Critical Writing and Political Censorship
By NAVID FARNIA
During the writing process, I occasionally find myself stuck between what I want to and what I should say. While I want to be completely blunt, I realize this is not the most constructive way to make a convincing argument. As a result, I usually conclude that finding a middle ground, where I am simultaneously honest and constructive, is most effective. My critical analysis grows out of this middle ground.
But my concerns are also directed outward. Outside forces certainly impact people’s thoughts and words, including my own. In public settings and situations, peer pressure to conform often predetermines the likelihood of an individual’s complicit silence.
More broadly, state ideology may also prevent people from speaking their minds. The state’s ideological apparatus outlines acceptable sociopolitical practices and beliefs in a society. In the United States for example, the state’s ideological apparatus allows for a two-party system, but political ideology that lies outside this spectrum is entirely marginalized. People who reject both the Democrats and Republicans are portrayed as deviants, radicals or even extremists.
Taking this a step further, the U.S. government’s hostility toward news outlets that publish leaks supplied by whistleblowers – information that exposes the U.S. government’s vast spying programs, for instance – exemplifies how state ideology pressures dissident people and organizations to remain silent. Recently, the U.S. and the United Kingdom threatened journalist Glenn Greenwald for publishing documents provided by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden. Censoring journalists and news organizations functions to quell speech that opposes the state ideological apparatus.
However, regardless of state ideology or even interpersonal groupthink, critical analysis begins with self-consciousness and requires that a writer or speaker is faithful and candid to her/his audience. Although the truth is at times relative, self-evident truth is universal. We all have belief systems; whether we choose to embrace it or not, ideology is real.
Individuals who reject thought and analysis in favor of doctrine reproduce state ideology. In these cases, the result is a decreased capacity for criticism. When critical thought is under attack, critical writing and speech inevitably suffer, and society is worse off.
As such, this article is less concerned with direct state censorship than with how we censor ourselves in accordance to the threat that the state and its supporters pose. Self-censorship is the greatest threat to critical thought, and it takes many forms.
Colorblindness as Political Censorship
Despite the reality that racism is a perpetually enduring oppression and is central to most political issues, discourse that centers race is entirely marginalized. In a “post-racial” society, racial dialogue is identified as a threat to social harmony.
The U.S.’s state ideological apparatus imposes this faulty conception of racism. In other words, the state enforces colorblindness (the belief that structural racism no longer exists) to maintain the structural inequalities caused by white supremacy. Thus, post-racial ideology is a byproduct of colorblindness, which means that talking about race is a challenge.
On an interpersonal level, even bringing up race in everyday conversations is difficult. Doing such a thing is perceived as deviant to the post-racial norm. This awkward or uncomfortable feeling is informed by outside social factors.
But writing about racism or initiating a conversation that explicitly examines it is even worse because these represent insurgencies against society’s supposed racial utopia. Whereas mentioning race is deviant, critical analysis of racism is an attack on white supremacy. Society insidiously labels such actions as “playing the race card” in order to trivialize articulations of racism. According to that logic, claiming racism is a reactionary tactic by simple-minded people of color who refuse to take personal responsibility.
The common stereotype against people who critically engage racism or “play the race card” is that they are malcontents or angry [insert racial group here] people who are either living in the past or are racist themselves (against white people). Society therefore ostracizes those who constructively and intelligently articulate the evils of racism, because anti-racist resistance threatens white privilege.
At the same time, well-aware privileged people (of color and white people) censor themselves to avoid being outcast and to advance their social standing. But where has not talking about racism gotten us? Colorblindness and the overall willful avoidance of racism actually further entrenches it; thus, self-censorship does greater social harm than personal good. In this sense, self-censorship reflects internalized racism for people of color and racial privilege for whites (of course, white privilege is itself racism).
For others, there is a very real and justifiable fear in talking about racism. It is true that challenging racism in a substantial way is a risky action. Nevertheless, the fear that the state ideological apparatus instills in people is itself a form of racial oppression. For this reason, fear should not stifle subversive anti-racist ideology.
Political Silence in the Age of Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama epitomizes the duality between racial sacrifice for personal gain and personal sacrifice for racial uplift. Obama, the first Black president (and generally, the first president of color), does not talk about racism. Reasons are given for this and no doubt, most view it as a self-preservation tactic.
