I like trigger warnings. I like them because they’re not censorship, they’re the opposite of censorship. Censorship says “Read what we tell you”. The opposite of censorship is “Read whatever you want”. The philosophy of censorship is “We know what is best for you to read”. The philosophy opposite censorship is “You are an adult and can make your own decisions about what to read”.
And part of letting people make their own decisions is giving them relevant information and trusting them to know what to do with them. Uninformed choices are worse choices. Trigger warnings are an attempt to provide you with the information to make good free choices of reading material.
And my role model here, as in so many other places, is Commissioner Lal: “Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.”
Scott Alexander, “The Wonderful Thing About Triggers”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-30.
November 21, 2014
November 19, 2014
I heard a lot of that kind of talk during my battles with the Canadian ‘human rights’ commissions a few years ago: of course, we all believe in free speech, but it’s a question of how you ‘strike the balance’, where you ‘draw the line’… which all sounds terribly reasonable and Canadian, and apparently Australian, too. But in reality the point of free speech is for the stuff that’s over the line, and strikingly unbalanced. If free speech is only for polite persons of mild temperament within government-policed parameters, it isn’t free at all. So screw that.
But I don’t really think that many people these days are genuinely interested in ‘striking the balance’; they’ve drawn the line and they’re increasingly unashamed about which side of it they stand. What all the above stories have in common, whether nominally about Israel, gay marriage, climate change, Islam, or even freedom of the press, is that one side has cheerfully swapped that apocryphal Voltaire quote about disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it for the pithier Ring Lardner line: ‘“Shut up,” he explained.’
A generation ago, progressive opinion at least felt obliged to pay lip service to the Voltaire shtick. These days, nobody’s asking you to defend yourself to the death: a mildly supportive retweet would do. But even that’s further than most of those in the academy, the arts, the media are prepared to go. As Erin Ching, a student at 60-grand-a-year Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, put it in her college newspaper the other day: ‘What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.’ Yeah, who needs that? There speaks the voice of a generation: celebrate diversity by enforcing conformity.
Mark Steyn, “The slow death of free speech”, The Spectator, 2014-04-19
November 7, 2014
On Feb. 14, 1989, I happened to be on a panel on press freedom for the Columbia Journalism Review when someone in the audience told us of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious edict for blasphemy against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. What did we think? We didn’t, as I best recall, disgrace ourselves. We said most of the right things about defending freedom of thought and the imagination.
But the death sentence from Iran’s supreme leader seemed unreal — the sending of a thunderbolt from medieval Qom against modern Bloomsbury — and we didn’t treat it with the seriousness that it deserved. I recall, alas, making a very poor joke about literary deconstructionism. My colleagues, though more sensible, were baffled and hesitant. Was it even true — or perhaps just a mistranslation?
We knew soon enough that it was true. The literary, media and political worlds rallied in defense of Mr. Rushdie. He became a hero of free speech and a symbol — even if a slightly ambivalent postcolonial one — of Western liberal traditions. But he also went, very sensibly, behind a curtain of security that was to last many years.
And by degrees — when it seemed that not only Mr. Rushdie’s life but the lives of his publishers, editors and translators might be threatened — his base of support in the literary world thinned out. Sensitive intellectuals discovered that, in a multicultural world, respect for the Other meant understanding his traditions too, and these often were, well, sterner than ours. Freedom of speech was only one value to be set against…ahem, several other values. Fear, cowardice and rationalization spread outward.
John O’Sullivan, “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech”, Wall Street Journal, 2014-10-31.
November 4, 2014
Sean Collins on the spectacle of the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement demanding that speakers must not say “hurtful” things, lest students be upset:
Students at the University of California, Berkeley, are demanding that the administration ‘disinvite’ comedian Bill Maher who had been asked to be the commencement ceremony speaker in December. An online petition from the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition (MEMSA) declares that Maher ‘has made statements that are blatantly bigoted and racist’, in particular about Islam. Examples of ‘hate speech’ cited by the petitioners include Maher’s recent statement that ‘Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing’.
