Written by: Anthony Hall
Bitch, Nigger, Faggot, Slut Spik, Kike, Ayrab, when we think of these words, we immediately think of unacceptable, hurtful, shaming, racist, and homophobic. Some might even say that these words should not even be allowed to be spoken in mixed company because they are offensive. Let’s be clear; these words are offensive. This paper is not a defense of these words or the people who use them. One could argue that people who think it’s okay to call people those kinds of names should be extricated from society as a whole because there is no room for anyone who holds those kinds of views about other people. However, this paper is not about how we feel. This paper will not discuss how offensive these words are; we will not discuss how wrong these words are; instead, we will discuss something as equally important. We are going to discuss the Supreme Court’s rulings on offensive words. What does the Supreme Court say about offensive words? Lastly, this paper will discuss Censorship. While reading this paper, it’s important to remember that the purpose of this paper is to serve as a cautionary tale. This paper is a warning. Evil is not born out of bad intentions. Evil is born out of good ones.
Someone once argued that a problem is nothing more than a solution to another problem. Many people believe they understand Censorship and are against it; yet, those same people who argue against Censorship partake in censoring others. All of us, at some point, censor other people, the question is to what degree? “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government and private pressure groups” (ACLU, n.d). Think over your life. Have you ever told someone, “don’t say that word? We don’t use that phrase anymore? Do not express yourself that way? Shut up?” When you use the proceeding phrases, you are engaging in Censorship. Some people support fighting Censorship when it comes to the Government, academia, or at work; however, when it comes to person to person censorship, their moral compass does not seem to work as well. “Recent surveys show that self-censorship is on the rise in the U.S. — and that’s a hallmark of institutionalized fear” (Latson, 2018).
This paper argues for consistency and understanding of the consequences of a culture that censors some but not others. “Brutal regimes, of course, plant the seeds of fear especially effectively. A psychoanalyst who lived through Uruguay’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, said, ‘The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: It wasn’t just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people — you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up'” (Latson,2018). A study by TheFire.org explains that half of the college students surveyed (54%) agree that they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college. Almost one-third of students (30%) have self-censored in class because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers. Nearly one-third of students (29%) have self-censored on campus outside of class because they thought their ideas might be politically incorrect. “Three-quarters of very liberal students (78%) and less than half of very conservative students (38%) support the withdrawal of a guest speaker’s invitation in some cases. A majority of students (69%) who support disinviting in some cases agree that a speaker’s invitation should be withdrawn if the speaker has made racist or hateful comments” (The Fire, 2017). There is no argument to the contrary; people are self-censoring themselves in the United States; as mentioned earlier, self-censoring leads to dictatorships and the fall of democracy. Do not take the writer’s word; let us take a look at some well-known dictators in history. Let us see if we can draw any parallels between their society and some of the events beginning to take place here in the United States.
“We are convinced that films constitute one of the most modern and scientific means of influencing the mass. Therefore, the Government must not neglect them” (Goebbels). Hitler understood that he needed to control the masses, and the best way to control the groups was through media. “We…intend a moral transformation in the worldview of our entire society, a revolution of the greatest possible extent that will leave nothing out, changing the lives of our nation in every regard… It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio and the airplane” (Goebbels). Replace radio and airplanes with Twitter and Facebook. Take a moment and think, before continuing to read. How are your opinions influenced by Twitter and Facebook? How is the culture of the United States changing because of Twitter and Facebook? In 1933, German cinema had audiences of over 250 million viewers; that is well over half the people who live in the United States today. Whoever controls the information controls you. They tell you what is acceptable, what is unacceptable. One of the reasons that Hitler rose to power was because he successfully executed Censorship over what people read, listened to, and watched at the movies.
