Tuesday, May 20, 2014

[OM] On Censorship

Recently there have been some scuffles with "censorship" and arguments about our first amendment. Even one of my favorite webcomics, xkcd, seems to have weighed in (incorrectly, I might add).

First, let's get to brass tacks and define what censorship is:
Wikipedia, that base for all things info, says:"Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet or other controlling body.
Governments, private organizations and individuals may engage in censorship."

Now that we know what censorship means (and that there are legal and illegal aspects to carrying it out), we move on to the right to free speech. For us Americans it's an important part of the Bill of Rights and how we define ourselves as citizens:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  

This is the basis of free speech in the US; there are limits such as crying fire in a crowded theater and so forth. This ideal has spread to even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One thing that should be noted is that this right to free speech is mainly focused on the government imposing rules, and not about other citizens inhibiting that right. The xkcd cartoon and many peoples' reactions are based on this fact.

So let's go back to the events of the past few months or so. What to make of them? As a citizen of a nation which prides (or should, in any event) itself as a beacon of freedom of speech, this need to silence or make people 'go away' seems to be against the spirit of the law (again, I'm not saying anything about the legality of these reactions, merely that it takes away from the idea of what freedom of speech means or implies or creates in a society). 

Take the xkcd cartoon: on the surface it's correct. There is nothing legally wrong with people outside the government trying to silence others (in certain ways), or not wanting to listen to them. Indeed, many of the opinions that I hear are offensive to me, and I wouldn't care to listen to such opinions. But to go so far as to silence them? No. Even though I understand that a lot of the views being shouted down recently tend to come from groups that have tried, through other means, to silence others. That shouldn't inform one's decisions.

The lens with which one needs to look at freedom of speech are the reasons that it works so well. It is about having free and open discourse, an airing of ideas. This allows for a society to be able to not only vent, but to best decide how to move forward. What happens when someone spits out a view on life which you see to be horrendous? You point out why that view is either negative or no longer viable or fair, given what society has decided etc. You don't close your ears or try to shout them out, or try to silence them. Even if that silencing is legal.

Now this needs some limits. Of course you don't engage the man on the corner yelling about the end of the world (I don't, and it would be hypocritical to say otherwise). If the person you try to engage is obviously not interested in a practical discussion, then you have a right to move on and not listen. What happens when a lot of people are that man on the corner, everywhere, causing you great distress? The first thing to examine would be why so many are spouting such odd things. I dare say the ability to vent is important and can help one point out the underlying reasons for many-men-on-the-corner-saying-that-the-world-is-coming-to-an-end. I would not silence them.

When it comes to some of these recent stories, I find myself taking sides with people I don't agree with, or people who have done things I don't agree with (and most of these people will, economically speaking, be fine since they are very well off, almost making my stance seem pointless), because on principle, it is wrong to silence them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that silencing them does nothing to prove a point. Again, engage those ideas and show the world why they are wrong or use it as an opportunity to tackle the underlying issues, which are usually more important. Don't silence them. 

The best example that I've seen is the Sterling situation. Coates has an excellent article on the matter. [1] And as usual with race issues (or really any issue Coates writes about) Coates is correct. In many ways silencing people like Sterling and Bundy doesn't help the over all racial situation in our country, even though they may appear to be the perfect personifications for what's wrong in our nation/world. Indeed, other people who have been silenced recently—such as Condoleezza Rice who was prevented from speaking at a commencement—seem to be the epitome of power, and representations thereof. Why let them speak? The better question is: what do we gain from silencing them? Nothing. [2] Perhaps their ignorance is allowed to go underground (as a meme) and live on. Better to shed light on it and engage it in a forum.

I also want to discuss the reason these outcries have been happening. I can't say I'm entirely against it. These latest outcries appear to be the powerless reaching out against the powerful, or entrenched powers. In these times it's not an incorrect reaction. But to focus it on silencing ideas ends up being an impotent use that doesn't get to the core frustrations that give rise to these actions. [3]

And I think I should say that I'm not saying that there shouldn't be consequences for taking away people's rights (even when done legally). As citizens we are perfectly within our rights to boycott. But take note of the great MLK. Boycotts and other methods (to which social media would be perfectly suited) were used, but they were used to bring light to injustice and to then engage in a discussion of ideas and a change of laws. Silencing (even when it was used against them) was not the point.


Some other articles that are related to the subject matter here.
# How to read the news today (relevant because even an article like this must be read with an eye towards history)
# An article about Drone Warfare today.
# An article about the fatwa on Rushdie

Update (June 2nd, 2014):
I want to add to the mob mentality article I wrote. Perhaps it wasn’t as nuanced as I would've liked it to be. It might have come across as being a little too conceited. I’m not saying that the mob mentality is the other or that I’m above it. Rather, that mob mentality is something we all have to fight. I too have an initial reaction when I see people ganging up on a view that I hate too (especially when this view is basically the status-quo). My immediate reaction is to go with my gut feeling that this is needed, that someone with "that" point of view gets too much airtime and is in the need of a little dressing down (is this the democratic part of me, or something more sinister?). 

