Term Post #1 : Freedom of Speech, Censorship and the Role they play in Genocide

“Language is not only a means for exposing and discerning truth, but also for stifling and misrepresenting it.”

Human beings have been around on this planet for thousands of years and from what we know of the history of the human race, murder and genocide has accompanied our existence from the very beginning. Depending on your particular viewpoint of our beginnings (whether we have been 'created' or purely evolved from one celled organisms in a primordial ooze), the first murder was either committed within the second generation of God's chosen people or the first genocide is theorized by some paleontologists/ archeologists to have occurred between early humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals back near the very beginnings of our race. The pages of written history are spattered with the blood and deaths of the innocent and those who were in the way of those in power due to race, culture, gender, religion or even misperception... and even in our modern, civilized world, we still perform crimes and acts against humanity as a whole destroying the peace and prosperity that we all long for. Over the last two hundred years as ways of communication have increased and information and news has become available to a larger percentage of the global population, historians and journalists have tried to appropriately document and report on the transgressions of government leaders and dictators. As such,these individuals are most likely to find themselves on the wrong side of governments and those in power. They are more likely to be bullied or tortured into silence, forced to help with propaganda campaigns to ensure their survival, and many are killed or imprisoned every year. In our current world, we can more easily discover these horrors and fight them, but it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that people have risked their lives throughout the human time line to try and stop human rights violations. While most we will never know due to the lack of documentation and the time that has passed, we can acknowledge and be grateful for their sacrifices and existence. For many human rights advocates, language is one of their most commonly used weapon to share information, to bring violations to light, and to strengthen others in the fight and their cause. I wish to acknowledge some of the people who have given of their time, safety and freedom to future their ideals of freedom and safety for all.

It is my intention to take this opportunity to look at how leaders and dictators use government and armies to achieve their own ends while using the law and other forms of coercion to stifle and limit dissent or challenges to their ambition. One tool that governments and those in power use to restrain communication between individuals and the population at large is censorship. This a great tool which is used to limit language and ideas that the powers that be disagree with and restrict the ability for people to speak freely about their thoughts, lives and opinions. It is through the use of censorship and the limiting of freedom of speech that dictators and leaders control large population of people who feel oppressed and dissatisfied with life... and in some cases can eventually lead to genocide.

Freedom of speech and the ability to safely express opinions and views are widely considered to be a fundamental attribute of individual freedom. In the United States, James Madison argued at the very beginning of the colonies' development that government acts restricting speech and open debate were fundamentally wrong- yet it hasn't stopped other government officials or people in authority from attempting to control or limit speech that they find difficult or unacceptable and this pattern of repression continues into our current culture. While some laws restricting speech can be seen as reasonable- laws banning hate speech or allowing criminal responsibility for some forms of speech are an example, others can be seen as restricting and limiting of speech that should be protected and allowed. Examples from 1965 and today show how some patterns of repression continue even as leaders and times change. In 1965, John and Mary Beth Tinker were told that they were not allowed to wear black armbands in school as a statement against the American interference in Vietnam; their rights to do so were affirmed by the Supreme Court later on in Tinker vs Des Moines. In 2012, a school banned their cheerleaders from using positive, religious messages on their banners.... and a court again upheld the student's rights to free speech and expression. Determining the boundaries of where free speech should be curtailed have been debated since the idea came to fruition and even laws banning certain forms of hate speech can be seen as stifling legitimate views and expressions. As Charles Levendosky once opined, “One man's hate speech is another man's political statement. And political commentary has – and should have- the highest First Amendment Protection.” John Stuart Mill, who wrote a publication titled Essay on Liberty, stated “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.” Another related tool that those in authority use to control speech and ideas that they find distasteful is censorship; the control of verbal or pictorial speech by individuals or groups or manipulating what information people can receive and share as well as keeping information secret. To have a truly open and prosperous society, individuals need to have the ability to seek, receive and give out information to others. Censorship can be in seen in small ways such as when libraries remove or ban a book so that it cannot be used by patrons due to content.... to something as big and convoluted as the internet filtering that some states impose on its citizens such as Iran and China. Used together, governments or leaders can severely restrict and limit how people interact with their community, families and other groups.... even how they feel about life and where they live and the level of fear and anxiety they feel in their daily lives. There is some evidence that over time people begin to self censor themselves which potentially suppresses not only the ideas and expressions of the individual, but also those that surround that person- family, community, etc...

Unearthing and examining the history of different countries with a focus on how limited speech and effective censorship can not only cause a 'chilling' effect on people, but also potentially lead to human rights abuses and genocide is difficult the further back in time we travel. Many written records from our past were created by the victors of wars and conquests and so all documents that were written and survive to this day (with few exceptions) were written and distributed by those in power and therefore, not necessarily truthful or accurate. Perception is everything and we gain our views, ideas, and biases from our experiences, the people around us, and our environment... which is why censorship and limiting speech works so well, as the less input we have, the less information we have to develop our views in a well rounded way. It is easier for dictators to steer our thoughts/ actions and easier to convince people of the lack of humanity in others without the full ability to question the information coming at you if what input you get in controlled and focused on the message you want people to agree with. It is this process which eventually leads to propaganda, the process of combining different forms of communication to try and influence people and groups towards one viewpoint. It usually only shares one view of the position and along with censorship, suppresses alternative views and discourages inquiries challenging the stated position. And so, many of the documents that are available to historians can be seen as propaganda or, at the minimum, a limited view of the discussed topic.... one of the reasons that history can 'change' over time as more facts or perspectives are discovered. As M.C. Beaton once wrote, “The way propaganda works as any schoolboy knows is that if you say the same thing over and over again, lie or not, people begin to believe it.” And historians can be caught up in the same web as they try to separate fact from fiction and other altering viewpoints while governments and those in power try and restrict what information is available and how it is viewed. There is some evidence that governments have in some cases destroyed or culled materials from their records and archives to keep it from potentially being viewed and dissected even in our more modern and 'enlightened' times. When confronted with censorship, historians and the everyday individual must decide whether to collaborate with the government, impose censorship onto themselves, or resist and leave themselves open to persecution. These are important viewpoints to keep in mind when studying history, large groups, governments, leaders, etc...

So, how do the combination of limiting speech and the freedom of expression lead to crimes against humanity or genocide...? There are so many examples in the course of human events to chose from (unfortunately). The examples I have chosen vary due to location, culture, and the facts. However, they also have a few things in common; those in power either didn't share important information or made specific decisions knowing the harm they would cause, people allowed themselves to become focused on the differences that they disliked in other groups, censorship and limited speech as well as the use of propaganda were used to further their desires and to attempt to limit the knowledge and discussion of the consequences of their decisions. I also specifically choose examples that I had heard briefly mentioned during my studies or my fun readings over the courses of my lifetime so that I could take the opportunity to not only learn more about the transgressions and the aftermath, but also to try and understand how they came to be. I also recognize that some of my choices are not free of controversy, that full documentation does not exist and that even the term genocide may be questioned by both scholars and the lay historian today. Therefore, the examples I have chosen are the Irish Genocide also known as the Irish Potato Famine and the Holodomar in the Ukraine.

Thoughts so far...?

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