The Uses (and Abuses) of Censorship

Censorship is often hurled as a term of abuse, implying intellectual blindness and dogmatism. But could censorship be much more ubiquitous, and benign, than we realise?


We are in the midst of a big debate about censorship. Why is it valuable? Why harmful? What’s the difference between governments censoring citizens and citizens censoring each other? What role should be played in society by censorship, and what role by the negative spaces it leaves: ‘free speech’, ‘free thought’ and ‘freedom of assembly’?

We are accustomed to using ‘censorship’ to refer to governments imposing punishments on people for publishing certain collections of words or images, or governments simply preventing them from doing so in the first place. Somehow, it’s become received wisdom that this is wrong, but it’s worth stepping back and looking at the root of the term ‘censorship’. When we do, we notice that censorship may not just be a normal activity of government, but as a category is virtually indistinguishable from the well-established right of the state to limit freedom.

If someone is censorious about x, they disapprove of x. The term says nothing about what specific activities a person needs to carry out, to count as disapproving of x in the way that makes them count as ‘censorious’. But censoriousness is more than just a state of mind: it disposes the censor to carry out the action of censoring something. If I’m unwilling to commit an act, I can’t really be said to have the attitude to want to commit the act. If I’m unwilling to make an effort to prevent something, it makes no sense for me to claim I disapprove of it.

What does it mean for someone to censor x? If individuals can disapprove of objects, actions, or events, then they can be censorious and thus seek to censor. Censorship isn’t confined to institutions.

If I censor x, I try to stop it – from existing, from happening, from being done. This is also the main function of the state, and the laws it upholds.

If x is an action, I censor it by trying to stop others from performing it. But even if it’s an object I don’t want to exist (let’s say, poison gas), or an event I don’t want to happen (for example, an explosion), the way I would stop it is by stopping others from using or creating the poison gas.

So the most fundamental kind of censorship is censorship of actions.

Once we realise this, we’re only one step from seeing that censorship is the most fundamental government activity. No censorship, no governments. Furthermore, it becomes clear that distinctions between some kinds of government prevention, and what many consider as ‘censorship’, are essentially meaningless.

What are governments for? Sometimes an action is so wrong we think it appropriate to use force like the police, or the military, to discourage people from doing it. We make laws to express and teach our deepest moral beliefs. Governments are the institution we set up to enforce those laws. Some political theorists have tried to deny this, by claiming that governments don’t exist to enact a particular moral vision, but just to keep the peace between people as they are left to live according to their own moral vision.

This is incoherent. The most libertarian “night-watchman” government is still enforcing moral beliefs about the value of peace, and other prerequisites for the liberal’s understanding of ‘freedom’, such as ‘property rights’ or ‘bodily autonomy’. In other words, the most libertarian government still fundamentally exists for the purposes of censorship: to ‘censor’ slavery, theft, and so on because they offend the moral character of the political community.

There are two other kinds of censorship, both of which follow straightforwardly from the censorship of actions.

The simplest way to censor an action is to put people in prison if we think they are likely to do the action. But we don’t do this because we can’t know in advance whether they really will do the action. Why does that matter? Well, one of the moral beliefs we want our government to express in enforcing laws is that innocent people shouldn’t be taken prisoner. We don’t censor actions by imprisoning people we think might be likely to do them.

Instead, we censor actions by deterring people, using the threat of imprisonment, or other unpleasant outcomes like fines. Our method of censoring the action is to affect their thoughts and plans – to prevent them from doing it by discouraging them.

More generally, if what governments do is censor actions, and it’s OK for them to censor actions by discouraging people from carrying out those actions, then it’s OK for governments to engage in two more kinds of censorship, as part of that discouragement.

One way in which people can be encouraged to carry out an action is by their imaginations being exposed to it frequently. I was a teenager growing up in the UK before we banned smoking in public indoor places. Before I took up smoking, I didn’t know how enjoyable it was. I had some discouragement from teachers, so was disinclined to. But as I saw people around me smoke, and I saw smoking represented in fiction, it seemed more and more like a normal thing to do. So eventually I tried it out, and enjoyed it for the next ten years.

But even activities against which we have strong intuitive revulsion can become attractive when we are sufficiently desensitized to them. Consider the well-studied effects on the sexual tastes of those who watch porn. Neither pornographic videos, nor cigarette advertising, make arguments that hurting women or inhaling smoke are good ideas. They influence our actions just by representing the action to us, many times; particularly when the action is represented as morally acceptable or desirable.

So the second kind of censorship is censorship of representations. The umbrella for this sort of censorship in the UK, where the actions being represented are sexual, is “obscenity law”. Of course, we might change our minds about the morality of the acts being represented; and so change our minds about what representations should be censored. But that’s not an argument against censorship of representations in general. The same goes for blasphemy laws – if society expresses in its laws the wrongness of contempt for God, then it makes perfect sense to censor representations of such contempt, as part of the strategy for discouraging that wrong act. If society changes its mind about whether contempt for God is wrong, it will presumably change its mind about whether censoring blasphemy is worthwhile. The reason for not having blasphemy laws is presumably that we don’t think contempt for God is wrong enough to express that wrongness in law; not that censorship of representations in general is a mistake.

