Monday, March 3, 2008

Thoughts on Censorship (JM)

In traditional discussions of censorship the concern has always been that organizations such as the FCC or Congress would issue orders or legislation that banned particular types of words or speech from being aired (particularly on public airwaves). There has always been a robust, and to my mind agreeable, response to such actions. The marked preference for allowing discourse and "the marketplace of ideas" to sort itself out, is one driven by a basic faith in the American public to be responsible with their freedom and to use mechanisms such as basic parental responsibility and personal censorship tools (like the v-chip) to block out those topics and terms inappropriate for segments of the population. All of this is mostly old hat and not worth rehashing in generalist terms. The bottom line is, I would argue, that the more ideas exposed to sunlight there are, the better off we are.

However, there's a far more insidious undercurrent in our society to which far fewer civil libertarians seem willing to pay heed. That is the censorship of the market. Even on the most banal of levels market interference in free speech is quite clear. Howard Stern was not forced from radio merely because of the FCC, but also because of flak from corporate sponsors. However, only in the case of the former reason are organizations up in arms, and I fail to see the distinction. It is no less detrimental to our society to have types of speech de facto censored from the airwaves because a multimillion dollar corporation doesn't care for the message being broadcast than it is to be put out of business because of the FCC. In fact, one could easily argue that it is far more insidious as these are non-democratic organizations beholden to nothing but their own profit motives (and to a lesser extent the cultural whims of corporate CEOs). On the other hand, the FCC is representative of a democratic body and ostensibly beholden to the American people. It is quite telling, in fact, that the places where the FCCs actions are divergent from the interests of the American public are often those very places where corporate interests lie.

This is a significant burden on what we consider to be a free and open society, one made more so because people just don't seem to view this as censorship. Those that have no problem with such corporate interference attempt to win this battle before it begins, by engaging in a semantic paradigm shift. They note that people aren't entitled to a platform for their message, just the right to express said message. This is rhetoric that on face sounds reasonable, but in practice makes any conception of robust speech rights as weak as watered down skim milk. Truly, what kind of contentious, diverse market of ideas can exist at the point at which those ideas broadcast are subject to the will of those who can find the best financing for them. In an almost too obvious way those viewpoints that would support individuals most in need, those with out resources, are far less likely to be aired and far more likely to be extremely mitigated before reaching the American public.

Ultimately this battle about what constitutes censorship belies a greater battle that exists. That it is a conceptual battle rather than a political/policy battle doesn't make it any less important. In fact, since our conceptions are the basic building blocks of the unspoken rules of the game there is no area of contention more important. It comes down to this, the government is not the only coercive and oppressive body that we must be concerned with in society. The market is also an oppressive regime, one whose oppression we almost invariable accept. That we allow speech rights to be dictated by the allocation of resources is not ultimately the most democratic process as most market-oriented rational actor theorists might argue. This viewpoint is totally dependent on the absurd notions that capital is freely and fairly distributed; that the viewpoints of individuals aren't already influenced by the disproportionate informational advantage that corporate America has; and that capitalism works best when pure and untainted.

The Information Age is one of the truer appellations that this era has received. The progress of society has always been about the progress of knowledge, understanding and ideology. As our world has gotten increasingly complex we need to take an increasingly complex view of things like censorship and free speech. It is never as simple as either the market will solve or the government can cure all. Instead we live in a society with infinite sources of power and influence (of which the market and government are dominant forces), we need to use all of these sources to counterbalance each other. This means we need a far more sophisticated point of view about what discourse is and how it is best to be promoted. All of this should be possible without giving in to either tyrannical government or the corruption of the "free market". We certainly need to rethink terms like freedom and authority. Most of all we need to begin adding references to our discussions about appropriate governance. Freedom cannot be considered as an isolated simple variable, bizarre "state of nature" theory is soooo 1700s. The real truth is that there is no natural or correct way to be and we need to find the best balance for the happiest society that, on one hand reflects the will of the people while on the other protects all individuals' abilities to live their own particular brand of life.

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