Some clarifications on censorship

All of us here agree that speech should be regulated.  However, there remain some secondary points that I hope to clarify.

THE GOODS IN PLAY

Just because Professor Cocks acknowledges that speech must be limited does not make his position for “free speech” vacuous.  He asserts that free speech is an intrinsic good, albeit one whose accommodation may be overridden by other goods.  This is not a trivial statement.  One could indeed plausibly maintain the opposite, that it is intrinsically good that the community’s moral sense be so settled that certain positions are beyond the pale.  Or we could say of circumscribed debate that the debate or its restrictions or both are only instrumental goods.  We can all agree that communal consensus (presuming it is consensus for the truth) is good (otherwise there is no real community).  We can all agree that the ability to reason is good, and so is the knowledge of where different premises lead.  These goods are definitely intrinsic.  Deprivation of these goods–dissension, irrationality, and ignorance–are necessarily bad.  Intrinsic goods cannot be contradictory in their essences, nor can there be too much of any of them, but finite creatures like us and our polities may not be able to attain them all simultaneously in their fullness.  Trade-offs must be made, and such are the considerations of the censor.

THE POSSIBILITY OF ADVOCATING CENSORSHIP

Defenders of “free speech” sometimes say that advocating censorship somehow involves a contradiction, because such advocates presumably don’t think they themselves should be censored.  This would be true if both of two conditions were met:  1) censorship advocates affirm that the free speech debate is itself one that should be censored, and 2) censorship advocates affirm the liberal principle that the state should be neutral toward competing ideals of the good.  It is dubious that a censorship advocate would hold either belief.  No one wants to censor debate on everything.  And the Rawlsian liberal procedure of setting aside my comprehensive understanding of the good for purposes of political reasoning is incoherent, because bracketing this understanding I can make no normative decisions whatsoever.

My rejection of the principle of viewpoint-neutrality protects me from other objections.  I can believe that the government should suppress viewpoint X, and it’s no argument against this belief that I would feel bad about it if I myself held viewpoint X–this would be just one more manifestation of my perversity in this hypothetical case.  Nor do I betray any inconsistency if I admit that I would not like what the government’s power of censorship would do if partisans of X held power–that a power can be abused does not make it inherently illegitimate.  Considerations of precedent may provide a practical argument against censoring while in power, but only presuming that one’s opponents can be expected to reciprocate one’s own restraint.  If an opponent is ruthless, the fact that I wouldn’t like how it would use its censoring power is only more reason to censor ruthlessly to keep this opponent from attaining power.

Nor is the question of who should decide what should be censored particularly troubling.  It will fall to the same public authorities who are always forced to enforce one vision of the good to the exclusion of others.  As is always the case with authority, the existence of a power that decides what may and may not be said has attendant dangers but is unavoidable.

 

 

 

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS:  THE EFFECTS OF UNREGULATED SPEECH

One of the strongest arguments for free speech, or as I would prefer to say, for the practice of restraint by the censoring power, is that open debate will often lead to truth.  The idea is that truth has the advantage in such a contest.  Certainly truth will have some advantages over falsehood.  The latter may be self-contradictory or in contradiction with observed facts, which could never be the case for truth.  On the other hand, claims also appeal to us by their ability to confirm our prejudices, promote our interests, or satisfy our wishes.  Now, a truth may recommend itself to certain people for these reasons, but falsehood will always have the advantage, because it is unconstrained by reality.  What’s more, there are sociological effects, such as holiness spirals and scapegoating, whose efficacy are independent of truth.  It will often be found that where debate is effective at attaining truth, credit must go in part to the censoring power policing against these failure modes of free debate (e.g. via peer review rejection and the end of academic careers by those who break the rules).

Related to “freedom of speech” is “freedom of the press”.  When I was young and naive, I was warned and believed that there are great dangers to having a state-run media.  What I didn’t appreciate then was that, in a democracy, the alternative to having a state-run media is having a media-run state.  In a democracy, ultimate power rests with those who dictate public opinion, that is with the press.  The existence of a centralized media complex for controlling public perception is a universal feature of a mature high-technology democracy.  Even if the office of opinion-controller is initially vacant, it will soon be filled, so great is the power that accrues to any corporation that advances toward such a role.  Even the 19th century setup of two rival partisan press organs is unstable, because any small advantage can quickly amplify itself.  Thus, we have the paradox that refusing to regulate speech leads to the formation of a power that tells everyone what to think and zealously suppresses dissent.  As I have argued more fully elsewhere, rule of the press perversely acts to frustrate all of the virtues normally associated with information exchange and intellectual contest.  For the sake of these virtues, the press must not be free; its power must be crushed, and the only way to do that is to end democracy.

