Censorship and its limits

Created 31 Aug 2015 • Last modified 28 Nov 2022

Censorship is valuable and necessary, but must be applied judiciously. Peddlers of bigotry and other bad ideas shouldn't be universally and unconditionally ostracized.

Totally unrestricted speech is a bad idea. Bigotry, fighting words, and misinformation (e.g., about COVID-19) are all ways in which ill-conceived utterances can cause millions of needless deaths. Thus, censorship has its place, however much people act as if it's some regressive evil.

It's still important not to go too far. Preventing harmful speech makes sense, but preventing people with dangerous ideas from saying even innocuous things is excessive. Thus I support canceling speeches promoting white supremacy at colleges and conferences, whereas a white supremacist giving a speech on an unrelated subject should be allowed, provided he doesn't insinuate his problematic opinions, however subtly, in the process. By maintaining this distinction, we clarify what we're opposed to and what we expect people to do to be treated normally. We also encourage such people to fraternize with ordinary society and consider less crazy opinions, rather than forcing them deeper into their echo chambers.

For the same reason, it's laudable, not blameworthy, to make friends with bigots. We need not make excuses for bigots, nor tolerate them mistreating ourselves or others. But willingly engaging with them as ordinary people, so long as they're willing to do the same for us, gives them the best chance of recognizing common humanity.

Another sense in which censorship has its limits is that we can never be totally sure that an idea is wrong, factually or morally. Few things seem more certain than the fact that the earth isn't flat, so we don't owe flat-earthers a debate; and yet, it's hard to draw a foolproof distinction between ideas that are definitely wrong and ideas that are very likely wrong. Per Cromwell's rule, we should always leave open a small possibility of being wrong. Hence, the goal of censorship shouldn't be to prevent all expression whatsoever of a bad idea, which is probably impossible anyway, but to limit its spread and influence. Society could reasonably criminalize Holocaust denial, but if a person on trial for Holocaust denial wants to defend himself by arguing that the Holocaust really never happened, it would probably be excessive to hide this trial from public view, or to criminalize the defense itself.