censor, censer, censure

When is it sensible to censure – or censor – something incendiary? Can we not be candid without someone getting burned? At what point does inflammatory speech and the smoke of burning crosses make a more offensive incense than the scent of burning books? For that matter, what is and is not censorship?

Free speech is supposed to be good. Free debate is supposed to give the best marketplace of ideas. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. But sunlight doesn’t dispel poison gas, and a marketplace doesn’t function well when the marketing comes down to who shouts the loudest – or who runs a protection racket. Speech is never truly free; it’s always a matter of how much it costs and who has to pay the price.

Let us suppose that someone ends every public comment with a call for the destruction of a group of people. Should someone intervene? Is this speech that should be allowed, or should it be censored? Does it matter who or where the people are?

Meet Cato the Elder. I won’t give you a picture of him because you can look it up if you want and I wasn’t around to take one myself. Cato was a Roman senator; he lived 243–139 BCE. He is famous for (among other things) ending every speech he made for some time, on whatever topic, with “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam,” which means “Furthermore I recommend that Carthage be destroyed” (or, in a more modern idiom, “Also, destroy Carthage”; the call for the destruction of Carthage has also been quoted with other phrasings, such as “Delenda est Carthago”). Cato was a military man and very protective of Roman history and customs, and Carthage was a city that was an enemy of Rome, but in any event Cato’s call would not have run afoul of the censor – certainly not for as long as Cato himself was the censor, which he was for a time.

In Rome, the censor was an official role. It was no sinecure, rather a social cynosure: the person drew up the census and had supervision of public morals. The title comes from the same verb censeo that we have already seen; it means ‘I recommend’ or ‘I advise’ or ‘I reckon, judge, decree’. It descended to a French verb, censer, which survives in current French only in its past participle, censé, which is used to mean ‘supposed’, as in Il est censé être bon, ‘It’s supposed to be good’.

Over time, the supervision of morals became the office of the Church, and the censor took on the scent of the censer. A censer is an incense burner; incense comes from the same Latin root for burning and shining that gives us incendiaryincandescent, candle, and candid. None of these words are actually related to censor – but censure is. And censure (condemnation) and censorship have long gone hand in hand. But they are not the same thing, not always.

A censor is a third party intervening in the act of communication, such as an official who says whether a publisher may or may not print a book. If I am a willing author and have found a willing publisher, a censor is someone who exerts external authority, or at least decisive pressure, to keep the publisher from publishing my book. If, on the other hand, I ask a publisher to publish my book and the publisher just doesn’t want to publish it, that is not censorship; that is a publisher exercising their prerogative. I can always go to another publisher. If I can’t find a publisher, it’s possible that every one of them is afraid of external response and that there is thus implicit censorship through self-censorship, but it’s also possible that my book just isn’t worth publishing in the reasonable judgment of any publisher. It would be as unreasonable to force a publisher to print it when they didn’t want to as it would be to force them not to print it when they did: it would impair their rights because they would be having to communicate something they didn’t want to, which is just the obverse of not getting to communicate something they did want to.

It does get tricky, of course. While we want to have speech be free and uncensored, we generally recognize that shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre where there is no fire, or making bomb threats at airports, is not a justifiable use of free speech because it may cost lives and will cost a lot of peace of mind and likely money too. We recognize that saying false and injurious things about a person is not justifiable because it unduly costs the person reputation and likely money too. We generally recognize that fomenting opposition to an ethnic or similar group on the basis of false stereotypes is also injurious. If we had a Cato today who, instead of saying “Also, destroy Carthage” said “Also, destroy [name a disadvantaged minority here],” we would be fools not to recognize it as an unacceptably injurious imposition on public discourse.

All speech is action, and some speech engenders further non-speech action. When sticks and stones break my bones, it’s often because someone first called me names that made it seem good to hurt me. All speech also operates to the gain or loss, small or big, in social status or personal effort or money or safety, of everyone involved in the act of communication: speaker, hearers, host, author, reader, publisher – and often of third parties as well. A person who says all speech should be free is a person who has never noticed the cost of their speech because they haven’t had to pay a noticeable amount for it – because other people have been bearing the cost.

And it’s not just individual; there is a public economy of speech and action. The more that speech (or writing, or any communication) enters the public sphere, the more it’s a public gain or loss, and the more we need to be aware of who is gaining and who is losing – and who has how much to gain and how much to lose, and who has already gained or lost how much. Free speech is like free healthcare or free highways: it’s not really free; we’ve just agreed to bear the burden of it publicly. And there are limits to how much my personal health and driving choices can affect others. I can’t demand blood transfusions or organ donations from unconsenting people, and I can’t drive a tank the wrong way down a freeway. I also shouldn’t expect to say whatever I want about whoever I want and expect others to absorb all of the cost.

We have regulations on banks, and laws to prevent theft of money; we also – more in some places than others – have laws to prevent similar thefts in the public discourse, where the esteem and safety of one group is damaged to the advantage of another group, especially when that other group is already much more advantaged. But even where the law does not reach, it is fair to consider how much public support we give to something that operates to the significant and unreasonable cost of one set of people, whether that cost is life or safety or income or even just the ability to be heard.

We have no public office of censor now, or at least we’re not supposed to. The topic generates a lot of smoke. We do still have laws that try to keep speech from having severely imbalanced cost distribution. But a person can say or print many things in many places without running afoul of the law, and not getting the support of a publicly funded platform is not censorship because it does not keep them from saying their piece in another place – without the public endorsement that a public platform would imply. A modern-day Canadian Cato the Elder might or might not be able to end every speech with a call to destroy an enemy state, but his ceterum censeo would be censored or at least censured if it called for the destruction or degradation of a group of citizens. If his candour would snuff out others’ candles, better he be incensed than incendiary.

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