The Self-Perpetuating Logic Of Censorship

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29 Responses

  1. Dave Fernig says:

    Absolutely and the next step is 'self censorship', whereby fear of the censor brings about a much harsher censorship, something that was well documented in the Soviet Union. The Soviet censor did not have much to do, people did it themselves.

  2. Iain says:

    The Liberal Democrats are the only of our three parties who really promote free speech. They're also the most 'right on' 'progressive' on multiculturalism and not hurting anyone's fee-fees. So let's see which of their principles plays out here.

  3. Danbc says:

    The UK has some oddities – Christians were protected under blasphemy laws. Jews were protected under race-relation laws. It was unjust that Muslims did not have similar protection. Obviously (to me at least) we should have removed some laws, not added more laws to reduce freedom of speech.

  4. James Pollock says:

    Where can we find the dividing line between urging individuals and groups to limit offensive speech and/or actions, and urging other people to join us in asking individuals and groups to limit their offensive speech and/or action? (I'm pretty sure I can find the dividing line between that second one and urging the use of government power to limit the offensive speech and.or actions).
    Somewhere in that spectrum we move from advocacy of our positions (which freedom of speech is intended to promote) to the fringes of censorship, but this essay suggests that you and I draw that line in a different place.

    Or perhaps I'm just inherently dubious of slippery slope arguments.

  5. Sami Liedes says:

    I think the argument used by at least the European Court of Human Rights that in some societies and volatile situations some kinds of speech can threaten democracy itself, and as without democracy there is not likely to be freedom of speech either, it doesn't make sense to let all the freedoms be destroyed because of an overly idealistic treatment of the issues.

    I don't think that argument is completely bogus. As far as I can tell, even the US has a history of limiting freedom of speech in occupied countries until they stabilize (like post-WW2 Germany). I feel that an argument can be plausibly made that an all-or-nothing treatment of freedom of speech is easy to make in a stable society, but often unworkable when a large portion of a society in fact favor goals that would destroy democracy and freedom of speech.

  6. Anonsters says:

    I believe Catholics should unite in asking that popehat.com be punished, because I'm Catholic, and every time I try to come here, I have to go through step 1 of accidentally typing "popehate.com."

    WHY DO YOU HATE THE POPE?

  7. James Pollock says:

    I believe Catholics should unite in asking that popehat.com be punished

    Who are you seeing as doing the punishing? Don't Catholics have a system in place where they sit back and wait, secure in the knowledge that those who disagree with them are destined for eternal punishment, in a lake of burning sulfur? Isn't adding more punishment just piling on?

  8. Anonsters says:

    @James Pollock:

    Well, there's always the Holy Office, I guess?

  9. Éibhear says:

    The petition page makes reference to "… derogatory and disrespectful cartoons of the Prophet Jesus and Prophet Muhammed…"

    However, Christians believe Jesus to be devine, and to suggest that he is merely a prophet is offensive. Isn't it? Blasphemous, too, according to the modern, popular, incorrect use of the word.

    Should there not be another petition on change.org calling for this offensive petition to be removed as offensive?

  10. Lizard says:

    As far as I can tell, even the US has a history of limiting freedom of speech in occupied countries until they stabilize (like post-WW2 Germany).

    The US has a history of a lot of things that should not be used as a justification for other nations to do the same things. (Hell, there's a lot of things we're doing now that ought to be relegated to history, but that's another thread…)

    To answer another point, the idea that speech is a threat to democracy reveals a basic fear of democracy: If you don't trust the (majority of the) people to recognize a wrong idea, and reject it, and so fear the idea must be suppressed, you do not believe in democracy, period. Which, if you're willing to man up and SAY that, is one thing, but you can't simultaneously hold democracy as an ideal and then artificially limit the ideas that may be presented to the people for their consideration.

  11. ShelbyC says:

    "I think the argument used by at least the European Court of Human Rights that in some societies and volatile situations some kinds of speech can threaten democracy itself, and as without democracy there is not likely to be freedom of speech either, it doesn't make sense to let all the freedoms be destroyed because of an overly idealistic treatment of the issues."

