August 26, 2008

The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish, writes in his New York Times blog about the difference between what he calls the “colloquial” sense of the term “censorship” and what he calls the “philosophical and legal” sense of that word.

According to Fish, according to the colloquial sense,

censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)

while according to the “philosophical and legal” sense, censorship has the characteristics that

(1) it is the government that is criminalizing expression and (2) that the restrictions are blanket ones.

Fish’s entire basis for the post is the unexplained assumption that the latter sense is the correct one, while the former one is simply a mistake. This, of course, in itself, is a major flaw, since, accepting Fish’s premises, he is criticizing a speaker for using a word in its accepted sense.

Going beyond this point toward more substantial matters, much of Fish’s thinking is resting on false notions.

First, there is no reason to think that his “colloquial” definition is really one that most people would accept. When someone chooses not to say something in order to avoid hurting another’s feelings, in the absence of any threat of retaliation, then, it seems to me, most people would call it politeness or discretion, rather than censorship (self-censorship or any other kind of censorship). The dictionary, which a-priori is a reasonable source for accepted usage, defines censorship as “ the institution, system, or practice of censoring”, and defines to censor as

to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also : to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>,

which seems quite adequate, and is quite different from Fish’s definition.

A second matter is Fish’s preference of the second, restricted, definition over broader interpretations of “censorship”. It is interesting to note that, probably because of the negative association of the term, various attempts to restrict the meaning of censorship are employed by people who support a certain activity that falls within the dictionary definition. Even people who explicitly support censorship in what they consider extreme cases – as Fish hints he may do in the case of Holocaust denial – bristle at the suggestion that they, in fact, support censorship in everyday practice. In context of a discussion of the academic censorship mechanism (usually referred to as “peer review”), for example, the two criteria offered by Fish for restricting the definition were mentioned, as well as another one – that suppression of expression because of its low quality cannot be considered censorship.

While Fish gives no rational reason to prefer what he calls the “legal and philosophical” definition, it is clear that this preference is self-serving. Restricting the interpretation of the term “censorship” insulates powerful interests which engage in suppression of expression in various ways from the negative connotation of the term. The potentially subversive implications that would follow from carrying out a thorough examination of the concept of censorship, when using the dictionary definition, and its occurrences in Western society, are forestalled.

Thirdly, while legal professionals are free to invent convoluted interpretations for words and often do so, and while I am willing to take Fish’s word, resting no doubt on his vast knowledge of legal discourse (at least that of the discourse in certain legal systems), as to the official legal meaning of “censorship”, Fish provides no basis for his claim that the legal meaning is identical to the “philosophical” meaning. In fact, while both accepted use and legal use are completely unconstrained, philosophical use must submit to constraints of reason and consistency and Fish’s legal definition is seriously flawed in these respects.

In terms of reason – the restrictions that Fish offers are completely arbitrary. Fish doesn’t even attempt to justify them. It seems likely that if suppression of speech by the government has negative implications, then so would suppression of speech by any other powerful actor. It also seems likely that if total – or blanket suppression of speech is detrimental to society then less than total suppression would be detrimental as well. It makes sense to talk about a spectrum of intensity of suppression. Restricting the label “censorship” to an extreme point on this spectrum is arbitrary and serves no reasonable purpose.

As for consistency, Fish ignores the fact that the ability of, say, a publisher to suppress a certain book, follows directly from the backing of the government of a certain power relationship. The laws permitting certain people to control the presses are what allows those people to suppress other people’s ideas. The fact that the people who made the decision are not nominally government employees is irrelevant, since without government support those people would be unable to make those decisions. The reliance on the labels “government” or “non-government” is thus artificial and cannot be applied in a consistent, meaningful manner.

Lastly, Fish’s restrictive definition fails even to provide an explanation of the Western legal structure. The legal system, with the backing of the U.S. constitution as interpreted by the supreme court, backs total, blanket, illegalization of of speech that is considered libelous. On the other hand, the supreme court has ruled on various occasions that various restrictions on the use of money in promoting political ideas are unconstitutional since they supposedly limit free speech – despite the clear fact that those restrictions are very, very far from a blanket prohibition on voicing any particular idea. Hence Fish’s definition is both too broad and too strict to describe the current legal situation.

The points above show that it is the normal, dictionary definition, rather than Fish’s “legal” defintion, that is of interest. An exploration of its implications could provide far-reaching lessons on the conception of desired structures of society.


One Response to “Censorship”

  1. […] act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of sup…, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the […]

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