Monday, February 20, 2006

The American model of self-censorship.

Robert Wright’s op-ed in the NYTimes who analyzes the question of self-censorship as a way to avoid legal censorship raises interesting questions.

First, he dismisses the idea of a ‘clash of civilization’, while acknowledging the obvious cultural gap between the West and the “Islam world”, then he makes a point I have not heard so far: even though he recognizes that most of the violent demonstrations have been politically orchestrated, he also reminds us that there has been also a tradition in America of using violence to make a point. I agree and think this is also true of Europe. Most recently, it took days of violence in the French suburbs for the government and the media to address the issue of racism. The French unions can also be quite violent in their demonstrations when they want to be heard. That’s been the trend in the last few years anyway.

But Robert Wright’s main point is that he supports the Muslim’s demand for self-censorship by major media outlets. In his view, it is the kind of self-censorship that “has helped make America one of the most harmonious multiethnic and multireligious societies in the history of the world”. His point is highly debatable.

While I agree with him that you should be legally free to publish just about anything – and thus I oppose most of the legal restraints that exist in Europe, and if I also agree that freedom comes with responsibility, I don’t believe it is wise to “let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn't too onerous”. I think the responsibility is a personal one. I believe that ridicule and shame for saying offensive things should be enough to keep censorship out of the legal realm. That’s where education and public opinion should play their role, not pressure groups and lobbies as it is the case in the US. That may be quite idealistic, I admit, but it is the sort of society I’d rather live in. Freedom not only requires responsibility but it also comes with a little bit of risk and we ought to accept it.

The danger of the American model as it is defined by Mr Wright is that you end up with trying to satisfy just about everybody and any pressure group and you become paranoid with political correctness. Real meaning is replaced by tasteless platitudes through hypocritical euphemism on just about anything. You then live under the constant fear that you may have offended whomever. The problem is that self-censorship is the most successful and efficient form of censorship that comes cheap for any society but the result is conformity of speech and language which leads to poverty of thought.

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