Censorship is being outsourced to the mob
Two recent cases Down Under show how dangerous Twittermobs can be.
One of the curious things about the twenty-first-century West is that it feels deeply censorious even though, historically speaking, there isn’t a huge amount of state censorship. Yes, many Western societies have anti-‘hate speech’ laws, debate-choking defamation statutes, and a host of methods for regulating the raucous press, all of which limit how daring or just downright offensive we can be. But we don’t exactly live under nightmarish Orwellian regimes that pass laws explicitly designed to silence political opinions, or to punish anti-Christ iconoclasm, or to criminalise people found in possession of indecent novels or art. How do we explain the existence of an almost unprecedented culture of censoriousness in the absence of too much old-style state censorship?
It’s because censorship has been outsourced to the mob. Censorship is alive and well; it’s just that today it is enforced, not so much by brute law and the copper’s boot, but by mobs of self-styled guardians of acceptable thought.
The illiberal job that was once done by the state and its offshoots – the policing of thought and the punishment of outré speech – is now increasingly done by informal intolerant networks. Outsourcing has been all the rage among Western states in recent years. They’ve outsourced responsibility for aspects of policing, for the guarding of prisoners, even for the fighting of wars, as we saw with the use of mercenary outfits in the West’s conquering of Iraq. Now, the moral authority to decree what can and can’t be uttered in the public sphere has been outsourced, too, passed from the government to moral lynch mobs, noisy cliques of non-state censors. The relatively small amount of explicit state censorship today shouldn’t be taken as a sign that we live in a more free society, but rather speaks to something quite terrifying – that the state doesn’t really need to enact laws that police our words at a time when there are so many mobs willing to do that dirty work on its behalf.
In Australia over the past week, there have been two striking examples of outsourced censoriousness, which reveal how this new phenomenon works and how damaging it can be.
In the first case, a Georgian opera singer, Tamar Iveri, was hounded out of Opera Australia (OA) after it was revealed she once made homophobic comments on her Facebook page. Ms Iveri had been due to perform in OA’s production of Otello, which opens in Sydney next month. But then someone exposed that, a year ago, she had said on FB that she was glad Georgian protesters had spat on Gay Pride marchers in Tbilisi, and had asked the Georgian president not to let into Georgia what she called the ‘West’s faecal masses’ – that is, homosexuals. Oz’s left-leaners, small-L liberals and artsworld inhabitants decided that such a person was not fit to perform in Australia, and so they used their considerable influence – their newspaper columns, their social-networking pages, the financial leverage of their patronage of the arts, which they made clear could be withdrawn – to put pressure on OA to drop Ms Iveri. They won. Ms Iveri was cast out, dumped by OA on the basis that her views were ‘unconscionable’. And thus was Australian opera made morally pure once more.
In the second act of outsourced censorship, the annual Sydney-based Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) dropped from its programme one Uthman Badar, a member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, after the title of his talk, ‘Honour killings are morally justified’, caused outrage. Mr Badar says he wasn’t actually intending to justify honour killings, only to explain why some people in some societies believe they are justified. But it was too late: he, too, had been cast out, thrown off a public platform not by the state’s heavies but rather under pressure from a fuming Twittermob. Mr Badar’s views were intolerable in the eyes of this informal network of policers of speech, who used anger, pressure and thousands upon thousands of irate tweets – the modern incarnation of the rotten tomato – to have him expelled from a conference line-up.
In both cases, individuals were hurled off public platforms not by state censors, but as a result of self-censorship brought about by offended mobs. Both OA’s craven dismissal of an opera singer whose only crime was failing to possess the same moral views as most of the Australian artsworld, and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ expulsion of a speaker whose idea was just too dangerous, were shameful episodes of self-gagging, of institutions kicking out individuals in response to the censorious clamour of small but noisy groups who found those individuals repulsive. Who needs the state to blacklist morally suspect artists when now the mob is willing to do it? Who needs the state to say which political ideas can be expressed at public conferences, and which most definitely cannot, when there exists an informal Inquisition who will make such decisions on the state’s behalf? There’s no need for laws decreeing what it is morally right to think and politically acceptable to say when ban-happy vigilantes are willing to enforce informally such strictures, through demanding, and very often winning, the censoring of those they judge to be beyond the Pale.
Of course, a lynch mob never thinks of itself as a lynch mob; it always convinces itself that it is simply a dispenser of right and proper moral justice. So the largely left-leaning arts types who successfully had Ms Iveri shamed out of Australia would balk if you compared them with, say, the McCarthyites of 1950s America. And yet what they are doing – expelling from Australian public life an artist who possesses what they decree to be unacceptable moral views – is indistinguishable from the McCarthyites’ insistence that creatives of too hard a left-wing persuasion should have been blacklisted from Hollywood. In both instances, artists are judged, not on the basis of their talents, but on the basis of their moral worldview; and in both instances, artists are censoriously blacklisted for failing to be morally and politically correct.