Just as we use the threat of punishing the act to discourage people from doing the act, we prevent or punish the publication of representations of the act for the same reason. Obscenity and blasphemy laws follow from the same principles which support having any laws at all.

The third kind of censorship is the one which is controversial today: censorship of arguments for an act. Just like representations, concepts or reasons can affect how likely someone is to carry out an action. So if we want to censor that action – prevent people from doing it – it only makes sense to prevent people from making public arguments on behalf of that action. There are easy and obvious cases of this, such as incitement to specific acts of violence, or conspiracy to murder.

But the principle applies more widely. Suppose a mob are moved to lynch a black man, Joe, by the following argument: (1) black men are more likely to rape women than white men; (2) some man raped this woman; (3) therefore, it’s more likely that a black man raped her than a white man; (4) there’s only one black man, Joe, in town; (5) lynching is the proper punishment for rape.

To help prevent such lynchings, a government could help prevent people from following this line of reasoning, by preventing some of the premises from being aired. If fewer people hear a premise, it follows that fewer people will believe it, and be motivated by the reasoning involving it. Now, it would be pointless for a government to legislate so as to prevent premises like (2) and (4) from being published – people would believe these anyway. And (3) just follows from (1) and (2). But if government could prevent the publication of (1) and (5), fewer people would be persuaded to lynch Joe. Perhaps so few would be persuaded that Joe could ultimately survive.

So we can see that censorship of arguments is just as normal and necessary a part of discouraging wrongdoing as the other two kinds, direct censorship of actions by threat of sanction for acting, and censorship of encouraging representations.

At our place in intellectual history, we will be familiar with some arguments against the second two kinds of censorship. Unfortunately, these arguments are terrible. Censorship of representation is sometimes attacked on the ground that artists have to experiment, and censorship of argument on the ground that ‘truth’ can only be found in a chaotic and ungoverned churn. But the point of art is to celebrate beauty; and depictions of wrong actions in ways that does not manifest their wrongness will be disordered, and so ugly.

Regardless of the inconsistencies in the argument from truth, it is also an empirical claim, that history shows to be false. Perhaps two of the most infamous censorship regimes in our cultural memory are those of medieval Islamic and Catholic monarchies. But the sciences and arts flourished under such regimes, hindered only by lack of material resources and being practiced at an earlier stage of technological development.


Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Cambridge.

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2 thoughts on “The Uses (and Abuses) of Censorship

  1. I agree with your general point that censorship can sometimes be justified (advocates of free speech often take an absolutionist stances that imply European countries with hate speech laws should be dystopian hellholes), but unfortunately your arguments are terrible. Did you link to On Liberty without reading it? Censoring truths is pretty obviously bad, but while censoring falsehoods can have positive first-order effects it can ultimately increase their power by the Streisand effect, and also deprives opposing truths of worthy opponents which weakens them. Censorship by powerful entities also requires a lot of faith in their abilities to distinguish false/dangerous ideas from true/useful ones.

    Your point about monarchies is interesting, but I don’t think it’s correct. The most memorable state censors are those of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. That science and art flourished under religious censorship is irrelevant; we have better examples to look at.


  2. I think what I’ve written here sidesteps empirical claims about what censorship would have what effects – it’s more about clarifying the principle that there isn’t something categorically special about it, as a form of government action.

    Then we can move the conversation into the more interesting terrain of whether some action of censorship is actually likely to have the effect, in this case, that critics suppose it will have – rather than mindless appeals to principles. Granted, I didn’t engage much with arguments for those principles which are supposed to establish them as dominating other considerations in any case – mainly because I take readers to be familiar with them. I also don’t think they are arguments for principles which *dominate* other considerations in the way they’re often taken to. ‘Free speech’, ‘free thought’ and ‘free association’ are umbrellas for various more concrete goods which should indeed be weighed against the good to be achieved by any act of censorship.

    But if you look at On Liberty you’ll find that the arguments are of the form “if we violate the principle, then this consequence will generally occur”. They’re empirical predictions.

    On the one hand Mill’s predictions are vague enough, and history is complicated enough, that it’s hard to show whether they have been met or whether they have failed. Were 20th Century communist dictatorships scientifically backward mainly because of censorship? Hard to say; too much else going on. (Not clear that Nazi Germany was scientifically backward. Sure, there was plenty of woo about race which plausibly depended on the state censoring dissent to survive, but there’s plenty of woo about race, inter alia, in our society too.)

    On the other hand, all predictions assume a ‘ceteris paribus’ or ‘under normal conditions’ qualification. So all you have to do when you advocate a policy of a type which so-and-so predicts will have such-and-such consequences, is to show that in this particular instance it won’t – either because of details of the situation, or because of details of the policy, perhaps especially designed to prevent such-and-such from happening in this case.


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