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17 May 2010 @ 09:23 am
Writer's Block: This material has been censored  
Do you think the government should have the right to censor the media? If you're generally against censorship, are there any circumstances under which you feel it might be warranted?

Do you think the government should have the right to censor the media? If you're generally against censorship, are there any circumstances under which you feel it might be warranted?

Unca Bob had this one down:

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, "This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know," the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything—you can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.

—Robert Anson Heinlein, "If This Goes On—" (1940)

That, by the way, is from a short novel about a Fundamentalist takeover of the United States after a "backwoods preacher" is elected President in 2012.1

Heinlein also said, "The whole principle is wrong; it's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't eat steak."

Now, Unca Bob, especially in the second quote, was talking about what Wikipedia calls moral censorship2, the suppression of speech that some individuals might find offensive or immoral; that is, in my estimation, subtly different from military censorship.

It is the opinion of Your Obedient Serpent that both "moral" and "military" censorship are always wrong; however, there are instances when the latter might be less bad than the alternatives. A Fully Transparent Government would not have survived World War II, and the most likely replacement had even less regard to such niceties.

It's a key part of my ethical system, however, that being forced to do bad things to avoid worse consequences does not make them good things; when you allow yourself to frame the kind of secrecy and suppression practiced in WWII as "good", you take the first step on the slippery slope that justifies political censorship, and all the cover-ups and black projects that burden us today.

I also don't automatically equate industry ratings systems as "censorship", although the MPAA has certainly demonstrated that they can be arbitrary and putative, and big studios, finding that "General Audience" films are often ignored, often tack extra nude scenes or coarse language to get an otherwise-acceptable movie out of the "kiddie ghetto"—an ironic kind of anti-censorship. Marvel Comics has implemented an entirely functional ratings system for their comics, however; while most adult comic readers are wholly unaware that Marvel even has one, the discreet little letter codes in the UPC symbol box provide a useful guide to parents looking for suitable reading material for their children, and comic store workers attempting to assist them.

I could go on, but I expect these opinions to get thoroughly Disassembled in the comments. I haven't even touched on the idea of "hate crimes" yet.

1The same timeline has a well-established Lunar colony at this point; grumbling about only getting the crappy parts of future histories may now commence.

2Wikipedia distinguishes between "moral" and "religious" censorship; please pardon me if I consider that to be hair-splitting.

Darkwulfjdarkwulf on May 17th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree with your assessment of military censorship being "less bad", though still not good. As easy as sharing information is these days, it is fairly vital that the enemy not know what you are doing, but it is even more crucial that your own people are always aware of what you have done.

Edited at 2010-05-17 04:54 pm (UTC)
Corsethgalis on May 17th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
Agreement on the military censorship issue. The key is for the people involved to recognize and admit that it's happening, and recognize that it is not an ideal state of affairs.

"Unfortunately we cannot let you publish this information for interests of national security" is not the worst option. It acknowledges that it is being censored deliberately, so it keeps it 'available' in a sense. It needs to be remembered by those involved that this is a less than ideal solution to meet a current situation and when the situation changes the solution should be re-examined as well. Surprisingly little needs to fall in this category too; military/security plans, formations, supply, projects, etc usually have nothing to do with the mechanics and dealings of the government.

Any other kind of censorship to me is totally unacceptable. Sure, there are sometimes consequences for what you say and you have to own up to them, but threats of violence are not acceptable responses to a person's opinion or statements. Legal consequences should only occur for /deliberate/ falsehoods meant to cause immediate damage (IE, the classic 'yelling fire in a theater', slander/libel, etc), and we already have them covered by law.

Moral censorship is the worst because it has no easily defined boundaries. What counts as sufficiently offensive, and to whom? Details of nuclear weapon locations is a single compartmentalized bit of information, and slander/libel is a deliberate attempt to do damage to a specific person through falsehoods. 'Offensive' speech on the other hand, may be opinion, may be fact, and whether or not its offensive at all depends on the 'viewer'.
Leodrleo on May 17th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
The thing about "military censorship" is that its effective window is short, and so that eventually whatever is suppressed should be brought to light, at which point the decision to censor in the first place can be examined in hindsight, and inform future policy decisions on such things -- and censure those who overstep. That's the theory, anyway. What bothers me is how "national security" has become this trump card to suppress things indefinitely.
silussa on May 17th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
I've never quite figured out why doing something because you hate something or someone is worse then if you don't; it's still illegal. Besides, reading minds is an area that makes me queasy when the government tries to do it.

