On Modern Censorship


I don’t want to wade into the heavy politics of things like GamerGate, MetalGate, and so on, but those movements certainly got me thinking about these issues a few months ago. A few days ago, I read a New York Times article about twitter shaming people out of their careers over basically nothing. This brought some clarity to my thoughts on the issue.

I’ll try to keep examples abstract, at the cost of readability, to not spur the wrath of either side. I haven’t done a post on ethics in a while, and this is an interesting and difficult subject.

First, let me say there are clear cases where censorship is good. For example, children should not be allowed to watch pornography (of course, there could be a dispute over the age where this becomes blurry, but everyone has an age where it is too young). There are also clear cases where censorship is bad. For example, a group of concerned Christian parents succeeds in a petition to ban Harry Potter from their children’s school.

Many arguments about censorship boil down to this question of societal harm. To start our thought experiment, let’s get rid of that complication and assume that whatever work is in question is fine. In other words, we will assume that censorship is bad in the sense that the marketplace of ideas should be free. If something offends you, then don’t engage with it. You shouldn’t go out of your way to make it so no one can engage with it.

In the recent controversies, there has been an underlying meta-dialogue that goes something like this:

Person A: If you don’t like the sexism/racism/homophobia/etc (SRHE) in this game/book/movie/etc (GBME), then don’t get the media. Stop trying to censor it so that I can’t engage with it. I happen to enjoy it.

Person B: I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m just raising social awareness as to the SRHE. It is through media that these types of things are perpetuated, and the first step to lessen this is to raise awareness.

What made this issue so difficult for me is that I understand both points of view. Person A is reiterating the idea that if you don’t like something, then don’t engage with it. There is no need to ruin it for everyone else. It is also hard to argue with Person B if they are sincere. Maybe they agree that censorship is bad, but they want to raise awareness as to why they don’t like the media in question.

The main point of this post is to present a thought experiment where Person B is clearly in the wrong. The reason to do this is that I think the discussion often misses a vital point: in our modern age of twitter storms and online petitions, Person B can commit what might be called “negligent censorship.” Just like in law, negligence is not an excuse that absolves you of the ethical consequences of censoring something.

Thought experiment: Small Company starts making its GBME. In order to fund the project, they get the support of Large Company that is well-known for its progressive values. In the age of the internet, news of this new GBME circulates early.

Person B happens to be a prominent blogger and notices some SRHE in the GBME. Note, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether the SRHE is real or imagined (though, full disclosure, I personally believe that people whose job it is to sniff out SRHE in media tend to exaggerate [possibly subconsciously] SRHE to find it where it maybe doesn’t really exist).

Let’s make this very clear cut. Person B knows that they can throw their weight around enough to get a big enough twitter storm to scare the Large Company backer out of funding the Small Company’s project. Person B does this, and sure enough, the project collapses and never gets finished or released.

This is clear censorship. Person B acted with the intent to squash the GBME. Sadly, Person B can still claim the nobler argument given earlier, and it is hard to argue against that. I think this is part of what infuriates Person A so much. You can’t prove their interior motivation was malicious.

But I think you don’t need to. Now let’s assume Person B does all of this with the good-natured intention of merely “raising awareness.” The same outcome occurs. Your intent shouldn’t matter, because your actions led to the censorship (and also hurt the livelihood of some people which has its own set of moral issues).

If you write something false about someone that leads to their harm, even if you didn’t realize it, you can still be charged with libel. Negligence is not an excuse. I’m not saying it is a crime to do what Person B did (for example, the SRHE may actually be there so the statements Person B made were true). I’m only making an analogy for thinking about negligence.

You can claim you only were trying to raise awareness, but I claim that you are ethically still responsible. This is especially true now that we’ve seen this happen in real life many times. If Person B is an adult, they should know writing such things often has this effect.

To summarize, if you find yourself on Person B’s side a lot, try to get inside the head of Small Company for a second. Whether intended or not, Person B caused their collapse. It is not an excuse to say Small Company should have been more sensitive to the SRHE in their GBME if they wanted to stay afloat.

This is blaming the victim. If Large Company said upfront they wouldn’t back the project if Small Company made their proposed GBME, it would be Small Company’s fault for taking the risk. If a group of people who don’t agree with the content of the GBME cause it to collapse, it is (possibly negligent) censorship.

Under our assumption that censorship is bad, I think Person B has serious ethical issues and Person A is clearly in the right. The problem is that in real life, Person B tries to absolve their wrong by implicitly appealing to a utilitarian argument.

A (non-malicious) Person B will truly believe that the short term harm of censoring is outbalanced by the long-term good of fighting SRHE. If the evidence was perfectly clear about the causation/correlation between SRHE in mass media and real life, Person B would have a pretty good ethical argument for their position.

What makes this such a contested issue is that we are in some middle ground. There is correlation, which may or may not be significant. But who knows about causation. Maybe it is the other way around. The SRHE in society is coming out in art, because it is present in society: not the other way around that Person B claims.

This is why, even though, with my progressive values, I am highly sympathetic to the arguments and sentiments of Person B, I have to side with Person A most of the time. Person B has a moral responsibility to make sure they raise awareness in a way that does not accidentally lead to censorship. This has become an almost impossible task with our scandal obsessed social media.

For the debates to calm down a bit, I think side B has to understand side A a bit better. I think most people on side A understand the concerns of side B, but they just don’t buy the argument. Many prominent speakers on side B dismiss side A as a bunch of immature white boys who don’t understand their media has SRHE in it. Side B needs to realize that there is a complicated ethical argument against their side, even if it rarely gets articulated.

I’m obviously not calling for self-censorship (which is always the catch-22 of speaking about these issues), but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities. Here are the types of things I think a prominent writer on SRHE issues should think more critically about before writing:

1. Do I influence a lot of people’s opinion about SRHE topics? For example, having 200K twitter followers might count here.
2. Do my readers expect me to point out SRHE in GBME on a regular basis? If so, you might be biased towards finding it. Ask someone familiar with the GBME whether you are taking clips or quotes out of context to strengthen your claims before making a public accusation.
3. Are my words merely bringing awareness to an issue, or am I also making a call to action to censor the GBME?

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One thought on “On Modern Censorship

  1. Thanks for the link to the Times article, I liked it a lot. I have often wondered about the true nature of moral indignation on social media. I think of it more as a mass outlet of private anger issues, clothed in plausible ethical concerns.

    I agree with your analysis up to a point; however, as soon as you start prescribing how prominent writers should question themselves, I start to diverge. Isn’t the point rather that they just *refuse* to question themselves? They let their ethical concerns override any consideration of collateral damage. Moreover, it’s not an intellectual oversight on their part, but a moral error, because to assume that they simply have not realized this is to assume that they’re stupid (it could be that this indeed is your assumption, of course, but at any rate it isn’t mine).

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