On Aug. 20, 1939, the New York Times Magazine published an article describing the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain chalet. This was 12 days before Germany invaded Poland and started World War II, nine months after the violent anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht, and six years after the first Nazi concentration camp opened at Dachau. A 1938 profile in Homes and Gardens, a British magazine, was similarly descriptive. The piece, a three-page feature on the same estate, related that the home was “bright” and “airy,” with a jade green color scheme. It noted that Hitler “had a passion for cut flowers,” and considered his gardeners, chauffeur and air-pilot not as servants, but as loyal friends.” All kinds of publications — from serious political journals to LIFE and even American Kennel Gazette, a dog magazine — were covering this story about the ‘real’ Hitler. “In 1934, the German Press Association reported that images of Hitler at home playing with his dogs or with children were the most popular images purchased by the media in Germany and abroad” (HSU, 2015). Hitler appeared on the cover of TIME on multiple occasions. Hitler was able to control the narrative about himself; he did this through censorship and propaganda.
“Enukidze’s erasure was the product of a real conspiracy to change public perception in the USSR during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. Stalin’s commitment to Censorship and photo doctoring was so strong that, at the height of the Soviet Union’s global power, he rewrote history using photo alteration” (History.com, n.d.). Joseph Stalin was so intent on controlling how people thought that he removed his enemies from pictures. By censoring what people could see, he was able to control what the public thought and, more than likely, what they talked about; you more than likely will not speak about someone who does not exist.
Do you think the news in the United States edits pictures and stories to fit a narrative that they want people to believe? “Editors must understand audience-centric thinking. Who is our audience? What do they want? Where do they find us? We can now measure and understand our audience(s) to a degree of specificity that is both exciting and terrifying. And suddenly audiences are a fractured concept: We’re not publishing a newspaper for St. Louis or a radio program for the ‘general national audience’; we’re ‘creating content’ for 25-34-year-old women or Latino millennials. Editors need to have tools for understanding audience and strategies for translating that knowledge to stories” (Poynter.org, 2016). An estimated 750,000 people died during the Great Purge, and more than a million others were banished to remote areas to do hard labor in gulags.
During the purges, many of Stalin’s enemies simply vanished from their homes. Others executed in public after show trials. “And since Stalin knew the value of photographs in both the historical record and his use of mass media to influence the Soviet Union, they often disappeared from photos, too” (History.com, n.d.). Stalin was able to control what people felt and believed by controlling what they saw. Think about how Instagram pictures alter your thoughts and feelings. “Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults. While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out'” (Time, 2017). There is no question that Censorship led to the rise of Stalin. Someone might argue that the United States Government does not control Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, so the writer is making a false comparison; nevertheless, this writer plans to demonstrate how the citizens of the United States, not the Government, are voluntarily censoring themselves. The effects will be the same, and the outcome just as bleak. Stalin’s control over how people saw him through editing and Censorship played an essential role in him taking and holding onto power.
When Mao Zedong seized power, the diversity of views seized to exist; “some journalists abandoned professional ethics and participated actively in the all-out promotion of the party’s interests” (RSF.org, 2009). Did someone mention Fox News? Many people think that the loss of freedom happens with one sweep. However, the evidence suggests that the loss of liberty arrives with a smile, not from a Donald Trump-like figure. Mao Zedong was known to be a charismatic individual and expanded his image over time as an object of reverence. Someone once said: “I was so focused on the actions of my enemies, that I was looking the wrong direction when my friend stabbed me in the back.” Like Hitler and Stalin, Mao enjoyed popularity and the support of the people during his early days. Evil is not born out of bad intentions; Evil is born out of good ones.
Please remember, this paper is not a defense of hate speech or despicable actions that lead to violence towards a group or person. Some people believe that any talk of the First Amendment as it pertains to hateful language is a defense of hurtful language. No, nothing could be farther from the truth. While reading this paper, keep your eyes and hearts open to the idea that maybe the First Amendment is complex. Which means perhaps some of your views could be wrong. Their assumptions and prejudices fool many people and, as such, do not open their hearts up to the possibility that what they hold to be true is, in fact, not true. While reading this paper, do not allow yourself to be fooled.
Before we go further, let’s take a look at what the First Amendment is and what it isn’t.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion in two clauses — the “establishment” clause, which prohibits the Government from establishing an official church, and the “free exercise” clause that allows people to worship as they please. Notice that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment, nor is it found anywhere else in the Constitution. Most people do not realize that the phrase was coined later by Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, when he was President, he wrote the opinion that the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause was to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution allows Congress to make no law abridging the freedom of speech or the press. There are significant exceptions to the First Amendment. Free speech is one of the cherished liberties, but free speech often conflicts with other rights and freedoms. The courts have had to consider the question, “What are the limits of free speech?”
