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Censorship is a great temptation, particularly when we see something that offends or frightens us. At such times, our best defense is to remember what J. M. Coetzee writes in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. “By their very nature, censors wound their own vision when they restrict what others can see. The one who pronounces the ban … becomes, in effect, the blind one, the one at the center of the ring in the game of blind man’s bluff.”
But the new landscape of ideas and their control leaves many people queasy and uneasy about media, morality, and responsibility. If censorship is wrong and impossible, how then to address the issue of people and companies that use media irresponsibly?
Here’s how I see it: It’s appropriate to criticize media and products, movies, books, writings – whatever you consider offensive, dangerous, manipulative, or inaccurate. To notify companies that you won’t buy their products, see their movies, recommend their books, even launch boycotts is fair game – although I’ve only rarely done so.
To me, censorship comes into being when the protest evolves past criticism and seeks to kill the very idea itself – damage the economic success of the movie, ban the book, deprive the album of distribution, pressure advertisers to withdraw and thus spur cancellation of the TV show, force the company to sell its rap music division.
It’s this intent to remove ideas and their expression from the public realm that separates censorship from criticism.
That’s why I was so uncomfortable about the effective campaign by a few people to cripple the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt in the name of feminism, and to lobby members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to deny the film potentially lucrative Oscar recognition.
The campaign is believed to have cost the film’s producers millions in revenues. A number of film producers have said the message is loud and clear – don’t make serious films that might offend contemporary political sensibilities; they can cost you a fortune.
To my mind, this crossed the line. The film’s opponents weren’t just criticizing Milos Forman’s film but trying to make it go away. Their censoring will have more bitter and wide-ranging effects than if millions of Americans saw the film and learned that a revolting magazine and its sleazy publisher spurred a landmark Supreme Court ruling protecting satire as a legitimate form of free expression.
The line between criticism and censorship can be blurry, and easy to cross as a media critic, so I’ve set out some guidelines for myself. I criticize ideas but rarely the individuals responsible for them. I generally focus my criticism on institutions considerably bigger than those I represent – publishers, media moguls, icons, politicians, billionaire software developers. This is, admittedly, treacherous territory for a critic, but as strong as my opinions may be, they aren’t intended to – or likely to – silence or harm an individual or kill an idea.
Once, writing last year in The Netizen, I urged a boycott. Wal-Mart, as the largest retailer of pop music in America, has, by refusing to sell what it deems offensive, pressured music companies to sanitize CDs by deleting “offensive” songs, lyrics, and jacket covers.
I was widely criticized, even by libertarians, for urging such punitive action against a company simply exercising its right to sell whatever it wished. People could shop elsewhere, they said.
If I were writing the column tomorrow, would I take the same position?
I’d criticize the practice of sanitizing music and call once more for a boycott. I was not seeking to kill an idea, cultural offering, or institution, but to change a noxious and, to me, transparently insincere policy. This is patently different from trying to stop people from seeing a movie or other work of expression. What I was aiming to do was counterbalance the economic pressure from those supporting the sanitizing policy by mobilizing people who were against it.
Ultimately, there is no handbook covering criticism and free speech. We keep thrashing through the same issues, making the same arguments, winning some battles but losing others. The First Amendment is our collective safety net.
Writing on the Web after being in print and television, having made the transition from an information culture that isn’t very open to one that is extraordinarily free, I feel a special sensitivity to the fragile nature of unfettered speech.
It means letting other people’s ideas reach their audience, even when they are obnoxious, offensive, or inaccurate.
And it means remembering the trade-off: Everyone gets to say what they want, as long as they don’t provably harm or injure other people, and then you get to say what you want – which is indescribably and supremely valuable.
For me, free speech has never been a libertarian notion. It’s not a trendy or anarchistic passion of the techno elite. It’s an old value that requires constant maintenance, monitoring, reminding. It’s the very stuff of patriotism.
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