Somewhere between Elon Musk bullying Twitter into submission, the Biden administration launching a “misinformation board,” and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bullying Disney and gays, the realization begins to sink in. We’re not doing very well with this free speech thing. Too bad it’s kind of critical for us doing other things well. Just ask Vlad.
Over in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin simmers in his evil villain lair, absentmindedly stroking the head of his pet komodo dragon, thinking about his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. As numerous experts have pointed out, Putin sits atop a pyramid of liars and corrupt officials. His oligarchs lied about the materials they were supposed to supply to the Russian army, the military lied about how good the army is, and everyone lied about Ukraine’s people. The system is so corrupt it can’t be fixed by people within the system — they’re all too afraid of a Downfall harangue from Putin.
“[w]e see corruption coming back to bite Russia,” journalist David Volodzko told NPR in early May. As a result, “Putin may have gone in on bad intel, thinking that the Ukrainians were going to be waiting with flowers instead of . . . a Molotov cocktail — and going in with bad gear, thinking that he had the best and the latest. And so as much as we fell for this idea of Russia being much more powerful than they are, much more capable than they are, Putin fell for that himself.”
If people are afraid of telling their superiors and the public unwelcome news, you end up with debacles like Russia’s Ukraine war and Rudy Giuliani’s Four Seasons Landscaping press conference. As computer nerds say: garbage in, garbage out.
IT’S NOT JUST FOR DICTATORS ANYMORE
People censor others and themselves for a variety of reasons. To protect themselves. To manipulate others. To stifle opposition. It’s addictive, and it’s been around forever.
Book banning used to be relegated to the realm of neo-Nazi cosplayers and the occasional fundamentalist school teacher way down South. Now it’s all the rage, with Republican-led state governments looking to ban books that say anything about [censored] or were written by a [censored]. There’s even a congressional candidate in Virginia who’s seeking legal action against Barnes & Noble for selling books that make him feel icky. Heaven forbid anyone reads something that upsets them; but it’s even worse if you are so intellectually fragile that you can’t stand anyone else reading about [censored to protect fragile political candidates’ feelings].
But this isn’t just on the right wing of American politics. On the left, it has come in the form of framing entire conversations and issues in ways that exclude their opponents from the conversation. And it goes beyond politically correct language.Not too long ago, the ACLU, a Berkeley English professor and American independent booksellers got involved in a controversy over an anti-trans book, but they weren’t defending the right for an author to make a controversial case, they were variously calling for its suppression and even its burning.
This general readiness to silence others has even affected this very newspaper in this very liberal city, with a group of San Francisco supervisors who were so [censored to protect fragile powerful people] that they tried to punish the Marina Times financially because of some negative tweets.
IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED
I guess I’m from a generation that reveled more in the diversity of opinions and ideas. Some of them are loopy, yes, but the democratic conversation is better off being wide-ranging rather than narrow.
In college in the late 1980s, both student dailies on my campus opposed the school administration’s attempts to impose a speech code. That’s one conservative-leaning paper and one very lefty paper, both opposed to it. Now, you have left-wing students demanding censorship, refusing to let opposing speakers on campus. Between Republican legislators passing laws restricting speech and students demanding other speech be forbidden, classrooms are going to be silent.
Sometimes education is about being upset. If learning the truth about something upsets you, it’s your job to adjust to reality, not to deny reality. (And sometimes reality is simply acknowledging that there are people with very different and sometimes irreconcilable views than what you believe.) If you believe fervently in God, and a teacher assigns an atheist author, should you get an apology because you learned [censored to protect god’s feelings]?
On the political right, they talk a lot about free speech these days, but they’re mostly talking about defending Internet trolls. When it comes to actual free speech and exposure to ideas they don’t like, they’re eagerly banning books and telling teachers what to say in class. Imagine you’re a teacher, maybe you’ve got a masters degree and 15 years of teaching experience, you regularly attend conferences to learn new teaching methods, and you stay up-to-date on your chosen subject — and you have to kowtow to some political party that thinks Marjorie Taylor Green and Louie Gohmert are worthy solons. It’s enough to make you [bleeping censored], and that doesn’t help the students. Meanwhile, on the left, they have resurrected those speech codes from the 1980s with gusto. The measure of a statement’s worthiness is no longer its truth but how it makes its audience feel.
But if I can’t occasionally upset people, if I can’t talk about anything that matters, what’s left to write about?
“Hey, the Kardashians have a new series.”
Son of a [censored]!