    Are all the freedoms but one, to be destroyed? Sounds like the excuse Lincoln used to ignore Taney's writ of habeas corpus. This barely worked when the union was in danger.

  12. David C says:

    I think the argument used by at least the European Court of Human Rights that in some societies and volatile situations some kinds of speech can threaten democracy itself, and as without democracy there is not likely to be freedom of speech either

    Today's post involved the UK. Do you think the UK is seriously in danger of this?

    And frankly, the restriction of free speech tends to "threaten democracy itself" far more than free speech itself does. Heck, democracy itself can become almost meaningless if you can't talk about certain issues.

  13. Jacob Schmidt says:

    Muslims demanding official censorship have have asserted this justification for censorship before. Why shouldn't they? It's an appeal to the Western value of equality and fairness. How can we be solicitous of offense to one group, but not offense to another? We're not racists or something, are we? Are we only protecting the people we like?

    This argument (theirs and, by extension, yours) requires that we hold the holocaust denial and Jesus & Mo equivalent.

    I don't really agree with hate speech laws, but if I worried about every law or precedent that someone might try to misuse, nothing would ever get passed.

  14. James Pollock says:

    the idea that speech is a threat to democracy reveals a basic fear of democracy: If you don't trust the (majority of the) people to recognize a wrong idea, and reject it, and so fear the idea must be suppressed, you do not believe in democracy, period. Which, if you're willing to man up and SAY that, is one thing, but you can't simultaneously hold democracy as an ideal and then artificially limit the ideas that may be presented to the people for their consideration.

    The fun thing is that a great many people speak of "democracy" as shorthand for "popular rule", but actual governmental systems don't implement democracy for exactly the reason you cite. The main problem usually turns out to be a conflict between what we want NOW vs. what we want long-term.

    Take, for example, the constitutional republic. A constitution is enacted to provide the guiding principles for the government, and includes provisions for A) creating laws, and B) altering the constitution itself. Neither is "democratic" in the strictest definition of "democracy", because they are done representationally rather than directly.
    However, many states include a provision for enacting laws directly by popular vote (the initiative) or to alter laws already existing by popular vote (the referral or referendum). In either case, it is possible that the people will vote something for themselves in the short-term (tax relief) that they don't actually want in the long-term (service cuts caused by tax relief). Of course, representational democracy can't solve this problem, either… the legislative branch does seem to keep passing laws that turn out to be incompatible with the constitution under which the legislature is empowered to act.
    This difference between short-term vs. long-term is why it takes a supermajority to get a constitutional amendment through. Strictly speaking, supermajority requirements aren't "democratic" (although they really are in the long term view) but they are if "democratic" doesn't mean strict democracy but is a placeholder for "the government gets its power from the consent of the governed", which is how it is actually used most commonly.
    Or, you can do it pedantically, as is the case when people (usually Republicans arguing with Democrats, though certainly not exclusively so) point out that the United States is NOT a democracy, it is a republic.

    That said, I think that there are times when speech can be an existential threat to democracy, although that hasn't been seen in the U.S. for a hundred and fifty years. (Again, pedantically, pointing out that the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by many of the same people who passed the First Amendment. Presumably, they were well aware of the Intent of the Framers.)

  15. The War Hamster says:

    The problem is that censorship is legally and culturally self-perpetuating. Once you accept that it is legitimate to ban speech because it is offensive, or ban ideas as historically dangerous, that decision is used both as a legal precedent and — invoking the values of fairness and equality — as an argument for banning other offensive speech. […] Once we start using the force of the state to punish people for being offensive, we should expect everyone who has ever been offended to come knocking on our door, asking "What about me? Don't I have feelings?"

    Ken, You seem to be describing two points connected via a kind of causative expectancy ("We should expect everyone…"): on the one hand, that certain jurisprudence permits of a slippery slope and, on the other, that some people—in a fit, to borrow a word from Stanley Cavell, of emotion and offense—commit the slippery slope fallacy. You describe, that is, a state of affairs where slippery slope jurisprudence begets slippery slope fallacies. This is all very lofty and abstract and may or may not be the case.

