Arts, Column

Emerson: Artist Ai Weiwei’s Remarks Concerning Censorship Require Your Critical Reflection on Liberal Education.

A contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, known for openly criticizing the Chinese government for anti-democratic and human rights practices, has recently argued Western censorship is the equivalent of, if not worse than, Mao’s China. 

I believe his statements raise a greater issue about free speech and censorship that concerns this generation’s participation in critical thinking and a post-truth world, meaning a world in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on emotions rather than facts. 

During preparations for an upcoming show in London, Weiwei stated the Lisson Gallery delayed the opening in reaction to statements he made back in November about the Israel-Hamas war. In early February, Weiwei explained he believed this delay pointed to a greater issue of censorship in the West, which purportedly “celebrates” free expression and speech. 

“In the context of censorship in the West, there was a prevailing illusion that the West embodied greater freedom of speech and press, portraying itself as a society with minimal censorship,” Weiwei said to The Art Newspaper. “Yet, I believe that censorship persists wherever there is power.”

Censorship is defined according to the Oxford English Dictionary as the suppression of media that is considered “obscene.” Weiwei’s reaction to the cancellation of his show may have seemed like a dramatic and spiteful act. 

But the more I thought about it, I realized that, similarly to my previous article about cancel culture and justification for supporting the arts, the real issue relates to something I’ve been learning at Boston College.

In my psychology classes, I’ve started to learn about critical thinking in a post-truth era, something I’ve found particularly applicable to my overall education at BC. As I enter the adult world, I’ve realized that navigating a post-truth world demands forming opinions and discerning truth through objective facts, rather than relying on emotional appeals or personal beliefs.

When it came to Weiwei’s comments, I realized they scared me. I’ve always known free speech to be one of the trademarks of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and I’m sure it’s the same for many of my peers. 

That being said, I’ve never taken the time to critically reflect on where free speech may be limited by cultural and social norms, confirmation bias, and the interest of “political correctness” in the media. I’ve realized I see the interaction of these issues happening daily, not only on social media, but through the news, TV shows, and books I consume. 

Additionally, after hearing Weiwei’s criticism of all of Western culture, I realized this topic is sensitive, but also prevalent in our lives as educated individuals. I immediately thought about the article sent to my inbox from The Heights a few weeks ago, concerning BC’s lowest possible ranking in free speech policy

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the issue of free speech and censorship hits close to home. 

I think both Weiwei’s and FIRE’s assessment should come as a shock to most BC students, especially because we are encouraged by our liberal education to think critically and examine multiple perspectives to gain a full understanding of our world as young adults. 

The most dangerous aspect of Weiwei’s assertion was that this censorship is occurring quietly. The idea that our intake of information, art, or media is somehow altered in an easily overlooked way is discomforting. 

I think his concern serves as a warning sign that should make the ears of critical thinkers—not just students and professors in academia, but artists, directors, authors, and musicians—around the Western world perk up. It should also serve as a sign that discussion is required.

It’s also our responsibility as the next generation entering a post-truth world, where both censorship and free speech are being contested, to preserve some sort of tolerance for the “obscene.” 

Hate speech and offensive language excluded, I think we often react with deeply personal feelings and emotions to ideas, opinions, and pieces of media that shock us. Weiwei reminds us that eliminating such shock can suppress opportunities for discussion. 

Some questions I believe critical thinkers need to ask are: Do I see censorship in my communities, both locally and globally? Where do I see censorship? How can it be recognized? How, in a world of extremes and free digital information, am I able to determine truth from fact? How can I acknowledge both my own bias and the bias of the information source?

These questions confront every bit of media we consume as students and citizens in a post-truth world. This includes what we see in movies, TV shows, works of fine art, on X, on Instagram, and even in our college classes. 

Artists often become successful for their controversial and unique perspectives that offer some sort of social commentary. Whether you agree with a piece of information or not, I promise there’s something to gain from engaging with opinions you do not agree with. 

Weiwei’s remarks compel us to reassess our understanding of free speech and critically examine the limitations facing us today. They also underscore the importance of confronting discomforting ideas and creating open dialogue to prevent the suppression of diverse perspectives, and maybe broaden our own in the process.

March 14, 2024