I’ve been enjoying my brief but focused time in The Federation and away from corporate social media so far. (“The Federation” is what we nerds who love freedom and, by extension, free software, call the distributed social network outside corporate-controlled filter bubble prisons like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.) Oh sure, there’s the usual Internet asshole with a dick pic, and I expect there will be more of them as the Federation grows in number. But for now it feels like a much earlier Internet where people generally do not speak without thinking first, are reading what others write with the intention to understand instead of the intention to respond, and best of all, are posting links to tons of stuff I have never even seen before.
Partly, this is because of the inherently international flavor of the Federation. English speakers have not yet reached such numbers that English is assumed to be the default language. Half of my “timeline” is in Spanish, German, French, or some other language. And it’s an absolute joy merely to be exposed to these other languages instead of the monotonous drawl of only one of anything, be it one and only one language, one and only one news source, and so on. Plus, my Spanish and German have been getting better, so while I still need the help of a translator to engage in any sustained way, I feel myself needing it less and less to read other’s comments. Which is awesome! :D
But what’s really noteworthy about this experience is simply the vast chasm between exposure and censorship. I don’t mean censorship in the harsh sense of an iron fist where a block screen comes up as you try to access a blog post, warning you that this content is restricted by order of the government. I mean censorship in the social sense where unquestioned assumptions and complacency are left to fester like boils in our collective minds, or where outright bullying creates fascistic ideological borders that leave emotional wounds whose scars build up like walls against other people and ideas. That kind of sustained psychosomatic injury is also censorship.
But no one recognizes it as such because no one understands what censorship even means anymore, because they are being censored. After all, as the saying goes, the worst thing about censorship is [CENSORED].
This came to the fore on my stream the other day—a stream is kind of like a “Twitter timeline” or a Tumblr “dashboard” or a Facebook “newsfeed,” but without the ads or the prompted posts or the social media gerrymandering that you don’t even know is happening, but it is, and it’s affecting what you can see without your consent—when a new friend posted about her own attempts to articulate the nuances between things like “an echo chamber,” versus “silencing people” and healthy dialogue. Having just made a significant switch in where I placed my social media energies, this was very relevant to my thoughts of the day, so I ended up writing a bit of an essay in response without really meaning to.
I wanted to share that response here. So, here goes:
I have written about this topic a lot so I don’t actually want to repeat myself again from scratch here. However, I will summarize some of my previous thoughts and then share links to my writings elsewhere so you can evaluate them at your leisure. The main points that I feel are most important to bring up in any conversation like this one are as follows:
1. Tactics versus principles
There is a difference between a tactic and a principle. A tactic is a certain action taken for a certain purpose in a certain context. This is different from a principle, which is a general guiding philosophy used to inform a given person’s choice of what action (tactic) to take, when, and why.
Things can get confusing when the same word is used to refer to a tactic and a principle. One very common example of this is the word “violence.” There are strong and compelling arguments to be made that “violent” actions are often necessary to effect the kind of political and social changes that are desirable for all humanity, and it is in fact a form of oppression on the part of people who hold the guns to insist that all actions on the part of the people who the guns are pointed at remain non-violent. Therefore, “violence” is both a tactic (the act of militant resistance against violent killers) and also a principle (the act of forbidding a group to use violence to resist violence).
The opposite is true, too: non-violence can be used as an effective tactic (see, for instance, the Civil Rights marches, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and so on in the US 1960’s for a few famous example), but it can also be a principle, in the form of political ideologies such as pacifism. These distinction is very important because there are situations in which a violent tactic is used as part of a non-violent principle. See, for instance, Nelson Mandela’s famously advocating the use of guns in the fight against South African Apartheid.
In your case, the question is “censorship,” but I think you are having trouble articulating your thoughts in part because you are not yet clear about the difference between censorship as a tactic versus censorship as a principle.
Second: Power always has a context
Another key point to always be aware of is the idea that “oppression” is not the same as “expression” because the former (“oppression”) always carries with it a contextual power, whereas expression does not. This makes oppression a type of expression, but it does not mean that all expressions are also forms of oppression. (This is analogous to “a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square.”)
As a contrived example, imagine for a moment a child alone in their room, shouting, “I hate grown ups!” This is certainly an expression of something, but is it oppression? No, because a child alone in their room has no meaningful coercive power over adults. (That is, no significant ability to force adults to do what they demand.) The inverse, however, is not true: adults do have demonstrably strong coercive power over the child. (That is, the adult can force a child to do almost anything the adult demands.) Therefore, we say that when the child expresses hatred for adults, this is not oppression, but when we say that adults force children to do things they do not consent to doing, it is oppression, even if the adult’s actions are also well-meaning. For example, it is oppressive to force children to go to school, even though the adult who forces their child to go to school believes such force is in the best interest of the child. Another, less controversial example: it is oppressive to hit children in order to make them behave as instructed, even if the adult believes such force to be in the best interests of the child. Both forceful acts are expressions of oppression, by definition.
