Column: When did freedom of speech become a privilege instead of a right?

An exploration of the parallels between censorship in China and the culture of political correctness in the US.

This year marked the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 in Beijing, China. During the protests, university students took it upon themselves to call for democratic reform from the Chinese Communist Party. Following the death of Hu Yaobang, general secretary and chairman of the CCP, thousands of students gathered onto the pavement of Tiananmen Square demanding “mass democracy.” A government warning was issued to settle the crowds, which only continued to grow exponentially following Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the square.

Upset with the public’s continuous efforts of protest, government tanks and armed troops marched to Tiananmen Square, opening fire on anyone who got in the way. Many protesters voluntarily left the site by the morning of June 4 to avoid physical confrontation, but a series of shootings and other repercussions continued to take place. Moving steadily into other Chinese cities that participated in the protest, the military had forcibly gained full control of its citizens by June 5, 1989. Protestors were added to “China’s Most Wanted” list and thousands were arrested. Some were even executed. Criticized by other foreign nations, the incident of 1989 was quickly labeled a “massacre.”

This year, to honor the historical date, a series of virtual sympathies flooded the Internet over the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests during the days of June 3 and 4, only to be shielded and quickly taken down by the Chinese government. Any content seen as unsuitable for the public is censored. Chinese censorship controls every aspect of public contact from media, publishing, and instant messaging. Where is the line drawn between withholding information and erasing history?

The issue of prohibited speech was brought to attention earlier this year in January with the imprisonment of Saudi writer and activist Raif Badawi. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for his blog “Free Saudi Liberals,” advocating free speech and discussions of religion in Saudi Arabia.

Freedom of speech is highly regarded in the social structure of the U.S., built on the ideas of free speech, religion and the press. Any citizen of the U.S. has the right to free speech ingrained in their citizenship, but the validity of speaking out is being diluted by the ongoing obsession with being “politically correct However, the whole concept is being used in many places to institute surreptitious censorship to fit a particular agenda, just as is the case in China.Contemporary education has watered down history and literature for the purpose of preventing polemic disturbances. Recently the Washington Post reported that millions of schoolchildren in will will be learning about American history utilizing a social studies textbook that states the cause of the Civil War as Northern aggression against Southern states’ rights and never mentions the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow - an action eerily similar to the censorship actions taken by the Chinese Communist Party. Both these example are emblematic of institutions attempting to alter history to fit their own agendas.

A clear battle between “should not” versus “cannot” comes to the point of having the basic knowledge of being civil without prohibiting language. Even the media, an independent institution, continuously shields photographs that may be considered too graphic for the public. The idea of public consideration is respectable, but censoring reality is not the way to create social empathy.

Although “Political correctness” is an idea often associated with leftist ideology, it is not necessarily a party issue. Rather, it’s an society’s subconscious authoritarian response to what may cause discomfort to the public. Allowing an excessive amount of political correctness in our society can result in an almost Orwellian culture where citizens are afraid to speak their mind. Allowing the PC principle to continue in the 21st century can only create a nation perpetually afraid of being berated for being politically incorrect.

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