Enlightened ramblings of a minarchist libertarian with Objectivist tendencies

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Censorship

With the likes of Elton John, Whoopie Goldberg, The Dixie Chicks and half of the "entertainers" in Hollywood screaming about censorship, I decided to take a look at what censorship is and is not. More bloggers than can be counted have chimed in on this, but I felt it important that I present my beliefs.

First, lets take a look at the definition of censorship.  I chose the Wikipedia definition because it is fairly broad.

Censorship is the use of state or group power to control freedom of expression.


OK, let's look at the two groups that can censor freedom of expression. First we have the State power, i.e. government. They do this through the use of such tools as Prior Restraint, that is, making something illegal before it actually happens. An example would be the Federal Government passing a law that makes it illegal to say anything negative about the President. Obviously here in the US that would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment, though some agencies (rightfully or not) such as the FCC have latitude in this area.

The second part of the Wikipedia definition is a bit more vague. It involves group power. But, what is group power? I would say that group power would belong to some person or group with direct power to prevent someone from freely expressing themselves, though I would not place employers in this category as they should be fully free to set conditions for employment, including prohibition of public expressions of opinion by its employees that may result in financial damage to the employer. In addition, consumers boycotting some product would not fall into this group since they could not directly prevent the expression and fully have the right to choose which products they will or will not consume based on any reason they
choose.

Now that we understand what censorship is and is not, let's take a look at a few of the claims of censorship.

Recently Whoopie Goldberg chose to make some drunken remarks at a Kerry fundraiser. As a result, she was summarily dismissed from her job as spokesperson for SlimFast. She blamed this censorship on the "Republican election committee." Was it censorship? No, there was no action by either the state or a group meeting the above criteria.

Last year, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." As a result, there was a mass boycott of the Dixie Chicks albums. Of course, they too yelled censorship. Again, there was no action that met the above criteria.

So, if not censorship, what did these celebs experience? They experienced what Alexis de Tocqueville called social pressure. As celebrities, they live and die by public opinion. For some reason, they expect the public to only look at their work and not at their publicly stated opinions. However, that is not how humans work. We generally look at all known aspects of a person to determine if we like someone or not. While celebrities enjoy the fame and fortune that comes from a positive public opinion of them, they don't want to be held accountable when they say or do something that elicits a negative response. While words may be freely spoken, you must understand that those words are likely to have consequences.

Well if those two examples aren't censorship, what is? A good example is China blocking websites or running down students in Tiananmen Square. Another would be the burning of 20,000 books deemed offensive by the Nazi regime in 1933.

Censorship is a strong claim and like racism, is a term used far too frequently. It is time for people to start using the language in a responsible manner, lest these words lose their strength and just become everyday words.


Update: I posted this at Blogcritics.org.

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