Reassessing censorship

The word “censorship” is laden with negative connotations, bringing to mind dystopian threats to the right to freedom of speech and expression. Allowing censorship in a society can absolutely open up a can of worms that may lead to injustice or even be a form of injustice in itself. Still, I would resist the idea that censorship is inherently unacceptable. In fact, I would argue that more censorship in American society could be beneficial to our social and political world. 

Although the word “censorship” sounds — and often is — scary,  there are a variety of different forms of censorship that already exist in our society, permeating our lives without impinging upon our personal freedoms. A prime example would be the precedent set by the  Schenck v. United States Supreme Court decision, which ruled that the First Amendment is not applicable to incendiary language which could lead to actual danger, panic or harm. The classic example of such a statement is yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. 

Another sense in which we already accept censorship is the restriction of the use of slurs over time. Of course, this restriction exists largely on a personal basis, and there are many people who still weaponize problematic terms as a means of oppression. Still, recent years have brought about a greater social stigma for using slurs, which does act as a deterrent to many. Because it is now possible to face consequences ranging from losing your employment or scholarships to being relentlessly harassed on social media, using offensive language is not a protected freedom; thus, it is censorship. 

Just because telling people to not use slurs is a form of censorship does not mean that we should all be free to use offensive language — in fact, my point is the antithesis of that sentiment. I mean to articulate that this limitation is a restriction of freedom of speech, but not a restriction of freedom of people. Rather, by restricting use of slurs, the people to whom the words refer can enjoy greater freedom. Thus, in this instance, censorship is beneficial.

A parallel argument could be made for the censoring of the expression of the rhetoric which underlies slurs. Any writing or speech that is definitively racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise intolerant to particular identities must be handled very carefully. Although understanding hateful discourse is a necessary part of overcoming or combatting it, the act of interpreting written or spoken information is inherently subjective, and there is no way to ensure that people can be trusted to understand a given text fully. Think about it: there are people who read J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and thought Holden Caulfield was a cool guy, someone to admire rather than someone to try to avoid becoming, effectively missing the point of the entire novel. 

Exposure to information can help harmful ideas take root in a person’s mind, even if the piece itself aims to be critical of the harms presented. Socrates made a similar argument in his critique of writing as a whole: because writing is open to interpretation, it cannot refuse to be read, or answer to questions or concerns of the reader. For this reason, he argued that some people should not read certain things, as it runs the risk of dilution or bastardization of ideas. 

As crazy as it might sound, I am with Socrates on this one. For example, I think it is dangerous for a high school teacher to disperse racist texts to a classroom of students for the purpose of acknowledging the role of racism in literary history. The students, whether they desire to be hateful or may simply subconsciously adopt detrimental ideals, now have in their minds a model for expressing hateful rhetoric. Of course, some level of critical analysis can mitigate this potential harm; still, this is risky business, considering that literary interpretation is difficult and cannot be a baseline expectation in a classroom setting. 

Because the circulation of oppressive ideologies through language has and will continue to contribute to the perpetuation of hatred, we need to prioritize and provide a platform for historically marginalized voices. This cannot happen without first deplatforming the voices of those who have historically have done the marginalizing. I would personally support the idea of banning old white men, for example, from publishing novels until racial and sexual discrimination are not so prevalent in our society. 

This proposal is controversial, and I imagine you might object that surely there are some old white men who have written important novels that either weren’t racist and sexist or could be taught responsibly. I reply simply that they have had all of history to speak freely; censoring them could allow for other voices to be present in the public collective consciousness. Of course, there are individuals who don’t fit all dimensions of that identity who produce harmful content. J.K. Rowling, a white female transphobe, is a perfect example of this. Still, by restricting the right to publish writing of old white men, we could at least prevent the perpetuation of rhetoric which is oppressive along all those identity axes — J. K. Rowling can still produce hateful writing, but at the very least, it won’t be as sexist as that which a man might create. 

Censorship is always a slippery slope, but that does not mean that it is always bad. The question of who or what should be censored is nuanced and never going to be universally agreed upon. It still stands that we already do accept certain forms of censorship, yet paradoxically believe that we have a right to freedom of speech. I, for one, don’t see an issue with restricting the freedom of speech of people who have had literal centuries to express themselves, especially in the name of making our society an environment that can be conducive to positive social change. Let marginalized identities speak and write freely, and perhaps our world will come to let this formative influence shape society into something better for all.