 

PROCEDURAL OBJECTIONS TO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Because we reject viewpoint-neutrality, we don’t need to object to the way political correctness censors, only that some of the views it suppresses are true, while its own belief system is false.  It is true, though, that PC operates in an unjust and lawless way.  In fact, PC could become less objectionable if it were arranged more like the Spanish Inquisition.

For one thing, in Spain under the Inquisition, what beliefs were punishably heretical was fixed and publicly known.  Anyone could know exactly which beliefs they couldn’t publicly espouse.  The list of PC offenses, on the other hand, constantly grows, and its censures apply ex post facto.  The best thing for conservative academics would be if universities would agree on an official list of proscribed thoughts.  I would let the Leftists in charge put anything they want on the list, even allowing different restrictions depending on membership in a “victim” category, so long as they would agree that the list be public and any thought not on the list, even ones that come within a hair’s breadth of a proscribed idea, may be stated without any penalty whatsoever.  Again borrowing from the Spanish Inquisition, the PC police should limit themselves to proscribing ideas (heresy) and symbolic actions (blasphemy), not inferred attitudes.  The Inquisition was not in the habit of punishing insufficient enthusiasm.

Historically, the Spanish Inquisition was instituted as an alternative to mob violence against conversos.  Here is another principle I would prefer PC take from Torquemada’s institution:  punishment of heretics by public authority is more apt to be equitable than private vigilantism.  The Inquisition “released” heretics to the secular arm for punishment, while the PC state releases them to the private/corporate arm.  In both cases, the latter does what the former has forbidden itself from doing.  The difference is that the PC state does not admit that it is in the job of censorship.  Instead of the state guaranteeing the accused due process before instructing their employers to fire them, businesses are encouraged to purge their own employees.  Employers’ freedom-of-association right to visit “social consequences” on whomever they please coupled with the hostile work lawsuit and media vilification consequences of a perceived lack of enthusiasm for doing so guarantee that they will carry out these purges in the most lawless and vindictive ways.  Private heresy-hunting is not a thing to be encouraged; there should be an official Inquisition for that.

18 thoughts on “Some clarifications on censorship

  1. Pingback: Some clarifications on censorship | @the_arv

  2. Indeed the issue of free speech simply should not be looked at as an on-off switch, either being for it or against it. It’s a very complex issue. The view that “free and open discussion” leads to truth is really naive. It CAN lead to truth but rarely does, and more often only increases social confusion and aids in the proliferation of nonsense. The ability to apprehend truth and give voice to it itself requires precise training over many years, what we call education. Imagine if an analagous attitude to that espoused by proponents of “free and open discourse” were applied in the case of intellectual training, such a free and open training might occasionally and ACCIDENTALLY produce someone intellectually competent, but compared to a time-tested educational curriculum consisting of logic, rhetoric, critical thinking, philosophy etc? I think the crux of the issue is that people have become accustomed to looking at the issue of free speech as a dispute over principles. I don’t think it is a matter of principle at all. On the contrary, it should presuppose the application of principles already in our possession in order to develop a nuanced approach. This view is bound to be insulting to those who hold the question of free speech to be sancrosanct. The issue of free speech is a logistical issue not a principled one. It is the question of how human communication can best be USED in the promotion of social, political, and personal goods, and for those belonging to a society with a religious fabric we can add the additional consideration of how the use speech can contribute to our salvation. I think beginning to look at the issue of speech from a logistical standpoint rather than a principled one will contibute greatly to clarity on this issue, but I’m open to hearing criticism on this approach. Anticipating that someone will say that in opening myself up to criticism here I’m somehow conceding the value of free speech, I would say this in response: in posting my thoughts here, in the comment section of this blog post I’m already engaged in an act of limitation and discrimination. I could just as well post my thoughts in the comments section of a Katy Perry music video, but I’ve chosen to do it here. This is an implicit acknowledgement that speech and human communication is only fruitful when properly directed. The only question remaining is how strictly and in what manner that direction and limitation will be enforced in the social, political, and personal fields in order to be MOST FRUITFUL. This, I maintain, is a logistical question, a question one will never be capable of adequately resolving without already possessing guiding principles and values.

