THE BLOG
04/26/2014 07:24 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Why I Won't Censor

I have made a decision that reasonable observers may well disagree with. As the head of an institution of higher education, I have requested that our communications office allow posting to our Internet discussion forums of material that is racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise, in my opinion, morally wrong -- not merely offensive, but morally wrong. I have three reasons: one principled, another practical, and the last procedural.

As a preface, I should say that the head of our communications office is the most positive person with whom I have ever worked. He is so earnest and upbeat, I find myself occasionally annoyed and irritated, then embarrassed at my own dyspeptic reaction to good cheer. That's another demonstration of why all of us should hesitate before judging contentment, as we ought before judging content.

He wants to sustain an environment in which people are equals -- able to teach, learn, and create, without being attacked. I share his goals; I'm only skeptical of his methods. There are other means to ensure a sense of belonging. There also are limits to how much it can be protected without impinging upon other values.

I also ought to mention at the outset it does not appear that the people writing these execrable remarks are members of our community. I have confidence in the good faith of our faculty, staff, and students. Social scientists are only now researching how the anonymity of the Internet promotes aggressiveness that might be absent in reality. Even when people can see a name, it identifies no more than a stranger in the ether whom it's unlikely one will ever encounter in realtime.

The principled reason is an abiding belief in free speech. I am being deliberate. I am not saying the First Amendment, for a reason. Popular culture has exaggerated the actual protection of that Constitutional clause. For example, the doctrine does not compel the government to endorse -- or appear to support -- any particular statement. Witness the ongoing controversies about what vanity license plates for your car can spell out: the range spans atheism to anti-Semitism.

Yet even if it comported with the First Amendment, I would not authorize censorship. My opinion is rather conventional. The spirit of free exchange protects noise and nonsense.

The exercise of authority, even if it were judicious, raises a risk of inverting the hierarchy. Since they are prevented from acting on their impulses, those who wish to oppress perceive themselves as oppressed. They appropriate a narrative for which they have contempt when offered by others: They transform themselves into the victims. Thus they gain the cachet of dissent; they pose as the rebels in a society founded for independence.

The practical reason is that I have become convinced that cleaning up the worst forms of bigotry worsens the problem of prejudice. It is ironic. The best means of defeating a bad argument -- doing the favor for hatred of counting it as an argument -- is to allow it to be expressed, which means its foolishness is exposed.

The success of civil rights makes continued progress all the more challenging. Among the exhausting aspects of fighting discrimination in an era when most people claim to celebrate diversity is persuading them that there is discrimination. When we remove the most damning evidence, it is easier for well-meaning observers to deny that there is any issue or to diminish its significance at any rate. As extreme forms of antipathy disappear by consensus, the ambiguous instances are more readily accepted as fair-minded because they lose an association with what is abhorrent. Children's literature that is replete with racism is white-washed, and we forget the origins of images that rattle around in the backs of our heads. These are the microaggressions that accumulate.

The ideal is not attainable. We will, as we must, work to eliminate racism; but it likely will endure, mutating into other forms like any other virus. Accordingly, the alternatives include, in what I assess as descending order of preference: racism that is open and opposed; racism that is open but not objected to; and, worst of all, racism that is dangerous but hidden. Better it be obvious in my book.

The procedural reason is that I do not want a staff member expending their time, an institutional resource, policing social media for this purpose. I certainly cannot spare more than one staff person for this task, but neither should I allow decisions of this sensitive nature to be made by a single individual. I cannot devise a process that is efficient enough.

There is an alternative. A few reputable establishments have started to adopt it with respect to their discussion forums. Given the degraded nature of much Internet discourse, they have simply turned off all comments. The cost is the loss of the very promise of the web, the possibility of democratic conversation. It may prove that democracy, as it was conceived in antiquity, is optimal with face-to-face interactions among a limited number of people bound together in a real community. In its contemporary version, it requires that we be resigned to trolls.

There is a parallel movement. People are admonishing their peers to avoid reading the comments, and the weak-willed can have their computer block them altogether. Although the exhortation is worthwhile, it seems ineffective for the same reason that decent people are entranced by the spectacle as they drive by an auto accident.

Perhaps the allure of the disgusting reveals more than we would like about human nature. I say it is best for us to be aware of who we are.