Likewise, if you were to compare the mishmash of right-leaning anti-Islamists and left-wing concerned feminists who successfully agitated for the no-platforming of Mr Badar to the mobs in Britain who in the late 1980s screamed for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to be banned, they’d probably be outraged. But the similarities are striking. In both instances, small, informal gangs gathered to demand the removal from public view of something they considered to be deeply offensive and harmful: today’s Aussie mob wants an Islamist speaker dumped from a public platform, yesteryear’s Muslim mobs wanted a book dumped from bookshops and libraries. Both of these agitated crowds believed they had the right to shut up a speaker/writer whose words they believed to be socially harmful. Or is it only the religious and the uneducated who can be a mob? If well-educated writers and inhabitants of Twitter holler for the removal of something that makes them nauseous, are they just ‘expressing themselves’ rather than being mob-like? I’m sorry, but an educated lynch mob is still a lynch mob.
Not only do the Aussie agitators for the expulsion of homophobic opera singers and no-platforming of extreme Islamists think of themselves as somehow different to the McCarthyites and mobs of old – they even say that their successful ousting of Ms Iveri from OA and Mr Badar from FODI is not censorship at all, and in fact is an act of freedom.
They claim that denying someone a publicly funded platform is not the same thing as silencing them, since they are still free to express themselves elsewhere. This is highly disingenuous. Firstly because to offer someone a platform and then withdraw it in response to moralistic outrage is the very definition of censorship; it is to purge from a significant section of the public view an individual whose ideas have been judged too foul or extreme for public dissemination. And secondly because the very public shaming-and-expelling of moral reprobates like Ms Iveri and Mr Badar also helps to set the moral parameters of what it is acceptable for people in general to think and say. That is, it censors by extension, by extrapolation, through communicating to artists that they will face severe punishment if they fail to adhere to mainstream thought and through telling conference organisers and media in general that there are some ideas that are just too dangerous to discuss. It chills public discussion far beyond the cases of Ms Iveri and Mr Badar, doing informally what the state once did with formal laws: limiting the expression of eccentric, extreme or offensive views.
Some have argued that those who campaigned against Ms Iveri and Mr Badar were simply exercising their freedom of speech. Which, technically speaking, and boringly obviously, they were. But they were doing so to the end of extinguishing others’ freedom of speech. To depict the successful removal from a public platform of a morally suspect artist or a politically extreme speaker as an act of free speech is bizarre. Perhaps the next time a politician stands up in parliament to say, ‘I am passing a law forbidding the expression of blasphemous thought’, we should just give him the nod on the basis that, er, he was speaking freely as he passed the censorious law. Or the next time a bunch of Islamists successfully gets a play banned or a book pulped, perhaps we should celebrate that as a victory for freedom of speech, too: the Islamists freely spoke, and the thing they hated was destroyed. Freedom! It seems that in this era of mob-led illiberalism, freedom is censorship, and censorship is freedom.
The leftists, liberals and libertarians who think it is okay to use mob-like pressure to sideline or silence the offensive seem to think censorship is something only states do. For a gang of angry folk to squish the expression of an idea or the presence of an offensive artist is not censorship, they claim; it’s people power. Please. They should reread some of the liberal greats, the architects of modern Enlightened thought, many of whom recognised the dangers of intolerance won by mobs. In his peerless essay on freedom of speech, Spinoza, the great Dutchman of Enlightenment, railed against those who ‘seditiously stir up the quarrelsome masses against authors’. The nineteenth-century liberal John Stuart Mill warned against the ‘despotism of custom’ – that is, a non-statute based sense of correct wisdom – which he said lulls people into a ‘deep slumber of decided opinion’. These thinkers, and others, recognised that it isn’t only brute law that can have a chilling, silencing effect on public debate – so can the more informal despotism of received opinion, the bottom-up quarrelsome hatred of certain ideas, which contributes as much as any state censor to a culture of censoriousness and conformism.
The outsourcing of censorship to the mob is occurring throughout the West. So states haven’t had to pass laws banning climate-change heresy or criticism of the now-sacred institution of gay marriage or the use of sexist language, because all those things, and more, are now thoroughly policed and very often silenced by cliques and gangs who issue informal decrees about what can and can’t be said. We’re witnessing the internalisation of the censoring dynamic by campaigners, institutions and publishing houses, relieving the state of its age-old presumed duty to shut down dangerous ideas and images. To my mind, mob-led censorship is, if anything, worse than state censorship. You know where you stand with state censorship: it’s a transparent attempt to control what we may think and say. But when the mob censors, whether they’re Islamists demanding the banning of a play or gay-friendly activists calling for the blacklisting of wicked artists, their actions can, in great doublespeak, be presented as people power, even as blows for liberty – making it all the harder to challenge the chilling effect these PC mobs are having on art, letters, politics, discussion, debate and freedom.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
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