In response to the clamour for Maher’s disinvitation, the undergraduate committee at UC Berkeley responsible for selecting speakers voted to rescind the invitation to Maher. But the university administration announced the invitation will stand.
The controversy resonates historically at Berkeley. The university is currently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), a coalition of Berkeley staff and students who fought for free-speech rights for students on campus. ‘I guess they don’t teach irony in college any more’, quipped Maher, in response to his disinvitation.
Maher does not have a ‘right’ to speak at Berkeley’s ceremony; this is not a First Amendment issue. But the campaign to remove him as the speaker at the graduation event is thoroughly censorious and antithetical to the free exchange of ideas. Trying to silence certain views is especially problematic at universities, institutions in which students are expected to engage with a variety of ideas. The attempt to oust Maher is part of a regressive anti-intellectual trend. In the past year alone, there has been a wave of speakers – including Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, Ayann Hirsi Ali and George Will – who have had invitations rescinded or who decided to decline following protests.
The slogan used by the UC Berkeley campaign against Maher is ‘Free Speech, Not Hate Speech’. This formulation is a contradiction in terms: if you seek to prevent certain speech – say on the grounds of being ‘hateful’ – then you do not support free speech. Alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four’s ‘Freedom is Slavery’, we can now add ‘Censorship is Free Speech’.
In the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum seemed befuddled that the ‘No Platform’ movement — a vigorous effort to deny public platforms to the British National party and the English Defence League — has mysteriously advanced from silencing ‘violent fascists’ to silencing all kinds of other people, like a Guardian feminist who ventured some insufficiently affirming observations about trans-women and is now unfit for polite society. But, once you get a taste for shutting people up, it’s hard to stop. Why bother winning the debate when it’s easier to close it down?
Nick Lowles defined the ‘No Platform’ philosophy as ‘the position where we refuse to allow fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties’. But free speech is essential to a free society because, when you deny people ‘an opportunity to act like normal political parties’, there’s nothing left for them to do but punch your lights out. Free speech, wrote the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson last week, ‘buttresses the political system’s legitimacy. It helps losers, in the struggle for public opinion and electoral success, to accept their fates. It helps keep them loyal to the system, even though it has disappointed them. They will accept the outcomes, because they believe they’ve had a fair opportunity to express and advance their views. There’s always the next election. Free speech underpins our larger concept of freedom.’
Mark Steyn, “The slow death of free speech”, The Spectator, 2014-04-19
October 31, 2014
BBC News provides some information on a massive project currently underway at the British Museum:
A transgender singer hits stardom in Baghdad. Officials scramble to impose order after a Kuwaiti restaurant is found to be selling cat meat. Gulf royals on an official visit to London are left marooned in a drab south London suburb because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the West End.
These are some of the quirky stories hiding in nine miles of shelving at the British Library (BL) that hold the India Office Records — millions of documents recording Britain’s 350-year presence in the sub-continent.
The India Office did not only administer India, it also exercised colonial rule over an area stretching west as far as Aden. That’s why the files cover Persia and Arabia. And the reason the stories are coming to light is that the Qatar Foundation has paid £8.7m for nearly half a million documents relating to the Gulf to be digitised.
Work started in 2012, and many of those documents have now gone online at the Qatar National Library’s digital library portal.
Never formally part of the British Empire, the Gulf nonetheless came under colonial administration after being targeted for trade in the 17th Century by the East India Company. Two centuries later, the government established direct control through the India Office.
But principles of free academic inquiry, which guide the BL’s work, contrast with Freedom House’s assessment of Qatar as “not free”. Amnesty International called Qatar’s new cybercrimes law, passed last month, “a major setback for freedom of expression”, and Qatari writer Mohammed Al-Ajami remains in jail, serving a 15-year sentence for a poem deemed insulting to the monarch.
The BL and Qatar National Library (QNL) both hold copies of the digitised archive but Gibby’s expectation is that the portal – currently hosted by Amazon – will eventually be transferred for hosting in Qatar. That could theoretically expose material to manipulation by Qatari censors.
“That was discussed very clearly right from the beginning,” says Gibby. “Both sides made very clear to each other that there is no suggestion this will be censored. To date that has been borne out. We, the British Library, are trusting [the Qatar Foundation] and our faith is in them.”
