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 proper regard, a liberal arts and science university should uphold liberal views and Academic Freedom. Not so long ago, one development at 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 founders’ integrity on the campus’s academic Freedom.

If we equate the incident with a mere dismissive poor show of liberal viewpoint, we are doing grave injustice to the serious matter. In his resignation letter to the VC of the university, Mehta wrote that it was made abundantly clear to him by the trustees that there was a political liability for his views on the current regime’s functioning. The external pressure was from the university’s donors, who were not entirely amused by Prof. Mehta’s use of Freedom of expression. It is a chilling incident in 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 protested in solidarity with Mehta, urging him to stay back. Ivy leagues like MIT, Oxford, and Stanford condemned the incident. But nothing happened after that.

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

The incident brought the debate on liberalism and political correctness to a new level.

Looking deeper into liberalism, it can be seen as a beacon of hope amid the backdrop of growing fascism. Liberalism is based on the idea of liberty, equality, and egalitarianism.

Liberalism champions individual rights (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 paramount to liberalism. Speaking one’s mind freely, analyzing the content without prejudice, and listening to others’ viewpoints without muzzling the voice are essential features of a liberal mindset. Speaking without any fear with a head held high is the accurate benchmark of liberal democracy, as envisioned by Viswaguru Tagore. 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 Freedom of speech and expression grants every citizen the right to freely express his views, opinions, beliefs, and convictions by mouth, writing, printing, or other methods. However, it should not affect the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or concern contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense.

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

Mehta’s work as a political thinker gave insights into the current regime to work on its failures and keep the general public’s interest intact. In this regard, Mehta’s resignation shocked the liberal world. It was not tantamount to the sedition of any sort. Because we live in a democracy, dissenting is part of our fundamental right. If the government comes in 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, lapdog media, and govt. Institutions are supporting this barbarism.

In this context, a significant trend comes to mind, which plays a vital role in the political problem. A wrong-woke culture has been placed in liberalism, which advocates political correctness. The advocates of philosophy censor every argument according to the moral benchmark. The balancing act of not taking any sides in a heated exchange between political ideologies often 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. They decide right or wrong, 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 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 one’s flaws and working on them to improve is progressive thinking. Political correctness doesn’t ensure this thinking process. Politically correct people take the role of onlookers and don’t report any injustice 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 many curse words to the authorities and discuss their incompetence in detail. But when it comes to public writings or speeches, they censor themselves, ensuring any draconian law does not book them by the fascist govt.

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

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