censorship schmensorship

The worst part of censorship is —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."

krazykatbeforeandafterShe replied, "Darn! Why didn’t I say that?"

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.


16 Responses to censorship schmensorship

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    From my former life 1994-1999 as a big-box bookseller (from 1992-1994 it was little-box), I well recall the candle-burning sanctimony with which one or another trade group among librarians or publishers would announce that year’s Banned Books Week. The fate of present-day writers and publishers worldwide actually threatened with prison or the gallows for their words always took a decided back seat in these essays in “progressive” groupthink to one instance after another of the removal, whether or not under pressure from offended parents, by a local American school or district of a post-1960 (or Huckleberry Finn) children’s or young-adult title, of the newly “relevant” sort regarding once-edgy social content, from its library shelves and/or curricula. You’d look in vain for instances in which the authors or publishers of the titles at issue, or local bookstores and readers of all ages selling and buying them, faced any threats whatever of legal action. Thus did we find the word “banned” … on the run from its actual meaning, its wings at the speed of sound jetting as the crow flies for undiscovered denotational countries from whose bourn no winter’s night traveler returns (my apologies to Paul McCartney, Italo Calvino and the Prince of Denmark).

    • bkmarcus says:

      Thank you, Scott. Perfect example. My college’s bookstore was part of the annual hubbub about “banned” books, and I remember looking in vain for examples of genuine banning. What I did not realize (thought I guess it shouldn’t surprise any of us) is that genuine repression elsewhere in the world was being downplayed so that we could all tut-tut some American school for removing their own privately owned books from their own privately owned shelves. (Of course, “public” schools don’t really have privately owned books or shelves, but that’s a different subject on which we already know the progressives would decline to sympathize with us.)

      Between your story and my recent post on supposed persecutions of atheists, I begin to believe that American civil libertarians suffer from a sort of persecution envy.

      Notice how few of them take the leap into consistent libertarianism, however. They’d rather kvetch about social pressure and private decisions than recognize the growing repression (real and domestic, just like you’d think they’d want it) involved in intellectual-property crusades, eminent domain, zoning laws, economic “regulations,” taxation — some of them don’t even defend individual freedom against the state’s war on drugs: they want to legalize medical marijuana only, or they want to legalize pot but not cocaine, or pot and powder cocaine but not crack, crank, or heroin, etc., etc. Or (and this is my favorite left-wing move) they want to legalize all these things so that the state can grow fatter on taxing the heck out of all of them.

      No, the truth is that the state is mostly doing what they want it to do. They just don’t like how much freedom remains for private owners to make unfashionable decisions about how to use their own property.

      • Scott Lahti says:

        I begin to believe that American civil libertarians suffer from a sort of persecution envy.

        Back in the years of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, one variant was called “subpoena envy”, a phrase I see Gary North has, har-har, inverted to describe those post-1995 House Democrats denied by their new minority status the chairmanships that once enabled them to compel at will chosen witnesses/victims unto their investigations. Remember Nock on the street-corner Socialist thundering from his soapbox? “We have been oppressed,” he said. “and now we shall oppress.”

      • Scott Lahti says:

        And speaking of that form of a supposed “repressive tolerance” by which private editors are free to “censor” those on the side of the angelic vanguard, how can we no-e (as opposed to “ne-o“?) Marcusians fail to pay our respects to those Marcuseans with whom we associate that dubious doctrine? And let’s give a hat-tip to Tolstoy, who, confronted by a young hothead bungful of pious confidence in his assertion that surely there is a difference between revolutionary violence and violence by the state, received the reply that indeed there was, after that between the respective scats of the cat and of the dog, both equally noxious.

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    Regarding a blogger who moderates comments risking being called some variant of fascist, I recall one of the livelier threads at the group blog for which I used to write, in which, first, I (as “LDA [Long Dead Alexandrian]“) was subjected to red-baiting by a belligerent, purer-than-the-Pope “free-market”-wingnut Russian immigrant, and then to claims by the blog’s pseudonymous proprietor that the phase from months before in which I had disabled comments beneath my posts stood in hypocrite contrast to my ethos as one committed, at least when compared to the thin gruel on offer from his stablemates, to firebrand libertarian bomb-throwing,

  3. Pingback: Censorship Schmensorship | Invisible Order

  4. katmwehr says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m a journalist, and recently there was controversy at one of the school districts I cover over two books on a summer reading list. Parents were complaining about the content, and the challenge ended up drawing national attention. I blogged about the story (as they recently reached a decision as to whether they would keep the books available to students) on my website here: http://wehrismypen.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/censoring-books/

    Also, as a former high school and college journalist (and a participant on a college lit mag staff), your story gave me a chuckle. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Scott Lahti says:

    Then there’s this from a columnist for the German newspaper Die Zeit: “What do you call it when a book publisher announces that it plans to neutralize any terms in its books ‘that could be felt as hurtful’ by readers—if that’s not censorship, what is?” Gott im Himmel, mein ach-ing head …

    • bkmarcus says:

      A German wrote that?!

