Why we need to stop using the word “Inquisition” lightly

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Hello everyone! Welcome to the first week of my new column, where I zero in on a topic from history and explore why it matters to us in the present day. This week, as I’ve seen the Inquisition referenced in multiple recent articles, I’d like to talk about why it’s a more sensitive subject than some people may realize. 

So first off, there was no singular event or institution that can just be labeled as “the Inquisition,” as the word refers to many operations set up in Catholic jurisdictions around the world from the 13th century until right before the 20th. Some of these operations were run directly by the Papal States, but others were run by rulers of a region, and this second type includes the “Spanish Inquisition,” set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Castile at the end of the 15th century, which is what most people think of when the word is used. The Spanish Inquisition court presided over a time defined by the oppression of non-Catholics, as the king and queen pushed harshly for a unification of the entire territory under one religion. Islamic peoples, who had once prospered on the Iberian peninsula, were pushed further and further south until their last stronghold in Granada fell and they were fully forced from the region. Jewish people that had been allowed to live under Muslim rule were also forced out, as the Catholics did not practice the same policies of tolerance. Anyone not Catholic that remained after this year either converted, pretended to convert or was executed by the court. 

Another horrible stain on history related to Inquisition is the effect it had on the progress of society. As word of the atrocities committed by the court spread across Europe, radical thought was suppressed just as much as religious variance. Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this was the story of Galileo Galilei, a man who furthered the ideas of Nicolas Copernicus and proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. While history is lucky enough to remember him for this, the man died a slow death serving under house arrest after being forced to recant every word he’d uttered or written on the matter. 

Thousands of people were tortured or executed by the Inquisition, and society as a whole suffered greatly in many ways because of it, so watering its meaning down is simply disrespectful. In the modern day understanding, the court setting may create a vision of legalized censorship when the Inquisition is brought up, but that just does not do justice to what it was. A similar case comes from how people in modern times frequently throw out the phrase “witch hunt,” a term referring to other times religion was used to systematically murder people. Neither of these terms should be used without considering the pain and the massive effects that Inquisitions and witch trials had on society. 

Recently, the Inquisition has been referenced multiple times by UConn students to refer to a fear that free speech is being suppressed for some groups on campus, and I can absolutely ensure without a shadow of a doubt that if this suppression truly does exist, there is no need to bring up a topic that barely relates at all. If there is any truth that people are being pressured to not speak about their beliefs, it is surely not because of a fear they will be executed, tortured or forced to recant; this fear comes from within, and from a fear of not being accepted by the public. Well unfortunately for those people, the freedom of speech comes with the caveat that no one is required to agree with the free speech that exits their mouths, and if this speech happens to be offensive in nature, those who are offended are free to explain why, and to act accordingly. 

I’ll end as I began, please consider what you’re actually referencing before you compare something to a human atrocity, and I guess the one question I’ll ask those who have been writing recently: is your free speech so suppressed if you’re able to state your opinion so publicly in a school newspaper? 

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