I have blogged before on the subject of censorship and the (worryingly) growing trend for people who are offended by or on the receiving end of another person’s words to demand that the person giving offence or asserting their position be silenced. It seems that being offended is something to avoid at all costs.
The recent series of verbal attacks on the transgender community in the United Kingdom, led by the Daily Mail (a newspaper in that country) has again brought this to the fore. Now, just to be clear, let me state that I do not support people who are prejudiced, nor do I in anyway condone people who are bigoted or believe that it is acceptable to discriminate against groups of people. I hold these beliefs across the spectrum. I find (to name just a few) racial prejudice, discrimination based on sexuality, gender and sex to be abhorrent. Nor do I support the Daily Mail, its values or its brand of journalism. However, I find the calls, that I have seen on social media, for it to be censored, very worrying.
Many transgender people and our allies seem to think that we have a right to not be offended and that this presumed right trumps all other rights in society. It is this very thinking that informed the uproar around Germain Greer speaking at various campuses last year. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Firstly, no such right exists. People have the right to be safe and to not be verbally or physically abused, yes, but when it comes to ideas, beliefs and abstract thought, we must allow for people to think freely and express those thoughts freely. Hate speech does pose some problems and introduces some complexity into this arena, but I would tend to err on the side of caution here. I would rather have a few people making public statements that may be damaging than ban people from expressing themselves and only those utterances that are clearly inflammatory and that clearly incite violence against others should be disallowed.
Secondly, apart from anything else it is better to know precisely what someone thinks and debate with them than assume all is well with the world and only realise that their views are different when it is too late (the confirmation bias that makes it so surprising for so many that the ‘leavers’ won the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK or that made Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican Party a reality, is a real and dangerous thing).
Thirdly, there are many varied and sometimes competing rights that exist in the world. For starters whilst we all have a right to life, we also (usually) have a right to property. It is not acceptable for someone who needs food to stay alive to take (steal) food from someone else, even if that person has a surfeit of food. This point is, I think, obvious. So why then do so many of us think that we have a right to not be offended and that that right somehow trumps the other person’s right to have their own ideas and to express these self-same ideas? No, that person’s right to freedom of thought and expression is hugely important. Without that right we would have no right to counter ignorant, illogical and bigoted prejudice. With that right we can listen to them, debate with them and show the error of that thinking. We may not change the person who made the comments’ mind, but we can limit the damage done by that person’s words. Also, it is worth noting that usually what is said in public has already been repeated a thousand times in private. By shutting down public discourse, all we are doing is allowing the whispers we do not ever hear to travel unchecked and unchallenged around the world. No, we need people to say things publicly so we can counter them publicly. Living in an echo chamber of our own ideas just temporarily insulates us from a reality, it does not change that reality.
Fourthly, it is only through valuing freedom of speech that we can further advance the rights of the LGBT community. If speech is limited and freedom of expression denied, the easier it is for the socio-political elites (who are almost universally socially and politically conservative) to control populations. A review of the history of the world over the last 200 years shows that if the press was controlled, ideas were controlled. If you look at the world today it is obvious that those parts of the world with a highly regulated or state controlled media are also the most socially conservative states and co-incidentally those that repress the LGBT community, the most. Eastern European states (especially Russia), Arabic and Muslim dominated societies such as Saudi Arabia and African countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda etc are all shining examples of media repression and transphobic and homophobic regimes. In many of these states being homosexual or transgender is a criminal offence, sometimes punishable by death. In many of states, even if the crime itself (if it is a crime) may not be punishable by death but the massive social stigma is sufficient to get gay and transgender people assaulted and even killed by mobs intent on ‘correcting’ the individual’s supposed immoral behaviour. Because of censorship in these states it is nearly impossible to engage in debate around these issues and it is thus very hard for activists to change people’s minds. Freedom of speech is a necessary condition for acceptance of LGBT people in society.
