The Tyranny of I: Meditation on the Benefits of Censorship
My essay argues that freedom in society cannot exist without censorship. Because censorship is evident in every society, it becomes crucial in identifying where and how it must be usefully applied. For the questions posed by this contest, I explain why it’s tenable a company would allow a foreign dictator accused of mass murder to be part of a media platform, but not a native-born politician who occupies an elected position. I seek to illustrate the existential damage that conspiracy theories and unreality can do to a democracy if allowed to instantiate itself into the elected hierarchy, and that a suitable way to combat this collective poisoning is to allow various public entities to be engaged in censoring their own platforms. Finally, I make the point that cancel culture is a symptom of social mores and civil boundaries shifting, rather than speech
being shrunk or curtailed. I do this while acknowledging that as large shifts in public expectations change, there will always be anecdotal examples that are generated by these shifts, many of which serve the purpose of alarmists on all sides. The obvious fact is, every society engages in censorship. It’s merely a question of how much, and in what way.
Freedom Does Not Exist Without Censorship
One of the more natural things a person does is conflate the self into the lump body of society. Thus, we pontificate on such flimsy stands. I become the body — a million mes (God forbid) — running around responding to our infinitely complex world. I have a sense on how all this turns out. It is uninteresting, and because I’m a squish, society at large would be soft and sensitive and curious. Also: anxious, irritable, amused by schadenfreude, and inclined to disengage.
My immediate reaction is to resist censorship of almost any kind. Nevertheless, I’ll take the wager — I suppose because as soon as the reaction poofs into cinder and ash, what is left is an unguarded space to reflect. The shortest cut to this question is to state the obvious. We already have censorship; and we also enjoy a comparatively high degree of freedom. There are certainly forms of expressions we do not tolerate, things that no society, no matter how open, should ever tolerate. I’ll permit my reader the use of imagination to think of a few examples.
To state it another way: if there was no censorship, it would appear that this implies the condition of chaos, where either civilization has yet to emerge, or civilization has been destroyed. In that case, the mitigating factors against speech would be inflicted upon the individual by nature’s capacity for relentless carnage, or the relentless attention of outlaws, vigilantes, and bandits. I’m afraid, in the long run, our anarcho-capitalist friends are wrong. As soon as a group of people band together in the pursuit of increased protection from either threat (nature or human), collective expectations and mores will arise. The things that eventually deliver vaccines and antibiotics, are things accompanied by constraints upon our communication. I don’t believe one happens without the other.
And I’m a fan of vaccines. So, I am willing to tolerate a degree of censorship because freedom within society cannot exist without it.
I’m afraid all I have done is affirm an obvious platitude that civilization does not exist without censorship. Perhaps then, the pressing question becomes to what degree, and to what bodies do we endow with the power of censorship. A clear answer to this depends on what time or place one considers the options. Because I am American — because we have inherited a distrust towards a central power litigating what can and cannot be said — I will rely on the shorthand of this generically shared attitude. Obviously, the particulars can be very different from person to person. I only lean on it as a severe generalization.
But Times Are Changing
This is flip! Times are always changing.
I want to briefly return to the point mentioned in the opening, the ‘Tyranny of I,’ the blending out of the individual perspective into the hypothetical prototype for all individuals. A colleague recently expressed his contempt for America to me, explaining how he wanted to move to a country where one can be put to death if they are involved, complicit, or even vaguely in the orbit of a violent or criminal incident. “I need to leave this communist shithole,” he complained. I asked about a potentially innocent person who might be rounded up in this purported zeal for capital punishment. “It doesn’t matter. They shouldn’t be anywhere near that shit. You’ll never see me near any of it.”
This was a hot example of reading the world through the lens of “I.” Everyone is some variation of this person. At least to him. And those who misbehave need to go away. There is no complexity in his read of other people and their situations. Maybe I ought not to pick solely on him. I believe we all do this. It’s hard not to. But this is also the place where fiction goes to die.
I don’t mean fiction in the sense of a lie or fib or yarn or fabrication. I mean it in its most elevated form, its ennobled and useful manifestation that defines a peoples’ cultural coffers. I mean humanity’s ability to tell a thousand tales showcasing our complexity, our irreducible ambiguity, our contradictory nature. Fiction (or, more broadly, the stories we tell about ourselves and others), has the power to install, build up, accrete in an ever-growing richness, something like the dignified honoring of humanity’s nuance. It is a good thing. And because censorship inevitably exists in any society, we are not permitted a full garden of human expression when building the community project. The question then becomes, what kind of censorship is necessary to preserve as much of, and the best of, all the roses in this garden, which would otherwise be choked out by the weeds.
