The Consolations of Censorship
You are allowed to scream “Fire!” in a crowd, despite your consequences.
I am fanatical about only one thing, one general idea: the absolute freedom of speech.
When I say ‘absolute,’ I really mean it. “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater? You can say it, sure, but there may be a number of unforeseen consequences.
You could get trampled in the panic, or somebody else might. You can expect to get arrested, not so much for your words, but the actions that you provoked. Inciting a riot. You have disrupted business, and caused serious danger to a crowd of people.
Of course, in court, we could try to counter the charges by asking if the other people in the theater are stupid. It’s dark in there. Who wouldn’t notice a fire? And if there really is a fire, where is the crime? Freedom of speech is too important to condemn because it caused a few people some unpleasantness. You cannot legislate against being an asshole. That is the first protection of our very first right.
“You have to deal with the consequences,” that is the key warning to freedom of speech. People have the freedom to respond to whatever you have to say. Some smart ass troublemaker might wish to keep this in mind when they choose to say something they believe will piss people off. Sure, you might provoke strong reactions, but then, anything might happen.
I’ve gotten into quite a bit of trouble over the years for things I’ve said. Often I’ve deserved it, some misstated or misspent gaggle of words painting a vastly different picture of what I had meant to say. Other times I have intended exactly what I said, trying to hurt, or even harm the target of my vitriol. I usually expect a comeback. Sometimes people are so offended that your words are followed by gaping silence. You realize that you have gone too far.
My wife tells me I have no filter, and this is usually true. Being such an anti-censorship fanatic, I have never muffled myself around my children. They might be in the car with me — “Move, you fucking asshole!” I shout at some car in front of me. Or they’re listening, loudly, to some wretched song teenagers like: “Turn that shit down!” I may add how embarrassed they will be for liking “that fucking crap,” in a few years time, and perhaps, if truly incensed, I may use the literary analytic skills I honed in college, and explain why the singer is “a talentless fucking moron!”
Of course this is not unique to me as a parent, and I have heard other mothers and fathers say far worse, unforgivable things to their children, the sort of traumatic declarations that will lead the child to years of therapy. I would never say such things (I would certainly write them — a former friend of mine said this to his nine year old son: “My God! Why are you so stupid? Why can’t you do anything right?” This cruelty was actually followed by a “I wish we had gotten the abortion. That’s what I wanted!”)
Personal tastes and morality is not censorship. Once those values are imposed on another, then it becomes a problem. But racist chatter, or sexist jokes, gay disgust, religious bigotry, unconscionable hatred, none of these are outlawed, and they never should be. No matter how offended you are, we need to remember that people are free to be assholes.
I was recently banned from Twitter. I had been suspended twice before this, for a week each time. The reasons themselves are murky. Was I an asshole? Absolutely. Had I mocked anyone, or laughed at their deeply held beliefs? I thought that this is what Twitter is mostly for. Was I racist or sexist or degenerative towards any specific group? Absolutely not. This is not because I was censoring myself. This is where that ‘personal morality’ thing applies. My philosophy has always been to disregard such superficial differences between people. Get to know someone. You’ll find a much better reason to hate them.
As frustrating as it is to endure such silencing, this is not actually censorship. All of the people (probably some of you) who rage about websites like Facebook blocking them, or eliminating their friends, or any of the other complications that make it more difficult to express yourselves in a public forum, I’m sorry, but this is not censorship. I was not censored by Twitter. These chatterboxes are owned and copy written by gigantic corporate interests. They set the rules. They even tell you what you are not allowed to say on their sites.
People ‘block’ others all the time. They do not wish to hear what you are saying, as is their right. A corporation, no matter how much we intend to defy it, does not offer absolute freedom, like some federal governments. It is theirs. They can ban you on a whim, with no justification. Even because they don’t like your politics. In other words, they can behave just as irrationally as the rest of us and block you for no valid reason. In many ways they own your online identity.
Imagine writing into a newspaper editorial column (back when newspapers existed). Say you write “Donald J Trump is a motherfucking — excuse me: daughter fucking scumbag!” Will they publish this? They might laugh in agreement, or even scream with partisan outrage “This stupid fuck has no idea what they’re talking about!” But they will choose not to publish this. You can say it in a town square through a bullhorn, but a company can simply ignore you.
Freedom of speech is SPEECH. Any stupid thing can dribble out of our mouths. But freedom also means that no one needs to listen. So listen to me: freedom, sadly, has its limitations in a consumer society where everything has a cost. We must deal with the consequences, and sometimes, well, it feels like censorship.