Contemplating Censorship

As far as I am concerned, a person’s right to free speech ends at the point where they start harming others. All freedoms need to be boundaried by an obligation not to cause harm. If defending the right to free speech doesn’t recognise this, it becomes a tool for promoting and enabling abuse.

Sometimes our ethical choices aren’t simple. But, in a choice between defending someone’s right to free speech, and defending someone from threats, harassment, intimidation, distress and so forth, it should be pretty obvious which way to go. People should have to deal with the consequences of their actions, and calling that out is one thing, and the threat of violence is quite another.

If everyone has the right to freedom of speech, this also means that we all have the right to tell people their words aren’t acceptable. Any one of us is allowed to tell someone else they should be silent. We all have the right to say that someone else’s opinion is invalid, ill founded, intolerable. We aren’t cancelling someone if we disagree with them, and we do not owe them our time and consideration. Demanding to be debated is a technique that appalling people use to try to legitimise themselves and make others listen to them. No one is obliged to go along with that.

Here are some considerations when deciding who to amplify and who to silence…

Doing nothing always supports bullying, oppression, abuse of power and the status quo. It is not a neutral choice, and we know it isn’t Druidic. Druids spoke to kings and sometimes got onto battlefields between armies.

If someone is causing no harm, or acting to challenge harm done, or reduce harm, and they are inconvenient to their government, we should not allow that government to silence them. In the UK, the desire of the government to protect statues from people challenging over racism is a case in point. We should always consider challenging it when a government tries to stop someone from speaking freely.

If a person is inciting violence or promoting hatred, they are not entitled to speak freely. If a person is lying, or promoting a belief that is harmful then we should protest against them. No one is entitled to a platform.

If in doubt, look for the power balance. The person with a TV presence, newspaper column, microphone on a big stage… this person has freedom of speech and you as an individual do not have the power to cancel or censor them. If they use their platform to complain that they are being censored, they are not being censored, just argued with. They are not inherently entitled to that platform.

On the flip side, many people go unheard. Many people are spoken about and spoken over. Amplify people who are working for justice and inclusion and who have no platform. Listen to people who are marginalised and ignored. Actual censorship tends to be subtle, and works by treating people as though they do not matter, do not exist or cannot speak for themselves. When did you last see a Rromani person on TV speaking about the issues they face? When did you last read a newspaper column written by a refugee?

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Contemplating Censorship

  • julietallbird

    Another thoughtful and thought provoking entry. Thank you.

  • Stuart Jeffery

    Responsibilities need to be aligned to rights.

  • jswhite

    I agree that harmful speech or hateful speech should not be allowed, but it seems the point of contention is HOW TO DECIDE what is harmful or hateful speech (which is what people often disagree on) and what ACTUALLY harms others. HOW can we tell the difference between another person speaking their own feelings and their words being hateful/harmful speech. How you or I feel, for example, isn’t always pleasant and what you or I think doesn’t always make everyone happy or feel safe…regardless of whether we actually intend to do harm or not.

    Perhaps I’m not explaining well…but I guess, my point is this: feelings, thoughts, words, and actions are different and all have complex motives and reasons for being what they are. There is no simple formula or shortcut to categorizing them. They are not always simply ‘right’ or ‘ wrong’. To think that seems oversimplifying and ultimately leads to its own form of censorship.

    Regardless, I love your blog and enjoy your posts.

    • Nimue Brown

      That’s a whole other point that would take a lot more thinking and writing about – I will try to come back with something longer and more useful. It is a really difficult area, sometimes. especially around question of whether we should police what’s personal and small scale.

      • jswhite

        Yes, I would love to hear your thoughts.

        I am often conflicted when speaking to others about things that seem hateful/harmful. I want to speak up against it, but I also don’t want to cross a line into personal attack myself. I want people to be able to speak their mind around me which demands a mindset that listens now and evaulates later. I find that very difficult to do as I’m headstrong and quite opinionated myself.

        Some are truly just speaking their thoughts in the moment…words of passion…things they would never say or act on if they were calm. Whereas others are most definitely speaking from the intent or experience of acting, which is far more dangerous and which needs correction immediately.

        I’m glad you are bringing these subjects up and look forward to any future posts on them.

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