The reason this contextualization matters so much is because it explains why “freedom of oppression” is not a meaningful statement (it is an oxymoron) but “freedom of expression” is meaningful, and important. This also explains why there are so many disagreements about what the difference between “oppression” and “expression” actually is in a given context, and I argue that this confusion is largely an intentional effort on the part of oppressors (i.e., on the part of people in power) to muddy the waters by ignoring or discarding important historical, individual, and other contexts. In fact, if you look at history, you will often see groups who take power violently also simultaneously try to destroy historical artifacts, records, and other evidence of a given context. This is not an accident, they know exactly what they are doing: they are creating an environment in which they can control and define what the context is. If they succeed, they can argue that something which was empirically not true is true, such as parents who argue that “my child can force me to do all sorts of stuff!” This is just nonsense, but if people believe it, it does not matter that it is not true, because they collectively act as if it is true. That collective delusion is therefore also an oppressive expression.
This action of rewriting history is called “erasure,” and if you look carefully for it, you will find it all over the Internet, especially (because digital conversations are so easy to erase, and censor). Erasure is a classic pattern of bullying. What you should watch out for is when Person A says something that causes hurt to Person B, and then Person B says something that hurts person A. Person A then typically responds as if the start of the conversation was when Person B said the thing that insulted them, and disregards the fact that Person B was responding to something that they, themselves, said or did that was hurtful.
So, actually, it really matters “who started it,” because that history is part of the context that informs the judgement about whether an act was oppressive or merely expressive.
Third: Words are defined by people’s reaction to them, not by the dictionary
Finally, it’s also important to realize that the single most powerful weapon that oppression has at its disposal, the tool every oppressive act must use in order to sustain itself, is the re-definition of a word or idea to mean something that it originally did not. This is technically called “appropriation” or, sometimes, “assimilation,” and it is a very nasty thing because it is so hard to untangle after it has happened. This can also be understood as a form of erasure (see above), because the point is to re-write the history of how the word or idea came to be in such a way as to make the original meaning or context hard to know.
One very common example of this is the word “censorship” itself. You are using “censorship” to mean a specific thing: the silencing of some voices and opinions in a given space. But that is not the original meaning of censorship at all. Your first clue that this was not the original meaning of censorship is that it is a different word than silencing. ;) Why have two words that mean the exact same thing, if there is not some important distinction or motivation to create the second word?
Censorship actually means “the active suppression of points of view to such a degree that those points of view do not have the ability to influence anyone who might, nevertheless, encounter them.” This is very different from silencing. It is very different from moderating comments on forums. It is a definition that acknowledges the ways in which censorship can be more than just pressing the “delete” button on a comment. For example, by this definition, censorship can also include purposefully slowing down Internet connections (“bandwidth throttling” is a form of censorship).
What’s important to realize here is that people who want to retain power they already have almost always use that power to redefine and narrow the definitions of words that were originally used to resist that power. Another good example of this is “consent,” which many people now treat as “the same thing as” the word “permission.” But these two words are not the same and, again, your first clue that they are not the same should be that they are two different words. Consent is not permission, and permission is not consent, but you can rest assured that most people (especially men) will tell you that they are, in fact, the same.
Okay, that was actually a lot longer than I had intended to write, but it was still just a summary of my many other writings on the topic. You can find a lot of my further writings about this topic by accessing the following websites, and then following links to even more of my writings if they are of interest to you. Some good places to start are:
- More on “erasure” and the difference between “silencing” and “censorship”
- More on the difference between tactics and principles
- You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense – This essay introduces the idea that consent is not the same as permission. Further essays on the same topic can also be found here.
There are actually a lot more posts than just these. For instance, you already read my “Complicity with Abuse: 101-level information social justice hobbyists are dangerously ignorant of” essay, which has a similar theme to this post. My point is simply that most of the people who are talking about these issues do not do so with much education about the topic, nor with any genuine interest to actually acquire any deep knowledge of it. The ones that do desire this are often frustrated by attempts to prevent them from gaining that knowledge (they are censored), but because these self-motivated learners are starting from a disadvantage, they inevitably believe some of the propaganda and lies that the censors supply. The most dangerous and insidious of these beliefs is that censorship (or oppression) itself is limited only to what the censors or oppressors themselves define as censorship or oppression.
I’m sure you can understand why that is a very clever way to enact censorship. ;)