April 29, 2014

Efforts to Restrict Free Expression From the Left

Censorship (Photo credit: IsaacMao)
I prefer to reserve the word censorship for situations in which a government entity intervenes to restrict free expression (i.e., making certain speech illegal) in violation of one's First Amendment rights. I like this more restrictive definition, in part, because I think it helps us remember that not every attempt to restrict free expression is equally bad. For example, I find it far more troubling when a public university rescinds an invitation for someone to speak on campus because they are worried about the speaker's "controversial views" than I do when a private business decides to pull a product or remove information because they are worried about how it might tarnish their image or rile up their customers. And yet, I do not consider either of these examples to be censorship. Far more troubling that either of these examples would be the scenario where a government arrests someone for saying something someone considers offensive.

In this post, I want to talk about the efforts to restrict the free expression of words, images, or ideas that do not involve governments or laws. That is, I want to focus on efforts that while troubling, fall short of censorship. Many such efforts involve the actions of private groups that attempt to pressure others into restricting free expression. While I may consider these efforts to be somewhat less troubling than actual censorship, this does not mean I do not still find them problematic.

What is the most troubling thing about efforts to restrict free expression through pressure? It is tough to know where to begin. If pushed, I think I'd have to say that the two things I find most troubling are the following:
  1. Many such efforts remove choice in that someone else is attempting to decide what I should and should not have access to. The person trying to restrict content has elevated himself or herself above me and is actually willing to deny me access to content, effectively restricting my opportunity to decide for myself.
  2. Most efforts at to restrict free expression target dissenting, unpopular views, and so these efforts often have the effect of maintaining the status quo.
Honestly, this list could go on and on, but I am going to limit myself to these two. The first is usually the one that gets me most upset, but I mention the second because I want to highlight the manner in which many of these efforts seem to target those with minority views (e.g., atheism) and protect a seriously flawed system against pressure to reform.

If you ask most atheists in the United States today where the primary threat to free expression comes from, you will be pointed in the direction of socially conservative Christians. We have seen them try to ban books they do not like, interfere with the teaching of evolution and reality-based sex education in public schools, burn piles of heavy metal records, suggest anti-blasphemy laws, and engage in many other efforts aimed at denying others access to material which they perceive as undermining their fragile faith. The goal is clear: they have decided to deny others access to material of which they do not approve. They have appointed themselves the morality police and are willing to impose their will on the rest of us. They don't want you to be able to decide these things for yourself.

As toxic as these socially conservative Christians can be, there is a problem with focusing only on them. In doing so, we may overlook what has become an equally important source of restrictions to free expression: the left-leaning forces of political correctness, trigger warnings, and "safe spaces." The pressure to refrain from criticizing Islam comes largely from the left, and there appears to be a surprising willingness to shut down the exchange of unpopular ideas. Some of the efforts coming from the left appear to be every bit as puritanical as those on the right. Even though the rationale they provide is different, the results may be the same. "Other people should not have to see or hear things I find offensive!" Much like the socially conservative Christians, some of these forces on the left have decided that they know better than you and are willing to make these decisions for you. It seems that their opinions are the only ones that count.

It is noteworthy that much of the controversy around free expression and efforts to restrict it in the atheist community have come from the left. Some subjects, we have been told, are simply not up for debate. Some subjects are even beyond questioning. And this is happening within a community that prides itself on skepticism and freethought! Codes of conduct are needed to create "safe spaces" whenever atheists gather, and they often seem to have the effect of restricting sexual expression.

I certainly understand the pull to focus on the Christian right and their quest to restrict the free expression of ideas they find offensive. I will likely continue to do so because this seems to be the primary threat to free expression where I live. And yet, I think it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that there are some serious threats to freethought and free expression coming from the left as well. Perhaps these deserve greater attention. What do you think?

H/T to Why Evolution is True

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