Once more into the breach on ideological lit-crit, Galactus, and delicious, delicious cookies.

Just in case you guys aren’t tired of this argument yet, here’s another take on what we should and shouldn’t say.

Speaking for myself, at least, I’d like to make a firm distinction between the government’s ability to fine, jail, and kill people, and all other forms of coercion.  This would mean that “censor” would only apply to a government official whose job is censoring stuff, and “thought police” would be limited to the people that fight “thoughtcrime” in the narrow sense of “thoughtcrime” described above. Are you a law enforcement official who spends his/her time tracking down and arresting people for their private opinions? No? Good! You aren’t the thought police.  But I’m happy to acknowledge that, from a descriptive linguistics point of view, this little enough to do with the way that the terms are actually used. In fact, the words “thought police” in particular have taken on a funny little life of their own. The “police” in “thought police” is usually treated less like a noun that has to do with means (i.e. the police: those who enforce the laws with jails, handcuffs, and telescoping batons) and more like a verb that has to do with ends (i.e. to police: to surveil and control behavior in an attempt to prevent certain categories of action). According to this line of reasoning, any and all attempts made by society to discourage any point of view at all can – indeed, must – be seen as a kind of policing of thoughts.  By the same token, any attempt to prevent people from expressing a certain opinion — say, by not providing them with a soapbox (and a salary) for their viewpoint — is routinely denounced as censorship.

In one form or another, this is the complaint that is typically leveled at examples of A2 on the chart, one man’s public service announcement being another’s propaganda. Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, this kind of thing can lead to the cockamamie suggestion that A1 is thought policing too — that simply by disagreeing with me, society at large is brainwashing me; that there is no appreciable difference between tacit disapproval and training rats to eat my face. Now, this isn’t to say that widely held “common sense” ideas aren’t like brainwashing in a way, for which see, like, every critical theorist ever (and maybe especially Althusser, who I’ll admit I haven’t read).  But as Fenzel likes to quip “in a way” usually means “what I just said is false.” Or as I like to put it, “in one way yes, but let’s please not forget that in all the other ways, no!” Anyway, this broader concept of thought policing is usually prior to the idea of what constitutes a thoughtcrime, and is read back into it after the fact. Do I have an opinion that [Group X] is trying to discourage? Well that makes [Group X] the thought police, which means that they see my idea as thoughtcrime. And the same thing, more or less, goes for censorship and illegal speech.  Is [Group X] making it more difficult for me to speak? Well in that case, they are censors. (Never mind that they do not have the classical, governmental censor’s recourse of turning me over to the regular police, they’re trying to stop me from speaking, which is Wrong!) And therefore my speech… well.  This is one of the interesting bits.

Thought criminal. Among other things.

If the meaning of the word “thoughtcrime” is going to change to “some unpopular opinion,” and “thought police” to “a group which is trying to eradicate an unpopular opinion,” we would need to let go of the moral dimension of the term. Unpopular doesn’t necessarily mean good. Some people, like Galactus, think that devouring the earth is a good idea. This is not a popular opinion. Now with Galactus, there’s a chance that he’ll make good on that threat, so the stakes are a little higher… like shouting fire in a crowded theater, this might have real-world consequences, so maybe his idea isn’t just an idea. But what about people who can’t make good on the threat? Like, say we’re just dealing with Galactus’ biggest fan – not in-universe, but in our universe. This fan thinks that the eating of planets is just aces.  She wouldn’t destroy the world in any other way – that would interfere with eating it, after all – but given a place to stand, and a big enough fork, she’d devour us all without blinking an eye. Is it all right to try to change her opinion?

It depends. It really does.  Even with something as cartoonish as wanting to wipe out all life, there are means which we can not morally take. I mean, we could lobotomize her if we wanted to, right? Bam! Problem solved — no more desire to eat the world. But that’s obviously reprehensible. Even if she did pose a threat, we’d probably look for a better way. For instance, we might just point out to her that if she devours the world, it’ll mean no more Marvel comics. And that would be, on the whole, just fine. But it would still be an attempt to police (i.e. control) her thoughts.  And if we prevented her from expressing that opinion (say, by laughing her off the soapbox every time she got up to advocate world-eating), that would be an attempt to control (i.e. censor) her speech.

I recognize that I have set up a straw man.  Yes, no one would actually call this harmless (if kinda creepy), fan a thought criminal, and no one would call her interlocutor the thought police.  I am pretty committed to the idea that words mean what people use them to mean. Efforts to stabilize and control language are necessary and laudable to an extent, but they are always doomed to failure over the long term, and tend to stifle discourse over the short. So when it comes to the phrases “thought police” and “censorship,” I’m going to stick to my descriptivist guns. I may not like the way they’re usually used, I may choose to point out the logical flaws in using them that way… but the fact that the way they’re being used should logically lead to them also being used in the absurd situation I just described doesn’t mean that they actually would be used that way.  In its current use, “thought police” is still closely enough associated with the allegorical police state of George Orwell’s 1984 that an aura of shame attaches to the label, and a corresponding aura of righteousness to the label “thought criminal.” Similarly, “censorship” calls up images of book-burning and imprisoned dissidents.  Why is that? Well, there are three things about Orwell’s thought police: what they do, how they do it, and why. The first is “change people’s minds.” The second is “through torture and the threat of torture.” The third is “to inspire slavish devotion to a totalitarian dictatorship.” Only two of these facets are evil. And based on my gut understanding of the way the phrase is used these days, only the second is really strongly implied — this is what separates thought policing from mere propaganda. Now, since the term is really only ever used as a hyperbole, we can’t insist that people be referring to torture specifically… so maybe our working, pragmatic definition of “thought police” should be something like “some group that attempts to discourage a certain opinion… through means that the speaker finds repugnant.” And censorship again means “to prevent someone from expressing a certain opinion… through means that the speaker finds repugnant.” They’re both loaded terms, and would not be used if the speaker didn’t want the rhetorical force that comes along with them.

