Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On "John Durham Peters on Censorship"

In my class on intellectual freedom this semester, we're reading a book with the central claim that advocating free speech is tantamount to approving of what everyone does with free speech. In a short video clip by the author, he puts his thesis this way:
'I'm bothered by the kind of smugness — the kind of arrogance — that is often found in people who say, "Censorship is terrible." When, in fact, there are very good reasons to be outraged about some of the things which we find in the world of communication. Why can't people be outraged at insulting pictures, or obscene pictures, or violent pictures? I think that sometimes outrage is the only decent or ethical response to certain kinds of things that happen in the world.

So if you always take this sort of liberal view that "I'm above censorship and those people who get really upset about seeing some pictures, those people are not well educated. They're not reasonable. They're not rational." That's a kind of class warfare: the elite educated being able to put down people who are more sensitive.'
I'm profoundly unimpressed by the way he continually conflates free-speech advocacy with having no other strong feelings, or at least not speaking out against speech one finds offensive. He's on a crusade against a "liberalism" that isn't representative of how free speech advocacy actually works.

For example, the membership of the ACLU tends to be very strongly opposed to hate speech and opposed to laws prohibiting hate speech:
'Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech -- not less -- is the best revenge. […] College administrators may find speech codes attractive as a quick fix, but as one critic put it: "Verbal purity is not social change." Codes that punish bigoted speech treat only the symptom: The problem itself is bigotry.'1
If Peters wants to challenge this well-known policy, fine. But he doesn't even do that. He's clearly smart enough to grasp the distinction, so I find it very hard to understand why he spends so much time attacking a strawman liberalism instead.


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