Politics & Policy

Censorship: It’s Always for Your Own Good

Shoppers walk past a banner advertisement on Regent Street in London, 2011. (Reuters photo: Toby Melville)
From the New York Times to the British government, the paternalism of the speech police shines through.

Censorship is demeaning.

When the New York Times finds a professor of psychology to tell us that — hold on to your seats — words can actually hurt, and therefore certain speakers should be prohibited from campuses, it is arguing that the vulnerable students need protection from authorities on high.

When the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority proposes to ban “harmful” traditional gender roles from all advertisements, it makes clear that it doesn’t believe women can handle a depiction of a mother cleaning up after her family. Even if women are not bothered, they must be protected: They “may not recognize harm because certain negative stereotypes are so normalised.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett, the aforementioned professor of psychology, demeans us with science. On Sunday, she wrote, “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.” This allowed her to conclude that “it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school” and that we should “halt” any speech that “bullies and torments.”

Barrett’s conclusion does not follow from her premises. As Jesse Singal notes in New York, the studies that Barrett cites are mostly about chronic stress, attributable to prolonged and sustained emotional neglect or verbal abuse during childhood. They have nothing to do with attending a college at which a loathsome person happens to be giving a speech that can be protested or simply ignored. Yiannopoulos, stupid as he is, is not going to physically damage your brain by speaking on your campus.

Barrett surely knows this, which is why she adds that Yiannopoulos is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse.” Therein lies her sleight-of-hand: On the one hand, he can be banned because his words are literally violent, but on the other, it is acknowledged that his words don’t actually cause physical harm, but only contribute to the larger “campaign of abuse” that can be claimed, without any evidence, to have equivalent effects to sustained verbal abuse during childhood.

Barrett poses as a faithful interpreter of scientific evidence, determined to protect students from the words endangering their telomeres. But in reality, her argument would pave the path to the criminalization of unpopular speech. “Violence” is dangerous, after all, and it merits state violence to subdue and prevent it. By her logic, any controversial speaker could be grouped with a “campaign” of some sort and thus made into a contributor to something akin to physical violence in its effects.

Consider what the results would be of treating this argument seriously. Take Linda Sarsour. Among her other activities, she delights in claiming that “Zionists” have no place in the feminist movement. So what’s stopping me from saying that, while not physically harmful in themselves, Sarsour’s “bullying” statements join a larger “campaign of abuse” against Jews, and therefore deeming her speech responsible for causing chronic stress? Should she on these grounds be prohibited from criticizing Zionism?

In Britain, you can be arrested for speech, even if its only an offensive Facebook post. This is all for the safety of the public, of course.

In Britain, you can be arrested for speech, even if its only an offensive Facebook post. This is all for the safety of the public, of course. On Tuesday, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published a new report, pushing Britain further into the free-speech abyss. The report presented an “evidence-based case for stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which might be harmful to people.”

The report will form the basis of new standards to be created for 2018 by the ASA’s sister organization, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). Together, the ASA and CAP self-regulate the advertising industry, a power they have been granted by the British government. Advertisers cannot opt out of their advertising codes unless they’d like to face sanctions as severe as criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and confiscation of financial assets.

This means that, for example, ads that depict men as stereotypically inept at performing housework or women cleaning up after a mess they did not make themselves will be prohibited. Ella Smillie, the lead author of the ASA report, says she hopes to “ensure that modern society is better represented.” I would have no problem with that, but it is not what Smillie has recommended. She has sought to forbid the representation of anything but “modern society,” whatever that means. So just like that, Britain will essentially make it illegal to depict my father and mother in advertisements.

To depict a man struggling with an old vacuum cleaner while a woman succeeds with a newer product would supposedly “restrict the choices, aspirations, and opportunities of children, young people and adults.” But again, this has nothing to do with expanding women’s range of choices. Rather, the new proposals aim to promote one choice and forbid the representation of another.

The ASA claims its report is backed by a “major independent research study by GfK,” the German market research firm. But if you care to read the report in full, you will find its evidence laughably sparse. “Free speech and liberty to offend does not correspond with a right to cause harm,” its authors assert, unaware of how broad a claim they have just made. On this logic, one could call for the banning of a million books and the suppression of a thousand columnists for causing “harm.”

But the report continues, “As the evidence links the depiction and reinforcement of stereotypes to unequal outcomes and real-word harms for men and women, it could be argued that the right to offend does not apply.” But just a few lines earlier, the authors state that “the literature is not conclusive on the role advertising plays in constructing or reinforcing gender stereotypes.” In any event, these “harms” are suspect, relying on value judgments about men and women that the British people never authorized their advertising regulators to make. And the report uncritically presents very controversial claims about them, including about so-called stereotype threat. This is the contested idea that people will perform more poorly when they feel at risk of conforming to a stereotype.

Of course the media can encourage conformity, and of course the British regulators pose as advocates of choice and liberation from conventions. They cast themselves as protectors of women everywhere, vulnerable to have their ambitions crushed by ads for home appliances. However, this is just a pose. In reality, the regulators only offer a different, more “modern” conformity, casting traditional practices as not only unjust, but bad for your health.

In suppressing free speech, the paternalistic censors in Britain and at the Times cannot claim to be on the side of freedom or the little guy. Long past destroying the old orthodoxies, they seek to create new ones. While claiming to watch out for your interests, they pursue social engineering.

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