  3. Indeed the issue of free speech simply should not be looked at as an on-off switch, either being for it or against it. It’s a very complex issue. The view that “free and open discussion” leads to truth is really naive. It CAN lead to truth but rarely does, and more often only increases social confusion and aids in the proliferation of nonsense. The ability to apprehend truth and give voice to it itself requires precise training over many years, what we call education. Imagine if an analagous attitude to that espoused by proponents of “free and open discourse” were applied in the case of intellectual training, such a free and open training might occasionally and ACCIDENTALLY produce someone intellectually competent, but compared to a time-tested educational curriculum consisting of logic, rhetoric, critical thinking, philosophy etc? I think the crux of the issue is that people have become accustomed to looking at the issue of free speech as a a dispute over principles. I don’t think it is a matter of principle at all. On the contrary, it should presuppose the application of principles already in our possession in order to develop a nuanced approach. This view is bound to be insulting to those who hold the question of free speech to be sancrosanct. The issue of free speech is a logistical issue not a principled one. It is the question of how human communication can best be USED in the promotion of social, political, and personal goods, and for those belonging to a society with a religious fabric we can add the additional consideration of how the use speech can contribute to our salvation. I think beginning to look at the issue of speech from a logistical standpoint rather than a principled one will contibute greatly to clarity on this issue, but I’m open to hearing criticism on this approach. Anticipating that someone will say that in opening myself up to criticism here I’m somehow conceding the value of free speech, I would say this in response: in posting my thoughts here, in the comment section of this blog post I’m already engaged in an act of limitation and discrimination. I could just as well post my thoughts in the comments section of a Katy Perry music video, but I’ve chosen to do it here. This is an implicit acknowledgement that speech and human communication is only fruitful when properly directed. The only question remaining is how strictly and in what manner that direction and limitation will be enforced in social, political, and personal fields in order to be MOST FRUITFUL. This, I maintain, is a logistical question, a question one will never be capable of adequately resolving without already possessing guiding principles and values.

  4. Suppose I grant it in the limited case of a small cadre of highly-trained and intelligent comrades, like, say, Plato and his followers

    Even in this case, to what extent were the debates of the Platonic Academy “open”? Certainly the dialogues show Socrates consciously and subtly shaping the debate along certain paths, and later dialogues and writing about dialogues almost always reflect a student-teacher dynamic, with one partner clearly in a superior position and setting the terms of the discussion. On top of that, truth is rarely arrived at within debate itself, but rather is recognized through the interiorization of the paths charted in the dialogue and mused on in private after the “open debate” itself has ended (Augustine, perhaps, is the one who makes this process most explicit).

    • This is why I picked that example, yes. The Socratic dialogues are our best example and best argument for free exchange of ideas (unless anyone here wants to undertake to defend Aeropagitica?) and yet they are carefully curtailed and constructed.

  5. Pingback: Some clarifications on censorship | Reaction Times

  6. We have censors. We just call them editors. Some people think that editors are there only to remove mistakes of fact and grammar, but no editor publishes everything that is factual and grammatical.

    Some would allow that, beyond questions of fact and grammar, the editor selects on the basis of public taste, suppressing only material that the public would find tedious or obscene. He may do this up to a point, but public taste is very largely the product of other editors.

    Some would say that the bias of one editor will be balanced by the opposing bias of another editor when there is a marketplace of ideas. This greatly overestimates the appeal of outlandish ideas to the majority of people. Sixty percent of the editors can control ninety-five percent of the public opinion

  7. “In a democracy, ultimate power rests with those who dictate public opinion…”

    Not only in a democracy. Since the rise of public debt in the 17th century, every government has been dependent on public opinion and public confidence, the best index of which is the bond market. Louis XVI was compelled to summon the Estates-General because his government had lost its credit, as Necker realised.

    Disraeli knew it, when he said a British government could survive anything, except 4%

  8. It was impossible to coherently criticize Richard Cocks’ post because he kept changing it, making it look like commenters were responding to something entirely different than what they had actually responded to. That isn’t just free speech, it is time traveling speech.

  9. “open debate will often lead to truth”
    You sure about that?
    Suppose I grant it in the limited case of a small cadre of highly-trained and intelligent comrades, like, say, Plato and his followers. It certainly isn’t the case when the ‘open debate’ is taking place in newspapers or other similar mass-media for the purpose of opinion-shaping, which is the most common and most sacred example of so-called free speech.

      • No, I know; I just wanted to call that particular bit out explicitly, because it is the (un)stated rationale behind a lot of free speech advocacy.

        Much less serious response: well dammit, try harder then!

      • My apologies if I made it look like you were advocating the position. That was not my intent, but on re-reading it certainly could seem that way.

  10. It is worth noting that the European Convention on Human Rights declares that freedom of expression, “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

    This allows the legislator a pretty wide “margin of appreciation,” as it is styled, in imposing restrictions.

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