Why Government Censorship Is Bad

Bear with me here. You may think you know why government censorship is bad. It’s quite possible that you really do. However, the perpetual outcry over comment moderation and the current to do about the Limbaugh boycott suggests that a lot of people don’t. At least they don’t think about it when they’re saying this stuff. If they did, they’d know better to compare it to what they’re complaining about.

So, here goes: Government censorship is bad because the government is supposed to represent us. That “We the people” stuff really is the foundation of any state that…well, any state I and, I assume, almost all of my readers have any interest in living in. Without it, we are not citizens but subjects.

We don’t, however, have a direct democracy. With a very small number of exceptions, “we the people” elect others to do the actual job of governing. It’s a trade-off. We do less of the work, which we couldn’t manage directly anyway. We also, however, get less of a direct say in how our country/state/county/city/ad nauseum runs.

That doesn’t make our voices less important. Ironically, it makes them more so. When we don’t participate directly, our power depends on indirect influence. It depends on our speech.

In a representational democracy, our speech is (aside from money) how we convince our representatives to vote in our interest. It is how we raise votes for those we think will represent us best. It is how we persuade others to raise their voices in our interest so we are harder to ignore. It is how we even explain what we see our interests to be.

If our government, made up of those people and institutions who are supposed to represent our interests, prevents us from voicing them, we can no longer participate in our own governance. We are disenfranchised on a scale that keeping us from casting our individual votes (which is severely problematic in its own right) doesn’t approach.

“We the people” also means something else in this context. We do not get to opt out of being governed. If you are not allowed to participate in your government, you cannot simply get together with a bunch of friends and set up alternate laws and power structures that suit you better. You have nowhere to operate that isn’t already governed by someone else. Insisting on following your own laws means you will be breaking someone else’s.

“If you don’t like it the way it is, then leave.” That’s your remaining option when you’re not allowed a voice in your governance. Of course, that’s much more easily said than done. That’s why the people who say that when their interests are in power don’t go anywhere when the balance of power shifts.

Governments control the situations under which you may leave. On the larger scale, national governments completely control their borders. On the smaller, only governments retain the right to directly deprive adults of their liberty. Even if all a governmental body does is regulate what you must do to sell your house or what kind of lease may be enforced against you, it still has a great deal of control over whether you can escape its reach.

Those two factors, the monopoly on governance and the means to block the escape of those being governed, are what make almost all control of speech by governments intolerable. When you can’t escape governance, it is critical that you be able to influence it. When you don’t directly make policy, it is critical that your voice be able to work in your interests. Without that, we are reduced once again to tyranny.

That is why we (in theory) don’t allow limitations on speech from government entities without a strongly compelling reason. That is also why, when you continue to have outlets for your speech, when no one individual or group controls the means of transmission of speech, no one is going to listen to you whine about how oppressed you are.

Why Government Censorship Is Bad
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13 thoughts on “Why Government Censorship Is Bad

  1. 1

    Yep. I agree completely. Although I’d go further in one respect: in addition to the importance of freedom of speech in allowing participation in political life and the democratic process (which is, as you rightly point out, absolutely essential to a functioning democracy), I’d also point to the importance of a free and open dialogue when it comes to cultural, religious, philosophical and scientific ideas, too. The search for truth is best served by a free society in which every idea is open to debate and challenge. It’s very dangerous to entrust the government with the power to impose orthodoxies and to silence dissent from those orthodoxies; because governments are run by people, and people are always capable of being wrong.

    “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (Robert Jackson, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette)

  2. 2

    Interesting approach. I believe I have thought about it in some ways that you have here but not near as fleshed out. It does seem to follow that in a democracy or a democratic republic, protecting free speech is the only means to ensuring that the government is representative of the people. Without protecting free speech even in a fully democratic nation, we run the risk of massive voter coercion which would follow with rampant oppression. As it stands with our speech protected, we are allowed to identify with whatever group(s) we identify with most. We can join our voices to shout, “we exist” or if those voices no longer speak for us we can distance ourselves from them. More importantly, if those voices choose to silence us in one room, we can move to another that might welcome us more.

    That means if I really really really wanted to be a jerk and people didn’t want me to be a jerk in their house, I could go out and be a jerk in the public arena (or my own house) so long as I didn’t infringe on the rights of others in the process.

    Makes total sense. Good job.

  3. Pen

    I guess I have to agree with you, but it’s a bit reluctantly. I’m really seeing the cost of freedom of speech, just as I see the cost of the freedom to smoke cigarettes in public or tote guns.

    1. Insults like Limbaugh’s (and we’ve seen lots of analogous situations) effectively silence people who learn what to expect if they raise their heads. Technically they’re free to speak, but I am quite certain they are less likely to do so. To me, it’s very like saying if you don’t want to breathe other people’s smoke in public, you’re free to stay home.

    2. This is a cost to society as well as the silenced individuals themselves. Their freedom to speak is also everyone elses’ freedom to listen to them. We lose their voices.

    3. Huge amounts of energy have to be wasted telling people why insults are unacceptable and trying to persuade them to desist. The points on which they may be lying or mistaken are abandoned. People’s other projects have to be postponed. Going round calling people on their insults becomes an time-consuming and tedious civic responsibility. The alternative of ignoring the insults and carrying on as planned is unacceptable (see #4).

    4. I’m pretty sure a climate in which insults against a person or group become normal or permissible increase the likelihood of private discrimination/violence AND the likelihood of official restrictions or constraints against that person or group – up to and including genocide.

    5. I’m also sure it’s possible to express any content without being insulting, although perhaps not without offending other people. These are not the same thing. I might be offended if someone said ‘I disapprove of you having sex for pleasure’, but I have only been insulted if they say ‘You are a slut’.

    I’m sure I can expect quite a few people to try to talk me out of this leaning in favour of hate speech laws. If anyone wants to try, can you address the costs I’ve mentioned, please?

  4. 4

    Those costs are just the price of freedom, Pen. If I want the right to say ANYTHING I WANT (so long as it’s not inciting violence), I have to respect that EVERYBODY ELSE has that exact same right. Including Westboro Baptist. Even if I absolutely hate what they’re saying.

    But by the same token, having the freedom to say ANYTHING, allows me to argue against the things I find objectionable.

  5. 5

    Those costs are just the price of freedom, Pen.

    So, loosing important freedoms is just the price of freedom?

    I don’t think that is acceptable.

    And for that matter,

    ANYTHING I WANT (so long as it’s not inciting violence)

    you obviously already accept restrictions to free speech, so it seems that all is needed is to figure out where exactly to draw the line.

    We seem to disagree on where it should be.

  6. F

    Those aren’t costs, they are an essential part of the human dialogue.

    So, loosing important freedoms is just the price of freedom?

    Citation needed.

  7. Pen

    @F – I just argued that one type of speech was a tool of oppression and a waster of minds and you tell me all that is an essential part of the human dialogue?

  8. 8

    @Pen: I just argued that one type of speech was a tool of oppression and a waster of minds and you tell me all that is an essential part of the human dialogue?

    The problem is to figure out how to define that “type of speech” in order to be able to proscribe it. A lot of people think that saying “there is no God”, or even “same sex marriage should be legal” is a level of insult equivalent to (or worse than) anything Limbaugh said. If I want to be able to *say* things that other people might consider offensive, I need to be willing to *hear* things that I might consider offensive.

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