The “clear and present danger” test is a fundamental principle for deciding the limits of free speech; in Schenck v. the United States, antiwar activist Charles Schenck sent leaflets to prospective army draftees, encouraging them to ignore their draft notices. The United States claimed that Schenck threatened national security. The justices agreed that free speech would not be protected if an individual were a “clear and present danger” to United States security.
The Court has decided that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes advocacy of the use of force or law violation. Such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. The Court has also decided that the First Amendment provides less than full protection to commercial speech, defamation (libel and slander), speech that may be harmful to children, speech broadcast on radio and television, and public employees’ speech.
Right about now, you are probably asking yourself, “obscenity? Isn’t that a broad term? What about pornography?”
Obscenity is unique in being the only type of speech to which the Supreme Court has denied First Amendment protection without regard to whether it is harmful to individuals. Consequently, obscenity may be banned simply because a legislature concludes that banning it protects “the social interest order and morality.” No actual harm, let alone compelling governmental interest, need be shown to deny it. What is obscenity? It is not synonymous with pornography, as most pornography is not legally obscene; i.e., most pornography enjoys protection under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has created a three-part test, known as the Miller test, to determine whether a work is obscene.
The Miller test asks:
The Supreme Court has clarified that only “the first and second prongs of the Miller test — appeal to prurient interest and patent offensiveness — are issues of fact for the jury to determine applying contemporary community standards.”
“So, what about that guy who didn’t make the wedding cake for that gay couple? How does that all play a part here?
Masterpiece Cakeshop, L.T.D. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: In July 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins went to Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, CO, and requested their owners Jack C. Phillips, design and create a cake for their wedding. Phillips declined to do so because he does not make wedding cakes for same-sex marriages because of religious beliefs. Phillips believes that decorating cakes is a form of art through which he can honor God and displease God to create cakes for same-sex marriages.
Craig and Mullins filed charges of discrimination with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA), §§ 24-34-301 to -804, C.R.S. 2014. Does the application of Colorado’s public accommodations law to compel a cake maker to design and make a cake that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about same-sex marriage violate the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment?
The Court explained that while gay persons and same-sex couples are afforded civil rights protections under the laws and the Constitution, religious and philosophical objections to same-sex marriage are protected views can also be protected forms of expression. The Court reversed in a 7-2 decision, holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s conduct in evaluating a cakeshop owner’s reasons for declining to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violated the Free Exercise Clause.
This is the point where the writer would like to pause.
I hope you keep in mind that this explanation of the First Amendment barely scratches the surface. However, for the point that we want to make, this is a far as we need to go. The Court ruled that religious and philosophical objections to same-sex marriage are protected views and can also be protected forms of expression. What does this mean? In simple terminology, the Government is not stopping anyone from disagreeing with same-sex marriage. The Government is not preventing you from disagreeing with anyone; no law can compel you to express a view or support an idea that goes against your religious beliefs.
“The compelled speech doctrine sets out the principle that the Government cannot force an individual or group to support certain expressions” (Hudson, n.d). Thus, the First Amendment limits the Government from punishing a person for his speech. Still, it also prevents the Government from punishing a person for refusing to articulate, advocate, or adhere to the Government’s approved messages. Let’s be clear: if the Government cannot force you to support certain expressions of speech and cannot punish you, why are people afraid on a college campus to express their views? Why are certain people scared to say they disagree with the LGBTQIA community? Why are jokes censored? More than a handful of people spend their lives concerned about the Government taking over. However, it would appear that we do not need the Government or brutal dictatorships to take away our freedoms; it seems that many Americans are willing to hand over their freedom of speech without a whisper of contempt.
Right about now, some of you are saying: “here we go, here is the defense of hate speech.” No, not at all. This paper is not defending anything; this paper is here to enlighten and to warn.
