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Some Thoughts on Censorship

By Brendan O’Neill –

Once, we had political censorship and religious censorship, designed to protect certain ideas from questioning and ridicule. Now we have therapeutic censorship designed to protect individuals and their self-esteem from hurtful, offensive or challenging comments. This new censorship is even worse than the old censorship, because it is so swirling and subjective. Anything that any individual finds threatening can potentially be demonised and even censured, especially on campuses. Where blasphemy laws elevated Christ above the fray of mere mortal debate, therapeutic censorship makes us all into little Christs, deserving of our own personal blasphemy law and forcefield against criticism. It’s the high point of our culture of narcissism.

When it comes to campus censorship, we can’t blame “snowflake students” for everything. Their censorious agitation is only the latest expression of a trend that’s been growing for years. It’s all well and good to mock “safe spaces”, but they are surely only the logical conclusion to all those speech codes adopted by American universities in the 1990s which defined campuses as potentially “hostile environments”. If a university redefines itself as a “hostile environment”, it can’t be surprised by students’ search for a “safe space”.

We can laugh at trigger warnings, but these, too, come from the 1980s / 1990s idea that words wound, and indeed from the po-mo conviction that language constructs both us as individuals and the reality all around us. The philosophical foundations of both safe spaces and trigger warnings were laid before today’s students were even born. These “snowflakes” express in ruder form a new censorship that both liberals and leftists allowed to develop, and which they even spearheaded.

Beware talk of phoney rights. One of the most striking things in the argument for censorship today is how the language of freedom is twisted to demand restrictions and restraints. The censorious claim merely to be defending their rights rather than limiting other people’s. They are merely “rearranging public platforms” to give the marginalised a voice, which is doublespeak for demanding that certain people be No Platformed in favour of others. Or they say they’re fighting for the right to feel comfortable, the right to be safe, the right not to feel offended or undermined. But you don’t have the right to feel comfortable. Or even safe, if we’re talking about mental, intellectual safety. These are phoney rights used to undermine the real right to freedom of speech. In every single spat over speech, we should defend the speakers’ rights, no matter how many people he’s pissing off.

Besides, being offended is good for you. The new therapeutic censors don’t only restrict speakers’ rights – even worse they deprive themselves of the right to change their own minds. If you live in a safe space, you harm yourself more than those whom you have expelled from the safe space. Exposing our minds to alternative, uncomfortable and even shocking viewpoints is the most important way we have of keeping our moral and mental muscles flexed and healthy.

It makes us better at articulating our own beliefs or it might make us question our own beliefs. Those who hide from offence risk becoming dogmatic, believing things without knowing why they believe them, while those who hurl themselves into open, testy, ugly debate will be better free-thinkers and more rounded moral creatures.

The benefit of free speech is even greater for the listener than it is for the speaker, for it allows us to use our minds, engage our moral muscles, and develop the skills necessary for full, adult autonomy.

 

The above is a conversation kick starter given at a discussion on censorship presented on Freedom Day at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. 

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