How often have we heard that said in recent years?
From pink-haired SJWs to sombre politicians passing hate-speech laws, they all say the same thing: speech can wound and therefore we have to control it.
Censorious politicians constantly depict speech as a lethal thing, not that different from violence. That’s why so many countries have laws against “hate speech”, making it a crime to offend, demean or insult certain protected groups.
They view speech as a disease, a virus, liable to infect people’s minds and pollute their souls.
Yet now, when an actual virus is spreading around the world, when millions of people are trying to deal with a real disease, we can see that these people, not surprisingly, were completely and utterly wrong.
It isn’t words that hurt, as they have insisted for years – it’s censorship.
The COVID-19 pandemic proves that censorship is far more wounding than controversial or dissenting speech could ever be. Indeed, it isn’t going too far to say that censorship kills.
This pandemic has its origins in censorship.
Sure, the virus itself may have come from one of those weird wet markets, but the transformation of this novel virus into a global pandemic was assisted by censorship – in this case by the Chinese regime’s ruthless suppression of open discussion about COVID-19.
Not surprisingly, given that this is an authoritarian nation in which you aren’t allowed to set up a political party, express anti-regime opinions or even search for “Tiananmen Square massacre” on Google, China reacted to the emergence of COVID-19 by shutting down discussion.
It punished doctors who spoke out about the virus. The whistleblower Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, was warned by police to stop making “false comments” after he alerted some of his colleagues to a new “SARS-like virus”.
“The COVID-19 pandemic proves that censorship is far more wounding than controversial or dissenting speech could ever be.”
He was later summoned by the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan, which forced him to sign a statement confessing that he made “false statements”. He contracted Covid-19 and later died.
Ai Fen, the director of emergency services at Wuhan Central Hospital, also tried to raise the alarm. She raised concerns about a SARS-like virus back in December. And for doing that, she was reprimanded by the authorities.
The Chinese regime tried to silence broader public discussion, too.
The Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that the regime was restricting discussion on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp, as far back as the first of January. Words such as “coronavirus” and “freedom of speech” were blocked. The regime was literally silencing knowledge about a new disease.
This censorship was designed to serve one goal: protecting the Chinese regime’s reputation.
As the BBC put it, for weeks China “withheld information from the public”. It was “under-reporting the number of people infected, downplaying the risks, and failing to provide timely information that could have saved lives”.
And anyone who pushed back against this censorship, anyone who spoke out about the new virus, was punished.
Censorship literally caused deaths. In suppressing “information that could have saved lives”, China elevated its global reputation over the lives of its own citizens and others.
Even now, Chinese censorship continues. The European Union changed a diplomatic report criticising China’s handling of the virus after Chinese officials intervened and hinted at possible economic consequences if the report wasn’t altered.
Censorship hurts. In this case, it has hurt a great many people around the world.
Openness, free discussion and the publication of information is always – every single time – preferable to censorship.
Freedom of speech makes understanding possible. Censorship condemns us to ignorance. And in the COVID era, it has condemned some people to death, too.
Never again let anyone tell you that freedom of speech is dangerous.