H/T to Mark Collins for the link.
October 10, 2014
Cory Doctorow’s latest book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, briefly reviewed by Ian Steadman in New Statesman:
“Information wants to be free” is a rallying cry for many of those who fight against legal restrictions on the internet. The phrase was coined by the tech writer Stewart Brand in 1984 and referred to the way the web reduces many of the costs of producing and disseminating data to near zero. “Free” in this phrase has also come to mean “freedom”, because the internet makes it easy to avoid censorship.
Doctorow is challenging both interpretations – not because he doesn’t agree with them but because he thinks a crucial premise has been lost. “Information doesn’t want to be free,” he writes, “people want to be free.”
The first two-thirds of the book discusses ways in which artists are penalised by the internet’s present regulatory system. He criticises digital rights management (DRM) technology, which limits the platforms digital files can play on; not only does it mean we don’t “own” the files we pay for, but when a company that supports a file goes bust, the culture locked up in their DRM can be lost for ever. Doctorow describes this as “a library burning in slow motion”.
Many companies such as Apple sell devices that block you from downloading non-approved apps. “That is sold to creators as an anti-piracy measure,” Doctorow tells me when we speak on the phone. “But the most practical application has been to allow Apple to exert market power that it would never have had in any other world.”
This links to the final third of the book, which explores how systems for protecting copyrighted material can also be used for censorship.
In Reason, Jesse Walker tracks down the creator of an urban legend, only to discover that it was him:
During Banned Books Week last month, you may have heard that some busybodies banned Green Eggs and Ham because they thought the story was kinda gay. Metro reported that this happened “briefly in the 1990s because of supposed homosexual innuendos.” A Minnesota radio station said the book was targeted for its “homosexual theme.” Feministe announced that it had been challenged in California for, “No shit, ‘homosexual seduction’ on the part of Sam.” Many other outlets have related the same story, not just last month but in years past. In 2013, Dr. Seuss’ classic even made its way into the Oberlin Public Library’s banned books display. “Inside the bright orange book,” a local paper reported, a “slip explains that it was once thought to have ‘homosexual seduction,’ because Sam tried to seduce his friend.”
None of these reports say where or when this purported prohibition took place, other than those vague references to California and the ’90s. A Lexis-Nexis search turned up nothing. I asked the American Library Association, which sponsors Banned Books Week and keeps track of such things, if they were aware of such an effort; they told me it wasn’t in their database. Metro said it got its info from a book called Seuss Facts, which as far as I can tell does not exist — though a Facebook feed by that name did mention the alleged ban without citing a source. I got in touch with some of the other reporters and bloggers who had repeated the story. None of them were certain where it came from. After I contacted BuzzFeed‘s Spencer Althouse, who included Green Eggs in a banned-books list last year, he concluded that the story was “a terrible, terrible rumor” and added a correction to his article. I’m open to the possibility that there’s a real event here that I haven’t been able to track down, but that seems extremely doubtful.
Besides, I’m pretty sure I know where this began. It’s my fault. Sorry. My bad.
September 4, 2014
The Westport Independent, a self-described “censorship simulator,” places that editorial power in the hands of players during a time of political unrest in the city of Westport. It’s 1948, and rising rebellions against the government lead to a new bill banning any news outlets that do not comply with the Loyalist Government Guidelines. You play as the editor in chief of an independent newspaper entering its final weeks before the ban.
As editor, you control the censorship of articles, pick headlines, and arrange the layout to tell the truth of your choosing. As with Orwell’s 1984, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Will you abide by rules and force-feed your readers the government’s narrative? Or will you defy their guidelines, and print the rebellion’s perspective instead? The city, divided into class-based districts, dynamically responds to everything you print. By shaping public opinion with the stories you choose, you shape the current events that unfold. And by shaping the events, you affect the stories you can cover.