Relying on that gut feeling saves time. But we shouldn't do it. Of course, one must judge when someone is not engaging in a proper discussion (lots of times), but there are many rules that could be applied to a discussion platform (I’ll avoid listing any of these). One should try, through all actions, to make whatever platform is being used be conducive to facilitating a discussion. 

But what happens when that party is not willing to allow such a discussion take place (witness the trolls being paid by corporations or the Kremlin to fight for minds of people)? Well then, you either look for someone who holds that viewpoint to do so, or you, for the time being, dismiss that person. If you’re in a discussion with someone and they start to yell, you know you’re not going to get anywhere talking, and thus you must disengage.

What happens when it’s a group of peasants, so to speak, against a greater power who has tried to dismiss or silence them until the very recent past? But again, one must not allow this to happen because it merely presents a mirage of a victory that doesn’t lead to much. Sure one doesn’t allow a viewpoint on the air, but does that person (a billionaire) change his mind? Are the power structures that actually matter to that racism or whatever else is being decried, are those things going to change? When there’s something viral to change these power structures, then surely I’ll be there to lend my support. Not when it’s to silence and only consider that silence enough. 

To this end, allow me to look at the Egyptian model, whereby there was an overthrow of a government (though as things stand, there doesn’t appear to be too many changes). Twitter ostensibly led to the end of a brutal regime. But who took over after that? Surely the medium helped to bring together people with similar angers (though I’m not sure it’s more than a facilitation in that overthrows happened before, how much different were they this time?) together, and to avoid the normal routes of communication and get those meetings/protests to happen. But what happened after that? There was an immediate power struggle, not through Twitter, but rather between those who had institutions in place in the physical world. The Muslim Brotherhood who had made many inroads with the poor, and the Army with their weapons.

So again, these mob movements, they so far give the appearance of power (maybe it's more than before, if so it's an improvement and not to be mocked). But that they deflect eyes off the real issue means they should not be seen, in their current form, as people power tools, or silencers.

I'm fully aware that I'm missing out on many other questions here: the fact that perhaps silencing someone who is actively trying to silence dissent, or is politically savvy, might be the only way to move forward, but I cannot think of an example of this in history. Any one know of one? 

Update 29SEP2014: So there's this article going about the internet.  Here is where the censorship term starts getting used too much and people (read writers who don't seem as intelligent on paper as they are in their writing, though even that could be argued) start growing immune to that whole term and rightfully dismiss it in cases where people have a point. When someone doesn't discount your book, that's not censorship. Sure, there are ways to use the market to silence certain viewpoints, but this isn't one of them. 

I understand that I don't have a perfect definition and I'm still falling for the whole "know it when you see it" fallacy, but that's that. When these books aren't available anywhere, then I'll start to look into the term censorship. Until then. 

Update 21JAN2015: And so it goes. The most recent assault on freedom of speech appears to have evoked a great (in terms of size, if not in terms of quality, though that certainly remains to be seen) reaction that now has the whole (the Western one at least, and to some extent the Islamic world as well) world talking. Who knows how long it will last, given our shorter attention spans these days.

First, I should say right off the bat that I'm against any sort of attack, especially when it's against the liberal right of freedom of speech. But of course I would, I'm a writer, and one who at least pretends to be provocative, aren't I? Then I would love a world like this. And I am certainly against anyone who says (the Pope included, from what I hear) violence should be visited upon those who are mocking any religion. 

But, and I'm sure you knew there would be a but, there is still the matter of looking at the entire picture, of looking at several different manifestations of violence, and not just focusing on this one thing. I will say a few things: on the matter of our very way of life being under attack; this does not seem to be the case, and if it is, it is the case for those who face our bombs for much less than a cartoon. Who is to say one kind of violence is better than another? Sure, terrorism is defined as needing a political end. But that doesn't mean if a material end is desired that a political one is not (I'm speaking here of geopolitics). In fact, I find it close to a sick irony that what are mainly imperialistic powers are crying foul about violence being used. I am too, but I understand what's needed. 

On the matter of looking at violence(s) as one large reaction of a single kind of ape species; yes, I'm doing so, and I have no qualms about it. I understand that I shall have to explain my self in full. I will save that for the future. To the end that I see all violence as much the same thing, I also see our rights (the liberal ones that a bourgeois writer such as myself would obviously like) as very much intertwined. Thus where there are cries that the world is really facing some sort of nihilistic attack on a single pillar of civilized society (again, mostly coming from the lot of the oppressor, pardon me for that little bit of history), I cannot see what people are talking about.

