Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Week 26:  Censorship

In his play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” George Bernard Shaw wrote an introduction entitled, “The Author’s Apology,” in response to a critical response to the first performance of the play. The play, which is an indictment of society’s role in the institution of prostitution, faced the threat of censorship by the British government at the dawn of the 20th century. The tongue-in-cheek apology is less an apology for writing about the titillating topic and more about the danger of silencing discussion on matters of societal and moral import.

In his apology, Shaw writes, “All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”

It was a recent CNN interview with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki that called to mind Shaw’s apology. In that interview, Wojcicki said YouTube’s policy is to remove (i.e., censor) any content its censors feel are “problematic” or “medically unsubstantiated.” As I wondered about the medical credentials of YouTube’s censors, which would enable them to understand what is medically substantiated and what is not, she rambled on and answered my question. She said, “Anything that goes against WHO [World Health Organization] recommendations would be a violation of our policy and so remove is another really important part of our policy.”

Ms. Wojcicki deserves credit, I suppose, for having the guts to admit publicly to her company’s active censorship of content, as opposed to the censorship taking place on Facebook, which that company chalks up to a technical glitch in its anti-spam system.

Before going further in our discussion, kind reader, I want to make a brief digression. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The amendment, as it relates to speech and petitioning, is designed to prohibit government censorship of these activities by the people. This is an essential concept – prohibiting government censorship.

In a world, as intended by the Founders, government interaction with and influence on private enterprise would be severely limited. In such a world, companies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would be truly private endeavors and would be at liberty to create and execute their own rules, as they relate to users of their platforms. If YouTube, for example, wanted to ban all content related to free market economists, that would be its right to do so. If Facebook, for example, wanted to ban all content related to Marx and Hegel, that would be its right to do so. We do not, however, live in such a world. Through governmental subsidies, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, social media companies (including YouTube and Facebook) have abrogated their right to independence, vis-à-vis the First Amendment.

Receiving subsidies from the government, companies essentially become agents of the government. It is, in a sense, a soft fascism. But it is that fascist relationship that affords you and me, the taxpaying citizens of the United States, the very reasonable expectation that our rights, as they pertain to our relationship with the government should now pertain to our relationships with companies that receive our support through funds that were taken from us in the form of taxes. Any argument to the contrary, I believe, lacks a sound logical foundation. Nevertheless, it is always an intellectual delight to entertain and thoughtfully consider contrary positions.

If my positions meets with your approval, it makes sense that these social media providers should be guarantors to their “community” members of their rights to free speech. In other words, censorship should be anathema to the “community,” and these platforms (e.g., YouTube, Facebook) should not engage in any form of censorship. Once they do, they prostitute themselves to the powers and/or governments that would seek to control the people.

Here endeth the political digression against social media purveyors engaging in censorship. There is, however, a practical argument against such censorship. Censorship stifles innovation, or “progress” as Shaw described it.

Remember that, in the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras determined that the Earth was round, an idea that would be met with skepticism until the late 15th century when Columbus sailed to the New World.

Remember that, in 1633, Galileo’s promotion of heliocentrism was condemned by the Roman Inquisition, and in addition to house arrest for the rest of his life, his works were prohibited from being published, to which attests their inclusion in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a listing of works deemed heretical by the principal power of the day – the church.

Remember that, in the 1850s, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory began a paradigm shift that would impact the treatment of disease. It, too, was scoffed at and rejected by many, including those in the established hierarchies of the medical and scientific professions.

Remember that, in 1859, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” putting forth the theory of natural selection, which challenged the established belief that species were brought forth in their current state and had not changed for millennia. The so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” was one case in which the theory of evolution was litigated, made famous in the movie, “Inherit the Wind.”

These are but a few examples of major scientific breakthroughs that came from outside the scientific establishment. Contemporaries of these great thinkers did all they could to silence them. Part of the reason for silencing dissenters and innovative thinkers is that it threatens those in power who hold beliefs that benefit themselves. New thinkers may herald a loss of power to those in power, and that very power is often a source of wealth. Contrary ideas are harbingers of destruction for monopolies of thought.

When one contemplates power, control and monopolies of thought, organizations like the WHO, in which people like Wojcicki place so much faith, come to mind. In many ways, the WHO supersedes like agencies in the sovereign nations of the world, such as the NIH, FDA and CDC in the United States. The WHO represents in every conceivable way the establishment. Like the multinational corporations that cause fear and anger among so many, the WHO is a multinational organization. Unlike multinational corporations, which are effectively kept in check by other corporations, organizations like NATO, the UN, and its subsidiaries, like WHO, have no competitors to keep them in check. They are monopolies.

The only real checks to such organizations are you and me, the people of the nations of the Earth. The various physicians and scientists, who have questioned the global response to COVID-19 and who have offered alternate approaches to addressing the pandemic, have been the casualties in the battle for debate and for discussion of competing ideas. Social media, particularly YouTube and Facebook, have been actively removing content that challenges the establishment.

Are we to believe that the only physician-scientists capable of saving us from the virus are at the CDC or WHO? A simple search reveals that these organizations are rife with corruption. This is not to say that all individuals in these organizations are corrupt, but rather to say that the leaders in these organizations have vested interests in satisfying their benefactors, benefactors whose interests lie in aggrandizing their power and wealth. I’ll forego further discussion on this point, mindful of the fact that I may be labeled a conspiracist.

Are the ideas of the establishment (i.e., the approaches to addressing COVID-19) so fragile that they cannot withstand open debate or the challenge of alternate ideas? Are the “community” members so doltish that they cannot read and evaluate competing ideas? If the answer to either question is “yes,” humanity is in a grave situation indeed.

We have abdicated our ability – and I would say our duty – to engage in rational thought to a host of unknown content editors employed by social media giants. We have permitted our right to free speech and protest to be abridged. In effect, we have may as well have stabbed Pythagoras in the bean field, condemned Galileo to a life of house arrest, rejected the life-saving work of Pasteur, and branded Darwin a heretic.

Be it the government directly, or indirectly through surrogates like YouTube and Facebook, censorship threatens humanity’s progress. It threatens innovation. It threatens our very lives. As we move through the summer and into the fall and its election, let us consider who will support free expression and who will censor even one citizen’s voice. After all, if one can be silenced, all can be silenced.

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