If we plan to use any of these terms ourselves (in their everyday sense), we need to demonstrate that there’s something wrong with our target’s means, not their ends.  This still isn’t likely to convince anyone — these are not terms that get tossed around a lot in discussions where one of the parties hasn’t made up their mind already — but it can save us all from a lot of chasing our tails.

Returning to the question that prompted this post:  is it ever a good idea to stamp out an idea, root and branch?  Again, it depends on the means.  It also depends on who’s doing the stamping.  It’s not a good idea to do it by burning books.  It’s not a good idea to do it by waterboarding.  And it’s probably not a good idea for the government to do it in any case, because with governments the potential for book burnings and waterboardings are always sort of there in the abstract, even if the government in question (like ours) has tied that arm behind its back.  If the idea can be eradicated by simple persuasion, though, and by a group that doesn’t have the government’s monopoly on violence?  That’s a different story.  Okay, there might still be something to be said about preserving any idea that’s ever been had in an attempt to, like, increase the biodiversity of the human memepool.  Kind of.  But even asking this question – as a way of getting at whether ideologically motivated lit-crit is a worthwhile enterprise – assumes a couple of pseudo-Kantian arguments that are, I think, demonstrably untrue.  It assumes for one thing that stamping out one instance of an idea is morally equivalent to expunging an idea from society at large… but in fact most ideologically oriented criticism is aimed at ideas that are astonishingly prevalent in society at large, and in no danger of being exterminated.  It also assumes that all ideas make a net contribution to the diversity of the universe of ideas… but this is definitely not true, since the idea “ideas should be stamped out” is, itself, an idea.  Going back to the metaphorical well, one of the best things that people could currently do to encourage biodiversity is figure out a way to exterminate the Geomyces Destructans fungus.  Maybe some ideas are like that.

And even if we accept these universalizing arguments, the situation would not have – or deserve – the moral urgency that attaches to words like “censorship.” (Let alone “thought police.” But again, nobody involved in the original conversation ever did say “thought police.” My mind went there on its own.)

4 Comments on “Once more into the breach on ideological lit-crit, Galactus, and delicious, delicious cookies.”

  1. Jesse M #

    Your point that we need to accept words as they’re intended to be used, at least provisionally, is well-taken, but hard for me to square with some of my big issues with “censorship” arguments. When a company fires somebody for a racist remark made on-air, people routinely call it “censorship,” and this drives me crazy, because calling this behavior “censorship” automatically implies a whole web of implications: that the company is being fascistic, that the speaker is being oppressed, etc etc. That’s why I always fall back on a certain technical definition of censorship at that moment: censorship is the control of speech by authoritarian, coercive force — the type of force upon which the government has a monopoly. A company, on the other hand, has every right to have standards of decency and respect for its employees, and especially for its product — and its product is the speech these employees are generating. The company has every right to fire people who make outrageous, disrespectful, or offensive statements; if there’s anything the market should be discouraging, its outrageous and disrespectful and conflict-causing behavior.

    It’s the basic liberal-democratic idea of government I’m working from, I guess… the government should stand outside the market, providing regulations to prevent abuse, and deterring violence that undercuts social cohesion — i.e. violence without due process. It shouldn’t control speech, except speech that’s clearly intended to incite such violence. But once you’ve given the government its job and its limitations, speech should be subject to the rules of the communities and markets that are affected by it. If some of those markets use non-violent means to punish certain speech acts, then so be it. That’s how we regulate behavior in our morally ambiguous, fuzzy-logic society.

    That said: among all the provocative types of public speech, informed criticism, whether ideologically-oriented or clinically detached, is one of the best types of speech. If people are making strong, intelligibly arguments, I don’t care what side they’re on or how vehement they’re being about their loyalty. What we need to be nervous about is ill-informed criticism, analysis that isn’t aware of its context, critiques that don’t respect basic logical distinctions, etc. That shit just muddies up the discourse, and as people have more access to anonymous forums, they’re more prone to this type of bad rhetoric.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      I have the same issues with censorship arguments that you do – but note that if we really limit ourselves to the technical definition of censorship, it shouldn’t imply all the value judgements that (as you quite rightly say) it does in practice. It’s not just fascist governments that censor, after all, and not everyone who is censored is oppressed in any meaningful way. One can’t defend oneself against charges of censorship by pointing out that there are all kinds of censorship that are morally responsible, or at least reasonable (such as the practice of removing references to troop movements from soldiers’ correspondence during wartime, etc.). Implicit in the charge of censorship is the idea that censorship is evil, and I feel like that needs to be part of our working definition of the term.


  2. frug #

    So three articles that either directly or indirectly deal with Casandra type characters and nobody has mentioned Randy Quaid in Independence Day… for shame. Seriously though, this has been really good stuff. Keep it up.


  3. TG #

    Is the idea that we’d rather imagine that there’s no differene between state/government and the collective will of society – like it’s some sort of ghost that does our will with the magic spell of democracy? So we wilfully delude ourselves that there’s no x-axis on this diagram?

    If you found the way people thought and spoke about this a little irritating on december 1, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling now that cabelgate has busted.


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