Now that I publish my fiction on Substack, I read regular content from the platform, and a few weeks ago the platform runners wrote an essay about censorship titled “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.”
I’ve read and reread that essay.
I’ve been trained as a librarian, and one of the most important tenets of professional librarians is freedom of information. One of the things that drove me out of my job as an elementary school librarian in a public school system was pressure to take Harry Potter off the shelves. I told the school board I wouldn’t do it. If they had to fire me, so be it, but I wouldn’t take the books off the shelves. I asked if any school board member had actually read one of the books in question. None had. Surprise, surprise.
In the last six years, cultural censorship has increased enormously, but it’s failed to silence anti-vaxxers, proponents of the election Big Lie, COVID naysayers, and people who believe men cannot become women, or vice versa. It’s also failed to address increasing civil violence, disconnection, and unrest.
Does censorship work? Is it a useful tool?
It doesn’t appear so. I’m irresistibly reminded of the “Just Say No” drug campaign for school kids and sexual abstinence programs for teens. Do they work?
Not so much.
It seems to be a human character trait that the minute we’re forbidden to do something we move heaven and earth to do it. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at Pandora. Dozens of old oral stories from around the world are about people who broke their promise not to look and suffered the consequences.
I’ve never thought to ask myself what problem we’re trying to address with censorship.
Is it cultural trust?
Possibly. Trust is an easily manipulated quality, because it’s a belief. Belief, as we’ve seen demonstrated over and over during the last years, is more powerful than facts. People will die for their beliefs. They’ll kill for them.
Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by access to all kinds of information (facts) or opinions? Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by censorship?
I’m not sure trust is the root problem, though, or not the entire root. Perhaps the deepest root is education and, paradoxically, freedom. Authoritarianism is characterized by blind submission to authority. One of the tools of authoritarianism is censorship, including limiting the rights to vote, read, write, report the facts, speak, and teach.
Censorship implies people can’t be trusted with a full range of information. They are unable to make the “right” choices, according to the authoritarian(s) at the top. Thus, the public is spoon-fed only that which supports the authoritarian power. Asking questions is not allowed. Challenge is not allowed. Discussion and debate are not allowed.
Don’t you worry your little head about substance abuse. Just say no. We don’t talk about sex and our bodies in this house. It’s dirty and shameful. Just abstain from inhabiting your healthy young body.
The subject of censorship is tricky, because I suspect we’d all like to have the power to censor certain voices on social media, on radio, on television, in the bookstores, on YouTube, and on platforms like Substack. Some of the propaganda and opinions out there, the lies masquerading as facts, are horrifying. However, my lie might be your fact. Your heart-felt ideology about eating meat may be in direct conflict with what I need to sustain my health and quality of life. Should one of us have the power to censor the other?
This is where the trust problem comes in. We don’t trust one another to make the “right” choices or believe the “right” people. I think many don’t trust themselves to make the “right” choices. They rely on someone they have faith in to tell them what to do.
The “right” choices imply the possibility of “wrong” choices, but this is black-and-white, overly simplistic thinking. Perhaps you need to be a vegetarian in order to sustain your health. Perhaps I need to be a carnivore. We’re both right. Does that mean a full range of diet and nutrition information should be available to all? Can we, as a culture, agree to live and let live?
I have my doubts.
The current specific issue on Substack is the subject of COVID. Evidently, there are writers on the platform spreading dis- and/or misinformation about COVID. Scientists on Substack sending meticulously researched, linked, and data-driven information take issue with that and want Substack to censor such writers for the sake of the public good.
Substack, in response, wrote the above essay, maintaining their position against censorship and explaining their thoughts about it.
I’m in sympathy with both sides. I, too, am frustrated with the sheer volume of unmitigated bullshit out there. But I never forget many people would say my sources of information are bullshit, and I would fight hard to maintain access to those sources.
Maybe the problem is not how deep the bullshit is, but how bad we are at recognizing it. And that’s a product of our broken education system and our inability to think critically. Both these cultural trends make us increasingly vulnerable to authoritarianism.
Taking responsibility for our choices is not humanity’s greatest strength at this moment in history.
If I was Supreme Ruler of the World (God forbid), I believe I would vote with Substack on this issue of censorship. Silencing people does not address the root of the problem, only a symptom. We need to figure out a way to fix our educational system so we all learn critical thinking at every stage of education. Not only does this empower people to make their own choices and recognize the difference between lies and truth, opinions and information, it allows public access to a full range of viewpoints.
We are never going to silence the liars and manipulators. They will continue to try to obtain power and money, and they will continue to aggressively work to silence those who disagree with them. The best weapon against them is to firmly empower ourselves and others with education and the ability to think critically. We don’t need to be protected. We need to be armed.