      This from the nation-state that won’t let parents choose their own baby names:


      • Scott Lahti says:

        And not the only such nation-state: Rechtsstaat, meet Reyksdottir:

        “A 15-year-old Icelandic girl has been granted the right to legally use the name given to her by her mother, despite the opposition of authorities and Iceland’s strict law on names.
        Reykjavik District Court ruled Thursday that the name ‘Blaer’ can be used. It means ‘light breeze.’

        “The decision overturns an earlier rejection by Icelandic authorities who declared it was not a proper feminine name. Until now, Blaer Bjarkardottir had been identified simply as ‘Girl’ in communications with officials.

        “‘I’m very happy,’ she said after the ruling. ‘I’m glad this is over. Now I expect I’ll have to get new identity papers. Finally I’ll have the name Blaer in my passport.’

        “Like a handful of other countries, including Germany and Denmark, Iceland has official rules about what a baby can be named. Names are supposed to fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules — choices like Carolina and Christa are not allowed because the letter ‘c’ is not part of Iceland’s alphabet* …”

        *I’ll have to ask my friend from Reykjavik … Unt, about that last bit the next time we take the hot baths down the road from the local vol_ano, though I don’t want to get there too early and, in making an ash of myself, risk a premature Eyjafjallajökullation.

      • Scott Lahti says:

        This article from Mental Floss in June 2010 was condensed in Reader’s Digest for April 2013, and now by me, never to be outdone in the annals of journalistic digestion, in the alimentary’s cool of the marcusian gobblers’-fear:

        8 Countries With Fascinating Baby Naming Laws:

        4. DENMARK

        Rejected names: Anus, Pluto, and Monkey.
        Approved names: Benji, Jiminico, Molli, and Fee.

        6. NEW ZEALAND

        Rejected names: Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, Sex Fruit, Satan, and Adolf Hitler

        Approved names: Benson and Hedges (for a set of twins), Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, Violence

        7. CHINA

        Rejected names: “@”: Wang “At” was rejected as a baby name. The parents felt that the @ symbol had the right meaning for them. @ in Chinese is pronounced “ai-ta” which is very similar to a phrase that means “love him.”

  6. Scott Lahti says:

    “[Forever by Judy Blume] continues to be the subject of frequent attempts at censorship, appearing regularly on lists of banned or challenged books.” – Lucy Pearson, “From Young Mother to Forever: Changing Attitudes to Censorship in the 1960s and 1970s”. in Sarah McNicol, ed., Forbidden Fruit: The Censorship of Literature and Information for Young People. I found that after hearing, on a BBC Radio 4 program entitled “What Is It About Judy Blume?”, that the TLS reviewer in 1976 had called Forever “a dull novel about two very dull young people”, a judgment with which I concurred a couple or so years later, after perusing the section of my younger sister’s copy in which the male half of the dishwatery pair at issue commences pillow-talking from his side of the softcovers with the revelation that his … little Jimmy Ampleseed (my term, not his) has a name. And that that name is Ralph. I suspect that if for some reason I and my brothers and sisters in lit-crit were by the good taxpayers of These United States handed the keys to their little darlings’ library acquisitions, such a book would find itself primus inter pares atop each annual and newly-instaurated list of burned books, with me in charge of the required donations of matches, petrol, logs, and bulk accelerant.

  7. Scott Lahti says:

    RationalWiki: “[Jon] McNaughton‘s One Nation Under God was removed from the bookstore at his alma mater, Brigham Young University. McNaughton assumed something was wrong with the people he made uncomfortable, rather than admit his artwork was seriously over the top

    Jon McNaughton: “I have a simple question for BYU…what in the heck is going on over there?! I am an artist who has sold his work at the BYU Bookstore for many years. But in light of recent events, I cannot in good conscious show my art there any longer.”

  8. Pingback: The Golden Age at Twilight — The Libertarian Standard

    • Scott Lahti says:

      The comments on the affiliated page devoted to a short quiz regarding “banned” books in These Untied Snakes of A’murka include an episode of such “banning” in Wilton, Connecticut, the town in which I finished high school (1978-1980) and Henry and Frances Hazlitt spent most of their last three decades.

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