Sunday, 23 November 2014

What are the right mechanisms for censorship?

Oddly, in one respect (and in one respect only) I find myself more in agreement with Tim Squirrell and Niamh McIntyre than with Brendan O'Neill.

That is, I do believe that there is a place for censorship in a civilised society. We limit freedom of speech when it threatens the public good (such as shouting 'fire' in a crowded cinema) and when it incites to criminality (such as calling on people to riot) and rightly so. Until recently, recognising the dangerous potency of material inciting blood-lust and sexual lust, we placed limits on 'entertainment' that incited these, too.

Joseph Shaw makes the point that 'I would not accept an invitation to debate whether Jews should be massacred, for example, even to argue that they should not be, because this is not a topic which should be open for discussion, and having a formal debate about it legitimises, to some extent, the side in favour.' And again, I think he is probably right here. But a debate, and in particular a debate in a University, is the last thing that should be censored: precisely because it is a debate, and it is a University (as Joseph Shaw also points out, here.) Such censorship should only be exercised in extremis.

Free speech is one of those things, like democracy itself, which is a secondary good; making it into an ultimate good is heresy - or even idolatry, setting it up as a False God. 

Everyone, in practice, except the extraordinarily unreflective or the ideologically extreme, agrees with some censorship.

The question is, what are the right mechanisms for censorship, and ultimately, who gets to decide.

In a parliamentary democracy, the idea is that an elected parliament is the least worst solution to that problem. It is not ideal - and our current parliamentarians who seem dedicated to pushing the voting public into the arms of rabble-rousing populists by their unprincipled approach exemplify why - but it is certainly better than students whose intellectual development seems to be limited to slogans that can be printed on a Student Union T-shirt - and the Christ Church censors who caved in to their threats.

3 comments:

John Charmley said...

Qualified free speech, so some libertarians tell us, is no free speech at all; but there is a difference between freedom and license, and you outline it well here; thank you.

In the context of a University, we should, I think, begin with the presumption that students and staff must expect to be exposed to all shades of opinion and must learn how to deal with points of view they do not share. To shut down one's opponents with a cry of 'no platform for fascists' is an irony which should deter any historically-aware student; it is precisely because so many are not that we must begin from that presumption that all points of view receive an airing.

To start anywhere else in a University is to begin by telling students that some points of view are not valid. A good education should equip students with the ability to make such judgments for themselves.

It was, incidentally, the intolerance of the left at Oxford when I was up which convinced me, back in 1974, that there was something to be said for those who opposed leftist views which I had imbibed at school, so in one sense, I am grateful to the SWP bigots at my old college for opening my eyes.

Ben Trovato said...

I agree; but to say there is a difference between freedom and licence does not resolve the fundamental question. Who decides what that difference is?

The soi-disant progressives seem determined to re-draw that line in a very different place, with the outlawing, as 'hate-speech', 'triggering', etc of anything with which they disagree.

But I think a reaction to that which deifies freedom of speech is very dangerous, too.

John Charmley said...

Indeed, and not the least of the merits of this posting is that it attempts to steer a way between the extremes on either end of the spectrum.

Traditionally, we have relied upon Parliament and the Law Courts, and in a parliamentary democracy, we must, perforce do so. But there is an intolerant spirit abroad which has already enshrined in law phrases such as 'hate speech' which are, by their nature, capable of an interpretation which panders to the 'I am offended' brigade.

If our MPs will not properly police this, then we are in trouble; and as they won't, we are.