Tag Archives: censorship

The New Censorship

One of the many causes of increased tribalism and chaos worldwide is the unprecedented nature of the information environment we inhabit. A quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is instructive–

In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.

We are only dimly beginning to understand the nature of the threat posed by the mountains of “information” with which we are inundated. Various organizations are mounting efforts to fight that threat–to increase news literacy and control disinformation– with results that are thus far imperceptible.

The Brookings Institution has engaged in one of those efforts; it has a series on Cybersecurity and Election Interference, and in a recent report, offered four steps to “stop the spread of disinformation.” The linked report begins by making an important point about the actual targets of such disinformation.

The public discussion of disinformation often focuses on targeted candidates, without recognizing that disinformation actually targets voters. In the case of elections, actors both foreign and domestic are trying to influence whether or not you as an individual vote, and for whom to cast your ballot. The effort goes farther than elections: it is about the information on whether to vaccinate children or boycott the NFL. What started with foreign adversaries now includes domestic groups, all fighting for control over what you believe to be true.

The report also recognizes that the preservation of democratic and economic institutions in the digital era will ultimately depend on efforts to control disinformation by  government and the various platforms on which it is disseminated. Since the nature of the necessary action is not yet clear–so far as I can tell, we don’t have a clue how to accomplish this– Brookings says that the general public needs to make itself less susceptible, and its report offers four ways to accomplish that.

You’ll forgive me if I am skeptical of the ability/desire of most Americans to follow their advice, but for what it is worth, here are the steps they advocate:

Know your algorithm
Get to know your own social media feed and algorithm, because disinformation targets us based on our online behavior and our biases. Platforms cater information to you based on what you stop to read, engage with, and send to friends. This information is then accessible to advertisers and can be manipulated by those who know how to do so, in order to target you based on your past behavior. The result is we are only seeing information that an algorithm thinks we want to consume, which could be biased and distorted.

Retrain your newsfeed
Once you have gotten to know your algorithm, you can change it to start seeing other points of view. Repeatedly seek out reputable sources of information that typically cater to viewpoints different than your own, and begin to see that information occur in your newsfeed organically.

Scrutinize your news sources
Start consuming information from social media critically. Social media is more than a news digest—it is social, and it is media. We often scroll through passively, absorbing a combination of personal updates from friends and family—and if you are among the two-thirds of Americans who report consuming news on social media—you are passively scrolling through news stories as well. A more critical eye to the information in your feed and being able to look for key indicators of whether or not news is timely and accurate, such as the source and the publication date, is incredibly important.

Consider not sharing
Finally, think before you share. If you think that a “news” article seems too sensational or extreme to be true, it probably is. By not sharing, you are stopping the flow of disinformation and falsehoods from getting across to your friends and network. While the general public cannot be relied upon to solve this problem alone, it is imperative that we start doing our part to stop this phenomenon. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us from disinformation, and to start saving ourselves.

All good advice. Why do I think the people who most need to follow it, won’t?

Cue the Censors….

Remember the chant from our childhood– “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

Of course, that has never been true; words can and do deeply wound. But the message of the chant is nonetheless important: just as we realize that politics is “warfare by another name,” and infinitely preferable, since politics at least lets us live to fight another day, discussion and debate and even name-calling are preferable to physical attacks.

Furthermore, the notion that robust speech and debate are an essential element of the search for truth is enshrined in the Free Speech clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. Freedom not just for ideas with which we agree, but freedom even–perhaps especially– for the idea we hate, as Justice Holmes memorably put it.

And yet, if there is one constant through American history, it is the urge to suppress ideas that offend some person or faction. Pick up any newspaper or visit any news site, and there will be reports on efforts to censor. Two recent examples:

The Kansas State Senate on Wednesday passed S.B. 56, with twenty-six Republican senators supporting the measure, and six Republicans and eight Democrats opposing. The bill is ostensibly designed to protect students by making it illegal to display or present material that is “harmful to minors,” such as pornography.

But the broad categorizations and vague language have caused concern among teachers and free speech advocates about what will and won’t be policed.

Of course, what I think is “harmful to minors” may be rather different from what you think is harmful.

Censorship efforts are often accompanied by pious expressions of concern for children; other times, however, it is very clear that opponents of particular ideas simply want to suppress those ideas.

A Pennsylvania transit system permitted churches to advertise on the sides of its buses but refused to allow a group that doesn’t believe in God to place an ad containing the word “atheists,” fearing it would offend riders, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The County of Lackawanna Transit System repeatedly rejected the ads sought by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, telling the group it doesn’t permit advertising space to be used as a forum for public debate. The transit system also told the group its ad might alienate riders and hurt revenue, according to the lawsuit, filed in Scranton.

The transit system allowed several churches — as well as a political candidate and a blog that linked to anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial and white supremacist websites — to advertise before the Freethought Society first tried placing its ad in 2012, the suit said.

I don’t suppose it occurs to the censors that when you demonstrate fear of an opposing idea, you are simply highlighting the weakness of your own position….