I’ve always been in favor of freedom of expression, but lately I’ve become a free-speech absolutist. It takes all sorts to make a world and I’ve met a lot of them over the years, and I can stand pretty much anything anyone says about anything — until someone says to me, “You can’t say that.” At which point my inclination is to punch his lights out. I do this not just because I’m a violent psychopath with a hair-trigger temper, but to make the important point that in societies where you’re not free to speak your mind — to argue and debate — the only way to express disagreement is through violence.
Mark Steyn, “Yes, We Can (Say That)”, SteynOnline, 2014-02-08
September 2, 2014
First, there’s the shoutout to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
There is no freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
Back in 2012 I wrote at length about the context for that Holmes quote. First of all, Professor Rosenbaum — like most Holmes fans — truncates the quote to render it vague. What Holmes actually said was “[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
But more importantly, Professor Rosenbaum — like most who misquote Holmes — ignores the context. To summarize rather than make you read my lengthy post: (1) Holmes made the analogy in deciding a shockingly brutal and censorious series of cases that are no longer good law, in which the Supreme Court gave the government free reign to jail people who criticized or agitated against American participation in World War I; (2) Holmes later repented of that position, undermined that line of cases through decisions he wrote or joined, and articulated a far more speech-protective line of authority that remains the law today, and (3) if you are fond of Holmes’ rhetorical flourishes, you ought to know he was the sort of statist asshole who said things like “three generations of imbeciles are enough” whilst upholding the right of the government forcibly to sterilize people deemed undesirable.
In other words, when you throw around the “shout fire in a crowded theater” quote, you’re echoing the rhetoric of a tyranny-cheerleader whose logic was later abandoned by everyone, including himself.
July 16, 2014
Virginia Postrel on the (insane) view that colleges and universities need to create special free speech zones — and to actively censor students and teachers outside those boundaries:
The vague bans on “offensive” language and other “politically correct” measures that most people think of when they imagine college speech codes are increasingly being joined by quarantine policies that restrict all student speech, regardless of its content.
Speech-zone rules require students to ask permission to do such things as hand out leaflets, collect petition signatures, or give speeches; demand that students apply days or weeks in advance; and corral their activities in tiny areas of the campus, often away from the main pathways and quads. The rules aren’t about noise or crowds. They aren’t about disrupting classes. They’re about what you can do in public outdoor areas, and they apply even to just one or two people engaged in unobtrusive activities. They significantly infringe on students’ constitutionally protected speech.
But judging from some of the public response to the Citrus College case, a lot of people think that’s just fine. Debating national security issues, they seem to think, has no place at state colleges.
“The creation of the free-speech zones, and the enforcement of sound-level ordinances, was not to prevent free speech, but give religious or political speech a time, place, and manner that would allow speakers to address their messages to audiences on campuses without disrupting the other fundamental functions of the institutions,” wrote a retired physics professor commenting on a Chronicle of Higher Education report.
“Isn’t an institution of higher education’s primary function … the education/learning and safety of its students? Anything that is considered distracting or obstructive of the primary goals has to be managed. If some students disagree, they are welcome to attend a different college,” wrote a commenter on a public-radio discussion of the case. Another declared: “I welcome the free speech zones. On some campuses in California, you cannot walk from a classroom to the library without being bombarded by propaganda.”
A campus, in this view, should be like a shopping mall. If you’re going about your business, you shouldn’t be bothered by pamphleteers and petitioners. You should be protected against sermons and political rants. Confining controversial speech to a small area is no different from telling the guy selling sunglasses that he’s got to rent a kiosk.
July 8, 2014
Robert Heinlein’s next, and final, wife was Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld. She worked with (and outranked) Heinlein at the little wartime research group in Philadelphia that was charged with trying to figure out what a high-altitude (read: space) suit should be like.
Politically, she and I were nowhere near close, but we agreed to disagree and generally talked about something else. That didn’t really matter. Bob had picked her and she was his loyalest fan and ferociousest protector, and as long as he lived that was plenty good enough for me.
But then he died, and Ginny didn’t stop protecting all that was left of him. Specifically his image — or rather her image of him, which I believe was of a chivalrous, well-mannered and quite refined Annapolis man.
