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« More Appeasement | Main | The Evolution Of Freedom »

Political Labels And Self Censorship

OK, I attended the LA blog panel last night, and also didn't go to Heather's and get smashed. My excuse for not writing anything about it sooner is the same excuse that I had to not get blotto at Chateau Havrilesky--I'm nursing a recuperating Patricia, who's recovering from some minor surgery. I felt a little guilty about going at all, but in her loving way (of which I am always undeserving) she insisted, so we rented her some movies (it's amazing how much more quickly movies can be selected when they're being selected for just one person...), I made dinner for her, and took off for the event. I left later than I wanted, and LA traffic was typical Saturday night--there was no way to get there quickly, so I missed the first twenty minutes or so.

Luke Ford, who was on the panel (sorry, no permalink), has a good rundown of the highlights. It was a rollicking good discussion, and seemed more focused on the dynamics and politics of blogging, rather than last week's event in Chinatown, which seemed to be more about technology. I didn't attend that one, partly because it looked a little too hip to me, and anyone who knows me knows that I'm the lord of unhip.

That is to say, I'm not down with it. I'm not even with it.

I don't even care what "it" is. I'm just not a hep cat.

From what I heard, my impression was correct, and I've no regrets in not attending, since it would have meant leaving Patricia alone two Saturday nights in a row. I was quite pleased to attend this one, though. Cathy Seipp did a great job moderating, and because the audience was small, and smart, it wasn't just a panel discussion--it was a seminar, with a lot of good, civilized give and take from the floor.

What I'd like to focus on are a couple of issues that came up in the discussion.

The first is that there seemed to me an inordinate amount of discussion about the political leanings of the blogosphere, or at least that portion that seems to get the most attention, some of which was on the panel. It was another display of the sterility and uselessness of political labels like "right-wing" and "conservative" and "liberal." Of the people on the panel, I doubt if any of them would self identify as either "right-wing" or "conservative." (Though it was pointed out that we did have one religious conservative on the panel--Luke Ford, who's an unorthodox orthodox Jew, complete with yarmulke, who also writes a lot about sex and porn...) Like Glenn, I'm always surprised to be called either of those things.

My political views are always evolving somewhat, but if I have to be labeled, I consider myself a child of the Enlightenment (not the French-style one, with the guillotines and all), but a classical nineteenth-century liberal. But I don't think that there's any one label that can encompass any person who thinks broadly and cogently about issues, and to attempt to apply one is self defeating and pointless.

But many people, including many journalists, have trouble describing someone that they can't put into a box, so they come up with various litmus tests that allow them to categorize folks. Example: pro removing Saddam, with or without yet another UNSC resolution="right wing." Another example: no problem with human cloning="left-wing or liberal." Yet another example: Not understanding that the president is a retarded monkey (disregarding the facts that he graduated from Harvard with an MBA, and seems to outwit apparently much smarter non-simians at every political turn)="right wing extremist."

Of course, one then has to be careful not to use too many different kinds of test strips, or one gets conflicting results.

I suspect that this is what happens when many people read weblogs. They read it until they see something that produces a bright color change in the pH paper, and at that point they consider the test completed, and blogger categorized. If you consider yourself a liberal Democrat, right now one of your strongest litmus tests might be the war, or even more specifically, an insufficient amount of antipathy to the war, and specifically to this "unelected Administration." So it's not surprising that many place "warbloggers" (with whom, on many other issues they might find themselves in agreement) in the camp of the "right." But I think that this is more of a perception, focused through imperfect prisms of thought, than any reality.

This morning, Dennis "the Menace" Kucinich was on Meet the Press. Russert challenged him to back up his statement that "it's about oooiiiiilllll!!"

He trotted out the usual (circumstantial only) argument, such as it is: Iraq has oil; the Bush people are oil men; they've offered no other reason: therefore it must be oil.

Never mind that Venezuela has oil, Saudi Arabia has oil, Iraq's oil could be gained without sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the region and risking the lives of military men and women by simply doing a deal with Saddam.

Never mind the fact that the President has been making a case, and that perhaps Congressman Kucinich is simply too dim to comprehend it, or he doesn't believe it, but to say that the President's offered no other reasons is simply untrue.

The argument is simply hogwash. Is to say that to be a right winger?

