A Citizen’s Primer To Censorship
I noticed something recently while viewing discussions on the topic of censorship. There seems to be general misconceptions about what does and does not entail censorship, about whether only a governmental body can censor, and the general thought that free speech protects against all censorship. It’s understandable given how little we are taught about censorship in schools and what we see in our day to day lives. Things may have changed since the time I was younger, but I do not remember any lessons on the subject of censorship in secondary school. We have the idea of free speech and the First Amendment that is taught in our history and social studies classes. When it comes to censorship, though, I don’t see much emphasis given to understanding the issue outside of select college level courses. So it comes as no surprise that some people may be ignorant on the matter. I feel public education and certain entities do not have a motivation to want people to understand the finer nuances of this topic.
With this in mind, I wanted to give a primer of sorts on censorship, its effects, and what one can do when they feel censorship is an issue.
To do this, we first need to define what censorship is. The ACLU explains censorship:
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Once you allow the government to censor someone else, you cede to it the power to censor you, or something you like….Censorship by the [U.S.] government is unconstitutional because freedom of speech is protected in the First Amendment, and is guaranteed to all Americans.”
As seen in this definition, censorship can come from a governmental body or a private group. This brings me to the first misconception I see when people discuss issues of censorship. I’ve heard the idea that only a government can censor, which is not true. While it is true that censorship enacted by governments with laws protecting free speech can be illegal, any person or group can try to censor ideas or issues.
I feel we all know what censorship from a governmental body looks like. One can draw from past overt examples to highlight how all-encompassing censorship can be. Soviet U.S.S.R. up to and after World War II had near total control of information in their society, literally erasing ideas and people who were inconvenient and exercising complete power over what was taught in schools and talked about in the media. This style of complete control over all aspects of a society can be seen emulated today in countries such as Iran and North Korea.
It can be easy to define examples of government censorship as they happen. Take, for example, the Great Firewall of China or the filtering and blocking of sections of the internet by Middle Eastern countries; these are much more cut and dry issues. With these starkly defined examples, it can be easier to break free from the control censorship has on you because you know instinctively to not expect truth from the official sources.
It becomes more nebulous in people’s minds when considering examples of censorship from outside the government. When religious organizations push for a music album to banned, when groups work to pull video games from store shelves, when websites take an active role in blocking the coverage or discussion or certain topics, these are all examples of private groups attempting to censor content or ideas. It just isn’t illegal.
There are times when a website, news organization, or online community may choose to censor certain issues or topics from being discussed or certain words or phrases from being used. A news organization that refuses to display curse words, even in the context of a quote, is a more benign example of censorship. The same organization not showing footage of a terrorist beheading someone is a more extreme example. There are many online forums that censor discussions of piracy in an effort stop piracy itself from occurring. For the consumers of media and the users of these forums, it is an attempt on behalf of the organization to improve quality of their product or brand. Whether you agree with or can deal with these forms of censorship is up to you.
This brings me to another misconception that people seem have: censorship in any form is negative. There are many instances where we are under possibly beneficial forms of censorship, and we self-censor on many occasions. When you keep yourself from cursing around your grandmother, you are censoring yourself. When you hold in that fart on your first date, you are censoring yourself!
Most workplaces have rules against speaking about religion, politics, or other polarizing issues (I had a job that ruled out talking about sports!) due to an effort to avoid unneeded conflicts and increase the productivity of employees. This is censorship as well. It just is not an example of censorship that people tend to rally against, because it is within the rights of the company in question. You are not stopped from discussing whatever you will in your free time. You can choose between being censored during working hours for your pay or simply not working there.
Censorship can become increasingly insidious, though, depending on the topic in question or the form that censorship is taking. We can circle back around to news organizations to pull examples from. If a news organization blocks certain topics from being covered due to government edict, this is censorship that can impair public discourse or potentially cause personal harm. While it is still not illegal in all cases, it is highly unethical and can jeopardize the reputation of the people or organization involved.
Another example that can be damaging to public discourse can come from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced encyclopedia and is curated by thousands of people. On more controversial topics, entries can change multiple times a day as editors battle over what version of events they want to make definitive. This is why Wikipedia is not a citable source for college papers. When the editors of Wikipedia inadvertently or purposely distort, delete, or revise articles based on ideology or opinion, they engage in censorship. Again, this is not illegal, but it is unethical in the extreme and helps to bend public perception. Wikipedia is a fluid set of truths and ‘“facts,” and the entire fabric of it ebbs and flows. More controversial or popular topics are altered so often that it can be amusing to see as it happens. At least Wikipedia allows users to see the discussion behind the proverbial slap fights and attempts to alter perceptions.
People are increasingly accessing crowd-sourced information portals these days, as the popularity of Reddit shows. Reddit is a popular and influential website that works with volunteer moderators, just like Wikipedia does. However, instead of attempting to be an encyclopedia, it works to aggregate content for the community to vote on how interesting an item may be and to discuss that item. Reddit was founded on ideas of being pro-free speech and anti-censorship, only deleting items or users that were against their Terms of Service or the law. Idea and execution are not the same, though, and over time Reddit has shifted away from this stance with their actions. Recently reported on examples from the moderator chat logs of certain redditors highlight how censorship can emerge and how it is enforced in an ad hoc community. These were not isolated examples of how information and perception is controlled, but that is digression for another article.
This should help form an idea of what censorship can look like in its more heavy-handed examples, as well as the less visible instances. This brings me to the last misconception I’ve seen that I want to address: we are not being actively censored every day by governments or private groups. Even with laws providing for free speech, America censors items on a regular basis. Despite ideas to the contrary, some groups will always work to censor other groups that they disagree with.
This is not to peddle a dejected view of the state of affairs we live in. There are always things you can do to fight against the forms of censorship that you feel are harmful. The most import thing you can do is to point it out—let others know what is happening and encourage discussion of the issue. I feel that when an entity wants to censor an item, it is important to dig into it and determine why it is occurring. It is true that not all forms of censorship are harmful or illegal. In my view, though, when a topic or idea is censored, there is often an agenda at play or there are people who simply do not want to face inconvenient truths.
You can also work with groups or found your own to help unroot and bring to light censorship in areas you feel are negatively impacting issues. Keeping a watchful eye on the processes of government and business is a big element in a free market and a free world. The modus operandi of censorship is to block discussion. Don’t mistake silence for ignorance of issues. You are not alone.