January 20, 2013 16 Comments
Is censorship illiberal?
As with so many simply worded questions, the answer depends on how we define our terms. I don’t say that as a dodge. I don’t consider this issue "merely semantic." I just notice with some annoyance that many people use the same term to mean different things where the difference in meaning is critically important.
For libertarians, censorship is wrong when it is a coercive authority suppressing communication (assuming that communication itself is non-coercive and non-fraudulent).
For many of us, that’s the primary meaning of the term: a government power used to suppress peaceful communication.
But for many others, who seem to oppose censorship "in all its forms," censorship includes plenty of peaceful private decisions that individuals and groups make about their own private property.
When I was in high school, my girlfriend was one of the editors of the school’s literary magazine. She and the other editors rejected a submission that was explicitly sexual and full of "dirty" words. The school newspaper sent a reporter to talk to her about censorship in the literary magazine. She tried to explain that lower- and middle-school students read the magazine, that it was an official representation of the school, that they didn’t take a black marker and cross out the offensive parts. They just didn’t feel the piece was appropriate for their magazine.
When she told me about the interview, I said, "You might have also mentioned that it’s not censorship. It’s called an editorial decision. The magazine never promised to accept all submissions."
Well, she didn’t say it, because censorship is one of those words used largely for its emotional effect.
Semantic precision is often at odds with people’s agendas, so they usurp the connotation of one (often precise) meaning of a term and apply it to a much vaguer (arguably inaccurate) use of the term.
If you have your own blog and you moderate comments, you’ve probably experienced this: someone posts a comment that is irrelevant or incoherent or a string of vulgarities posing as an argument; you reject it; their next comment accuses you of censorship. I’ve even been accused of censorship for the mere fact that my blog is moderated. The fact that the commenter doesn’t see his words appear instantly under my post establishes me as a hypocrite: a libertarian who censors his opposition.
If you’re not constantly on guard for that sort of semantic manipulation, it’s pretty easy to let it slip by. But once you’ve accepted the manipulative terminology, you’ve lost half the battle.
Am I saying it’s dishonest to use emotionally loaded language? There are plenty of people who do take that position, claiming that only neutral language and examples are intellectually honest. But I make the opposite point in my blog post of many years ago "Will the real fascists please stand up?" and a year later in my LRC article "In Defense of Referencing Hitler." I don’t think the "neutrality" of language is a worthy goal. I think precision is the honest goal. Neutrality can just be another form of manipulation, as my comrade and Invisible Order colleague Mike Reid illustrates in his great article "The Voice of Tyranny: A Libertarian Look at the Passive Voice."
My rant today is brought to you by the Wikipedia article "Life, the Universe and Everything," and its very silly section on "Censorship." (I should warn you that there are some off-color words in the following passage. I left them intact. I wouldn’t want to be accused of censorship.)
This book is the only one in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to have been censored in its U.S. edition.The word "asshole" is replaced with the word "kneebiter", and the word "shit" is replaced with "swut". Possibly the most famous example of censorship is in Chapter 22 and 23, which in the U.K. edition mentions that a Rory was an award for the Most Gratuitous Use of the Word ‘Fuck’ in a Serious Screenplay. In the U.S. edition, this was changed to "Belgium" and the text from the original radio series describing "Belgium" as the most offensive word in the galaxy is reused.
I leave as an exercise for the reader a comparison of the preceding passage with my high-school newspaper’s treatment of the editorial staff of the school’s literary magazine.