    Even if it is the case: why does this petition fit the above description? Isn't it more apt and in conformity with Occam's Razor to take the petitioners at their word? I do not need censorship, freedom of speech, or slippery slopes to know that this petition has, with some degree of probability, no basis. To wit: the petitioners (i) posit that a "religously offensive" action is a violation of the rule that members of the Liberal Democrats shall "treat others with respect" (Article 3.1(b) of the Liberal Democrats' Federal Constitution) and (ii) offer an emotional, and even at times confusing, plea that appeals to the band wagon. The petitioners admit that the former is technical and controversial, and the latter is, quite simply, a logical fallacy. Subject to a rigorous analysis of the technical and controversial issue, it is quite likely that the petition has no basis, even if we were to invoke the values of fairness and equality.

  16. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    I wonder what would happen if a government, instead of trying to censor somebody who (for example) denied that the Holocaust happened, simply made a public announcement; "This person has denied that the Holocaust, whereby Nazi Germany systematically murdered minions of people, happened, This marks him as an imbecile or a swine, or both. Decent people will have as little to do with him as possible".

    Any thoughts?

  17. ZarroTsu says:

    I'm confused. How is saying God is above petty arguments a spark for petty arguments?

    And in topic of censorship logic, I'd probably be one to side with censoring not hate speech per se, but things such as death threats or (the R-word) threats. I understand thoroughly that these censorships would fail (both defensively and offensively), but I can't help but stay worried about it. Not in a 'Think-Of-The-Children' sort of way, but in a 'Ten-Thousand-People-Tell-You-To-Die' sort of way. There are ways to mitigate it, but humans aren't capable of dealing with such things head-on.

    Of course, that's a different topic of discussion entirely, I suppose.

  18. pillsy says:

    They're making a pretty crummy argument, especially by building the case for dropping this guy on the basis of laws in other countries, since Holocaust denial isn't illegal in the UK (and the UK has refused to extradite people on charges of Holocaust denial). "This is other thing is illegal in France and Germany, so you should drop this dude as a candidate for elections in the UK for saying stuff that offends us," is basically nonsense, and on top of that, it's not remotely hard to deflect the argument on the grounds that laws against Holocaust denial are dangerous to free speech and fundamentally counterproductive to boot.

    Still, I'm not sure this is much of a case study in censorship. Political parties really do have a responsibility and need to police their candidates' speech on some level, and there are certainly some offensive comments that really should get a candidate kicked to the curb. This petition seems like part of a basically healthy debate over where the LibDems ought to be drawing the line, even if the argument presented is weak and the petitioners seem, at first blush, seem to want to draw the line in a silly place.

  19. piperTom says:

    Sami Liedes (Jan 21 @4:03 pm) "… without democracy there is not likely to be freedom of speech either, it doesn't make sense to let all the freedoms be destroyed because of an overly idealistic treatment of the issues."

    It's the classic argument that the ends justify the means. Or 'do good by doing wrong.' It's a bad argument that can be used to justify endless evil. No — do good by doing good; laudable means justify themselves.

  20. Sami Liedes says:

    I think one of the reasons why the American political system is stable enough to withstand rather limitless freedom of speech is that it's not really a democracy to the extent it exists in many European countries (UK is a poor example, it's almost a dystopia).

    Your two-party, winner-takes-it-all system ensures that new political ideas remain irrelevant until and unless the gatekeepers in either party lets them into the party and therefore into real politics. So instead of a real democracy you have two different fairly stable political choices that more or less respect the current bi-dictatorial system.

  21. Grandy says:

    "limitless freedom of speech" is not something that needs to be "withstood".

  22. James Pollock says:

    How is saying God is above petty arguments a spark for petty arguments?

    There are as many opinions about what God thinks as there are people who hold them, but everyone thinks God agrees with THEM. A good many of them object to what some (or all) of the other people think. There's no good way to poke this hornet's nest, unless your goal is to stir up unrest.

  23. James Pollock says:

    It's the classic argument that the ends justify the means. Or 'do good by doing wrong.' It's a bad argument that can be used to justify endless evil.

