The problem with any discussion of censorship is that it is not only what offends or is harmful to society that defines the need but also political will, social currency and degree of cultural acceptability. The Western world has made it even more difficult for itself by having no unambiguous vision of its own identity and therefore it possesses no clear guide to illuminate the preferred direction that that discussion should take. Additionally, censorship criteria changes with each generation; they can change each decade thus redefining the truths that make up our comfortable sense of self (based on our understanding of morality). But there is another kind of censorship and the easiest way to describe it is by saying that it is the opposite of freedom of speech. We choose to censor that which is uncomfortable for us.
Fascism is quite simply the need for others to censor anything with which they disagree.
And following on from this characterization of fascism what makes for propaganda is repetition, reinforcement and denial. Without propaganda the fascist will have difficulty gaining a significant audience and without a significant audience it is unlikely to gain mainstream acceptability. A picture, a word in a certain setting, or an oft repeated phrase creates familiarity and familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. To quote Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) “anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs.” Our entire understanding of ourselves and our surroundings is based on predictability and that predictability is based on associations. Inevitably, it is what drives our rejection of change. That rejection of change creates the self-censorship society usually willingly imposes on itself. The outlier creates a dissonant reality that is subjectively uncomfortable by rejecting the norm (Kahneman’s “associative coherence”). Put another way, it is the outlier’s rejection of the norm that creates the intellectual and emotional discord (disharmony) that is at the heart of conflict.
BDS (the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement) is the perfect example of a classic fascist conspiracy that in order to succeed must censor the truth, if only because its version of truth is unable to compete with the alternate reality advocated by its enemy. Therefore, it must control the narrative and deny its opponents the possibility of intellectual exchange or debate. Fascism must censor the truth to flourish. Not all change is positive nor is it necessarily desirable, but it is this interplay between people and society that defines the limits of acceptability in everything we do and in everything we are permitted to believe. It is what creates both growth and decay.
Incidents of hate speech and violent confrontation dismissed with contempt as being no more than examples of academic freedom are proof of the incremental take over of Western universities by the advocates of fascism.
The problem is that contemporary ethical thinking is framed in terms of carefully chosen absolutes. In today’s inquisitorial society, consensus is defined by the exclusion of anyone who does not think exactly as set out by fashion. How different does this make us, in reality, from yesteryears bigots?
The clamor to ban that with which we disagree is selective and it is within this selectivity that we isolate the threats to a ‘consensus’ (whatever that may mean) that is no more than a preferential narrative. When we selectively proscribe debate the main question that we should be asking is: who decides? Is it a movement like BDS a or a committee? Where we have government mandated committees defining the limits on anything, at least in theory, those they appoint represent society and therefore what they limit represents what society is happy for them to limit. In practice it is the most passionate and therefore usually, not the most ethical of advocates that place themselves in the position of being able to exercise control over decisions that impact on us all. And so it is with BDS and its easy delegitimization of anything that threatens its assault on Israel, on Zionism and on Jewish equality.
The issue becomes more critical when we realize that it is not possible to prevent a movement from escalating its demands once it begins to achieve any of its objectives because success creates an escalation of momentum which in turn facilitates violence as an enabler of that success.
People who appoint themselves arbiters of morality can change society but not necessarily in a good way. Most people cannot draw a line under their activities once a goal has been reached. It is probable that the only movement in history that was able to stop once it achieved its objectives were the suffragettes. But then they reluctantly responded to state sponsored intimidation and their few acts of terrorism were against property, not people. The militancy of the Suffragette movement ceased with the start of World War 1.
Every person must wrestle with their own personal limits on what they view as permissible. Society is defined by its limits. It is when individuals or a group within a society refuse to accept the rules by which society is governed that violence or terrorism becomes just another tactic in their war. It does not explain why some people agitate for change through violence but clearly, some personalities are more open to violent expression than others and some ideologies and faiths are similarly disposed towards violence as a means of achieving an end.
In Islamic societies there are numerous restrictions demarcated by religion, by tribal tradition and by mythology. Violence is not usually one of them. Therefore, within a Western legal environment its use as a means of furthering an Islamic agenda is easily justified through its cultural familiarity.
War, the execution of criminals, boxing and hunting are our last legally mandated acts of violence in Western Civilization. However, the targeting of Jews and Zionism (Israel) is an example of the application of subversion and violence as a means of assault on Western values and Western society.
Social media is populist and therefore not necessarily rational. Populism is defined by its successfully feeding off of people’s fears and prejudices. As such it is a form of low value entertainment, the risqué post-cards of the electronic age. Social media’s greatest crime is that it is largely unaccountable for its sins.
If something poses a threat to our way of life how do we indulge it without providing it with privileges available to no-one else? Is there a difference between violent and non-violent extremism or is one simply a way station on the road to the other? How to make the unacceptable, irrelevant?
Ideas that we oppose must be defeated in order to relegate them to history’s footnotes. Peddlers of hate, conspiracy theorists and bigots of all stripes whether on the internet, on campus or in other public arenas cannot be banned but they can be shamed, isolated and denied an easy public platform from which to preach and spread their poison. If ideas are offensive, it is the society that defines them as such and the interplay between groups sharing the same interests and those that do not, defines whether we accept or ignore their ideas. Banning (censorship) simply drives an idea underground and marginalizes its proponents who then are more likely to be radicalized and left feeling that the only way forward is through violence. But make them appear ridiculous and maybe, you force them to confront their ideology, or minimize their influence.
The question is not how to recognize the dividing line between creating offense and inciting violence but how do we indulge that which is offensive without it becoming a characteristic of our society which facilitates bullying as an acceptable tactic to achieve any ends?