Bad Censorship, Good Censorship
The point of consolidating censorship, ultimately, is not to define the social narrative. This is certainly the major benefit, but it is in caboose to the practical implication of eliminating opposing censorships that would interfere with its message. In this way, the ungainly ideas of the strongman can bloat into broad oppression. A real elephantiasis of unchecked narrative.
Worse than the anger I feel when one tosses off a crap critique — “I need to leave this communist shithole” — is the disappointing confirmation of an otherwise intelligent person’s incredible historical ignorance. I hate that millions had to starve, freeze, whither in malnutrition, or go insanely paranoid precisely because she or he ran into the totalitarian gears of a real communist regime. There are those who, in the face of actual oppression, were ground into paste.
I suppose it is our privilege to live within the illusion of feeling so “put upon.” But I will avoid digressing down this rabbit hole.
The main point to this is, that if only one type of censorship exists, and it emanates from the top of the dominance hierarchy, then the outcome can only be tragic. And horrendous. A healthy garden thrives on bio-diversity, and when people are pressed upon to think alike, avow similar or identical conclusions, it is an ends that no means can achieve. It cannot be achieved because a singular vision — an orthodoxy in political meta-narrative — is unequal to the task of human complexity. To think that it is, is an illusion. And in Solzhenitsyn’s Russia, we observe the implications of forcing an illusion upon a whole society.
In his Russia, the problem wasn’t that censorship prevailed, but that it was monolithic, bully enforced, and it came from the mountaintop of power. It had no countervailing force. Had the people a say, had there been contrasting or competing expressions of power, things that could usefully blunt or censor the hard edge of Stalin and his apparatchiks, the people might not have been so burdened into paste. Or! A pathological strongman like Stalin would not be occasioned into power in the first place. The other thing to point out is that when a mono-narrative (or the aspiration for mono-narrative) expresses itself, and that narrative is an illusion, we are shown the door to life under another’s fantasy, someone else’s delusion of alternative facts. This is to the detriment of the nobler garden society.
Curtailing the Cult of Conspiracy
But it’s easy to lean into the most extreme examples. Censorship enacted through the totalitarian regime is precisely the thing that snuffs out the potential for narrative’s democratization. And if democracy is the thing we wish to nurture and sustain in our nation, then a countervailing censorship against the mountaintop’s power ought to be alive, vigorous, and housed within a diaspora (persons, editorial staffs, HR policies, neighborhood covenants, state regulatory boards, etc….) as a means to buffet the pernicious self-momentum of censorship consolidating at the top.
Rather than condemning the clear-cut immorality of 20th century communist totalitarianism, we can suppose an example of something a bit more ambiguous and closer to home. One might imagine a glandular proto-fascist being voted into power in our own country, one who is low on administrative competence but high on strife-mongering and battle-line politics. This potential strongman might also have a peculiar susceptibility for the romance of magical belief. Or to put it plainly, more than a flirting interest in conspiracies.
This particular phenomenon might not mean we’re witnessing the end of our democracy, but it’s possible we’d be witnessing the catastrophic irradiation of its grasp for truth. And if the meaningful engagement with truth is sufficiently battered, damaged, and eventually eliminated, then we lose access to our collective wisdom, which more than any other thing can gravitate society towards a tenable social arrangement. In other words, the “tenable arrangement” is the order which maximizes the best outcome for nurturing a maximum usage of human gifts: our talent, intelligence, and creativity.
The harm caused by installing an alternate-reality candidate into a substantial position of power is the harm of elevating falsehood and magical thinking into positions of influence over our lives. If our leadership structure in this nation becomes sufficiently addled by people who would institutionalize a shared fantasy athwart our best good-faith effort toward a shared reality, then this leads me to believe we’ve identified a necessary area in which to enact a countervailing censorship. One might wish, in a utopian way, that no censorship would ever have to be utilized, that people were individually up to the task of good behavior and impeccable speech. But the historical record is empirically against this notion. Whether one is religious or secular, the rational person quickly sees that we are at best an amoral lot. Virtue is a shared, community-crafting venture. We’re constantly rubbing elbows, sharpening our knives, or polishing our stones against one another in order to constantly renew society. Again and again. Over and over.
Resisting Alternative Facts
A metaphor for the erosion of trust in reality looks something like this. I have a data set consisting of 100 values. In this set, one of the values is false. The other ninety-nine are rock solid reliable. The only thing is, I do not know which one is false. I might still find value in this data set, but the fact that there’s a charlatan floating through the group gives me pause. Now suppose that five unknown values in the set are erroneous. My trust in the information is severely compromised. And if that number becomes ten, I might as well throw the whole thing out. No actionable decisions can come from this steaming pile of data trash.