    Really? It sounded more like the Kobayashi Maru Scenario. One the one hand, do nothing and lose, on the other, take action and lose.

    Or a dramatazation of the old saying, "the lesser of two evils is still evil."

  24. David Schwartz says:

    @Sami Liedes: It's not a coincidence that the two parties always have close to 50% support (well, 50% of electoral votes anyway)) nationwide and the outcomes of nationwide elections are rarely certain. If any party had an overwhelming majority, it could safely take on more unpopular positions that its base wants. Any position that will allow a political party to get increased support stands a good chance of adoption by a political party because that will allow it to take on more of what it really wants and still hold 50% nationwide.

  25. Sami Liedes says:

    @David Schwartz: True, of course; the parties need to alter their policies too. Still it seems rather obvious to me that a degenerate 2-party system that enforces that no credible politics of any kind can come outside of the two major parties (that can and do work as gatekeepers in what kind of politicians they take into the party) is a major impediment to democracy. Can you point to me why I'm mistaken or why such a system is good?

    I can see only two good aspects of such a 2-party system, both which seem somewhat antithetical to democracy: First, having only one party in power at a time (true, it's complicated a bit by having separate branches of government) can ensure some efficiency by silencing the opposition at any given time; second, it is a more stable arrangement (due to the gatekeeper function of the parties) in that new populist policies cannot so easily vote into power some party that wishes (whether explicitly or only implicitly) to abolish either democracy or some of the fundamental rights. And I think that's also why such a system can in identical circumstances tolerate extremist expression more than other systems without it becoming a real threat to the governance model and fundamental rights.

    But maybe I miss some of the good sides, or maybe there's a fault in my logic (some other than just an unjustified belief in a majority of a people somehow magically wanting to protect the democratic state of affairs in all circumstances, or the view that with some limitations to freedom of expression it's better to have a dictatorship).

    By the way, the dynamics of n-party systems is an interesting topic. It seems to me that a winner-takes-it-all or other kind of 2-party system inevitably leads to polarization of the parties. In my country I have seen having 3 major parties (and lots of small ones) to lead to the 3 major parties becoming very similar, because in any government one of them is going to need either of the other two (and usually a number of the smaller ones) to form majority government, so none of them can afford to be much more distant than the other. Recently a fourth major party has risen, and I wait with interest to see how it affects the dynamics. In retrospect the dynamics of 2- and 3-party systems seem so obvious to me that maybe there could be a theoretical result, but I'm not aware of any.

  26. David C says:

    @Sami: The main problem I have with multiple party systems is that they tend to be implemented so that people vote for a party instead of a candidate. If Party X has candidate Y that I like and candidate Z that I hate, I can't properly express that when I vote.

  27. Christoph says:

    The technical details of the voting process don't really depend on the system (proportional (with/without threshold) vs. winner-takes-all, with the latter favoring two-party systems).

    You can have voting for candidates instead of parties with a proportional system. You can even combine for-party and for-candidate voting in the same election if you manage to come up with good rules on how seats are assigned.

  28. albert says:

    From the land of "Punch" magazine and (former) hotbed of satire? Those UK "journalists" need to read the wiki article on 'satire'. It's quite well done.

    Was it fear that caused the editing of the cartoon? I don't want to be shot or blown up, either, but if that's the case, why bother covering Muslim issues at all? If there are groups causing public safety issues, they should be dealt with by police/legal action.

    I suggest everyone read the Sam Harris book "The End Of Faith", for a proper understanding of the effects religion has on governments and citizens.

    The 'anti-offending' laws in Europe are absurd. Are they living on Sesame Street over there?

    Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from criticism, nor does it mean freedom to do whatever you want because God says it's OK. When religionists try to give their beliefs the force of law, then it's time to eliminate religion.

  1. January 29, 2014

    […] his supporters did" [Nick Cohen on UK's Maajid Nawaz t-shirt controversy via @secularright, Ken at Popehat] Prison for "blasphemous" Facebook posting, in Greece, not Pakistan or Sudan […]