I am perfectly aware that under the guise of laws and courts (and perhaps even human understanding; though I will say that making courts something of a place where one interpretation wins over another one, instead of a less competitive outcome... but I'm losing the main thread here) we need to separate certain rights into certain sections (also a limitation of language, I'm afraid), but when it comes to tragic events like this, it's foolish to do so. Again, there is the matter of adding context because one wants to change the focus of the subject at hand, and when one simply wants to inform. 

Let me provide an example: there is the great Bill Maher. A fellow atheist and a man who borders on Islamaphobic (he's somewhat against most religions, but like most of the new atheists, he leans towards the neo-colonial ideal) he was against these attacks. Fair enough. Me too. And he's also against all attempts to silence—either through economic sanctions or other methods—people that "you" don't agree with (see Rush Limbaugh, see other mob effects that I wrote about). And in this I'm all for what he's saying. 

But then he goes so far as to say that there's no excuse (again, with him) for the attacks and that no history explains any of this (not with him here). But that it's a matter of Islam being the problem (against him here too). Even Rushdie (that darling of the Western elites, though it escapes me as to why) was on the boat here; I would have expected more knowledge from the author, to include his comment on Hezbollah, but I know the mob when I see it. And this is what I see. 

Why am I against this idea of laying the blame for an entire religion? I'm saying that this world is complex, and when we zoom in to focus on a single grain of sand, fine, it helps (kind of says something about my own profession, because writing novels is truly the focus of a couple, at best a handful, grains of sand) us not a bit to ignore the beach it sits upon, the rivers that flow through it and the ocean that beats upon it. In fact, to focus on this one event only plays to emotions and moves away from focusing on the true problems of the world. (Yes, yes, I know, this is a blog post on a single topic; but reader! let me say that though it matters to be able to focus on the local—if only for taxonomical purposes—that is merely for the facture of the bigger picture.

There is much evil in the world. These nihilistic kinds are not the only ones. We should be aware of that and not let them take center stage. Je suis Charles Hedbo, indeed, but we should indeed focus upon other matters. I will write something else on the matter of platitudes. But for now, this is how I see it: see the whole picture. Understand that as horrendous as this act was, there are many more such acts occurring around the world, and in addition we don't have to travel far to see it in action. 

So, yes, this event is a great time to reaffirm those liberal ideals. But as Orwell said, beware of looking to far from home. There are similar issues right here that can be dealt with, and there are more powerful structures in the way that should be reformed. 

Update JUL2015:  And so it goes. And now people are finally standing up to the stifling air that censoring people by silencing them brings about. Yes, there is a gross (though not illegal) violation of free speech when someone other than the government silences people. That is all

If I haven't explained myself well, let me know and I will do so.  But as always, retort below!

[1] The point might be that some people who are racist in more subtle ways can get away with some of this silencing because it takes the light away from real racists. Read the article, it's great.

[2] I don't have evidence for this either way. I'm merely looking at what I see: it's rare that silencing works. Look at tyrannical regimes (unless we're talking about horrendously violent ones, though in the long term even those don't seem to work). 

[3] I'm sure the billionaire is crying into his money. He will not be affected, except for a slightly tainted ego. Indeed to tackle the main issues behind racism would take much more effort, and perhaps that's the lesson. 

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  1. Great point, this need, this want to silence. I blame those on both sides who would think that a strait jacket on the people's voice is the best way to achieve a sort of consensus. And it runs in direct opposition to the basic idea behind why the freedom of speech enshrined in our Constitution is so important.

    1. But, at the end of the day no government protects the right from libel from private quarters (and that the government doesn't sue those same people is only a very recent turn of events in our democracy). Why is that? Should people be allowed to just say what they want? For this is what this all leads to (this referring to Lowhim's views, as well said as they are)

  2. I'll bite. So what then do you think of the media (and his family, surely they have a right to this?) saying that his execution (allegedly as of the time of this writing) should not be watched or sent around the internet? Where would you stand on a media blackout on such matters? Against it, from what I've read here, or for it?

    Not trying to be a troll, but it appears that at times this isn't so cut and dry. There are many examples of when we as the people need to look out for our own interests. So in this case I mentioned (with ISIS), one needs to think on the consequences of freedom of speech for what is basically an enemy state. Think carefully my friend, think carefully.

    1. Hard to balance that, the family's emotions with forcing those in more comfortable parts of the world to at least watch something of the rougher world out there. Can't, for the life of me, understand why people think it's okay to shield others from such graphic images. I think it would at least make people rethink their government's policies.... rant over. Carry on

  3. Me thinks you're underestimating the power of words. Surely no one should be economically murdered for expressing that right, but it has happened in the past, and many people didn't budge when it did. But as long as the government doesn't do it, we're fine with that.

    And what do you think about a workplace. Surely a manager has the right to say this and that (let's say sexist remarks or otherwise) can be said or cannot. So what happens when someone makes a remark on Facebook, outside of work that falls under one of those categories? What can they do then?


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!