Monday, August 25, 2008

'Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?'

Stanley Fish has a unique and interesting take on most subjects, which means that his essays are well worth reading, even though I quite often disagree with him. I think he's got a point in this recent NY Times opinion piece on "crying censorship" although he's leaving out some relevant information.

Fish is disagreeing with "self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment" Salman Rushdie- a bit unfair swipe there: after all, it's not as if Rushdie issued a fatwa against himself- who recently "cried censorship" after Random House decided to pulp a novel by Sherry Jones which deals with the Prophet Muhammad's love life. They were afraid that the novel's racier passages might offend believers. It should be noted here that this was a "preemptive strike": nobody has been offended as of yet by this book.

Fish's argument is that Rushdie is wrong to call this censorship. It's censorship when the government says that you can't express certain opinions without being fined or jailed, as they now do in many Western countries- including Canada. Fish believes that what Random House was doing was exercising judgment, certainly a good thing as the culture becomes infinitely coarser. Also, he believes that crying censorship every time someone decides not to support any sort of speech cheapens the idea of free speech. I think he's right there.

However, it seems to me that when we talk about "exercising judgment", it has to do with making a decision about if we should or should not say something. In the case of Random House, the question seems to have been if they could or could not say something. In other words, it was an issue of safety in their minds, rather than decorum. Fish largely ignores this. He mentions the idea of self-censorship, which seems to apply here, without dealing with it in any serious way.

If the government says that you cannot say something, or you will be subject to the force of the state, that is censorship. If private individuals say that you cannot say something or you will be subject to their force, that might not be "censorship", but it becomes unofficial censorship if the state cannot protect you from that force. The effect is the same: you don't speak the taboo for fear of being clobbered, not because you made a judgment that it was inappropriate.

Much of the criticism of Islam that is floating around is stupid and offensive- say, for example, the born-again Christians who think that Muslims worship Satan. And nobody has an obligation to provide a public forum for every crank who has an opinion. But I think that the climate gets a bit colder when people do not express an opinion not because they make a judgment call that the opinion is offensive, but because their safety might be at stake if they speak up. I would call that self-censorship.

And if we wouldn't accept it if the government told us to keep our big mouths shut or get clobbered, we really shouldn't accept it when private individuals do the same. We definitely need to learn to treat each other with a base level of respect that seems to have vanished; but respect is fostered by wielding the carrot instead of the stick.

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