Saturday, August 18, 2018

Censorship Quiz

I've been reading Bob Altermeyer's book on authoritarianism written in 2006. Here's a censorship quiz (p 84) that perhaps can help people recognize that few of us actually want every to have total freedom to say whatever we want wherever we choose. There might be a few places that could use some limits. To some, any limit at all is tantamount to totalitarianism, but I belief what matters is what we choose to limit, when, where, and why.
1. Should a university professor be allowed to teach an anthropology course in which he argues that men are naturally superior to women, so women should resign themselves to inferior roles in our society?
2. Should a book be assigned in a Grade 12 English course that presents homosexual relationships in a positive light?
3. Should books be allowed to be sold that attack “being patriotic” and “being religious”?
4. Should a racist speaker be allowed to give a public talk preaching his views?
5. Should someone be allowed to teach a Grade 10 sex education course who strongly believes that all premarital sex is a sin?
6. Should commercials for “telephone sex” be allowed to be shown after 11 PM on television? [What about in the middle of the day?]
7. Should a professor who has argued in the past that black people are less intelligent than white people be given a research grant to continue studies of this issue?
8. Should a book be allowed to be published that argues the Holocaust never occurred, but was made up by Jews to create sympathy for their cause?
9. Should sexually explicit material that describes intercourse through words and medical diagrams be used in sex education classes in Grade 10?
10. Should a university professor be allowed to teach a philosophy course in which he tries to convince his students there is no God?
11. Should an openly white supremacist movie such as “The Birth of a Nation” (which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan) be shown in a Grade 12 social studies class?
12. Should “Pro-Choice” counselors and abortion clinics be allowed to advertise their services in public health clinics if “Pro-Life” counselors can?
His analysis of high right-wing authoritarians compared to low RWAs:
"I hope you’ll agree that half of the situations would particularly alarm liberals, and the other half would raise the hackles on right-wingers. Would low RWAs want to censor the things they thought dangerous as much as high RWAs would in their areas of concern? It turned out to be “no contest,” because in both studies authoritarian followers wanted to impose more censorship in all of these cases--save the one involving the sex education teacher who strongly believed all premarital sex was a sin. How can this be? It happened because the lows seldom wanted to censor anyone. They apparently believe in freedom of speech, even when they detest the speech. Some low RWAs may insist on political correctness, but the great majority seemingly do not. Authoritarians on the other hand, spring-loaded for hostility, seem all wound up to clamp right down on lots and lots of people. So when authoritarians reproach other people who call for censorship, the reproach may be justified. But a lot of windows probably got broken in the authoritarians’ own houses when they flung that stone."


Larry Hamelin said...

I love Bob Altemeyer (like The Authoritarians, Atheists is also a very good book), but he does not always present things in the best way possible. Altemeyer, for all his strengths, will sometimes compress a complex issue into a simple dichotomy: dogmatic/flexible, censorship/freedom of speech. It's one thing to just measure a simplified question, but he will sometimes draw conclusions that would not hold with more complicated analysis.

For example, in Atheists, he calls atheists just as "dogmatic" about evolution as religious people are about their theology, ignoring (or downplaying) that atheists are unlikely to change their minds about evolution because of the massive evidentiary foundation, whereas religious people are often unlikely to change their minds in spite of massive evidentiary contradiction.

The biggest problem in the questionnaire you reproduce is the reliance on the passive voice, which sets my teeth on edge as an English teacher. Who precisely is doing the allowing or disallowing? How are they doing so? Why are they doing so? These questions are, I think, critically important.

If the question whether the government should punish (imprison or fine) a university professor who argues that men are naturally superior to women or a teacher who assigns a book in a Grade 12 English course that presents homosexual relationships in a positive light, etc., the answer is almost too obviously, "Of course not." First Amendment, right? But literally no one (other than the occasional insincere troll) argues for more coercive government censorship. This is not a controversial position.

The issue gets more complicated when it's not the government who is doing the "censoring" and when the issue is not censorship per se but platforming. Is it a matter of "censorship" when some institution, such as a primary/secondary school or college/university, denies their platform to this or that opinion? Does it matter what kind of institution discriminates access to its platform: does State University denying access to its platform differ from Facebook or Twitter denying access? How about a cell phone company or ISP?

It also matters why someone might object to some idea: one might object because they have a contrary opinion, or they might object because of some notion of factual or objective truth. All educational institutions are concerned with not only discussion of but also legitimation and delegitimation of ideas, and propagation of legitimate ideas. No educational can or wants to encompass every possible idea. We don't teach the humours theory of disease in medical school, Velikovsky in astronomy class, or Flood geology in geology class. Why are we somehow obligated in principle, then, to teach equally factually discredited theories of gender or racial superiority?

How about the means of deprecating or delegitimizing ideas? Is is "censorship" in any meaningful sense to, for example, refuse tenure or promotion because that teacher or professor holds an illegitimate position, especially when that position is "supported" by atrocious scholarship? How about student boycotts? Should students be admonished for boycotting a class, or even coercively compelled — perhaps under threat of suspension or expulsion — to take a "controversial" class in the name of anti-censorship?

There are so many dimensions to the issues that reducing everything to a censorship/anti-censorship dichotomy loses too much complexity to be useful.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, there are many more nuances of each question that need clarification in order to decide, but it's meaty for class discussion. My point here, however, is that there are SOME cases in which even the most intensely free speech advocate will want some measure of control. Free speech isn't the highest value or the end all and be all that some suggest. My position on those limits tend to focus, similar to yours I believe, on who has the power, how they plan to use it, and to what extent it can be monitored to prevent abuse. We always have to be allowed to critique the current government. And there should be at least social sanctions in place to prevent open cruelty.

Larry Hamelin said...

My position on those limits tend to focus, similar to yours I believe, on who has the power, how they plan to use it, and to what extent it can be monitored to prevent abuse.

Indeed, which would seem to suggest active voice.

Dustin Vinland Jarl said...

Here in the USA I can remember the days when it was mostly the Right calling for censorship. The days and years in the wake of 9/11, the days and years of "those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear", the days in which critical voices on the Left such as Chris Hedges were not only booed out but really menaced out of university speaker podiums, etc., with the tacit collusion of uni administrators who literally told him "don't come back to this campus, we'll mail you back your jacket that you accidentally left". Nowadays it's mostly the Left calling for censorship, because although they're not in governmental power in any branch of national gov't here, they think they've won the "culture war". Otherwise they wouldn't be calling for it. I'm a centrist btw. The 1st amendment, combined with the 14th which the courts have interpreted as putting 1st amendment protections onto public university campuses, is a very uneasy peace between two very divided political tribes. But right now it's the only tool we have for getting voices from "the other side" onto disparate uni campuses, each of whom probably would shut down "the other side" if they had the chance and thus deny the people who are genuinely interested in hearing another viewpoint.