Censorship, propaganda and misdirection

Published by marco on

A friend of mine wrote a long message on Facebook about how censoring the photo below was the exactly the wrong reaction. he expressed concern that his young daughter would grow up in a humorless, intolerant world.

 The worst thing to happen anywhere ever

A friend of his wrote that they should “agree to disagree” on the impact that this picture has. I answered with the following comment (lightly edited to change tenses, pronouns and given names):

My first response

I understand that you’ve used a lot of words to say that you’re against censorship. I wholeheartedly agree, but I’m of your generation. The pendulum has long since started swinging the other way.

In my experience, “Agree to disagree” is shorthand for “What I have interpreted to be your viewpoint in the discussion I think we’re having is morally reprehensible but I am not ready to burn the bridge between us for any number of reasons. I’m hoping you will come to your senses and address this obvious deficiency in your character or, failing that, that you will hide it better—for all of our sakes—so that you can play the role in my life you had before you’d revealed this chasm between worldviews in such a crass and (nearly) unforgivable manner.”

This is often expressed in tandem with wonderment at how someone who seemed so well-read, at least moderately intelligent and otherwise capable of intelligently expressing himself, could possibly have such an appalling thought—when the conclusion to the discussion is barely even a matter of opinion, so obvious as to be indistinguishable from fact. How could someone so smart be so stupid?

His clarification

He clarified with the following comment:

“[…] I don’t think any of my friends here felt that censorship was the answer. I think the disagreement amongst us has to do with the depth of the harm this picture really produces and the message it sends. While I see it as harmless, bad-taste fun, others tend to see it is more problematic. But by and large I think we all agree that censorship is not the answer. So while we may ‘agree to disagree’ in this case, it is about the grey area related to the message it is sending and not the more black and white question of should someone be able to send it at all.”

My final response (so far)

I responded with (more or less) the following:

That was very nicely put, especially the last sentence. I appreciate your having taken the time and care to respond. You are right to defend your friends. I realized afterward I’d made an assumption about the deliverer of the phrase. To use the quotidian vernacular (if I may also dig into my thesaurus), I “triggered” on it.[1]

To the topic of the author of this picture: people are generally woefully under-informed, including about how under-informed they are.[2] They are also mostly and blissfully unaware of just how public platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. actually are. Their potential exposure to opprobrium has increased dramatically but their opinions and awareness of potentially offended groups hasn’t changed at all. Most of us are spectacularly under-equipped for this new world, but the rules are that we should all act as if this isn’t the case.

We are very mercurial about to whom we grant the protection of “intent”. The original author’s protestation that he didn’t intend the picture to promote abuse of women is dismissed out of hand. However, when other people post pictures of animal torture in my newsfeed, they are given the benefit of the doubt that they are against said torture rather than for it, even if the post itself doesn’t make that clear. What’s the difference?

Making a tempest in a teacup out of every damned thing that results from this confluence possibly decreases the likelihood of repetition by the targeted individual, but it also increases self-censorship, which is the by-far preferred form of censorship in the U.S. historically.

Instead of agreeing to disagree, we should instead just agree that this kind of shit will just keep on happening and keep ourselves focused on weightier matters. Perhaps matters of our own choosing rather than the chum of the day proffered by the media, both mainstream and social.[3]

If none of your friends truly consider censorship—even just a little bit, around the edges—to be the answer, then they represent a bubble and not the mean. For most, umbrage translates to “get rid of this thing and make sure it never happens again”. This is (almost) never stated so clearly, but neither is it taken off the table.

I wish those with indignation to spare would skip stupid pictures like this and spend it instead on issues of true import, like the recent utter failure of COP21 (say hello to a 3C world) or the war with Russia that the U.S. seems to be so intent on. The only candidate who isn’t? Trump. Hooray. If you think I’m exaggerating, think about how the U.S. would have reacted to the incursions in Ukraine and Syria (both neighbors of Russia) and how lucky we are that Putin is much more circumspect than the lunatic administration in the U.S., as Brezhnev before him exhibited such restraint vis à vis Kennedy.

But I understand that, faced with that sort of dilemma, it’s more immediately satisfying to shoot fish in a barrel—especially when you know your own rights won’t be curtailed or your own content censored.

Fish in a barrel, you say? No! This is important: this picture is the exemplar of the wider pattern of violence and violence against women both immanent and consistently promulgated in American culture. We ignore these seemingly innocuous ways of propagandizing a misogynistic standard at our peril.

While I agree with all of that, I further think that if you’re concerned about violence in American culture, consider this: we are citizens of a country that has, compared to other countries, a very large number of handgun deaths and police shootings per capita, that spends over $1 trillion per year on its military, used almost exclusively for aggression, lauds itself for its massive foreign aid, most of it spent on military assistance, cares so much more about its military than the climate that it excludes said military’s emissions from calculation in its carbon budget and is currently illegally bombing seven countries under the leadership of a Nobel Peace Prize-winner.

But by all means, lets discuss this picture as an emblem of violence because, maybe if we put the author in his place, the culture of violence will be vanquished and we can party like Ewoks. The capacity for self-delusion is breathtaking.

You may think I’m just changing the subject, but I think of it more as voicing the hypothesis that indignation is a limited resource. Waste it on this picture and you’ll have none left for where it really matters.

I think of the daily exhortations in my Facebook newsfeed to keep “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — an issue of clear and overarching importance that prevents those people from even considering how fascist it is to even have such a pledge in the first place.

You worry about your lovely daughter growing up in a climate of humorless, anti-intellectual neo-Stalinism? Well you should, but more important is just how bloody inhospitable the actual climate will be—especially if there are no nuclear stockpiles left because we used them all. Over-dramatic? Didn’t Ted Cruz just say “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out” a few days ago? He’s a sitting senator. Don’t state officials consistently use the shorthand “nothing is off the table” to refer the U.S. intent to use nuclear weapons if it doesn’t get its way?

In the spirit of wasting indignation, though, try this truly awful video. It’s got something for everyone!

Andrea Diprè − White Christmas (I don't care) (YouTube)

And in the spirit of ending on a good note: with J.J. Abrams at the helm, your daughter at least stands a fighting chance of getting some more good Star Wars movies.


[1] Similarly to how I would probably trigger on someone using the word “yolo”: they may have used it correctly, but I’m still going to assume certain things about their ability to tie their own shoes if I don’t know anything else about them.
[2] Experience shows that most people put little to no effort into cultivating or substantiating their opinions. More than ever, we live in the age of received wisdom knowledge information propaganda.
[3] E.g. the commuter paper on my morning train thinks that knowing which bachelorette won’t be gracing the screen on next week’s episode of Switzerland’s version of The Bachelor is the hot topic.