When Sensitivity Becomes Censorship

When Sensitivity Becomes Censorship

A restrictionist mentality is taking over certain segments of the left.


How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” was a maxim of E.M. Forster’s—and a fine one. But the Simon & Schuster workers who petitioned to break their company’s contract with former vice president Mike Pence were sure they knew what he thought before he said it. To publish his memoir would be “legitimizing bigotry,” since Pence was the tool of Donald Trump, and Trump had “unequivocally advocated for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence.”

Anti-Semitism? Many Israelis, grateful for Trump’s go-ahead to change their capital to Jerusalem, might disagree. Trump’s son-in-law and worldwide minister without portfolio, Jared Kushner, is Jewish; so is the man who served as his main presidential speechwriter, Stephen Miller. But Pence was accused of something worse than complicity in all the vices associated with Trump. He abandoned “a nation in crisis as the coronavirus ran rampant and killed more than half a million Americans.”

Assigned by the president to lead the Coronavirus Task Force, Pence was doubtless inadequate to the new and unprecedented burden, but no specific misconduct is mentioned by the signers. They simply demand a permanent ban on all deals with Pence or any other member of the Trump administration. They likewise demand a new policy of “ongoing reevaluations” of all authors “that promote white supremacist content.”

Does “white supremacist content” denote KKK pamphlets? Or most of European literature? No such embarrassing question was asked by Alex Shepard in an April 30 New Republic article on the controversy. Pence’s memoir, wrote Shepard, would “likely be the usual dreck of presidential aspirants, while the author cravenly glosses over the fact that his former boss incited a riot that nearly killed him.” Glossed over in that sentence is the one important, deeply conventional, but in the circumstances non-craven thing that Pence did on January 6. He refused to obey Trump and stop the election of Joe Biden from being certified. Whatever you think of his religiose politics and his otherwise yes-man posture, he executed the law against the will of a crowd that would have liked to skin him alive.

In a similar vein of flippancy, Farhad Manjoo on May 6 published a lead New York Times editorial titled “Hawley and Trump Aren’t ‘Silenced.’” Hawley’s downgrade in distribution and mainstream coverage, from being published by S&S to Regnery, constituted no real disadvantage, according to Manjoo, since getting smacked by the left played to Hawley’s self-interest. Instead, Manjoo quipped, we should see it as “a kind of creative culture-jamming,” akin to Solzhenitsyn’s dissident works being circulated in samizdat.

There is an archness to these presentations, a sarcasm on the edge of gloating, suggestive of the witticisms of permit-stamping cultural officials in a one-party state. The demotion of Hawley, says Manjoo, is “not an erasure, exactly, but instead a quieting,” and he goes on to cite the Silicon Valley jingle “freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.” A rhyme may sometimes sound like an argument, but this one dodges the question of who decides freedom of reach. For there do exist powerful people who—once they have collected enough information—think they can judge your rights from your spites and your wrongs from your songs. (The jingle mood is contagious.)

For a decade now, and especially in the past four years, a sector of the left has tilted toward the promulgation of censorship. And with some chance of success, given the enormous power of the media outlets that are cooperating for reasons of their own, including the four horsemen of surveillance: Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. To see this sickly handshake is dismaying enough. How much worse to find the same restrictionist mentality creeping into a free-speech fortress like PEN America.

Yet a PEN letter, sent to President Biden on April 29, asks him to establish “a disinformation defense and free expression task force.” This new authority should set down guidelines and goals for “engagement with social media companies on measures the platforms can take to defend against disinformation.” What is envisaged is a bureaucracy of Homeland Security for journalism and publishing—a Defence of the Realm Act, for the realm of the word. Since the social media giants work with the intelligence “community” in any case, the executors of “disinformation defense” presumably would pool their resources with the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other truth-curating government bureaus and agencies.

A follow-up memorandum signaled PEN’s approval of the decision by the Facebook Oversight Board to extend the ban on Trump for another six months. “Listening to his speech on the Mall,” a PEN statement had already said on January 11, “and reading his tweets in the post-election period, it is hard to mistake Trump’s intention to stop at nothing to rally his followers to resist the verified outcome of the November presidential election.” So PEN came close to endorsing a charge of incitement—one of the most tempting, elusive, hardest to prove, and hardest to refute of all accusations to pin on a reckless (or, for that matter, a misunderstood) speaker or writer.

Look again at the words “stop at nothing.” Craven opportunist that he is, Trump did stop at something. He didn’t march with the crowd; he gave mixed signals about how they should act; and late in the afternoon, he called them off—with an ill grace and tardily, in typical Trump fashion, but that isn’t the same as stopping at nothing. Precision matters when you are dealing with words. On the larger question of banning Trump, one may ruefully appreciate the enforced silence of the charlatan and buffoon and still agree with Angela Merkel that the shutdown of an attainted citizen in a public forum sets an extremely dangerous precedent.

This default to censorship probably owes something to a weakening of trust in the common-law principle of due process. Trust the messenger, these people say, not the message—and we already know whom to trust! The prejudice fits in nicely with the axiom that, given a certain category of accuser, all accusations should be believed. There may be more than one side to the story, but only one side is consistent with the good life.

It is a daunting prospect for a dissident journalist or editor to speak her mind in such a climate. The Silicon Valley speech-enhancers and reach-controllers seem to know us through and through, according to a choice set of indices and algorithms. And within limits, of course, they are right. They have your data. They can predict much of what you will do. But how can they tell what you think till they see what you say?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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