The topic of censorship has come up and been relevant in several recent heated discussions I’ve had, and I think it is a good idea to talk about it head on. There is too much confusion about what people mean when they use it to argue for or against something, and conversations are already difficult enough without this unnecessary confusion.
Most of us can agree that free speech does have its limits. At minimum, we cannot allow demagogues to literally incite violence against other people. By this I mean imminent danger, not convoluted rationalizations whereby an unreasonably sensitive person defines almost any negative criticism as equaling a call to murder. If I say Christianity is based on make-believe and that they shouldn’t be allowed to inflict theocracy on other people, that isn’t the same as saying Christianity should be actively suppressed and Christians should be harassed into submission.
But there is undoubtedly a grey area where a person can reasonably decide where the line of hate-speech/inciting violence versus abhorrent-but-permissible speech should be drawn. With respect to individuals I think the United States has the position pretty close to right. That is without getting into corporations being considered people, and corporate money being considered free speech—I’m not necessarily in agreement with that. But let us stick with individuals for now.
Distinguishing kinds of censorship
There is a difference between the government censoring you and a private entity “censoring” you by not allowing you to use their platform as a pulpit. I’m generally against the government being allowed to censor much past hate-speech that is likely to produce imminent serious harassment and/or violence. I may even disagree with a private company’s choice to censor someone, but I will most likely still support a legal right to do it.
That too is a serious point. A distinction that should be emphasized is the difference between what you think a person should be allowed to do and say by law, and what you think should be illegal for them to do and say. I may find what someone says to be abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean I think it should be illegal to say it.
For the record, I absolutely think it was the right decision for Google, Facebook, and the rest to de-platform Alex Jones.
Another type of censorship is when a private company self-censors (whether censoring itself specifically, or not allowing someone else to use their platform) because of fear that strict government rules will be used against them. In this situation the private company is technically the censor, but it is based on government pressure. To me, this situation it is little different than the government itself doing the censoring directly.
This last type is what recently happened when a book publisher pulled the plug on publishing renowned researcher James Flynn. There are laws in Britain that—likely motivated by good intentions—are overly restrictive. Because of these laws, the publisher self-censored itself and thereby censored James Flynn.
Let me be clear, I think the publisher should have the legal right to not publish Flynn’s book if it doesn’t want to. But I can still vehemently disagree with the anti-intellectual part of the publisher’s reasons for not publishing. Secondly, the British legal policies the publisher cited as tipping their decision to censorship are bad laws that should be repealed. The reasons for this censorship (both by the publisher and indirectly by the British government) highlight an area of serious public contention.
Some people believe that some facts are too dangerous to be tolerated; so dangerous they need to be censored either by law or by society. Because some heinous groups of people may misuse these facts to justify a disgusting world-view, many people believe the facts should be denied altogether. I absolutely sympathize with the motivation these people have. I completely agree that those hateful groups exist and I find their racist and/or sexist world-views equally repugnant. Indeed, I will be right there with equal rights activists (because I am one) on the front lines bringing up the historic oppression that the beliefs of sexists, racists, homophobes, Islamophobic people, and more have inflicted on vulnerable groups and minorities.
But under no circumstances is it justified to call true things false and false things true based on being afraid bad people will misuse the facts. Our attacks should always be aimed at their misuse of the facts rather than the facts themselves. We have to fight allowing ourselves to live in a world where facts are acknowledged only when convenient. The reason is because people with abhorrent intentions can do this to accomplish evil just as easily as the people with good intentions can do it in an attempt to fight evil.
The overly strict censorship laws in Britain seem, in my estimation, to be a symptom of the idea that facts can and should be denied if bad people can potentially misuse them. Worse, they seem to believe that saying even legitimate criticisms should also be censored if they make somebody uncomfortable. Criticism such as against religious beliefs. The Ralph Waldo Emerson quote comes to mind where he says, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
For the record I will mention that I think private universities in the US should have the legal right to succumb to this toxic idea and de-platform people whose ideas they think have the potential to make other people uncomfortable. I just strongly think they shouldn’t; that doing such things will lead to much more harm than good in the long run.