Censorship is always about power: who has it; who wants it; what people are willing to do to keep it.
But censorship is also about another kind of power: the power of words. There is a reason totalitarian governments murder and imprison writers. They realize, along with every book lover and history buff, that the written word has the power to change minds, to stir emotions, and to bring down governments.
When Émile Zola died in 1902, a contingent of miners following his funeral cortege chanted the title of his 1885 novel Germinal, about about a coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s. When the text first appeared in serial form, the newspaper’s publisher Augustin-Alexandre Dumont demanded certain incendiary lines be cut; while Zola agreed to the excisions, he demanded the text be replaced by multiple successive lines of ellipses, thereby “forcing Dumont to take responsibility for the censorship.” Recent U.S. protests against restrictions to women’s reproductive rights have featured activists dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s most popular novel, with others carrying placards reading, “Make The Handmaid’s Tale fiction again.” Atwood’s novel, unsurprisingly, is a perennial candidate for censorship.
The pushback against the dangerous power of words in our era is not confined to the right (although that is where it is most prevalent and most reactionary). The deplatforming of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter is a recognition of the persuasive effect these figures have in driving divisive and bigoted thought. The argument that the speech of influential far-right figures represents a clear and present threat to identifiable individuals or groups is persuasive, especially with hate crimes against Blacks, Jews, Indigenous and trans people, and others are on the rise. The question of where free expression ends and hate speech begins is fraught with all kinds of disagreements.
The internet has changed the landscape of global communication, allowing neo-Nazi groups and others previously relegated to shadowy corners of contemporary culture to find and embolden each other. This has resulted in an understandable liberal backlash against allowing certain ideas to proliferate due to the demonstrable harm they cause to already marginalized communities.
San Francisco lawyer, journalist, and writer Eric Berkowitz recognizes this challenge to traditional liberal democratic notions of free speech and suggests that the world of communication has altered so drastically since the advent of the internet that we may need to rethink what many assumed were settled principles about how free speech operates in the 21st century. “The pre-internet rules against censorship evolved roughly along a dual axis, on which the interests of speakers and governments were balanced against each other. Today’s censorship issues are multidimensional, involving not only these two sets of players but also internet companies and social media platforms that broker online speech, each pursuing its own imperatives.”
Berkowitz begins his 2021 book Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News by referencing the case of Ernst Zündel. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Zündel, a Holocaust denier, overturning a criminal conviction on the grounds that “the law against spreading false news unconstitutionally abridged free speech.” The law as it stood, the Canadian high court argued, was so vague as to invite totalitarian applications commensurate with those under Nazi and Communist regimes of the past. “In its attempt to protect truth,” Berkowitz writes, “the Canadian legal system had, in the end, protected the free-speech right of Zündel to spread falsehoods.”
This has, for some time, been conventional wisdom in liberal democracies when it comes to the matter of what speech should be allowed versus what should be suppressed. Democracies need not go anywhere near as far as the U.S. – which has allowed a veritable free-for-all where First Amendment litigation is concerned – to worry about the slippery slope that exists when state and other powerful actors begin to make unilateral decisions about what citizens may and may not be exposed to in the way of thought, speech, or expression.
The classic liberal democratic justification for unfettered free speech is John Stuart Mill’s 1849 pamphlet On Liberty. In one oft-quoted section, Mill defends the right of people to voice objectionable, even demonstrably incorrect, views without incursion by government or other forces of suppression.
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Berkowitz quotes this passage but goes on to note that Mill’s advocacy for truth emerging out of a “process of struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners” (Mill’s words) makes the 19th-century philosopher appear more universalist than he actually was. Mill argued for unfettered freedom of speech and expression not for everyone, but only for the educated elite. “To argue that everyone should be accorded full freedom of speech,” Berkowitz writes, “he would have had to endorse the dismantling of British colonialism, which was unthinkable.” Once again, in Mill’s conception, it is those in power who decide who gets to speak and how freely.
This goes all the way back to Plato, who advocated “a system of restrictions, starting in the nursery, designed to exclude all subversive notions from the consciousness of the republic’s future guardians,” Berkowitz writes. “He maintained that anything in the intellectual and cultural diet that encourages freedom of thought, curiosity, or exploration is to be suppressed.”
The asymmetrical power dynamic that drives much free-speech debate is highlighted in P.E. Moscowitz’s 2019 book The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent. Moscowitz argues that free speech is in fact a misnomer, at least in 21st-century America, because for a vast number of people from oppressed groups or those without access to the means of production, it effectively doesn’t exist. And in any case, Moscowitz argues, the determinants of what constitutes free speech are always subject to arbitrary change or revision:
When we debate free speech, we are not debating whether we like free speech, because we’ve never really had free speech. We‘re debating where the line is, and who gets to hold the line in place or move it. We’ve settled, for now, on some limits to free speech, but we haven’t yet decided that, for example, the right to walk down the street without being yelled at by a Nazi is as important as the right to private property. That line is in constant flux.
In its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law limiting the amount of money corporations could donate to political campaigns, reasoning that spending was a form of speech. The ruling not only extended the court’s recognition of corporations as people but vested political speech rights with those who had the most money to throw around.
Some of the largest corporations in existence are tech companies like Apple, Google, and Meta (formerly Facebook); they not only exert their speech rights through spending but also through algorithms that feed users certain kinds of content. This content, in turn, helps drive polarization and extremism online and in the real world. “The very vehicles of speech, and speech itself, are now used to silence voices,” Berkowitz writes, “while decisions as to what speech to allow are increasingly directed by IT engineers who are more concerned with developing profitable online products than managing their platforms responsibly.”
Which brings us back to the core principle: the impulse to regulate speech is always about power. The weaponization of speech online or off by far-right agitators is a means of asserting power for themselves while denying it to others, most frequently those from historically oppressed or marginal groups. What has come to be known as cancel culture – the deplatforming of pundits and writers who promote ideologies that are deemed too far beyond the pale for a civilized society – is an attempt to reclaim some of this power.
Berkowitz argues that one of the key facets of censorship is it doesn’t work: banned books tend to find audiences they never would have otherwise, and attempts to suppress bigoted or hateful speech can actually have the opposite effect:
As restrictions on offensive speech tighten, the question resurfaces as to whether censorship works at all. Have the laws reduced the quantum of hatred in the world, or are they as futile as speech repression has always been? In Germany, where anti-hate-speech enforcement is quite tough … the number of violent far-right hate crimes surged from about 1,200 in 2017 to 1,664 in 2018. … A 2015 report by Norwegian researchers suggests that filtering out controversial expression may increase the risk of extremist violence, while an Australian study found the country’s laws reduced expressions of hatred in mediated outlets, but not on the streets.
Ultimately, Berkowitz’s nuanced and even-handed book does not offer any clear solutions for the problem of how to balance the right to think and speak for oneself with the responsibility to ensure that vulnerable populations are not targeted or victimized by individuals or collectives wilfully warping the liberal democratic values of tolerance and openness for their own ends. In Canada, hate speech legislation and the reasonable limits clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms go some way to achieve this balance. But the law of unintended consequences being what it is, these are issues we would all do well to contemplate to ensure we can achieve the freedom and security we all presumably desire.