Wednesday, April 11, 2007

On Censorship

SteveG at Philosopher's Playground post an inquiry into censorship and free speech specifically with regard to the recent controversy over Don Imus's racist remarks.

There's nothing at all wrong with censorship per se, in the sense of somehow discouraging speech.

Censorship is ubiquitous. Every time I "bite my tongue" to avoid saying something I think would be a bad idea to say, I'm censoring myself. Every time the New York Times does not publish a letter to the editor, they are censoring the writer. Every time I tell someone not to tell me racist jokes, I'm censoring them. Every time I delete a spam comment from my blog, I'm censoring the commenter. I'm even, in a sense, censoring every television program I don't watch, every radio station I don't listen to, every book, newspaper and magazine I don't read, every web page I don't visit.

Furthermore, since speech is reflexive, non-censorship is logically self-contradictory: To insist on non-censorship is to censor censorious speech.

What is enshrined in law and custom (and imperfectly observed) is a prohibition against government censorship. It is not the censorship which is bad, it is using the power of law and the police to censor which is bad. (Additionally, common carriers such as the phone company, internet service providers, and the like are also strongly discouraged from censoring.)

However, there is nothing at all wrong with using non-governmental pressure (which, lacking the component of physical force, deserves differentiation from legal coercion) to censor speech, precisely because the speaker can, if he or she so chooses, resist such pressure.

I'm also very much opposed to the "disease" metaphor Steve introduces in his post. There is no objective standard at all by which to label some speech as "diseased" and some speech as "healthy"; to insist otherwise is paternalistic. It is precisely so that each individual can make that distinction subjectively that we forbid irresistible government censorship. But is is precisely so that each individual can act on that determination that we must allow individual and societal censorship.

All that being said, a consideration of Imus's employers verges into a gray area, a gray area which has come into existence only with the 20th century phenomenon of giant media conglomerates and monopolies. At what point does some publication cease competing in the marketplace of ideas and start competing in the marketplace of economic power? Even so, the consideration is not whether or not to censor, but rather when private censorship becomes de facto government or common carrier censorship.

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