Meditations on Cultural Libertarianism: Censorship

Censorship is always a contentious topic and in the video above Ms Southern makes a point I’ve been making for some years now, that censorship is not limited to governmental action and that acts of social censure often end up being enforced by the government in the end anyway. Take Gail Dines’ anti-pornography initiatives, now being strong-arm enforced in the UK thanks to the Conservative government drawing strength from her actions, or look at how entry to the UK (and Australia) has been denied to the rap/hip-hop artist Tyler the Creator on dubious grounds, in no small part due to pressure from feminist groups.

Before we go on, though, it’s necessary to define censorship. People who want to censor, tend to claim that an act of censorship can only come from the government. This seems to me to be an odd definition since the office of censor originated theologically, and we also talk about issues like ‘self censorship’. It also seems absurd not to call the threats of death and violence to cartoonists over the Muhammed issue censorship.

The ACLU has a more up-to-date definition:

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

They also caution on problems with pressure groups, boycotts etc, which can become dangerous. I strongly suggest reading the whole item.

Let’s take censorship out to its complete extension then, censorship is:

Anything that suppresses, controls or constricts free expression.

The next important point to get across then, is that censorship is not necessarily, inherently, bad. Sometimes there can be valid reasons to constrict free speech – and I say this as a free expression radical. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes, including this one.

Contextually it may be better not to tell your wife she looks fat in that dress. It may be better not to expose very young children to images of torture, abuse and dismemberment. It may be better not to allow someone to sell pictures of grown adults having sex with children, and so on.

So given censorship is not an inherent evil, how do we navigate when it is, or is not, justified (which is the real argument around censorship)?

  • Does it do real harm?
  • What is the context?
  • What is the cost/benefit?
  • Is it avoidable?

The most important aspect here would be the Harm Principle of JS Mill.

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Which is to say that the only true justification for the exercising of any power over others, including censorship, is if it prevents harm, if it is for the greater good individually and collectively.

When we ask ‘does it do real harm?’ we are asking a scientifically answerable question and the truth is, simply, that for most forms of expression there is little or no evidence that it really does – unless it exists in a monoculture. A diversity of opinion allows for what one might consider harmful viewpoints to be challenged and debunked and for new ideas and thoughts – however controversial the source – to circulate.

Expression, then, should not be impeded without being shown to be harmful. The problem we run into here in society right now is that so much activist oriented and funded research is rubbish, as is a great deal of privately funded research – telling people what they want to know.

When we ask ‘what is the context?’ we are determining whether any such control or censorship might be limited, or whether we may allow some things at some times and not at others. We might allow something for adults which we don’t allow for children, for example. In a febrile atmosphere of racial tension we might constrict speech along those lines, more than we might during times of greater peace (even racists, on both sides of the colour divide, have a right to free speech normally).

What is the cost/benefit is an interesting question. There may be some forms of speech, such as the aforementioned racist speech, which have attached costs and benefits, the benefit being that allowing it defines us as a free society and guards against the stifling of other speech via spurious accusations of racism (such as calling criticism of Islam racist). The cost is that it can allow hate to spread and bad ideas to take root (though the best solution to this is generally more and better speech).

The last question is a relatively new phenomenon. Is the expression avoidable? There is, I think, a fundamental difference between a man shouting sexist abuse in the street and the same man doing the same thing on social media. You can ignore, but you cannot ‘remove’ the man shouting in the street without invoking the force of the state. On Twitter, Facebook or similar you can simply block him and he will vanish from your existence.

That’s active media, but what about things such as television, radio and so forth? There you can simply choose not to consume the expression. You can choose not to buy it, not to watch it, to change the channel or to close the book. There it’s even easier – even on broadcast media – and there’s even less reason for restriction.

What about billboards or public advertisements? Two reasonable recent incidents involve those, one a helpline that painted all men as abusers and which was protested by New Fathers for Justice (IIRC) and the other Protein World’s fitness-prompting posters which were said to be misogynistic and fat shaming. Both are unavoidable, but the ‘harm argument’ is not particularly strong in either case, and better met with more speech – in my opinion.

The overall point, which I hope I’ve made clear, is that constricting speech is only really excusable in those instances where harm can be directly shown and, to be even more abundantly clear, that means actual harm. Not hurt feelings, not offence, but actual, lasting harm backed by compelling evidence that this is the case.

Enforcing moral or ideological censorship, purely on the basis of personal objection, cannot and should not be possible and even people with ideologically opposing beliefs, even hatred, have a basic right to free expression. So long as we have a pluralistic media landscape where many ideas and concepts circulate we are all better off.

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