Friday, 6 February 2015


The censorship of commentary does not necessarily start with overt repression. A social and political milieu can convince people not to express unwelcome words or notions ab initio. State repression is unnecessary if people can be coerced to repress themselves.  

Speech intolerance is enveloping our culture.  The most egregious form of this non-legislated censorship is found on American university campuses where elaborate speech codes have become almost universal.  The new censorship, however, is not limited to universities.  Public personalities must carefully parse their speech to avoid saying or writing anything that offends an ever developing code of correctness.  Even a celebrity like Madonna was forced to apologize for alleged racism after re-posting fan art of famous people’s faces such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley tied up in rope in order to look like the cover of her forthcoming album Rebel Heart.

A staunch conservative like former University of Calgary political scientist Mr. Flanagan was spectacularly exposed to the new censorship.  He learnt that is not permissible to say anything that downplays or questions any aspect of the protection of children.  Mr. Flanagan had in a previous university talk endeavored to distinguish between crimes that involve the abuse of actual children and those that involve "just pictures." In response to a question about people who are jailed just for viewing child pornography on the internet, he said "I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters," but then added, "It is a real issue of personal liberty to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person."

Now there is an obvious response to this statement; namely, that pictures of child pornography usually require a child being subjected to pornographic acts.  Mr. Flanagan’s comments, however, were not met with a reasoned response.  He had made the mistake of uttering a a verboten opinion.  By the end of the day, his employer of 45 years, the University of Calgary, had disassociated itself from him and the CBC had fired him as a commentator. Subsequently he would be disinvited from speaking engagements across North America. 

Mr. Flanagan’s friends on the Right were first and foremost in denouncing him.  Mr. Flanagan had worked hard to help build Danielle. Smith's Wildrose party into a credible political force in 2008.  But now, Danielle Smith was declaring  "There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan's comments," She said the party would no longer have anything to do with him.  The federal Conservatives followed suit.  The Prime Minister's communications director, Andrew McDougall said in a tweet "Tom Flanagan's comments on child pornography are repugnant, ignorant, and appalling”.

President Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, learnt how remarkably easy it is to cross the line separating permissible and non-permissible speech.  She was forced to profusely apologize simply for sending an e-mail to students that had the subject line, “All Lives Matter.”  She quickly sent a second email expressing regret that she was unaware the phrase “All Lives Matter” was being used on social media as a counterargument to the “BlackLivesMatter” movement.  One student wrote  “It minimizes the anti-blackness of this the current situation; yes, all lives matter, but not all lives are being targeted for police brutality,”

Kathleen McCartney had previously “crossed the line” because there is a long list of words you can't say at Smith College - or apparently reproduce in the student paper.  She had said “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we.  The comment was re-written in a transcript in the student newspaper to read “[Smith President]: We're just wild and [ableist slur], aren't we?”

Smith alumna Wendy Kaminer, a feminist lawyer and civil-liberties advocate, spoke on a panel discussion on free speech and hate speech at the College in September, 2013 and asked the audience what word came to mind when she said "the n-word." When they said it out loud, she repeated it and said "nothing horrible happened."  Kaminer was accused in the Huffington Post of committing "an explicit act of racial violence," President McCartney - who moderated the panel - had obviously learnt her lesson - she even apologized for those who felt "unsafe" listening to Kaminer.

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called "being triggered".

A blog with the title “Kyriarchy & Privilege 101” gives a list of triggering words ot types of words which includes swearing, talk of drug use (legal, illegal or psychiatric), descriptions/pictures of medical procedures (even if they don't contain blood or gore), any time slurs are used (this includes words like "stupid" or "dumb"), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy/childbirth, blood, serious injury and best of all “slimy things”.  Perhaps the blog was being satirical - it is getting increasingly hard to distinguish between when some of these people are being satirical or “correct” to an absurd degree.  Perhaps satirical, perhaps extremist - it does give a flavour of the trigger word mentality.

The trigger warning idiocy is inevitably leading to even broader speech code rules at American universities.  Oberlin College, for example, recommends that its faculty "remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals". When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings. Things Falling Apart is a novel about the great harms of colonialism, At Oberlin College “Things Fall Apart” now carries the warning that it “may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, and religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more” even though “it is a great and important book”.

Trigger warnings have inevitably become a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments.  It is a new way to try to control speech.

The Oxford University Press, which bills itself as the largest university press in the world, provided another startling example of declaring certain words verboten.  It has told its authors not to mention pigs or sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork in their books in order to avoid offending Muslims and Jews. 

A few years back in an effort to eliminate potential "unpleasant emotions" among students, the New York Department of Education placed a ban on mentioning 50 or so common words including “birthdays, dinosaurs,slavery,Halloween, evolution and dancing" in city-issued tests.  After considerable ridicule New York’s educators (?) rescinded the ban.

So we can see two different developments.  Firstly, specific topics have become off limits.  At the same time more and more words are being removed from permissible communication.  This adds up to a chilling effect on freedom of speech generally.  In order to avoid running afoul of these inhibitors” politicians or media commentators will studiously avoid meaningful debate.  It is all part and parcel of a frightened, cowed society.

1 comment:

  1. No one is taking away your first amendment you NRA loving redneck. It's a new wave of sensibilities taking hold on our NATION. Be ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY OR ELSE!!!!!! I hate you neo conservatives who don't WANT REPERCUSSIONS FOR THEIR actions!!!!