For many Obama supporters, his racial avoidance is worthwhile, even if it is counterproductive in the overall struggle against white supremacy. The failure to hold Obama accountable largely stems from the false but prevalent perception that criticizing him translates to agreeing with the racist Republicans who incessantly lambast the president. But this logic again is trapped within the U.S.’s narrow two-party political worldview.
In this political climate, simply bashing the president without careful constructive analysis can potentially alienate writers and speakers from their audiences. However, Obama is not above criticism. We fear not being fair to Obama, but flipping this logic on its head, are we being fair to the victims of police brutality, drone attacks, mass incarceration, immigration enforcement and continual wars of aggression by remaining silent regarding Obama’s brutally militaristic policies?
Since Obama came to office, the war in Afghanistan was escalated; the prison-industrial complex has expanded; drone attacks in Asia and Africa have reached unprecedented levels; more people have been deported from the U.S. than under any administration in American history; a new war was launched in Libya (and Syria could be next); and Obama’s language toward Black people has become increasingly dismissive and condescending. There is nothing fair about such horrific policies and rhetorics.
Taking this into consideration, should we really self-censor to save Obama? Will he save us? He didn’t save [insert racial violence victim here] or [insert war victim here] or [insert drone attack victim here].
Some may also fear that being critical of Obama will diminish their own public status. However, do these fears overshadow the reality that silence regarding Obama’s increasingly racist and imperialist policies represents a tacit acceptance of his actions? Progressive to radical analysts would unify to condemn any other president, but Obama is largely excused. In truth, this is unjustifiable.
Since the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 1960’s, the U.S. has progressively become significantly more hostile toward people of color. Every president has instituted policies that undermine and debilitate these communities, particularly the Black community. Unfortunately, Obama is no exception to this trajectory, which more than anything, demonstrates the political system’s undying antagonism toward people of color.
As critical writers and thinkers, our silence is a betrayal against communities of color. It is undoubtedly a strategy of individualistic self-preservation. Today, many in the intelligentsia are more concerned with gaining a social media following, getting a TED talk or appearing on television than taking a meaningful stand against war and oppression.
Of course, this does not encompass all thinkers, but there are certainly those who value the “boot straps” mentality at the expense of their moral compasses, even if they refuse to admit it. Their silence regarding Obama’s actions epitomizes that mentality. Measuring success by such arbitrary factors that are irrelevant to the vast majority of people equates to selling out, a transformation in political ideology initiated by self-censorship.
Fearing the Security State
On the other hand, widespread self-censorship is also the result of people recognizing the state’s power and reach. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden shed light on the extent to which the U.S. government monitors people all over the world, including Americans. State surveillance is a pervasive reality in our daily lives that is unlikely to cease anytime soon.
As a result, legitimate threats create reasonable fears that inhibit critical writing and speech. Nevertheless, despite the reluctance to express criticism, silencing ourselves only reifies the security state’s expansion. If there is no substantial stand against the U.S.’s actions, nothing will stop it from continuing its policies on a broader scale.
In reality, political self-censorship is counterintuitive. Opposing systematic censorship while simultaneously failing to speak up about it may be understandable given the current political climate, but it is also an analytically self-deprecating logic.
Criticism is the very fabric of any society. Those who fear criticism the most are the people in power. They endeavor to maintain the status quo at whatever cost; this is why the security state has expanded at an unprecedented rate. Fear mongering practices are employed to mitigate critique and subsequently, resistance. Thus, lack of criticism translates to heightened U.S. militarism and exacerbated inequalities.
The Necessity of Criticism
Indeed, people self-censor to survive, and each individual draws her/his line at a different point. Some are more outspoken than others. But self-preservation is worthless when destruction surrounds us. Prioritizing individual gain and widespread acclaim over one’s own beliefs is the most dangerous manifestation of political censorship. Inevitably, compromising oneself results in aligning more closely with the state’s ideological apparatus. In effect, that individual who once opposed war and vocally objected to oppression now champions those causes through a complicit silence.
Therefore, should critique of the state and the structures that contribute to oppression ever be sacrificed for personal motives? This reality is at times unavoidable because everyone navigates the system. But when self-censorship becomes systematic and more normal than criticism, then we have to look in the mirror. In a supposedly post-racial era with a Black president who contributes to the growth of the national security state, we should constantly look in the mirror. Racism, U.S. imperialism and political censorship are all issues that presently lack substantial mass resistance. As such, this historical moment requires the robust presence of critical analysis more than any time in recent memory.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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