At one point, our country decided that when it came to political donations, corporations can be viewed as something like a mega-human, a golem of sorts comprised of the individuals who make up the entity. This golem could then donate as much money as desired to its preferred political cause. This appeared to primarily satisfy one side of the population. It worried the other. And now, we are faced with conversations of whether these golems, these mega-humans, can disinvite certain guests to their dinner party. This seems to worry the same side of the population who otherwise are fine with them spreading their wealth toward political aims.
I get that one might view businesses predicated on communication would have to play by different, federally defined rules — ones where they are expected to relinquish portions of their own free speech on behalf of the “common good.” But I am not so sure this is wise. When we invite the most centrally motivated body of power to entangle itself with this matter, we are accruing censorship precisely in the wrong place. Rather, I would see a corporation, or company (our golems among us) largely permitted to make their own guest-list to their own dinner parties. And I am okay with logical incongruities here. If a foreign dictator with a criminal war record is permitted to sup at the table, while a homegrown, democratically elected blowhard is not, I believe the inconsistency is justifiable insofar that the homegrown temper tantrum can do more damage to our garden than the outside, long-range, ineffectual villain. It is necessary for us to do some self-policing when it comes to the stories we tell, and I’d rather that policing occur within the more diffuse, and granular net of the public and its myriad entities. I can even live with platform incongruities among homegrown public figures — large corporations determining rules for who gets “flagged,” or “censored,” or “quieted,” or “de-platformed.”
I’m not saying that what we have is a pure thing (obviously!), or that the perfect system can be applied. I’m saying that my comfort resides exactly in the fact that a lot of the censoring we see is messy and inconsistent. It means we are figuring things out during a period of high change. I’m also saying that another feature of being human is the endless capacity for overstatement. Over-dramatization. Over-simplification. I guess, that though what we have is imperfect, and can be improved upon, it appears to me that in spite of all this, a writer, artist, politician, or any such shaper of public culture, has available outlets and platforms for her message to be shared and received regardless of personal politics (from far left to far right).
A general statement like this might gloss over, or ignore, truly credible anecdotes of public shaming and mistreatment for transgressions that do not merit this. But, being on the technological advent of transforming humanity, we are naturally in a time of tremendous change. Tremendous change will generate a higher volume of outliers and tales of misfortune for our tireless clap-jaws to highlight in their quest for hyperbole. Nevertheless, we are in a time of high change (something which is accelerating), and because of this, the public expectations of what we do and don’t tolerate are naturally changing and updating with our evolving reality.
I suppose the gist of my grist is this: that if we can correctly say there are serious dangers and challenges to our updating times, then this fact is not nearly as dark and dangerous as the most skittish of us would have everyone believe.
The Right Stuff
Remember the garden? Our roses?
I’m going to do the thing that at the beginning of the essay I said was wrong to do. But if you allow me a minute or two to violate the standard, I believe we can find a bit of merit in the point. And I’ll explain why. I’m going to conflate myself into the body politic in order to describe what I think is a general truth.
I describe myself as a squish. And being one who prefers harmony to conflict, who enjoys the whole social “getting along” thing, I believe that in this regard I am akin to more than a plurality of citizens. We do not uphold the virtuous squish as some sort of hero, and perhaps we should not. But I would argue that this woman or man is precisely the building block without which no good society can exist. Even the virtuous hero, courageous yet cantankerous, can cause more public ulcers than is sometimes necessary. But the good squish — this person represents the majority medium, the fluid through which economy and trade and business (all the things that enrich society) can move fruitfully through unhindered. If everyone was a hero, we’d be crossing swords at the grocery checkout line. But because we are not, grocery stores can proliferate and sell many things other than swords.
What I’m clumsily getting at is this: the reason we ban, or disallow, or curtail the presence of certain individuals in the diffuse bubbles of various public platforms is so that we do not lend aid and protection to unreality which chokes the garden of democracy — the field from which a multitude of voices, stories, and points-of-view can be heard, deciphered, agreed upon, or dismissed. Regarding civilization, it is all to do with the right kind of censorship and where this phenomenon is allowed to exist. What organisms of society — inside which golems do we permit some degree of censorship to inhabit?
