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Monday, May 15, 2017

Justifying Censorship with Claims of Harm

David Bromwich · What are we allowed to say?

"Free speech is an aberration – it is best to begin by admitting that. In most societies throughout history and in all societies some of the time, censorship has been the means by which a ruling group or a visible majority cleanses the channels of communication to ensure that certain conventional practices will go on operating undisturbed...

The case for censorship seems to have begun in the need for strictures against blasphemy...

The doctrine that truth in an open debate has nothing to fear from falsehood had been supposed to apply above all to truths about historical events and new theories in the natural sciences. The sanction against Holocaust denial treats grown-ups – the gullible audience of the false claim – as children not yet in possession of their mature faculties. Many Europeans, it is supposed, were so effectively brainwashed two generations ago that, even now, they and their offspring can’t risk any exposure to falsehoods of a certain kind. They lack the mental resources to resist the intoxication. This pattern of enforcement presumably will not last for ever. When the Holocaust becomes a more distant memory – perhaps a century from now – the idea of denying that it took place will seem merely bizarre.

These partial exceptions apply to the sort of representation that many regard as a violent stimulant to weak minds. It is a narrow category and shows no sign of expanding. By contrast, the pressure to ban or denounce The Satanic Verses came from sensitivity to the feelings of an audience that would never be tempted to read it. The charge was no less imposing for that; the book was said to cause an injury, a wound – the relevant claim is that wrong words or gestures can amount to aggressive misrepresentation or ‘misrecognition’...

We don’t defend the right to publish offensive words because we think the author well-meaning. The point is that we distrust the ambition of those who would take away the right more than we distrust the character of those who write or speak recklessly...

The libertarian argument in support of publishing The Satanic Verses had been simple and radical: any book deserves protection from censorship. The sentimental secondary argument pressed by defenders of the book – that its satire originated in faith (of a sort) as deep as orthodoxy – was constructed by unbelievers to assist the image of unbelievers.

The Rushdie affair set the pattern for the Western reaction to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps because of the precedent, the grounds of defence in 2015 shifted at a faster pace from straightforward political affirmation of press liberty to a claim for the moral courage and stature of the artists. At the same time, the question that had lingered for 25 years – whether aesthetic ‘framing’ could somehow purge the noxious elements of a work – grew harder to answer in the case of satirical drawings that never pretended to the complexity of a postmodern novel...

A great proportion of satire in all ages has been directed by the haughty against the low and mean; consider the conduct of Pope towards his inferior Colley Cibber in The Dunciad. Satire may come from the palace as well as the gutter. Nor does it serve reliably as an antidote to dishonesty and stupidity. It may answer stupidity with mischief and pretence with ridicule, but its weapons are wielded in a cause whose motives have rarely been single-minded...

Freedom is the international face we prepare to meet the faces that we meet – and on that stage the great principle is often restated. The vainglory of adopting free speech as a banner-slogan is recognised but the temptation to strut is not altogether avoided. And yet in our private conduct, and especially in educational institutions where the manners of public debate are learned, the ethic of free speech has taken a very different turn. People know that their words are monitored, beyond their power to calibrate, and the respectable are more cautious than ever before. They take great care not to speak bluntly...

In this new regime of manners, it is impossible to overrate the part played by the soft despotism of social media. Our verbal surroundings online are created by affinity; and each day a hundred small choices close the circle more tightly. You don’t say wrong things: the sort of things that will startle your friends. Or rather, your friends by definition are the people who won’t be startled by anything you are likely to say. What are the implications for free speech? Doublethink, Orwell wrote apropos of life in Oceania, was the mental technique that allowed one to ‘hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them’. The process found its consummation in ‘the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.’...

On the subject of hate speech, for example, Garton Ash cites (with only a mild demur regarding the medical evidence) the judgment by the cultural theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic that ‘the immediate short-term harms of hate speech include rapid breathing, headaches, raised blood pressure, dizziness, rapid pulse rate, drug-taking, risk-taking behaviour and even suicide.’ He has to treat the nonsense with studied politeness because this sort of thing is all over the academic literature on free speech. And it is spreading: a letter to the New York Times on 31 July from an administrator in the city’s Education Department denounces a reading-skills exam that used an extract from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence; the passage in question begins, ‘It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess Olenska had “lost her looks”’; the complaint is that ‘any girl taking the exam’ will experience the mention of losing your looks as a ‘psychic punch’ that impairs concentration on the rest of the exam...

Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments. Few have felt oppressed by the rigours of censorship; more have been interested in censoring harmful speech by politicians or members of the ‘dominant culture’ (which includes white people of humble means). Taking note of the recent protests that forced the ‘disinviting’ of commencement speakers at Brown, Johns Hopkins, Williams and Haverford, the censorious monitoring at Brandeis University of a teacher who said that Mexican labourers were once called ‘wetbacks’, and many similar incidents over the last three years, the sociologist Jonathan Cole pointed out in the Atlantic that the students at these elite establishments, including the most vigilant of the speech monitors, have followed all their lives ‘a straight and narrow path’. They have never deviated into ‘a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood – to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes’. They have always been on good behaviour; and they don’t regret it. They are therefore ill-equipped to defend anything the authorities or their activist classmates tell them should count as bad behaviour. These people have grown up, Cole adds, in the years since 2001 when the schools and the popular culture, in America above all, kept up an incessant drone about personal safety, the danger of terrorist attacks, and the opacity of every culture to every other culture. It is a generation in which the word ‘fragile’ is routinely applied to daily shifts of mood.

Few of them have had the experience of being a minority of one, or a little more than one. Admittedly most people have never been in that situation (including, perhaps, most of the people one might call good). But a new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion. Social media refer to these people as ‘trolls’ and sometimes as ‘stalkers’; any flicker of curiosity about their ideas is pre-empted by a question that is not a question: ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Meanwhile, those inside a given group have their settled audience of friends and followers, to adopt the revealing jargon of Facebook and Twitter: a self-sufficient collectivity and happy to stay that way. To be ‘friended’ in the Facebook world is to be safe – walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections. An unsafe space is a space where, if they knew you were there, they might unfriend you...

Where Facebook has a thumbs-up symbol – meaning ‘I like this and kind of agree!’ – but no thumbs-down, who will risk an exorbitant word? The cost would be a forced exit from the group; and the group is the lungs that make speech possible. A provocative and half-disagreeable remark amounts to a declaration of the intention to defect. To someone who has grown up in such a setting, the older protections of individual speech are an irrelevance.

At Yale University last Halloween, a diversity administrator sent around a notice to students to mind that their costumes didn’t cause offence or encroach on sensibilities of gender, race or culture. The associate master of a residential college responded with an email addressed to the students in her college, saying that Halloween was a time for a lark and everyone should lighten up. Even a decade ago, both the cautionary letter and the reply would have seemed hilarious for their condescension and paternalism. In the present climate, it was the reply that led to an immediate demand by some residents of the college that the associate master be sacked (and with her the master, her husband, who had failed to keep her in line). An undergraduate writing with much emotion in a student newspaper testified that the permission granted to culturally appropriative and possibly insulting costumes had deprived her of a safe space; after reading the wretched email, she found herself unable to eat, sleep or do homework in a building where authority had been ceded to the person who wrote it. From the point of view of her group, this student was speaking common sense. Who would want to smash a formed consensus for inoffensive costumes? On the same Halloween of 2015, at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, photos of two female students dressed in sombreros, ponchos and moustaches set off a protest march of thousands, including activists from neighbouring campuses, and the scandal prompted the dean of the college to resign...

What drove the early modern proponents of free speech to deny the legitimacy of any form of censorship? The heart of Milton’s attack in Areopagitica lies in his refusal to claim innocence for any human activity. It is the presumption of innocence by the censor that most deeply informs the zeal for silencing opinions that are thought to be intolerable...

To try to purify ourselves, by renouncing all exposure to dangerous words, is to legislate for the preservation of our innocence, but Milton doubts that this can be done. The censor holds a very different view: impurity invades or insinuates from outside, it is a kind of pollution, and the duty of moral guardians is to secure and deliver us... But the benefits obtainable through censorship turn out to be delusive once we recognise that good and evil ‘grow up together almost inseparably’. So Milton concludes that censorship cannot make us better. Impurity, after all, springs from us, among others. Any law devised to winnow out the noxious materials can only weaken the very people it protects...

The real antagonist of On Liberty is not intellectual backwardness. It is rather what Mill calls ‘our merely social intolerance’: a form of tyranny possible to every person, which, if we obeyed its promptings, would become a lever for ‘intellectual pacification’ and ‘the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind’...

'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.'

Quote this passage to a roomful of academics today, withhold the name of Mill and not one in three will credit that any intelligent person could ever think something so improbable. If the ‘power of coercion’ is taken to mean a painful use of force, that, they will agree, is bad. But by coercion Mill also means the affixing of any penalty at all to dissent from what the majority supposes are the components of a better world. ‘The power itself is illegitimate.’ Mill speaks here neither for truth nor for utility, and gives value to something separate: the right of the person who wants to speak not to be silenced. This insight of On Liberty is consonant with the Mill of The Subjection of Women rather than Utilitarianism. There are things that are owing to persons, he believes, simply because they are persons. Freedom from subordination because of one’s sex or sect is an irreducible good. So is the freedom to know your mind by speaking your mind to another person. Mill hates pacification more than he loves progress. His own brief comment makes the best gloss on the passage: ‘Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil.’...

