The Danger in Censorship

One of the single greatest flaws of our generation is the obsession with terms ranging from ‘hate speech’ to ‘cultural appropriation.’ The idea of every individual being entitled to any opinion they desire, so long as the individual does not infringe upon the rights of others, is now deemed impractical and ineffective by a growing portion of the population, including a considerable chunk of our student body. 

Certainly, the majority of our campus would agree an individual should not have a racist belief or create a Halloween costume involving ‘blackface,’ both of these actions personally being absolutely abhorrent and repulsive, but to say an individual cannot do these actions without the threat of legal punishment is both despotic and dangerously naïve. Advocates of legally punishing individuals for hateful speech or expression inevitably run into a key initial question: what is the right definition of ‘hateful?’ Asking a Democrat, a Republican, a Klansman and a Stalinist to define ‘hateful’ would surely present four different answers. Even asking 50 Democrats to define ‘hateful’ would create a spectrum of different answers, regardless of their unanimous party affiliation. If we sincerely claim to be a society where all individuals are equal, how do we justify one highly subjective definition of ‘hateful’ taking precedence over all others? European nations, for example, answered this question by using the definition most supported by the largest portion of their population for hateful speech and expression laws, but by doing so embraced the idea of the majority controlling what is acceptable for the minority to think and say. If we boil down what we call the ‘government,’ we find that we the people are our government in a democratic society. And if we boil down hateful speech and expression laws, the picture that is left is a despotic one, depicting a larger group of adults telling smaller groups of adults what they can and can’t believe and express. I believe most advocates of hate speech and expression censorship truly do come from a place of sympathy for those targeted by it, but I also believe it is from a place of incautious optimism. The naiveté of believing in the censorship of ‘hateful’ speech and expression therefore needs to be established. 

When granting power to the government, like the ability to dictate with legal authority what individual persons may think and express, it is much easier to conceive when politicians you like are in the government. Instead of imagining Democrats or Republicans in Washington, imagine Klansmen or Stalinists in Washington. There’s a good chance they also find hateful speech to be repulsive and consequently desire to censor it, but their definitions of hateful are obviously not the same definitions most fellow students and Americans have. Would you want them to wield the ability to dictate what you can and cannot say or express without the fear of legal punishment? If these ideologues theoretically made up a majority, does that by extension now grant them inherent moral superiority? According to the logic of censorship advocates, it fundamentally must. We don’t live in a Utopia where the best candidates are our options, either, as we’ve learned well from the 2016 election. Any democracy will be perpetually threatened by those with a lust for power and oppression so long as it is a democracy. Giving the government the tool to draw lines for speech while expecting the threat of abuse to never manifest whatsoever is both unrealistic and dangerously naïve.

Advocating for the use of legal force against an individual who holds an unpopular opinion is the hallmark of any autocratic mindset. Hate speech censorship may be intended to create a more inclusive and tolerant society, but there is nothing less inclusive and intolerant than a society that legally punishes those with opinions the majority disagrees with. Banning the ability to freely speak and express unpopular ideas only results in the driving of those with unpopular opinions into underground echo chambers where they further radicalize, sufficiently satisfied believing that their views must be correct because of their suppression. The best way to rid any nation of repulsive ideas is through educating citizens to logically debate them and understand what makes them repulsive, resulting in both the educated citizens and those believing repulsive ideas having the ripest opportunity to achieve truth using logos, ethos and pathos. 

Defending a view and defending the right to a view are two completely different actions. Instead of silencing someone, opt for discussing with and debating them. Only then can we claim to be a country of individuals rather than a collective of intolerance.