I see it as this: If we hand over our society to those who peddle in lies, cookery, and spaghetti-at-the-wall litigation, then we enforce upon the vast majority of good, though reticent citizens, the soft oppression of confusion, resentment, and disengagement. Worse than that, ordinary citizens become complicit in this through their native instinct for harmony. This is exactly the type of censorship I do not want to see. I do not want a land where truth, or our best aspiration for it, lies quietly in the hearts of the normative and decent majority, under threat from a truculent and belligerent minority, egged on by politicians who either author this bullshit or sign onto it for professional gain.
Our Dear Karens
What things look like now are not what things looked like before. Nor will it look like the things that are to come.
I always enjoy the rosy nostalgia people employ to describe the past. This is inextricably bound to pilgarlic irritations inveighed against our youth. “The past was better, it was great, and now here come our children fucking everything up.” It’s a timeless generational tradition. And I understand the conversational perks to this arc. It’s the privilege of the aging and aching to cast stones upon the lithe and lively. But! It is wrong.
The truth is, human history has been a steady progression up — a stock market graph, if you will, of improvement over time. I still believe we are trending up as a species. So, if there has been an uptick in stories of people unfairly brandished or mistreated as a result of society updating its social mores and expectations, it’s not because we are descending or disintegrating into a Left-wing police state. It is because we are rapidly redefining acceptable civil conversation, and cultivating new sensitivities to language and how it affects others. Words are tools, and language can carry the force of a cudgel. Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” was an idiot. Nothing is further from the truth. To hurt another with an act of violence is something we share with the entire animal kingdom. To hurt another with a devastating meme or tweet is something we share only with each other. Assassination by language is uniquely, sinisterly human.
I actually do not believe that a young woman motivated to call the police on a person of color, for the acutely bad reason of not following dog-leash park rules, should be publicly humiliated and fired from her job. I don’t think this, even though her behavior was entirely unacceptable. I think that public humiliation is perhaps a symbolic and psychological form of torture and potentially something like death. One’s identity besmirched forever is too great a penalty for almost any human to carry. We should not engage in this; and it violates the fact that people are messy, complex, prone to bad days or bad moments, and it denies us broadly a culture of grace and forgiveness — two things which are like oxygen and air to a fit society. One never knows when we are killing a potential future version of a better Karen (one who redeems herself through growth and maturity) when we saddle this person with the seething load of being forever embarrassed and ashamed to walk in front of others.
Having said that, a Central Park tale such as that is still just a story. And one can contend with a story, or stories of this nature, and attribute an individual rightness or wrongness to them. This does not, however, negate the issue that relying on historically pregnant and damaging bigotries should be tolerated. They shouldn’t — because they are the thing I described earlier: the imposition of one group’s illusion onto another group’s lived experience. This is the sort of historical censorship that reduces abused populations, rubs them down by light of enduring another’s pejorative and dominance-ordering fantasy. Someone like our Karen should have her shorthand reliance on racist tropes censored from the public sphere. Ideally, this censoring would occur within the confines of corrective conversations with well-meaning friends, family, or co-workers; but if doesn’t happen there (or happen at all), then there’s the chance her attitudes and beliefs will be tried in the public court of social media. And judgments rendered there, while effective in chilling or quieting certain talk, often leaves a heap of wreckage. It’s as liable to do as much harm as good.
Who Says What
To my thinking, the fundamental understanding of colonialism, imperialism (or any national, racial, or ethnic supremacy) is to realize that this is not only the power to tell one’s own story, but also the power to tell someone else’s. In this dichotomy, one person, from infancy, is birthed into a psychological advantage, instantiated through a years-long gestation of infancy to young adulthood, that she or he is entitled to elevation. The other person is birthed into the disadvantage of perceiving that something — maybe everything — is seriously wrong. A background vibrato of doubt, resentment, and often self-sabotage.
I go back to what I initially said: that we are a creature prone to exaggeration, worst-case-scenario-ing, and doomsday prophesying. I don’t view the uptick in “cancel culture” stories as evidence of society sliding into totalitarianism. I see the symptomatic detritus of a massive body of people updating and shifting their boundaries for acceptable discourse. And when this happens, the anecdotal harvest will disgorge its woes aplenty. For every side! I think we will have to beg forgiveness from those wrongly abused, but I also think that the previous status quo (whatever that means in a constantly evolving country) left a lot of people out of the conversation. We should also beg their forgiveness. A lot of stories have never been told simply because they lived in the hearts and minds of people who had no ingress to platforms, publications, media, or public squares. The old liberal order performed its own censorship upon these people — and now, we are shifting the tent poles. Moving the cultural Venn diagram over to find a new center more accommodating to previously excluded circles.
