Monday, September 8, 2008

Stanley Fish: there is real censorship, and then there is “judgment”

Stanley Fish, always interesting, is annoyed with Salman Rushdie who Fish calls a “self-appointed poster boy” for the First Amendment.

“This time he’s not standing up for free expression on his own behalf, but on behalf of another author, Sherry Jones, whose debut novel about the prophet Muhammad’s child bride had been withdrawn by Random House after consultants warned that its publication “could incite racial conflict.”

[…] “Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

“Rushdie and the pious pundits think otherwise because they don’t quite understand what censorship is. Or, rather, they conflate the colloquial sense of the word with the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts. In the colloquial sense, censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences ….

“It is censorship when Germany and other countries criminalize the professing or publication of Holocaust denial. (I am not saying whether this is a good or a bad idea.) ….

“Key to these instances is the fact that (1) it is the government that is criminalizing expression and (2) that the restrictions are blanket ones. That is, they are not the time, manner, place restrictions that First Amendment doctrine traditionally allows; they apply across the board. You shall not speak or write about this, ever. That’s censorship.”


Technically, I agree with Professor Fish here about what State censorship is and what private judgment is. Random House has the legal right to publish or not publish whatever it judges it should or should not publish. A few years back Random House contracted to publish David Irving’s biography of Josef Goebbels and changed its mind under pressure from Jewish activists. That was not State censorship. It was an act of judgment based on the fear of adverse consequences.

The purpose of censorship is to keep certain opinions and information from public view. In this respect, the “judgment” of private companies operating in fear of adverse consequences is parallel with the legal judgment of the State which censors because of its own fear of adverse consequences. One fears the loss of income, the other the loss of power. Both, as expressed through either State or “colloquial” censorship, are destructive of liberty and intellectual freedom.

Salman Rushdie has his finger on something very important here, something Professor Fish may be too arrogant to want to understand. Fish writes that “It is censorship when Germany and other countries criminalize the professing or publication of Holocaust denial,” but he does not want to say “whether this is a good or a bad idea.”

German State censorship of revisionist arguments and the imprisonment of those who make them is despicable. It is despicable in the colloquial sense as well when we see that Stanley Fish will not say it is despicable because, I can only suppose, in his judgment he risks writing something he fears might have “adverse consequences.”

Censorship in America is not driven by the State, yet it is pervasive—in the colloquial, everyday sense. It is self-censorship driven by the fear of “adverse consequences,” a fear based in very real circumstances. If Professor Fish were to tell us whether German State censorship of revisionist arguments is a “good or bad idea,” and why, rather than using his judgment to evade the issue, we would have something interesting to talk about. Either way.

Self-censorship. The American professorial class leads the way.

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