Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Censorship Part I

Current concerns over censorship in Canada represent an historical disjuncture. In the past, the advocates of free speech (anti-censorship) came primarily (but not exclusively) from the political left, broadly and generally speaking. Its base of support drew together an often unwieldy combination of liberals, socialists, communists, civil libertarians, artists, and the advocates of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as advocates of gay and lesbian equality. Today, many of those same groups would self-define as anti-censorship. Advocates of GLBT equality, for example, continue to express concerns about the operation of Canadian "obscenity" laws while civil libertarians wonder about the way trademark can be use to silence political -- as opposed to commercial -- competition. And, artists, of course, have expressed concerns about the way in which manipulations of funding criteria can silence some forms of expression.

In terms of vocality, however, the field of force in anti-censorship has passed to the "right wing," broadly and generally understood. Here, the issue appears to be almost anarchistic: the right to say what one will about whomever regardless of consequences. Or, rather, that there should be no consequences for saying whatever about whomever. Free expression, in this sense, has been elevated to a penultimate principle that must be defended come-what-may because the alternative is so much worse: authoritarianism seem to lurk in the background.

Is this true? I argued, for example, that there was no good ethically justifiable reason to republish cartoons of Mohammed that were deeply offensive to Muslims. I'd argue the same thing (btw) with regard to Jesus. No great cause was advanced as there was already access to those cartoons and no serious political debate ensued. Michael Adams, for example, without offending anyone!, did more to advance reasoned consideration of diversity in Canada in Unlikely Utopia. If we perform a cost/benefit analysis, then, the cost (divisions within the country) was much greater than the benefits (nothing).

This issue highlights the dynamics of censorship today and, I think, points to some of the odd things going on with this debate, not the least of which is this: individuals with near unprecedented access to media -- and sometimes control over of the media itself -- are claiming that they are be censored. Does this ring true? How does a publisher or editor who can put out just about whatever they want claim they are being censored. Moreover, how can they do this and ignore other issues relating to censorship? For instance, how can a publisher or editor publish offensive cartoons but keep silent while the state cuts funding to its Court Challenge programme or manipulates arts funding or changes the mandate of Status of Women? One form or censorship -- a limit (even a reasonable one) on saying whatever one wants whenever one wants -- is supposedly horrible but another form -- impeding the exercise of due process of law, limiting the speech of those who advocate equality between citizens, or forcing film makers to conform to conservative moral standards -- is ignored as if it did not exist. One person, I concede, cannot do everything. There are limits to human stamina. But, surely, someone who sincerely opposed censorship would be concerned about state intrusions into expression. Which is the greater threat: the state or a small marginalized religious minority?

My cost/benefit analysis failed in one crucial respect. I failed to calculate the benefits on an individual level. I argued that publishing those cartoons had no redeeming cultural or political value. It advanced no cause and only created divisions within the country. What about on an individual level? The individual who chose to publish the cartoons did benefit in the form of public attention. People know his name (I know his name; I doubt very deeply that he has ever heard of me). In a media-oriented world, this type of publicity is not a bad thing for a person working in the media industry. I don't know if he performed a cost/benefit analysis of publishing the cartoons (although I suspect all those running a business do since ... that's how you run a business), but if he did the result would be something like this:

Costs = born by others (society at large in terms of divisions and religious minority)
Benefits == accrue to journalist through increased publicity.

Economists call this a "negative externality." It occurs when someone else has to bear the costs of our actions. For instance, suppose I pollute ... who pays the clean up coasts of my problem? I pay a bit through taxes but not all. Others -- future generations, the ecology -- pay more. In this sense, my polluting -- a seemingly irrational form of behaviour -- gains an economic logic because I am "getting something for nothing" (or, below market value) -- heat, transport, etc. -- and someone else is picking up at least part of the tab. Publishing offensive cartoons for no good reason that creates divisions and are offensive, gains an economic logic in the same way: the publisher (or editor, etc.) get something (publicity); others pay the costs.

Is this good for society? Should we even be concerned about society?

More next time.
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