Is Political correctness muzzling the freedom of speech?

Satyakam Ray

According to Benjamin Disraeli, a university should be a place of light, liberty, and learning. In true regards, a liberal art and science university should uphold liberal views and academic freedom. Not so long ago, one development at the Ashoka University, a private university based in Haryana had cast doubt on the very liberal principles upon which the university is built. Two of its eminent professors resigned one after another. First to go was Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a vocal critic of the Modi government and a political analyst. In solidarity with the resignation of his dear colleague, Ex-CEA Arvind Subramanian followed suit after questioning the integrity of the founders on the academic freedom of the campus.

If we equate the incident with a mere dismissive poor show of liberal viewpoint, then we are doing grave injustice to the serious matter. In his resignation letter to the VC of the university, Mehta had written that it was made abundantly clear to him by the trustees of being a political liability for his views on the current regime’s functioning. The external pressure was from the donors of the university, who were not quite amused by the use of freedom of expression by Prof. Mehta. It is a chilling incident among the Indian university system considering it’s a curb on free speech by a university, not by some trolls on Twitter. As expected, around 100 students and colleagues had staged protests in solidarity with Mehta urging him to stay back. All the Ivy leagues like MIT, Oxford, Stanford had condemned the incident. But nothing happened after that.

Many activists, artists, political prisoners are languishing in jail just because they spoke against the govt.; UAPA and other draconian laws were framed against them.

The whole incident brought back the debate of liberalism and political correctness to a whole new level.

If we look a little deep into the concept of liberalism, it can be seen as a beacon of hope amid the backdrop of growing fascism. Liberalism is based on the concept of liberty, equality, and egalitarianism.

Liberalism champions individual rights (both civil and human rights), democracy, secularism, gender equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to practice religion. The French revolution of 1789 saw the judicious use of liberal philosophy to thwart authoritarianism.

Over time, it can be duly noted that freedom of speech is of paramount importance to liberalism. Speaking without any fear with head held high is the true benchmark of liberal democracy as envisioned by Viswaguru Tagore. Speaking one’s mind freely and analyzing the content without any prejudice, and listening to others’ viewpoints without muzzling the voice are essential features of a liberal mindset. Celebrated Author/Poet John Milton in his Areopagitica described freedom of speech as “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. According to Milton, to exercise the right to freedom of speech, everyone must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellowmen in a free and open encounter which will ultimately lead to the prevailing of good arguments.

The Indian Constitution has espoused the freedom of expression under Article 19. The right to freedom of speech and expression grants every citizen the right to express his views, opinions, belief, and convictions freely by mouth, writing, printing, or through any other methods. However, it should not affect the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or concerning contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.

Constructive criticism of government policies and analysis of the same through means of columns in newspapers/websites/social media doesn’t incite any hatred towards any individual or nation in general. On the other hand, it gives insight into a different fresh perspective and gives scope to the current authority to correct any mistakes in policy changes. Dissenting voice in the democracy is crucial as it provides the diversity the nation seeks, and it upholds the interest of the minority voiceless persons. Inclusiveness and equality of all before the law can be attained by balancing the shift in the approvals and dissents. That’s how democracy works otherwise it’s just an elected autocracy. The kings are gone by now but the elected representatives are behaving like autocratic dictators! One tyranny is being replaced by another; the only difference is that people are choosing them.

In this regard, Mehta’s resignation came as a shocker in the liberal world. Mehta’s work as a political thinker gave insights to the current regime to work on their failures and keep the interest of the general public intact. It was not tantamount to sedition in any sort. Because we live in a democracy and dissenting is part of our fundamental right. If the government comes for the witch-hunting mode to silence the critics, then that would be the death of democracy itself. To many extents, the current govt. is applying this tactic by slapping frivolous charges against the critics and the lapdog media and govt. institutions are supporting this barbarism.

In this context, an important trend comes to mind, which plays a very important role in the political conundrum. A wrong-woke culture has been placed in liberalism, which advocates political correctness. Every argument is being censored by the advocates of the philosophy according to the moral benchmark set by them. The balancing act of not taking any sides in a heated exchange between political ideologies many times stymies the voices of free speech.

The drawbacks of this ideology are listed below.

  • Advocates of this philosophy often work as the moral compass of the rest of the group. What’s right or wrong is decided by them and their opinion is forced upon others. In a way, it can be seen as a liberalized autocracy.
  • Liberalism refers to espousing freedom of expression. Politically correct left persons muzzle the dissenting voice by using censorship, which is even worse than right-wing authoritarianism.
  • If people are so thin-skinned that they can’t take criticism or constructive criticism, then it’s not the fault of the person who criticizes. Accepting own faults and working on them to improve is progressive thinking. Political correctness doesn’t ensure this thinking process. Just to be on the safer side, politically correct people take the role of onlookers and don’t report any injustice just to be safe. The truth must be upheld at any cost, not diplomacy.
  • Politically correct people are spineless to some extent. In the close quarters of their comfortable homes, these people say lots of cursed words to the authority and discuss the incompetence in detail. But when come to public writings or speeches, they censor themselves ensuring they are not booked by any draconian law by the fascist govt.

The mind begs the question- when should draw the lines between freedom of expression and political correctness? If truth is to be told, then the opinions should be politically incorrect. It’s not necessary to use any abusive words or extra-sensitize any contentious topic to criticize for the sake of it, just showing the fault lines and remedies will do the job. If anybody is getting offended by the constructive criticism then probably the person should not be in public service or politics. 

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