I don't think that blogging, or success in blogging, is about ideology. It's about clear thinking, and argumentation based on facts as best they can be ascertained. I don't know, perhaps, right now, that looks "right wing," for whatever reason. I still have to go with a much simpler, yet more accurate formulation; in Charles Johnson's words, it's simply anti-idiotarian.

The other issue that came up was as a result of a question by Susannah Breslin to Luke Ford--to wit, since she thought that one of the best things about Luke's blog was his errrmmm...wide range of content, not all of it family rated: was he concerned about censorship in general, and did he feel that he had to self censor?

Fortunately, Eugene Volokh fielded this admirably, because I found the question almost meaningless as stated. Censorship, like "hate," and "racism," has become a dramatically overused word, to the point that it's losing almost any useful meaning. When a woman who wants to be paid by the taxpayer to smear chocolate on her body loses her NEA grant, she cries censorship, and many agree with her, when of course it's nothing of the kind.

"Self censorship" is either an oxymoron, or a tautology, or perhaps paradoxically, both. Every writer engages in "self censorship." Every word I write--even every word that is going into this post, even how to spell it, if you're an avant-gard poet, is a choice. But the word for it is not really "self censorship." It's called editing, and judgement.

I suspect that what Susannah meant was, "do you ever not write something you'd otherwise like to because you fear some kind of repercussions from it?"

And of course, the answer is, of course. All the time.

I also don't go out to the grocery in my bathrobe, though it might be much more convenient, out of similar fears.

But again, that's simply judgement. Every action may carry consequences. I might write something that makes people angry, and not want to read my weblog any more. Or perhaps it will reduce their faith in my knowledge, so that they'll be less likely to take, for example, my space policy advice. I have to judge (and censor, if you insist on using that inappropriate word) whether the words that I'm using, and ideas I'm expressing, are best accomplishing my objectives for that particular post, and for my weblog in general.

Similarly, when I write a column for Fox News, or Tech Central Station, I'm more careful in my word choice and tone than I am on the weblog, because I know that's what those publications expect, and if I submit (at least consistently) material that they feel inappropriate, or of no interest to their readers, I won't be writing for them any more. And once in a while (and fortunately, not very often, so I guess I have good judgement), I guess wrong, and submit something that they do decide to change. But that's not censorship--again, it's called "editing," and that's their job, and I never resent it or consider them censors.

Censorship has a very precise meaning--the prevention, by a government, of a point of view or piece of information being published. Beyond that, everyone has full freedom to publish whatever they want on their blog, and to submit anything they want to other publications. The flip side of that freedom is the necessity to accept the consequences, whether they be loss of readership, rejection of material, or even, in extreme cases, libel suits.

Are these legitimate concerns? Of course. Are they concerns about censorship? Absolutely not. Let us maintain the integrity of the meanings of words; when we lose them, we lose the ability to discuss things intelligently and rationally.

[Update at 8:30 PM PST]

Steven Den Beste has some further thoughts (though probably independently of mine) on the absurdity of boxes for bloggers.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2003 11:52 AM
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Let us maintain the integrity of the meanings of words; when we lose them, we lose the ability to discuss things intelligently and rationally.

Because I am not much of a thinker-and even less a good writer-I rely on the thoughts of others. This is a quote on my discontinued site:

"When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty" - Confucius

Good post. I'm not much into the space program but I keep coming to Transterrestrial Musings in anticipation of posts such as this.

Posted by tom scott at February 23, 2003 12:58 PM

Is censorship even really possible anymore? Between the first amendment and the internet, who has the power to impose censorship on anyone other than themselves?

Posted by Shawn at February 23, 2003 04:52 PM

Isn't it more accurate to say "the absurdity of boxes for *people*"? (Ooops, sorry, that's a box. Apologies.)

Not to get all Zen (errr, there's the dreaded Z word...) and stuff, but the obsession (...Libbys on the label) many self-aware entities (gack! another box!) have with labeling (drat!) is, indeed, absurd (garrrrr!).

Posted by Sanitation Engineer #6 at February 23, 2003 08:55 PM

Thanks for another insightful post.

As a newbie blogger, I'd like to make a few comments.

