Justifying and distinguishing between censure and censorship

A phrase I’ve been using a lot lately in response to accusations of censorship is “censure, not censorship”. It was going to be the title of this post, actually – until somebody saw it in a different context and offered some defense of censorship. I’m not sure that I can continue to use this phrase without first establishing the correct context now, or whether I ought to use it at all, since censorship can arguably be justified and may differ from censure in degree rather than in kind.

What I initially meant by this was fairly simple – it was a turn of phrase I used to counter cries of censorship raised against attempts to discuss what sort of speech or behavior ought to be condoned by communities. Comments about Atheism Plus were what most often raised this thought, as well as things being said against Dan Fincke at Camels With Hammers over his posts about his moderation policy and the value of tone in civil discourse. I’ve defended such efforts as censure rather than censorship because I view them as an effort at dialogue regarding appropriate ethical standards for a community, but I’m no longer certain that there is a clear distinction between censure and censorship, or that the implied acceptance that censorship is always wrong is wise.

One way to respond to claims of censorship is to say that those affected retain the option of speaking freely, but do not have the right to do so in a particular forum. In the context of society as a whole, they are clearly not being censored in the sense of being forcibly prevented from speech. When the forum in question represents or claims to represent a particular community or ideology, however, it may also be said that excluding certain types of speech in that forum is censorship, at least of that forum, since it is still a limit on allowable expression. It can also be unclear whether an action that stops short of forcibly limiting speech, for example by deleting the content in question or excluding the person responsible from participation, might still reasonably be called “censorship”.

Humans are social animals and as the degree and volume of opprobrium directed at a person over a behavior increases, so does the possibility that they will feel that they are not permitted to engage in such behavior. When disapproval is expressed as a call for others to join together in forcing out those who engage in a behavior, shunning them as a community or abandoning them to form a new community, it may rightly be said that expression within that community is being censored. By varying the response to the objectionable matter, a spectrum from acceptance to total censorship, with positions for tolerance, disagreement and censure along the way can be established.

The nature of human beings as social animals may also be used justify the practice of censorship and severe censure. The expression of severe disapproval can damage our sense of self-esteem and leave us feeling that we can’t belong to a community and enjoy the fellowship of others of our kind. At its most extreme, this becomes psychological harm and suffering that leads to problems like the increased suicide rate among LGBT teens. Clearly, we should not approve of, or permit when we can reasonably prevent, bullying, hate speech and other behaviors and statements when they cause much greater harm than would be done to their proponents by demanding their silence.

Having argued that censorship is justified when it causes deep psychological harm or incites violence, the same argument might be extended to less extreme cases, and to narrower censorship or less harsh measures from the spectrum of disapproval. The cost to speakers of prohibited speech varies greatly, depending on their investment in the speech, the size of the forum in which it is prohibited, and the strength of the prohibition. Fincke has argued that refusing to restrict speech may itself lead to restriction of speech, as the most forceful in a discussion can effectively limit the range of ideas discussed unless they are prevented from such behavior. It is thus necessary to limit not only speech that can cause serious harm, but also speech that has the effect of limiting dialogue.

The case of Atheism Plus involves elements of both of these situations, as it deals with behaviors that are harmful to some members of the community as well as trollish attempts to suppress discussion of these problems as legitimate issues. When some are aiming to harm others or silence discussion, censorship may be part of the solution, but vocal censure of the harmful behavior and positive support for its targets becomes especially important.

Public disapproval of speech that incites harm makes it clear that taking the suggested actions will result in negative consequences, and opposition to hateful speech, as well as direct support for the targets of such speech, provides the targeted persons with direct evidence that they are not cut off from community and compassion and that those aligned against them are not universally supported. In the case of LGBT teen suicides there is evidence that policies prohibiting bullying and the availability of support have a positive effect in the form of a reduction in the number of teenagers attempting suicide in supportive communities.

I still think that in many cases it’s best to err on the side of caution in applying censorship, to avoid doing more harm than good. It should be reserved for situations where the censored speech is likely to be more harmful than the limitation on free discussion imposed by censoring it. Seeing that censorship may be limited in scope and still reasonably be called censorship and that severe disapproval may not always be distinguished clearly from censorship has also led me to see a need for caution in censure, lest it become an unplanned, unjustified censorship that limits expression without cause. Perhaps it is often best to approach disagreeable speech and behavior with counterarguments, but it is clear that withholding stricter measures in some cases leads to serious harm.


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