Monday, May 08, 2017

Censorship and Speech

I had composed a pretty good (if I may say so myself; at any rate it took some effort) entry for my first post after what I think has been my longest hiatus from this platform since I began, in recognition of Day 101 of the current presidential administration.  It covered some of the events since the election, including national and international reactions, and wrapped with a parallel to Orwell’s Room 101.   But that batch of writing and linking was lost to the vagaries of the internets.  And so it goes.

Rather than try to recreate that, what I’m posting today is a set of two different perspectives on free speech and restrictions to speech published recently in the Times. 

From the first piece, by insistent dissident Ai Weiwei
The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible. 
For people who accept this passive position toward authority, “getting by” becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy. This attitude is essentially defensive on their part. It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.

And from the second, by Ulrich Baer, vice provost at New York University. 
What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse. The snowflakes sensed, a good year before the election of (the president), that insults and direct threats could once again become sanctioned by the most powerful office in the land. They grasped that racial and sexual equality is not so deep in the DNA of the American public that even some of its legal safeguards could not be undone. 
The issues to which the students are so sensitive might be benign when they occur within the ivory tower. Coming from the campaign trail and now the White House, the threats are not meant to merely offend. Like (the president's) attacks on the liberal media as the “enemies of the American people,” his insults are meant to discredit and delegitimize whole groups as less worthy of participation in the public exchange of ideas.

Both are worth a full read.  I have tended to be something of a free speech absolutist, though maybe not exactly the variety branded by Baer; however, Baer's points (or more accurately, points he distills from decades’ worth of writing and public discussion on the topic) are valid, and essential to consider when forming opinions - and policies - concerning, for example, speaking events on campuses. Baer hosted a fascinating panel at the NYU Law School “In Defense of Truth” a couple weeks ago, concerning the concept of truth - not least, the durability of ideas that feel true, across any spectrum you care to name - as seen through the lenses of art, journalism, and the law. 

For now, I'll leave you with a few more images touching on surveillance, education, infrastructure, and public protections from the Ai Weiwei show we saw at the Tate Modern a while back.