Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Censorship My Way

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 22, 1996

Some people talk as though a ratings system is a good alternative to censorship. In my view, however, a ratings system has the same flaw as censorship: it is not sensitive to varying standards as to what counts as obscene and what counts as good clean fun.

Why would I make this point when the theme of today's essays is the defense of democracy? In my view, democracy is rather more than the simple concept of majority rule. It is, in John Stuart Mill's words, the right of each person to pursue their own good in their own way.

In other words, a stromg democracy does not have a state-sanctioned definition of good and evil, right and wrong (this, I might add, is distinct from the creation of civil and criminal law, the sole purpose of which are to maintain peace, order and good government, and not to enforce morality).

Let me illustrate my point by listing some of the things I would censor were I the arbiter of taste on the internet:

The Vatican: leaving aside their controversial claim that people who are not Catholic are doomed to Hellfire, the Catholic Church promotes social objectives which are offensive to me. The idea that a woman cannot choose to have an abortion, or that gay or extramartial sex are to be prohibited, or that birth control is a sin, all strike me as repulsive.

McDonalds: these monsters portray the products they sell as food. They advertise heavily and focus their advertisements at innocent children. They are responsible for a significant percentage of the garbage which lines our streets and for the fast food 'food as fuel' mentality which encourages people to treat food as an object.

Rush Limbaugh: aside from the fact that his neo-conservatism is totally repulsive, Rush Limbaugh is fast and free with the truth. He thinks nothing of twisting, stretching and mangling facts in support of his own perverted world view. In my world he would be banned from everybody's viewscreen, not just children's.

Walt Disney: from the "Capitalist Duck" days of the fifties to today's soft-core racism as exercised in such propaganda flicks as The Lion King and Alladin, Disney has been on the forefront of promoting hate in our society. Moreover, the folks at Disney are also guilty of re-writing history in such a way that whites are never wrong, blacks and indians (among others) are never smart, and issues are always black and white. This way of thinking seriously distorts childrens' sense of right and wrong.

OK, so you disagree with my list. That's just my point. If I am the person in charge of censoring, this is what I would censor. And I'd let the other stuff go through.

The point is, there is no Arbiter of Standards. No way to determine how my choices are wrong and yours right. From the moment a global communications network was invented, people have been forced to accept that other cultures and other values thrive around the world. The Right Wing Christian attitudes of Middle America have no place in my house, just as they have no place in Mecca or Addis Abbaba.


Afterthoughts: Added 16 April 1996

Hm, well, OK, I guess I have to say something about this porno tag stuff:

The idea that it is necessary to "protect" children from material classed more or less loosely as "pornography" stems from a particular set of values. Not all cultures in the world share this set of values and I, for certain, do not. Quite the opposite: I think that the fear we have of letting children see human bodies is symptomatic of a fearful and repressed society.

I am not asking that you agree with me on this point. What you do with your values is your own business. However, the suggestion that there be porno tags, etc., is to me an attempt by you to impose the structure and morality of your culture on the internet.

Let me draw an analogy to make my point. Suppose I wanted to protect my children from Christianity (and as it happens, I do). Would it be reasonable for me to insist that every site on the internet with Christian content carry 'Christian tags' so I can protect my children?

Another analogy: people in Muslim countries do not drink alcohol and do not eat pork (at least, they're not supposed to). They would want their children to be protected from sites advocating the consumption of either. Should we have all sites which promote alcohol or pork carry respective tags?

One final example: the government of the People's Republic of China is understandably concerned about the impact of news and reports about democracy. These ideas would cause a great deal of instability in their society. Indeed, the government there is already planning its own state "backbone". Should all sites which promote democracy be required to carry democracy tags, intended for the protection of China's children?

Again: the internet is multi-cultural. It belongs not to just one society but to the world as a whole. My values count too.

More Afterthoughts - Added 03 July 1996

Hiya Folks, Defining any value term, such as 'normal', 'good', 'right', and so on is a difficult process. We would like there to be some objective and non-arbitrary standard, but by our natures we are constrained by a set of cultural standards.

Doug writes,
> WELL!!! Talk about acceptance! How can you say that??? When right after
> talking about respect you call a different culture 'strange' and their
> practices 'stupid or evil behaviour'??????

It is tempting to say that, if there are no absolute standards, then there are no standards whatsoever. For if there are no standards, then all judgements we make will be culturally based, and if we say that one culture should not judge another, then we are left with no standards at all.

But that would be a mistake. It would be like saying that, because there should not be absolute rule in a society, that there should be no rule at all. But we understand that we can have government in a society even though there is no absolute ruler.

Imagine yourself voting in a global election. There is no absolute right or wrong choice in such an election. Yet you have no difficulty making a choice, even though your choice is bound up in your cultural identity, your desires, your expectations, and your reasons. The rest of the world votes too, and from that vote comes, if not consensus, then at least a majority judgement.

In such a global election, some people would vote for the Monster Raving Loonie Party. But not very many. From the perspective of the rest of us, voting for the MRLP would be strange. Indeed, from our point of view, it would be wrong (because they advocate, among other things, the repeal of the law of gravity).

There is no contradiction between our saying that their decision to vote MRLP is strange and wrong and our respecting and even valuing their choice.

The same with 'normal'. We say that cannibalism is not normal, and indeed even, that it is wrong. We are well substantiated in this opinion because the vast majority of people in the world would vote against cannibalism were they given the chance. We may respect a person's right to believe that cannibalism is right, however, for the protection of the rest of us, we take action to prevent a person from practising cannibalism. There is no contradiction in this.

When questions of morality arise, I always turn back to John Stuart Mill. Mill's basic axiom of liberty is:

The right to pursue one's own good in one's own way, insofar as that practise does not infringe on another's right to do the same.

What counts as 'good' is defined by each individual. So while something may be good for you, it may be bad for me. There is nothing unusual in this (for otherwise we would all drive the same car, enjoy the same foods, etc).

When your good infringes on my good, we need a mechanism to resolve such differences. A utilitarian calculation would estimate the relative happiness produced by each act. In our society, we measure relative happiness with a vote. The idea is that measures which make the most people happy are supported with the most votes.

We also find it necessary to balance this 'Tyranny of the Majority' with a declaration of rights. Rights, for Mill, are those things which society as whole benefits by protecting. For example, a society in which the preservation of one's own life is a right will be more stable than a society in which life is not a right.

The manner in which those rights are defined is a long and complex process, drawing from historical examples (such as ancient Greece) and living documents (such as the American Bill of Rights or the Canadian Charter of Rights). In the end, rights come into existence because a substantial majority of people in all segments of society support the existence of those rights.

Now we may complain about the process, and we may complain about the outcome, and while we're at it we can complain about Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. But through this mechanism we allow for the following to be the case:

there is no absolute standard of 'normal' or even 'good'
there is room for individual assessments of 'normal' and 'good'
there is a mechanism for global standards of 'right' and 'good'

What more could we want? What more could we ask?


Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 1:05 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.