in place to support the islanders.
This begs the question that needs to be asked. If colonial powers are exclusively exploiting the people, but they govern, why was the Australian government expending substantial amounts of money that would amount to roughly the annual health and education budget for the capital Canberra or the equivalent of a year’s economic output for each of the people living on the Solomon Islands? Yet, these questions are not asked if discourse cannot occur. If we silence people and do not allow them to discuss ideas that we may find politically incorrect, the question needs to be asked about how we would ever grow as a society.
In any analysis, whether deontological, consequential or virtue ethics-based, it becomes impractical to find a valid argument as to why academic questions cannot be posed. Without the ability to ask and acquire, we assume a position of impotence that hides the ignorance all societies bear.
Part 3: Final Recommendation
The ‘woke’ position of arguing that an author should not have a right to have a voice undercuts the value of liberal society. Without the ability to argue all aspects of societal values, it becomes impossible to determine the contradictions, leading to an impasse. Without the ability to engage in rational, logical discourse, there is no methodology of finding what society finds right or wrong. In a world where individuals are forced into silence, ideas move underground.
The only valid methodology to address ideas that are not liked or are considered offensive should be to provide a rebuttal. If the concepts presented by an author are hateful or insulting, the best approach is not to quash them and force those with such views into the shadows but rather to discuss the ideas and concepts openly. When an idea is flawed, it will have a foundation built on logical fallacies and erroneous concepts. Even when an idea is logically correct somehow, it may be possible to demonstrate to others the results and, where people see that it is problematic, to understand why the concept is wrong.
In work by Gilley, a case is presented concerning the need to weigh up and review the different forms of Western colonialism. The reader is invited to explore such concepts without falling into personal incredulity or the fallacy of composition. Gilley presents arguments based both on virtue ethics and utilitarian values that demonstrate that there are questions to be asked about any societies. From there, it may be possible for some forms of colonialism to benefit the majority of people in certain societies.
Gilley does not merely say that colonialism is proper, but asks those opposed to colonialism why colonialism is bad. In itself, it is a question that needs to be asked. To quash the author asking a question is to leave unexplored failures to an argument that can easily be critiqued through further exploration. It is only by asking the difficult questions that we can get complicated answers. Consequently, to bury our proverbial heads in the sand and refuse to admit that such questions exist is not to solve the problem but to merely push it underground, where it festers.
In seeking to ban authors, those engaging in such behaviour express as much or more bigotry and narrow-mindedness as those they accuse of intolerance. When an idea has flaws, the rebuttal of the idea can demonstrate to other people why it was wrong. Equally, very few ideas are entirely wrong. It is only through the sharing of information and the open discourse that we allow ourselves to engage in conversation, just as iron sharpens iron, so those in the conversation sharpen one another (Proverbs 27:17). In disregarding common knowledge and seeking to abandon logical concepts that have been well evaluated, we do so at the detriment of our development. Doing so allows the isolated person to hone their skills, but not the person who is the censor.
Academic concepts should be allowed to be freely discussed. This does not extend into fraud and falsehoods. Further, an open discussion has never included libel and slander. As such, the bounds of open discourse are well known and defined, and should not be restricted.
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