The Dangers of Restricting Knowledge
Einstein famously said that the “blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth”. Though accepting an authority without critical evaluation is easy, it can be a destructive barrier to the ability to think rationally.
When citizens obey blindly, they fall in an alluring trap, where they are manipulated to the likings of the authority. Despite citizens being ensured their freedom, “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”, those in power take cunning measures to maintain their power and to make good use of their people. Therefore, once people stop criticizing, they relinquish their opportunity to gain knowledge. By looking at examples in literature and history, it is evident that restricting knowledge is a great threat to freedom.In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the author aims to convey the idea that manipulating the freedom to think is powerful enough to manipulate freedom itself.
One such example is the implementation of a new language, known as ‘Newspeak’. The greatly simplified language acts as a tool of maintaining power by allowing the central authority to exert greater control over how the citizens think. By eliminating vocabulary and allowing only certain approved words to be used, the authority is successful in eliminating the desire for freedom. In today’s society, laws are enforced, making it difficult for authorities to have such domineering power. However, parallels can still be drawn as the misuse of the English language seen in the politics and media world resembles the intents of ‘Newspeak’. Regarding the current political correctness war, journalist, David Kupelian, states “PC is, strictly speaking, a totalitarian philosophy”.
Despite the fact that many people simply consider political correctness to be an effort to replace offensive words with euphemisms, Kupelian fears that it has “hijacked virtually our entire language in the last couple of generations, redefining many key words, phrases and concepts, changing not only the words we use, but the way we think”. For example, the act of confiscating through means of threat or force can be justified as “social justice”, when in reality, “injustice” would be a more accurately term to depict the situation (West). According to Kupelian, the politics world is rapidly approaching the Orwellian society, in which key political and cultural concepts represent the opposite meaning (Swallow). These connections reveal that both ‘Newspeak’ and political correctness are an assault on the freedom of the human mind. Only permitting the use of certain words allows sensitive issues to be blurred, therefore avoiding possibilities of criticism. As the citizens have no way of knowing the truth, it is obvious that these actions aimed at reducing knowledge is a critical threat to freedom.
Similar examples of controlling the citizen’s thoughts can be found in modern day China, which is known for having one of the strictest censorships in place. This large scale censorship is crucial for the government to remain in control and manage its large population. Gary King, a Professor in Government at Harvard University has researched the extents of the censorship in China and concludes that it is the”most extensive attempt to selectively censor human expression ever implemented.” (King).
In doing so, the Chinese government makes effective use of its protective system, known as the Great Firewall. While the system at its inception in 1998 consisted of a straightforward filtering mechanism, which simply blocked certain foreign websites, it has developed to great extents over the last decade. Despite carrying out a large scale censorship, the Great Firewall succeeds in making the censorship appear subtle. For example, instead of blocking entire foreign websites, only certain pages within the website may be restricted. In some cases, justcertain passages, considered harmful, are deleted from a foreign newspaper article.
Such intricate form of censorship is possible because of the cooperation between the central government and private enterprises (Chen et al). As internet companies are sent a list of restricted keywords on a regular basis, it is possible to filter search engines to cut out sensitive topics across a wide range of media including newspaper articles, blogs, and videos. King approximates that there are close to 100,000 people employed to monitor and police the internet activities in China (Stout). Furthermore, to accommodate for the unstable economic and political affairs in recent years, the central government has formed an army of paid internet commentators, known as the ’50 Cent Party’. Private citizens are hired to manipulate public opinion by posting pro-government messages.
By doing so, the government aims to steer online discussions away from sensitive topics and further establish its position as the central leader. Consequently, despite the common belief that any information can be found on the Internet, this is not always possible due to the government’s actions explained above.As this nation has such a large population consisting of people with myriad backgrounds, the government does not have enough power to manage a large rebellion. By restricting certain information, China succeeds in placing road blocks across the Internet to prevent the spread of information, hence reducing the chances of collective action. This serves to remove any catalysts that may cause the people to have desires for freedom.
On the other hand, some may argue that restricting knowledge is necessary because criticism is not only harmful to the existing conformity, but can also be dangerous as it often requires people to break rules. While this may be true, it is important to understand the intentions behind a seemingly treacherous act. In fact, criticism often allows people to reanalyze manners from a new perspective. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agent (NSA) contractor, became an international fugitive when he revealed secret NSA documents, raising questions regarding the transparency of US surveillance programmes. In May 2013, Snowden left his home in Hawaii, travelling to Hong Kong where he leaked the documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Snowden’s revelations were significant because they revealed that the US intelligence community were involved in warrantless mass surveillance both domestically and internationally, greatly violating the citizens’ privacy. Among Snowden’s many revelations, one that brought most fear among people was the story that the telephone company Verizon was providing NSA with customers’ phone records without consent (Kerr). Following this incident, privacy advocates immediately challenged the legality of the surveillance program in court. Regarding the case, Judge Richard Leon states, “The almost-Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979”. Not surprisingly, Snowden was faced with charges incurring a maximum prison sentence of thirty years.
Although he can no longer see his family or return back home, Snowden says, “the things I’ve received personally and what we’ve all benefited from publicly, make it all worth it”. He may have used harmful means in criticizing the US surveillance program, but it was necessary in order to make the citizens aware that their freedom was being violated without consent.”Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”, Winston Churchill once said.
The dangers of the absence of criticism lies in the lack of conscience. Even when their freedom is being violated, citizens have no way of being aware of this without the existence of criticism. Due to its display of superiority, the authority may seem like it is “correct” and that there is no reason to disobey, but being critical at all times is essential to protecting freedom.