Monday, September 29, 2003

Civility and Censors 

I've been gone for months, and loved the seclusion. But it's time to get back and add a little to the terrific work King does. And my start was auspicious: Our campus is starting a discussion of "civility" in academic discourse. It appears that some of the faculty and administration are a bit too delicate for the normal discourse that has gone on, and since in contemporary education it's a major sin to offend someone, they want to muffle what we say on university lists. That one professor used the word 'inane,' for instance, referring to a joke posted by someone else, created a major fuss.

I wrote the note below to go out Friday afternoon to our faculty discussion list. But it hasn't yet gone out, the first time a note of mine hasn't made it. It's probably not censorship -- probably just a ghost in the machine. But it's fun to believe I might have been significant enough to censor. I have a student who joined Peace Corps, went to Russia, and then was told to leave by the KGB. Being censored here isn't in the same league, but it's a start. Anyway, here's my note to the SCSU faculty that didn't make it:

Certainly the desire to censor somebody is a perennially human. Nat Hentoff is about the best author on all of this, and his Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee is worth reading, but its tough to go from desire to application. To want to censor is easy; doing it can be hard.

So we hit questions like who is going to determine what constitutes appropriate speech? And how will they make clear precisely what acceptable speech is? Will there be a word list? Will we not say "inane' any more? If 'inane' is forbidden, I can think of a lot of other words with equal or greater force that will have to be forbidden too; this could be a very long list. I'm glad I don't have to make it up. Or will context be important? Can we say some things or people are inane and others not? Or does who one is matter? A double standard has been pretty clear in the past, so would there be people who we can offend and others we can't? Or, if it's a horrific (can I say that?) thing to offend someone else, will acceptable language depend on the proclivity of others to be offended? And how will this be implemented? Will messages have to go through a screening committee before they are posted? (Boy, would I hate that job, though I doubt there's much danger I would be asked to do it.) Will somebody stop messages from going out and doing all their crushing (can I say that?) damage, or will writers merely be punished afterwards? And, of course, what will the punishment be? What's it worth to have offended somebody else, especially the most fragile among us who are most easily offended?

This list of questions could go on, and very well may. But to be honest my advice is to forget this whole business as soon as possible. Let people talk, and if they say something nasty (can I say that?) to you, either say something nasty back, or get a nasty friend to help you say something nasty back, or -- and this is usually my most preferred course of action -- go home and have a slug or two of good whiskey (can I mention whiskey) and blow the whole thing off (can I say that?). Those who aren't given to good whiskey can surely find an equivalent.