Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rhetorical Censorship

Censorship is, in the descriptive sense, any action which tends to restrict speech, to leave some thoughts unspoken (or unwritten or unpublished). It ranges from the threat to imprison or otherwise employ the power of the state to coercively prevent someone from speaking to an editor's decision to not publish some article or commentary, even to an individuals decision not to speak his own mind.

Not all censorship is intolerable. The First Amendment notwithstanding, even coercive government censorship is relatively uncontroversial in some cases, notably libel and criminal conspiracy. But it is still a deep tenet of liberal values that censorship is objectionable enough that we should restrict its public application to only the most egregiously objectionable and immediately dangerous speech.

I have noticed recently that a form of censorship is rearing its ugly head in supposedly liberal circles: Rhetorical censorship, public speech which asserts that some ideas should not be spoken. (Rhetorical censorship is, of course, already commonplace in batshit crazy conservative circles.)

I want to distinguish rhetorical censorship from simple criticism. Simple criticism is arguing (or just calling) some idea false, erroneous, ugly or just plain stupid. Simple criticism is censorious: we ordinarily do not wish to make false or stupid statements. I wish to restrict rhetorical censorship to the sense of directly asserting that some ideas should not be spoken, and the implication that some idea should not be spoken irrespective of its intrinsic qualities.

I find rhetorical censorship, in this narrow sense, entirely objectionable.

Here some examples of rhetorical censorship in liberal circles:
In addition to being demonstrably false, this view is an awful and appalling thing to say, and [Dawkins] clearly deserves strong criticism for it. ["New Atheism"]
Notice the phrasing of the proviso: In addition to being demonstrably false. Why this proviso? Isn't being demonstrably false sufficient reason to deserve criticism? Clearly DJW wishes to condemn Dawkins for reasons other than the truth or falsity of his statement. DJW thus explicitly moves his remarks from simple criticism to rhetorical censorship.

DJW immediately contradicts himself: "A society that contains deep disagreements regarding these sorts of questions will be benefited by deep pluralism and ecumenicalism." Apparently "deep pluralism and ecumenicalism" does not include, at least in DJW's view, value judgments he himself finds disagreeable.

Another form of rhetorical censorship is drawing obviously unwarranted or false inferences from some idea, and condemning the idea based on those inferences. Robert Farley's follow-up to DJW's comments illustrates this form of rhetorical censorship:
Dawkins statement on Catholicism... isn't just illiberal; it's virtually totalitarian. ... Dawkins is, essentially, arguing that raising children as Catholic is worse than sexually abusing them. Since we all agree that sexually abusing children merits the violent retribution of the state, the next logical step is pretty much unavoidable.
The next logical step — on batshit crazy alternative definitions of "logical" — presumably being that raising children as Catholic merits the violent retribution of the state. The supposed logic here is so specious that simple error fails as an explanation; we can only decide whether gross stupidity or intentional mendacity is the more charitable explanation.

(We can, of course, apply the same reasoning to Farley's own comments. Farley calls Dawkins "virtually totalitarian". Since we all agree that totalitarianism justifies not only the violent retribution of the state but actual warfare, the next logical step is pretty much unavoidable.)

Like DJW, Farley goes on to contradict himself and defines liberalism "as, in large part, a political recognition of the fact of pluralism." Again, we have to suppose that Farley considers that pluralism does not encompass strong negative value judgments, at least those he finds disagreeable.

We see another example in James F. Elliott's exposition on liberal commenters who are "ready to drown Saletan in the waters of reactionary tolerance" for his egregiously stupid series on the (nonexistent) correlation between ethnicity and intelligence. Again, it is one thing to criticize Saletan for being mistaken (and grossly negligent); it is another to criticize him as being racist for merely discussing the subject. If reality were racist (which, according to sound science, it is not), so much the worse for our ethical beliefs about race.

It is blatant hypocrisy to condemn any speech for being somehow illiberal. Liberalism and pluralism holds that every idea, even the idea that liberalism itself is bad, deserves to be honestly condemned or praised on its merits.

We all take some shortcuts. I judge right off the bat that anyone who affirms a correlation between race and intelligence, a global conspiracy of Jewish bankers, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the existence of God is either a moron, a liar or an infantile shit-disturber. Not because it's inherently bad to affirm these beliefs, regardless of their truth, but rather because I've investigated these ideas thoroughly enough that I'm satisfied they're actually false.

It is unwarranted, however, to infer from these "shortcuts" an approval for rhetorical censorship, that certain kinds of criticism are inherently objectionable and illiberal and should not for that reason be spoken. Every new argument must be evaluated on its inherent merits, not on the mere fact of its criticality. Without this basic tenet, liberalism is incoherent and begins to label merely a new brand of totalitarian dogma.

1 comment:

  1. A number of good points here for those in the debate realm. "Rhetorical censorship" is a good term for this all-too-common tactic. I think you could also call it "reductio ad absurdum" with the context left out or misrepresented, particularly in Dawkins' Catholic/child abuse comment. His context was that the teaching will disturb the children as much as physical abuse. If he wanted Catholics to be imprisoned I think he would have said so.


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