If a white, cisgender professor espouses views that have suddenly become radical or “counter-orthodoxy,” and then loses her job because of it, we might feel that this is unjust (or unfair), but we certainly mustn’t be so dense-headed to believe this person has been canceled from society. The particulars of the situation might be unsavory, and even wrong, but this person still has opportunity to pursue other platforms. And in this country, we know that there are a variety of platforms, many of which are willing to take on this professor’s views.
But, I’m not defending or even agreeing with any specific or individual anecdote of cancellation. I’m arguing that the sum total effect of what’s going on right now can be viewed as collateral to a justified process that is expanding the pool from which our culture can withdraw stories and experiences that were never previously included. I’m arguing on behalf of the wave, not the particle.
Even if that white, cisgender professor was legitimately wronged, she maintains recourse to other outlets, other venues or media platforms that would welcome her beliefs which suddenly became anathema to her prior university. What has happened in this “cancellation” is not her removal from the public arena. It is important to remember this. It is instead, the shifting of the Venn diagram where someone like her might have had her circle 89% inside the shared boundary of acceptable norms to something like 82%. But in that larger social shift, where millions of people are determining the degree of their own presence inside the shared public sphere, this lady’s shift indicates a slight loss of status for her, while simultaneously allowing the increase of status (oh, let us say 5 to 6%) for tens of thousands of others.
We can be so reasonable as to hold high-resolution truths inside our heads through honest intellectual effort. Is it possible that Professor So-and-So’s resignation due to small-minded mobbery was unjust? Of course. Is it also possible that a radio show host fired for blurting the N-word half a dozen times was justly let go for damaging the media brand? Yes. The point is: these are stories, and each one is a particle that falls somewhere on the spectrum, and the wave of acceptability is bumptiously curdling through the beach in our time. It’s a Jackson Pollock painting. We have to do the work of zooming in and polishing up new consensus boundaries.
And I hope that the edges are never so clear. I want for there to always be some gray. I also want the middle to be wide and expansive. For without these qualities, I fear it means we have abjured too much of the hard work of granular censorship to the lazy eye of the federal government.
The Tyranny of I
The lowest of all censorship begins with fear. Fear of ridicule. Rejection. Of being made a fool. Fear of being attacked verbally or physically.
For many of us, this is a battle against the self. For others — theirs is a legitimate external thing. It is the difference between the censorship of a personal illusion versus the censorship of societal bigotries and contempt. The point being, dominance hierarchies are conservative structures, and they look after themselves. Whatever their prejudices might be, those that are harmful or wrong, if left unchecked, will over time ossify as a censorious force against our evolving standards. They become antagonistic to democracy’s development. It is our business to go about excising those things which impede a vibrant, healthy garden. Not all opinions are useful to democracy.
And some opinions, if installed within powerful executive offices, will malign our nation and destroy our democracy. Nay, I rather prefer that people and our various bodies persist in their efforts to contravene conspiracy mongering and gross falsity. Much of this is better off punted to the side, left to decompose in the manure bin. It should never be criminalized (almost none of it), but there should be a felt penalty for espousing such stupidities. Cutting our nation down by manufacturing distrust, worry, and division ought to come with a price. One of the services our various media institutions should provide for the public is exactly that “chilling” effect toward public slander voiced by the powerful against those who are vulnerable. And I’d rather our press and media talk as much as they do about other press and media, and how “those other elites” are doing the dirty work of propagandizing and attacking free speech. I’d rather have this problem, than the problem of no press in which to lambast and criticize a government that seeks to robustly regulate our expressions, our art, literature — ultimately our very thoughts.
If we truly believe in a censorship-free society, then our naïveté will expose us for what we are — ripe for subjugation under a devouring, behavior-controlling central power. Naïveté paves the way for all sorts of cultural pathologies and neuroses. If we don’t marginalize beliefs injurious to democracy, then at some point, other proto-fascists, other authoritarians (ones who are much less glandular, but rather competent and cunning) will be shown the entry doors to the highest offices in our land. She or he would be much more effective at melting off, dismantling, or crony-izing the State’s administrative structures. I do not want to live to see this, when the capable Tyranny of another I becomes the felt tyranny of our national experiment.
John Lewis’ writing and art has appeared in Spry Literary Journal, Phantom Drift, The Esthetic Apostle, and the Scarlet Leaf Review. His work is forthcoming in Twenty Bellows. He co-founded and ran the Almagre Review, a Colorado publication, for three years. His novel manuscript took second at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference annual competition. By day, he works at a laboratory, protecting and monitoring the city’s potable water system. His ball-point pen art can be seen at imageandnarrative.com