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Newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form have always, and I mean always, reserved the right to publish or not publish whatever they feel like publishing or not publishing for whatever reason—even just because. I come from printed stuff. This belief is baked into me. When newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form decide not to publish something, it’s not nor ever will be censorship. It’s reserving the right to publish or not publish whatever for whatever.
This right to publish or not publish whatever they want for whatever reason is rooted in the history, tradition, and constitutional guarantee of the rights to free speech, free thought, free expression, and free inquiry. People who do not own the local newspaper have the equal right to raise hell when the paper doesn’t publish their letters to the editor, when the newspaper won’t run their press releases, but the local newspaper is not silencing them or canceling them—and it is not censoring them. Everyone in America has the right to free speech. No one in America has the right to be published.
Newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form used to be the exclusive venues for the expression of the public opinion. Obviously, that’s still partly the case, but Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have expanded the square infinitesimally. Instead of writing for the New Haven Register, and hoping to have a modicum of influence on the political thinking of my neighbors, I now write this newsletter, hoping to have a modicum of influence on the political thinking of my fellow Americans. The principles of free speech, however, are the same. If Substack, the platform I’m using, stopped working with me, for whatever reason, there might be serious consequences, but among those would not be credible allegations of censorship. Substack has the right to publish or not publish whatever for whatever.
I’m making a big deal about this for a good reason. We are in a moment in our history where politics is slowly taking our culture further, a few steps further, in a liberal direction. The election of an out-and-out fascist in 2016 unleashed a torrent of political energy, especially with respect to women (#MeToo) and Black people and people of color (George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, DACA, the border wall, and Muslim ban). The unseating of a sitting president by an anti-racist and anti-fascist coalition is, to me, the greatest illustration of this forward movement. One of the consequences of this torrent of history-changing political energy has been that “white people—white men, in particular—face a little more scrutiny today than in the past,” wrote Thomas Zimmer, a historian and visiting professor at Georgetown University, recently.
Note that it’s really just the threat of scrutiny, the potential of being held to account is enough to cause the next round of reactionary panic. In practice, the power structures that have traditionally defined American life have unfortunately held up fine. … It’s clear that the anxieties underlying these reactionary moral panics are shared not just among conservatives. There’s a whole universe of white male centrist/liberal pundits who are almost exclusively dedicated to fighting back against these supposed dangers from the “Left.” … These moral panics appeal to the white (male) mainstream, because the threat to elite impunity is real. Put simply, “PC,” “#MeToo, “cancel culture” and “wokeness” have made it slightly more likely that people get into trouble for racist, misogynistic and disrespectful behavior.
In other words, the more liberal we get, the more likely people benefiting from the status quo are going to bitch and moan about censorship. As we debate “cancel culture” and other terms made up by those who benefit from the status quo, the meaning of censorship has expanded so aggressively and in so many directions it has come to mean anything that’s not unfettered, unchallenged, highly lubricated, and friction-free speech. Censorship is now so uncritically defined that it means anyone disagreeing with me is censoring me. Again, Professor Zimmer: “You can see why white men with big public platforms from across the political spectrum see ‘persecution’ where I see progress: If you believe you are entitled to say and do whatever you want without legal or cultural sanction, ‘leftist’ activism is a threat.”
There’s that word, “entitled.” We have confused entitled speech for free speech. They are not and never have been the same. But as we move through this moment in history, in which we reexamine how we elected a fascist and, furthermore, the social and political conditions from which he arose, we are blurring them. In the process of protecting the privileges of those who have benefited from the status quo, we are, ironically, protecting the conditions that made us weak enough to elect a fascist.
Facebook, Twitter, or any social media platform banning anyone for any reason is not censorship. It is not silencing. It is not canceling. It is that platform exercising its own right to host, or “publish,” whatever it wants for whatever reason. It is an exercise of that platform’s right to free speech, free expression, etc. We live in a time in which there are unprecedented ways to express oneself. You don’t need Facebook to be a free citizen. Write a blog! Write a letter to the editor! Speechify from a soapbox in a public park! We are acting like we’re entitled to a Facebook account. When it bans someone for whatever reason, it’s big bad censorship. No, it’s not. Instead, it’s complaining about not getting what you want when you want it. It’s acting more like a consumer than a citizen, more like a spoiled child than a responsible grownup. People who see themselves as victims are people ready to put a dictator in the White House.
When Twitter bans a former president, that’s not censorship. When Facebook bans a former president temporarily, that’s not censorship. When someone criticizes someone else, calling them a racist, that’s not censorship. When organized groups build social pressure to force public or private institutions to live up to their stated ideals, that’s not censorship. When someone says, “Hey, you can’t say that!” that’s not censorship. When a crowd shouts down a speaker, that’s not censorship. When a Black person or person of color tells a white person to take a seat, that’s not censorship. When a town enacts noise ordinances or when it outlaws the breach of peace, that’s not censorship. When a state outlaws the distribution of child pornography, that’s not censorship. When the government asks social media platforms to stop hosting misinformation about the health, safety and efficacy of the covid vaccines, that’s not censorship. All of these are acts of free speech or counter-speech. All of them are legitimate politics.
It’s effective politics, from the point of view of people who benefit from the status quo, to get as many people as possible to think it’s censorship. That way, people don’t have to think about whether it’s a good idea to let a massive social media platform keep hosting misinformation about the health, safety, and efficacy of the covid vaccines in a pandemic that’s likely to kill a million Americans before it’s all over. That way, people don’t have to think about the role of white supremacy in the shaping of the republic. They don’t have to think. They can instead dismiss it, as if it were illegitimate. And while they are doing that, people who benefit from the status quo, especially white men, can enact laws that actually do infringe on the right to free speech. Many states, but especially southern states, are now outlawing teaching the history of slavery. This, my friend, is what censorship is: when a government forbids learning and knowledge, because ignorance and poverty are better for people who benefit from the status quo.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.