One, I was rather surprised when I first started blogging as to the email I received if I linked to or quoted a source with whom I agreed on a particular topic. Many individuals seemed to think that I automatically agreed with EVERYTHING THAT PERSON HAD EVER WRITTEN, because I had once linked to them with a positive comment. Or, alternately, that NOTHING THAT PERSON WROTE could ever be correct/worthwhile, because the correspondent didn't agree with the source's general philosophy. I found that very educational (and in direct opposition to my viewpoint).

As to self-censorship (or self-editing as you rightly phrase it), yes, I have moderated some posts --- but I think it a positive, as it made me think twice about what I was writing and how I was phrasing it, given how some people might construe it or call upon me to defend my position: i.e., it made me more thoughtful and precise in my writing.

I agree, censorship in America (today) is a non-issue. One may have to make certain decisions and sacrifices in order to voice one's opinions -- but that does not reach the level of censorship. If anything, it reinforces one's appreciation that freedom of speech, while an inalienable right, is not a guaranteed right (as history has proved).

Posted by cj at February 24, 2003 09:34 PM

I write by natural writing which is I just type what I think about a particular subject -- which is easy cause I type about as fast as I think. And then blah blah blah way to much stuff then I will ever ever use, but the key being that I do not stop typing, not to hit the backspace key, not to edit anything at all. Just keep typing anything and everything that pops into my head. And then go back through and analyze what ever it is I've spilt out on the screen and comb out those scant few morsels of thought that naturally found its way out of my head and onto the screen and edit it and reword it so that it makes sense to other human beings and then Presto! perfect prose.

Posted by Hefty at February 24, 2003 11:16 PM

Another excellent post, especially with reference to censorship/editing. However, I think the term "anti-idiotarian" is an arrogant copout which, if I were on the "idiotarian" side of the fence, I would consider lazy and insulting. Granted, the media tends to too easily label those who adopt a particular position on certain issues as "rightwing" etc, but at some point I think you and Glenn, et al are going to have to face up to where you stand and find a reasonable label for yourselves. Suggestions- "Whig", "Classical Liberal", "libertarian conservative" etc. Granted, some of these are awkward but keep trying.

Posted by Lloyd at February 25, 2003 03:39 PM

Lloyd, my point was that whatever other label might apply, anyone who musters arguments like Congressman Kucinich, is either an idiot if he believes them, or a disingenuous propagandist who relies on other idiots (or at least those unable or unwilling to apply logic an facts) for his power. Idiotarian seems like a perfectly reasonable label to me.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 25, 2003 10:32 PM

"I don't think that blogging, or success in blogging, is about ideology. It's about clear thinking, and argumentation based on facts as best they can be ascertained. I don't know, perhaps, right now, that looks "right wing," for whatever reason. I still have to go with a much simpler, yet more accurate formulation; in Charles Johnson's words, it's simply anti-idiotarian."

I recall reading Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" many years ago, and it dealt extensively with the contrast between 2 ways of looking at the world. The first (as best I can recall) was primarily a right-brain/intuitive/feeling approach, largely based on surface appearances. The "War is Bad for Living Things" view, where that observation is the end of (or a substitute for) the thought process. The other way is more left brain/logical and is more concerned with the underlying structure or process rather than with surface appearances.
I think a lot of people who end up participating in antiwar (or anti-globalization) protests are going with their intuition and showing their distaste of painful realities, rather than trying to logically pursue solutions to problems.

That being the case, "clear thinking" and logical "argumentation based on facts" aren't going to have much effect with people who didn't arrive at their viewpoint by logic in the first place.

Posted by Jim Gerrish at February 26, 2003 10:49 AM

Yes, we must watch the consequences of what we say. For instance, I must be VERY careful online to not mention that I have a felony conviction for LSD in my past.


Because you must LIE about it to get an apartment, or most jobs (fortunately I work in high tech, where it's not such an issue).

But about the apartment thing, I'm very paranoid.

This frustrates me when writing about politics, because if I openly drew upon many of the experiences of my (somewhat distant) past in support of my positions, I could very well not have a place to live anymore, and have a hard time finding a new one.

But I never think of it as "self censorship", I HATE that phrase too.

On the upside, this forces me to think more logically in support of my positions, as I don't have as much anecdotal evidence to draw upon in making my point.

Posted by withheld at February 27, 2003 06:42 AM


Posted by at October 18, 2004 06:47 PM

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