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Censorship and “censorship”

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This letter to Harper’s is signed by a lot of academic and literary heavyweights, many of them people whose work I generally admire (also Bari Weiss).

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Missing from this cri de coeur are any . . . specific examples. What are we talking about here exactly? After all, public shaming and ostracism are in fact perfectly warranted in many instances, as I’m sure all these worthies would agree in the abstract. So platitudes about how “intolerance of opposing views” is bad are, again in the abstract, completely useless.

But of course naming specific examples would raise the possibility that the examples don’t actually illustrate the airy (and absurd) principle that intolerance of ideas is always bad.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.

This is some right fine rhetorical sleight of hand, which tries to slip in the claim that “censorship” by social disapproval is comparable to censorship by the government. It isn’t. At all.

Government censorship is backed by the violence of the state. There is all the difference in the world between a newspaper deciding that your views are too noxious to be allowed on its pages, and a government deciding that they’re too noxious to be allowed in print, period. This distinction is absolutely fundamental, and eliding it is a disastrous and increasingly common mistake.

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

Note that this lovely sentiment, repeated more often than the letter “a” in the Library of Babel, is never ever supported by any evidence. It’s just one of those things that we know is true apparently, always and everywhere, as opposed to, much more plausibly, sometimes and and in some places.

We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.

This is called begging the question.

Beyond all this, do these titans of our intellectual life really believe that the range of acceptable public debate is narrower now in America than it was in . . . whoops, once again we don’t have any reference points or examples or data or anything but a bunch of ahistorical handwringing about the Bad Things That Are Happening Now.

But this kind of thing is always popular with people who don’t like to be criticized, which is a category that always includes everybody, especially writers and other brain toilers.

ETA: Scott reminds me that the editors at Harper’s are skating on some thin ice here.

. . . DamnYankeesLGM in comments:

It’s just all top to bottom nonsense. It’s nothing more than a reactionary defense of hierarchy, filled with the abstract and ambiguous lack of any definition and consisting almost entirely a guttural shout by the aggrieved that they are not controlling the discourse.

There’s an unstated assumption here that some people have not just a right to be heard, but that its important to society that they be heard. Other people do not have such a right. That’s all this is – there is a group of people who are “in” and others who are not. The signatories of this letter are all in the “in” group (at least as they conceive it), and so its of critical importance that they remain heard in society. The rabble are not, and how dare they try to wield any influence or even dare to make me – the important signatory of this letter – feel in any way bad or make be second guess myself.

What complete nonsense from top to bottom, and shame any liberal who signal boosts this “issue”.

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