The equivocation of ‘censorship’

There is a common discussion that I see popping up whenever activists succeed in shutting down an event from some sort of reactionary, recent example being the cancelling of talk by notorious right-wing troll Milo Yannopoulos.

Among other arguments on the morality of events, I see people bringing up the idea that shutting down such events is censorship. As soon as this happens, usually an argument starts on whether it really is such. One side claiming that it is not because it’s not a state actor that is suppressing free speech, while the other is claiming that in the absolute technical terms, it totally is:

censorship
ˈsɛnsəʃɪp/
noun
1.
the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.
“the regulation imposes censorship on all media”

However what seems to me is happening is rather some kind of equivocation. An equivocation in fact, between two meanings which on a word that don’t appear to be formalized yet as distinct in dictionaries.

Specifically, it there’s the popular concept of censorship which takes the above definition and adds “by state actors” in the end. Not only that, but more often than not, one will imagine also brutality involved and 1984-like images might come to mind. As a concept, this is the one that makes people icky.  In fact, this is the concept one attempts to invoke when they use it as the basis of the argument: “But it’s censorship!”

What is happening specifically is that all the unwritten baggage of “censorship”- which do not belong to its official definition but are attached to it anyway due to many years or red scare propaganda – are being used to undermine an act which does not share those characteristics at all!

The actual “censorship” currently happening, let’s call it censorship-lite for reference, might be technically accurate as a term to describe the effect, but if seen without relying on defining it, is quite a mild effect. In the case above it effectively involved people exerting peer (or sometimes market) pressure on some venues to not provide a platform to known reactionaries.

One would think, if such censorship-lite is not a big deal, why does it keep coming up from such valiant defenders of free speech (/s)? There is a further unspoken argument being packed in the accusations of censorship, in the form of the slippery slope fallacy. The point being made in subtext is: “This is how it starts, today you stop Milo Yannopoulos’ speech and tomorrow a boot is stomping a human face – forever.”

Please forgive my exaggeration but I hope it makes my point clear what is actually happening and why such arguments on the definition of the word never seem to lead anywhere.

 


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