Censorship We Will Always Have With Us

There’s probably a sense in which this is a continuation of Is Philosophy for Private Gardens?

Most people are not equipped to deal with hearing contradictory opinions on fundamental subjects. Once you accept that, a great deal of human history makes sense, and especially recent reactions to a free-for-all in which everyone became allowed to trumpet their opinions into the public sphere. And if you don’t think that this is new, recall that for most of its history blasphemy was a punishable offense in the United States. And in fact this was most of the world for most of its history. Publicly proclaiming what the ruling powers found offensive was illegal to various degrees in most places and most times.

Of course, this has never meant that offensive opinions weren’t held, simply that they tended to go underground. But going underground poses a problem, because how do people who don’t already know that they share a view share that view?

They came up with ways to communicate subtly.

That is to say, they got around censorship laws by not being explicit. They did things like write out the argument but left the conclusion unstated. Or they talked about parallel situations. I’m told that this is a popular approach in China—when one wants to criticize the Chinese government, one writes a historical drama in which the villain is doing the same thing as the present government. Since China has a very long history, one can find a suitable bit of real history for almost any narrative, I’ve heard, and since the present government holds itself to be in distinction to the previous dynasties, it’s not in a great place to complain about depicting how awful the previous governments which the present government overthrew were.

Getting around censorship is of course a neutral thing; it has been used by heretics to spread lies to undermine truth as well as by saints to spread the truth to undermine lies. That is to say, it’s just a tool. So I think as society degenerates further, it’s a tool very much worth studying.

In service of which, here are a few elements of avoiding censorship which seem to be useful:

  1. Don’t argue directly with the powerful. It attracts their attention. It also makes them assume everything you say is against them.
  2. Make your arguments without stating your conclusion. Someone intelligent enough to understand how the conclusion follows from the argument is intelligent enough to supply what the conclusion actually is. Those who aren’t will get no benefit from the argument anyway. But the unintelligent oppressors won’t realize what you’re saying.
  3. Talk more about first principles than about specifics. This can be over-done, but if you can win people over on first principles the specifics will be relatively easy. If they’re not won over on first principles, they’re not likely to be persuaded on specifics. If a man doesn’t first love God, it’s pointless to argue with him about loving his fellow man.

Nothing is foolproof, of course. #2 was, as I understand it, the approach used by Averroes, but unfortunately for him Al-Ghazali understood and exposed him. Still, I think that these things are worth bearing in mind and developing further, the more dangerous it becomes to be explicit.

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