 

 

Why Censorship Doesn’t Work

A former student sent me the following email

Plans are proceeding for the November 5 “Read-In” of writings by Howard Zinn at Purdue University, co-sponsored by the Indiana affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers among other groups.  Parallel events at several other Indiana schools are planned.  Information is available from Prof. Tithi Bhattacharya at tbhattac@gmail.com.
I can’t help wondering how many people who will attend this event had ever heard of Howard Zinn prior to Mitch Daniels’ ill-advised effort to suppress his work.
It so often works that way.
When my middle son was a student at the University of Cincinnati, the local prosecutor tried to close down an “obscene” exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Students and residents who ordinarily wouldn’t have gone across the street to attend an art exhibit lined up to see this one. My son told me the lines stretched for blocks.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to books and art–according to a couple of film histories I’ve read, at times when movie attendance was dwindling, filmmakers responded by producing more explicit films and hoping that the howls of prudery from the “usual sources” would increase attendance.
You’d think the busybodies would learn.
Censorship may or may not be unconstitutional (depending upon whether government is doing it), but it’s rarely effective. Quite the contrary. If there’s material you don’t want people to see or hear or read, your best bet is just to ignore it.
I wonder if Mitch has figured that out yet.

 

Mitch’s VERY Bad Day

Let’s talk about censorship and academic freedom and Mitch Daniels‘ desire to use the power of government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas being foisted on them by books with which he disagreed.

There is no principle more basic to the academy and to the American constitutional system than the principle that forbids such behavior.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

As Justice Jackson so eloquently opined in Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education, “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…”

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your boss can censor you–but not your Governor.

Academic freedom is the application of that foundational principle to institutions of higher education.Free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of genuine education (albeit not so central to job training, with which Mitch often seems to confuse it). Education  requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views from reprisals (that protection is the purpose of tenure).

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Despite hysterical rhetoric from the Right, the percentage of college professors who use their classrooms to propagandize is vanishingly small, but just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, and putting up with the likes of me is the price conservatives pay, putting up with the occasional academic ideologue is a small price to pay for intellectual freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas, but it does not require the sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach creationism in a science class, or that the holocaust never happened in a history class.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself. Including diversity is a step in the larger quest for new understanding and insight. But an overemphasis on diversity of perspectives as an end in itself threatens to distort the larger responsibilitiesof intellectual work in the academy.

So what are we to make of the disclosure that, while Governor, Mitch Daniels tried to use the power of that position to ensure that teachers and professors did not use a book of which he disapproved, and that he tried to cut funding for a professor who had criticized  his policies?

The emails display a breathtaking arrogance, ruthless partisanship, and an autocratic mindset. But most of all–and most troubling, given his current position–they display an absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, the essential purpose  and nature of the academy.

Howard Zinn was a reputable if controversial historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified twaddle. But opinions about the value of his–or any–book are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not “the governor”. Government functionaries do not get to decide what scholarship is acceptable for classroom use or debate, and elected officials absolutely and emphatically do not get to retaliate against critics by cutting their funding or getting them fired.

I think I was most struck by the unintended irony of Daniels’ emails. He rants about indoctrination while trying to control what students read and see. (I guess it’s only propaganda when its done by someone with whom you disagree.) A Governor who talked endlessly about “limited government” and “freedom” when he was pushing his economic agenda evidently had a very different approach to the marketplace of ideas. (It’s sort of like those “family values” guys who frequent prostitutes and play footsie in airport restrooms.)

Bottom line: the politician as hypocrite and wanna-be autocrat are one thing.

Allowing someone who is so clearly contemptuous of the very purpose of education to lead a great university is an absolute travesty.

The Kids Are All Right

I routinely apologize to my graduate students for my generation, and the mess we’ve made of the world we’re leaving them. I tell them that it will be up to their generation to clean that mess up, and generally speaking, I find most of them up to the task. Unlike people who wring their hands and bemoan the state of “today’s youth”–a practice that began with Socrates’ Athens, if I’m not mistaken–I find the students who populate my classes to be, on balance, thoughtful, fair-minded, evidence-based and public-spirited. They give me hope that they really will improve our common institutions.

Of course, these are graduate students I’m talking about, and self-selected ones at that. So it was interesting to get an email from my sister, who created and runs the art program at Sycamore School here in Indianapolis, about one of her eighth graders.

In my eighth grade class, my students are to keep a notebook.  Each week, I hand out a quote or comment or question about art, and they must respond.  One week, the question was, “Is there any time when art, no matter how well done, should not be displayed?”

Today as I was grading the notebooks, I came across this answer, which I thought might interest you.  (I could show you notebooks that would blow your mind!)
“No, I think blasphemy and profanity are only ever taken down by less enlightened people.  Enlightenment comes from not having a perfect society.  By not allowing both the good and the bad of living, true intellect is unobtainable..”
John Stuart Mill would be proud of this kid. He has figured out what the nation’s founders knew, but so many of our would-be contemporary censors still can’t seem to grasp–the proper response to bad speech is more and better speech–not suppression. Only when all ideas are available for examination can we ever hope to distinguish between truth and falsity.