We are living in a society where people are afraid to speak for fear that they will receive some sort of backlash. One of my friends told me,” sure, people have freedom of speech, but I also have the freedom to disagree and tell you that you are wrong.” Let’s analyze that statement. There isn’t anything wrong with disagreeing with someone; in fact, discourse is good for the community. However, it is the way that we view disagreement that becomes the problem and leads people to Censorship. Perhaps Cody Kommer, a Ph.D. student at Oxford University, explains it best.
“Usually, we think of disagreement and agreement as a fifty-fifty split. If I say, ‘chocolate milkshakes are better than vanilla milkshakes,’ then the probability that you’ll agree with me is 50%. The assumption that agreement and disagreement are a fifty-fifty split is an example of what statisticians call the naive definition of probability.
In formal terms, the naive definition of probability assumes that if you have an outcome A and an outcome B, then A will occur 50%. Sometimes this assumption makes sense, like if you’re flipping a coin. Either heads or tails is equally likely. But for more complicated situations, this assumption doesn’t hold.
If we want to know whether two people agree that chocolate milkshakes are better than vanilla, then it’s reasonable to think that agreement is a fifty-fifty chance. But that’s the simplest possible case. What if, instead, we ask which is your favorite flavor out of out all possible flavors? With an open-ended question like this, the agreement becomes way less likely than disagreement. One person might say chocolate, but the next might choose peanut butter banana, and the next might choose strawberry. The more complicated the world that you’re considering, the more likely disagreement becomes. For almost any topic that comes up in human relationships, agreement and disagreement are not equally likely. Disagreement is the default.
The problem with using the naive model of the agreement is that we use it to categorize people into on-our-side and not-on-our-side. If you like the same kind of milkshakes you’re with me, otherwise you’re against me. But if we shift away from the naive model of agreement, then it changes the way we think about disagreement. It’s no longer the case that if someone disagrees with you that they’re against you in any meaningful sense. Disagreement isn’t a negative position” (Kommer, 2018).
Disagreeing has become a way of life for many people. They thrive on anger and discontentment, all while explaining how much they hate to argue. I do not know what the answer is; however, I understand that until we learn how to disagree in this country, we will continue to censor people. This paper demonstrated what happens when a society allows for Censorship. Labels such as “Fat-shamming” or creating a culture where “canceling” people we do not agree with creates a naive definition of probability. We are creating a world where you agree with us or disagree with us. This way of thinking is too simple for a complex world.
Allow me to put a finer point on this: stop arguing with people simply because they do not see things the way you think they should. Prevent yourself from telling others that they are wrong. Instead, ask open-ended questions to understand that person’s experiences. “It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions than his answers.”—Pierre-Marc-Gaston, Duc de Lévis(1764–1830).
1) Why are you pro-life?
2) Do you really think gun control is a good thing?
3) Why do you believe taxes should be lower?
Imagine if we asked those very same questions the following way:
1) What experiences in your life led you to the pro-life position?
2) What did you read that made you passionate about gun control?
3) How will taxes being lower help you and the people you love?
Even if you do not like the framing of these questions, you must admit they are better than the first set of questions. Why questions do not help, they put people on the defensive. Making assumptions within your question, “do you really believe” makes people shy away from wanting to answer you. Learn how people are personally affected by an issue; what life experience changed their mind; what did they read or hear about a topic. People ask, “how do we heal our country;” this is how.
Let me be clearer: if we continue down the road of censoring people, canceling people, labeling people, telling people what jokes they can or cannot make, looking at disagreement as either the end of a conversation or the beginning of the fight, and attempting to control what words or terms people can or cannot say, we are laying the groundwork for a dictatorship. We all should have stood up for Kevin Hart, even if we disagreed with is joke. We should have fought against people who demanded he step down from the Oscars, and who chose to boycott his work. If you do not understand why by now, I may need to write a part 2.
We are giving away our democracy one small piece at a time. Not the Government, but we, the people, will usher in a society where a person will experience backlash for not communicating the way that a certain group thinks that he/she should. These are dangerous times. We are Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I fear that unless we stop falling victim to slogans and reacting to tweets and expecting others to communicate the way we want, there will be no going back for us. Allow me to leave you with this quote:
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
Good luck, America.
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What Is Censorship? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/other/what-censorship