Finally, whilst LGBT people in many western countries are privileged in that they are free to express their sexuality and gender and probably lack affinity with those LGBT people in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who are persecuted for these things they should not forget that just a few decades ago they were in the same boat. It is not impossible for the situation to change. Social forces can ebb and flow there is no guarantee that our hard-won liberties will be taken away from us. We are a minority and will always be a minority it is therefore very easy for conservative social forces to turn against us. we should therefore encourage public debate, allowing us to take issue with those who hate us head on and change thinking than put our fingers in our ears and sing ‘LALALALALA’ until the nasty men go away. It is our duty to defend who and what we are, not claim that we are offended and pretend that other will think like us. They almost certainly will not, unless we can educate and engage with them on these issues.
When trying to put these ideas across on Twitter (as you can see I am already well over 140 words, let alone 140 characters, but I did try), I was told that all that was being called for was that shops should not sell the Daily Mail and that this was not censorship. The continued boycott of The Sun newspaper in Liverpool because of its lies regarding the Hillsborough tragedy was cited as an example.
Now let me say that censorship takes many and varied forms. The best form of censorship is when you do not know it exists. Newspapers (and other media) perform vital public services: they gather and disseminate information, expose wrong doing and create fora for discussions and debate. They sometimes get this right and they sometimes get it wrong. They are always commercial entities that need to generate revenue to survive. Thus, the easiest way to close a newspaper’s ability to function is to cut off its revenue. Newspapers have two revenue streams, advertising and circulation. By cutting either one you achieve this end. Newspapers can be free to print and publish as they wish, but a government wishing to limit them will just require retailers wishing to sell them to pay a license. This license fee can be handily set at a rate greater than any retailer could conceivably expect to generate from the sale of newspapers. So many retailers will simply not stock newspapers. No distribution means no circulation; no circulation means no circulation revenue and no advertising (advertisers only advertise if people see and respond to their adverts). So, limiting access to retailers is a very effective way of controlling what is published.
I have outlined a very sinister approach, but I find individual action by retailers no less threatening. Given the important role played by newspapers in promoting the free flow of ideas, information and news I find the idea that any retailer could arbitrarily decide to stop stocking a newspaper very dangerous. It gives immense power to a retailer and would allow them to potentially decide what ideas are ‘allowed’ and what ideas are not ‘allowed’. A supermarket owner could wake up one day and decide that the New York Times and Washington Post need to be stopped from exposing Donald Trump, thus changing an election result. This is a very dangerous position to be in and one that makes me feel very uncomfortable. If we as the LGBT community start demanding that a supermarket chain do this because we are offended by a newspaper’s anti LGBT stance, what will we say when the Catholic Church (for example) demands the same of the same supermarket chain/s due to another newspaper’s pro LGBT stance? An infinite regression threatens and it is a regression that we would lose every time and will in turn lead to us losing many (only recently) hard won freedoms.
Censorship is a very real thing in many parts of the world and is not always a subtle as outlined above. People use the courts of law, instruments of the state and legislation to prevent people knowing the truth. This can come in the form of state action or private endeavour (injunctions, super-injunctions, interdicts etc). But the effect is always the same, information is controlled, the truth is hidden and people end up being more, not less ignorant. This can never be a good thing for a community such as ours that needs people to understand more, know more and be exposed to more, never less.
On the other hand, a consumer boycott is I believe an acceptable response. As a community, we can organise and mobilise to get people to stop buying products we do not like. We can call on others to support us. we have no duty to support products that do not align with our values and to this end I have no problem with the people of Liverpool not buying The Sun if that is what they want to do, but no retailer should be pressured to stop stocking the publication. That prevents other people who want to read that publication from buying it and this shuts down debate and that is never a good thing.
In summary, societal freedom including the freedom to express your sexuality and gender is highly correlated on the freedom of expression which in turn is highly correlated with a free press. It is very easy for a free society to become unfree and for societal norms to revert from the liberal to the conservative. We as a community should seek to extend individual liberties, not curtail them. No one has a right to not be offended by another person’s thoughts or words, we have a right (and a duty) to engage with anyone who expresses views we take issue with. The only way we can do this is if we encourage more public debate, not less. Once you allow censorship in it is very easy for people to use it against you. Once we start asking for ideas to be suppressed it will be very easy for those who still see LGBT people as immoral and offensive to them to use those self-same regulations against us. Instead of being offended and afraid we should be angry and resolve to fight prejudice head on.