Then there was Grumbles from the Grave. Robert had talked about allowing posthumous publication of his real feelings about a lot of things that he didn’t feel comfortable to talk about while he was alive, and indicated that some of his private letters would be a source for the book. Then some posthumous book with that title did come out, and it was a great disappointment. Someone — it could have been only Ginny — had washed his face and combed his hair and turned whatever it was that Robert might have wanted to say into the equivalent of thank-you notes for a respectable English tea.
I know that Robert wrote some much more raunchy letters than any of those, because I myself got one or two. But all the raunch has been edited out. What’s left is actually rather boring and does a great disservice to the real Heinlein, whose physical person may have been embodied as a conventional hard-right conservative but whose writing was — sometimes vulgarly — that of a free-thinking iconoclast.
June 23, 2014
In BBC News Magazine, Alan Little looks at some early WW1 art that fell afoul of the censors for being too accurate:
What you notice first about the two figures in Christopher Nevinson’s painting Paths of Glory is the banality of their deaths. Their commonplace, mundane fate. They lie face down in the blasted earth, two men in British military fatigues, their helmets and rifles lying in the mud beside them.
They are indistinguishable from each other, stripped of individual identity. Nothing marks them out as the unique human beings they must once have been with names, and families, and remembered childhoods, and desire and love and hope and ambition.
From the bottom left of the composition, where the corpse in the foreground lies with the soles of his boots facing you, your eye moves diagonally upwards and to the right, to the second dead man, who has fallen forwards towards you, and you see the top of his dark head but Nevinson denies you a glimpse of his face. He has no face, no personality, no story of his own. In colour, texture and even contour, the lifeless bodies are almost indistinguishable from the land on which they lie, and which will now swallow them.
In my time as a war reporter for the BBC I have come across scenes like this. You cannot mistake the recently dead for the sleeping, for there is something bloodless, something shockingly, arrestingly lifeless about them. I have found myself transfixed by odd detail — a bootlace tied just a few hours ago, by fingers that will now never move again. What talents lie locked into the muscle memory of those fingers? Could they, as recently as this morning, have picked out a melody on a piano? With the death of each individual, an entire universe vanishes.
I think of those two young men whose names I never learned when I look at Nevinson’s Paths of Glory. Its title is taken from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard. “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave / Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
Government censors did not like Paths of Glory. They judged it bad for morale and refused to pay Nevinson for it. But he included it anyway in the first exhibition of his war paintings in London early in 1918, with a brown paper strip across the canvas carrying the word “censored”. He was reprimanded both for exhibiting a censored painting and, bizarrely, for unauthorised use of the word “censored” in a public place. But the painting was bought, during that exhibition, by the Imperial War Museum, where it remains.
June 5, 2014
A review of a new three-volume history of the girly magazine:
Taschen delivers as only Taschen can with Dian Hanson’s History of Pin-Up Magazines, a comprehensive three-volume boxed set chronicling seven decades in over 832 munificently illustrated pages, tipping the scales at nearly seven hardbound pounds. Although each volume is ram-packed with a bevy of sepia sweethearts, hand-tinted honeys, and Kodachrome cuties squeezed between dozens of lurid full-page vintage magazine covers, the accompanying text is so compelling that you’re apt to actually read these books too. And there’s a lot to learn about the history of pin-up magazines, more than you’d ever imagine, and this set leaves no stone unturned and no skirt unlifted. From the suggestive early illustrations of the post-Victorian era to the first bare breasts, the intriguing sources that fueled the fires of popular fetish trends, and the many ways in which publishers tried to legitimize the viewing of nude women while gingerly dancing around obscenity laws, we watch this breed of pulp morph and reinvent with fiction or humor, and later the marriage of crime and flesh. We see the influence on pin-up culture in the wake of the First World War and with the advent of World War II and the rise of patriotica. We follow the path of the bifurcated girl, to eugenics, the role of burlesque, and the legalization of pubic hair. We venture under-the-counter, witness the death of the digest and the pairing of highbrow literature and airbrushed beauties. Hanson even treats us to a peek into the lesser-known black men’s magazine genre, and the contributions made by erotic fiction and Hollywood movie studios.