Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Censorship

The topic of censorship has been heating up lately, both in the writing word and the wider cultural sphere. Hence, my obligatory 2 kopecks, keeping in mind that people far more eloquent than I have already contributed to the discussion.

First, the relevant technical definition, from Oxford English Dictionary:

Definition of censorship in English:

1. The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.

Interestingly enough, the basic definition does not specifically refer to the entity performing the suppression or prohibition. However, the assumption to most readers would be that the censoring comes from the government. Thus, let us accept this as the starting point, and consider the following levels of censorship, based on the type of power wielded by the censors.

Level I. Censorship by the Government. Book burnings, imprisoning journalists, limiting access to the radio stations and, in modern times, the Internet. Generally speaking, when people mention censorship, that's what they have in mind. Then, we Americans pat ourselves on the back for having Freedom of Speech enshrined in our Bill of Rights and shake our heads at our neighbors to the North who put Mark Steyn on trial for saying the wrong thing on his radio show some years ago. Or do we? Nowadays, I'm not so sure. When we've come to the point of setting up hotlines to report hurtful words to the authorities, our hold on the Free Speech supremacy becomes tenuous indeed. But let's accept that premise for the moment. In regards to outright government censorship, by current legal precedent, U.S.A. is sill in a good place.

What people usually forget is that it may not be necessary to codify censorship. All that's needed is for enough free speech opponents to reach positions of power and influence in society, and, to bring up a famous if overused phrase, "for good people to do nothing." In that case, we get censorship that technically isn't, but with the same result.

Level II. Censorship by Non-Government Authorities. Whether it's a CEO forced to step down for donating to the wrong cause, or an author dropped by his publisher, or professional journalists/bloggers banned or muzzled by social media platforms, the fundamentals of censorship are there. Pick a target, make an accusation and convict, with or without a public trial, depending on which method best serves the cause. Because the censoring happens at a private entity level, even many free speech defenders will hesitate to use the name for fear of sounding ignorant or opposed to free market.

"A corporation should be able to choose whom they employ. A private company is not obligated to give voice to everyone. Boycotting is something the other side does; we're better than that." Never mind the selective enforcement. Never mind that protesting wrongful corporate actions is something that freedom lovers should absolutely be doing. Never mind that leaving the victims behind makes all of us more vulnerable. We wrinkle our collective noses at the situation, sometimes even tell ourselves the victims should have known better, and move on.

And so when someone (maybe even one of us) next considers donating to an un-approved charity, or writing a novel just the way their muse demands, or speaking freely in a public forum, there will be that moment of doubt. What if? What if I become that victim next time, left broken on the side of the road with everyone averting their eyes? Can I risk my livelihood, my reputation, my family's well-being? Is it worth it? Can't someone else do it instead, someone more secure, someone with less to lose? Someone, in other words, who is not me?

Congratulations, buddy. You are on your way to ...

Level III. Self-Censorship. That's right. There comes a point in a society that puts up with group-level censorship long enough, when it's no longer necessary to jail or disemploy offenders. Because there are not enough of them left to matter. Because even the "what if" moment above never arrives. The offending thoughts, suppressed long enough and forcefully enough by outside forces, stop appearing in your brain. You have internalized the groupthink. You have learned to love the Big Brother. And you did not even need to be tortured for that to happen. You have done it to yourself. Oh, it was painful enough. Human beings have a need to think and speak freely, and the desire is not easily suppressed. You sit in your comfortable home, watching with practiced detachment the world fall apart on your TV, posting cat pictures on the Internet, and you are content.

Occasionally, the other side of "what if" catches up to you. What if you chose wrong? What if you had spoken up? Would you have met like-minded friends? Kept more of your self-respect? Discovered you're not as vulnerable as you had feared? You quiet those thoughts, but they still fester, along with the small, gnawing certainty that you still are not safe, that someday, somehow, the censors will come for you anyway.

What to do, then? There is no simple solution. Our society is hurtling along to a place where self-censorship just might become the norm. But we're not there yet, and we can still resist. Some of us are secure enough in their employment and social status to be able to speak up. Most are not, but they can offer support in other ways. We can purchase entertainment that supports our values. We can offer financial assistance, employment, or simple words of encouragement  to someone unfairly targeted. We can spread the word among like-minded family and friends, to demonstrate to them the importance of this fight. Every little bit helps, especially in an environment where the opposition is used to moving through without resistance.

Lead the charge, provide covering fire, or throw confetti at an occasional winner. But whatever you do, never, ever leave the field.


To discover and/or support the persons mentioned above:

Purchase Nick Cole's self-published book on Amazon.

Check out Milo Yiannopolous YouTube Channel (NSFW)

Read Rober Stacy McCain's Blog

Brendan Eich does not need to be "discovered," and if the buzz about his brand new venture anything to go by, the market will support him just fine.