In 1964 the aim of the [Free Speech Movement] protests had been to remove the last barriers on ‘unrestricted’ free speech. Savio was always explicit about this. Fifty years later, the chancellor of UC Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, sent a public letter to faculty, students and staff advising how best to honour the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. They should always remember that they live in a diversely constituted ‘community’ where a standard of ‘respect’ was a precondition of ‘safe’ use of the privilege of free speech. Above all, they must take care not to speak with unseemly passion... This is what Mill meant by ‘quiet suppression’.

Two contradictory thoughts now dominate the Anglo-American approach to feelings in the context of public debate. For the speaker, feelings must be restrained – a neutral style of rational euphemism is recommended. On the other hand, the emotion felt by the listener in response to a speech must be treated as authoritative, unarguable, closed to correction or modification by other witnesses. ‘The group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place’; so, too, the person who listens and testifies on behalf of his or her group. Reproach from a traumatised listener admits of no answer, only apology, even though apologies are only interesting in proportion as they are spontaneous and warranted. The apology that is demanded and forked out has the moral stature of hush money: it makes a fetish of insincerity. With some help from the jargon of political and religious heresy, one would say these are not so much apologies as formal acts of self-criticism and recantation. Thus far, they have mostly been extorted in communities the size of a guild or a college. At the same time the rigour of exclusion within these mini-communities is itself a cause of the near autistic breakdown of political speech in America...

An example [of microaggression] often cited is the laying on the non-dominant person the burden to testify about her experience from her special place in a spectrum of diversity. Any word or gesture that is taken to imply such singling out is a microaggression if the person addressed thinks that it is. This makes for a double bind: a white student passing a black and not looking at him could plausibly be charged with microaggression. Replay the same encounter, but with an unusually long look – say, five or six seconds – and the charge of microaggression is just as plausible.

How should the infraction be punished? By re-education, it has been suggested, in the form of additional diversity training and sensitivity training. Persuaded by this concept and by a therapeutic literature and practice that cater to it, young people of more than one race have come to think themselves uniquely delicate and exposed. The counterpart of the microaggression is the microtrauma which makes up in nearness and frequency what it lacks in intensity and duration. Here again one is struck by the action of displacement. The two American presidents since 2001 have said over and over that their primary duty was ‘the safety of the American people’. No earlier presidents spoke in quite this way: the oath of office contains not a word about safety but commits the chief magistrate to uphold the constitution. Safety in argument or debate is of course an unintelligible demand, but the trouble with those who think they want it isn’t that they are incapable of giving reasons backed by evidence. Rather, they have had no practice in using words to influence people unlike themselves...

‘Debate is not a death sentence,’ Beatrix Campbell recently observed in a letter in the LRB (14 July), ‘and feeling offended is not the same as feeling or being exterminated. There is a human right to life, but there is no right to be not offended.’ The truth is that in some areas we are close to excogitating a right not to feel offended. In America, the definitions governing what counts as sexual harassment are wide enough to have let in a troop of other causes... Feeling counts because feeling in the offended person is a dispositive fact: proof (which needs no further support) that a crime was committed. We are not far in America – is it just America? – from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves. Possibly the best counteraction is to repudiate membership in a species that could want to do this. Misanthropy and the rejection of censorship here join forces unambiguously.

What a distinguished and very dead philosopher referred to as the religion of humanity may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions. With the joint arrival of multicultural etiquette and globalisation, we have come to dwell increasingly on hidden injuries that threaten the norms and civilities desirable for people everywhere. This involves a fresh dedication to the discovery of faults of manners and usage that could cause friction. But, as was observed half a century ago by Nigel Dennis – an irreplaceable satirist of political and religious fanaticism – ‘Our sins are rarely as disgusting as we suppose them to be, and never as disgusting as the attention we pay them.’ Nor do we know ourselves well enough to be sure that our corrections are correct. The narcissism of humanity remains as conspicuous as ever at a moment when we can least afford the indulgence...

Reports of bodily harm at the enunciation of unpleasant words, and of clinical depression from exposure to despised historical names in public places, suggest a delicacy that would render politics eventually impossible"


If "hate speech" causes "harm" like rapid breathing, what about the conservative offended by gay men in public?
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