Curing Ignorance And Prejudice With Censorship

April 2007

Re: Censorship Debate: Saint Mary’s University (SAFS Newsletter, January, 2007)

Mr. Churchill has a rather poor opinion (and even poorer understanding) of contemporary Canadian society; its democratic institutions, its Judaic-Christian heritage, its system of social justice, and its diverse people. This country has not one officially correct religion but many diverse religions. It has not one officially correct culture, but many demanding cultures. It has not one officially correct political point of view but many contending political points of view. It has not one officially correct interpretation of history, society, and global tensions, but many competing understandings. Pluralistic societies have pluralistic views. If Mr. Churchill had his way, all Canadians would hear only one view; the politically correct one; his view. He seems not to understand what is fundamentally wrong with this.

Mr. Churchill has his reasons for censorship. He feels that Canadians are far too ignorant and prejudiced to be trusted to react responsibly to public depictions of Muslims as intolerant religious fanatics. Perhaps he’s right. But if he is, aren’t such hopelessly stupid and bigoted people even more likely to think that there is something to those stereotypes precisely because they are hidden from them; to be confirmed in their suspicions that all Muslims are indeed intolerant religious fanatics, who need hide behind censorship what they cannot defend with speech? If Mr. Churchill is wrong, then where’s the “need” for censorship?

In fear societies what people really think means nothing. In free societies it means everything. Ah, but there’s the dilemma; which Mr. Churchill so conveniently ignores. How are an ignorant and prejudiced, but self-governing, people to learn to become more socially enlightened; to responsibly govern themselves? By publicly exposing, challenging, and correcting their ignorance and prejudices through frank discourse, dialogue, debate, and public education? Or by publicly denying, officially concealing, and politically repressing such thoughts with silencing, fiat, and indoctrination?

Right conduct, and the right quiet, can be commanded by official fiat from above. But right thinking and right feeling must be self-willed; it need come with independent thinking, from within. How, then, can Mr. Churchill put so much faith in censorship? Because he mistakes received, official, truth for true public understanding. He confuses enforced public quiet with real public acceptance. He conflates victory with voice. To be sure, censors may hide public prejudice; but they cannot cure it. They may mask social disagreement; but they cannot forever deny it. They may postpone political discord; but they cannot extinguish it. Censorship is a false promise. Right censors can no more succeed than wrong censors. True, and secure, freedom from ignorance and prejudice depends on understanding this.

The only reason Mr. Churchill can so freely, fearlessly, and fully say what he truly thinks of contemporary western democracies (bigoted, ignorant, intolerant, despotic), ironically enough, is because he does so in a free-thinking, pluralistic, polity that separates state from church (and from Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple). The only reason those who would disagree with Mr. Churchill cannot do the same in fear-thinking societies (which he dutifully omits in his letter to equally criticize, much less condemn) is because those societies are official-thinking, homogenous, polities that do not separate Church from State. The problem with fear-thinking societies, where religion and state are effectively one and the same, is that you cannot meaningfully criticize the politics without seriously blaspheming the religion. How politically convenient! Freedom of effective speech for me but not for thee.

Should free societies be more like fear societies; or should they be less so? Should Canadians prefer Mohammadism to pluralism? Should they replace disagreement with dogma? Should they value official thinking more than independent thinking? Should they prefer obedience and faith to frank discourse and real debate? Do all Canadians have a right to seek truth, for themselves; or do only some, those who have already found it for them?

Mr. Churchill seems oblivious to such questions, much less to any need to grapple with and seriously address them. Then again, why should he? If he can club disagreement into submission with censorship why fight for freedom to speak?

Theocratic and authoritarian understandings of free speech may well be better for fear-thinking Muslims. But it is not better for free-thinking Muslims; that vast, great, and grand, population of unsung, enlightened, faithful who value not only their own rights to be heard but also those of women, gays, Jews and every other historically oppressed group in this vast country that so displeases Mr. Churchill. Mr. Churchill practices well, for himself, the voice he so parsimoniously fails to grant, to so many others. Freedom of frank discourse, dialogue, and debate on all the great and controversial issues of the day (what others are worth debating; those that none dispute?) is the freedom on which all the other freedoms we enjoy in a democracy ultimately depend. It is the mother of all freedoms. Freedom is most meaningful where it is best tested. Freedom to agree is no freedom. Mr. Churchill, it appears, would rather hear himself, and those who agree with him. He prefers freedom of (group) soliloquy to freedom of speech.

Sadly, Mr. Churchill is not alone in failing to appreciate all this. Indeed, it is a pervasive shortcoming, dominating institutions of higher learning across North America. Should we be surprised? Do a web search of university courses in Canada on diversity, equity, or equality. Be prepared to set aside most of the week. Do the same search for independent courses on freedom of speech and you won’t even miss your morning coffee. You would do better to look for “free speech” courses tucked neatly into diversity and equity courses as “straw men,” to be politically correctly demolished on the alter of mock debate. Law schools, perhaps the one place where one might expect freedom of debate to reign supreme, are no better in the dereliction of their pedagogical duty. Indeed, they are one of the worst. Small wonder that the universities are failing where they should be most succeeding.

How can it be otherwise, where debate on freedom of debate turns on the political correctness of the content of the debate?