Heck, I have enough trouble reading emotions, and I have a lot more practice at it then almost any government bureaucrat, I'm sure.
Your Obedient Serpent: cronkiteathelind on May 17th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
Reductio Ad Absurdium
I'm going to pick a deliberately extreme example, because I'm not trying to draw any firm lines in what has to be a fuzzy model: I'm just trying to establish the point that Motive Matters.

A truck plows through a red light, smashing through a busload of nuns and orphans, crippling the few who aren't killed outright.

Did the truck's brakes fail, or did the driver hate Catholics?

I say there's a big honking huge difference between those situations.

Nuns and orphans too much? Fine. There's also a difference between spray-painting "♥ Billy + Sally ♥" on the side of a 7-11 and painting "DIE JUDEN SCUM ☠☠☠☠" on the side of a Kosher deli.

Edited at 2010-05-17 06:49 pm (UTC)
Kymrikymri on May 17th, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Reductio Ad Absurdium
That's a false dichotomy, unfortunately. The two cases are very different, but a more accurate take on the 'motive matters' version is:

Did the driver hate Catholics, or just want to kill some people, and thus did it on purpose?

In that case, the question stands, as to if a hate crime is 'worse' because of motive. In the initial question, if the truck's brakes failed, clearly it's not the truck driver's fault (unless he didn't maintain the truck properly and that was his responsibility, but then we're getting into more and more abstraction that has less and less to do with the actual point).

While I'm all for 'hate crimes' generally being punished, the truth is that the second part of the phrase is the key.

Beating someone to death because you're psychotic is no better (or worse) than beating someone to death because you don't like the color of the scarf they've drawn from the box this go-round. (Of course here there's some question as to if the second example is any less psychotic than the first, but still chosen to be deliberately arbitrary rather than bringing any real potential hate-crime target into the discussion).

Also, I'm at work and unmotivated.
Moral Explorernotthebuddha on May 18th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
Re: Reductio Ad Absurdium
It depends on your stand on thought crimes, I think. Attempted murder, criminal conspiracy, whatever they call the principle that makes all parties to a felony jointly responsible for any offenses or negligence the others may commit in the course of their separate apprehensions, and all the sting operation "crimes" where there was no actual contraband or minors involved. Those are examples of motives and presumed motives that make innocuous actions into crimes, so motives might as well make criminal actions into worse crimes.
lyttlebyrdlyttlebyrd on May 17th, 2010 08:07 pm (UTC)
*waves* hi! I'm jirris and mordena's friend... I added you a while back. Anyhow,

I like the second quote you use. It puts perfectly into words what I feel as well. Of course,Heinlein has a way with words ;)
Bobyourbob on May 17th, 2010 08:13 pm (UTC)
I think I'm with y'all on this. "Necessary" duration is the only censorship I can even begin to excuse.

An I agree that ratings are not censorship, except in the high end of the MPAA, perhaps it comes close (the potential X rating that only "special" theaters will allow). I realize they're not technically making it unavailable, the theater owners are.

Musing here: I wonder if there'd be a market for a "non-porn" X-rated or not-rated movie house. I know some art-houses do that, but I've not paid much attention to actual ratings since I turned 18. Once I get back to a blue state, maybe I'll look into that. Just as a matter of interest.
Kymrikymri on May 17th, 2010 08:33 pm (UTC)
Art-house films will often get NR or an NC-17 rating (since the MPAA doesn't issue an 'X' rating, partially in an effort to move away from the perception that any rating past R is pornography).

Films have, in the past, been made without the intent to be porn, and gotten NC-17 ratings. They almost never do even remotely as well as they might have otherwise; there's a huge restriction in market (that is not censorship) when that happens as most major theater chains and video rental stores have policies that won't let them carry NC-17 rated films. In addition, WalMart certainly won't carry it!

It's a multi-faceted issue without a clear cause or a simple solution: while it's likely that there is a market for non-pornographic NC-17 rated films, it would be very difficult to demonstrate or prove. A Clockwork Orange received an X rating (this was before the change to NC-17, obviously) in the mid 1970s.

Since most of the distribution channel for films won't touch something that's not rated R or below, most production companies won't make a film that doesn't get an MPAA rating of R or less. In fact, Warner Brothers digitally inserted additional figures into the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut to obscure some of what was going on in order to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The result is that while art-house theaters will often show films that are unrated or NC-17, those films are almost the exclusive realm of the independent or 'art' film productions, and almost never the result of something backed by a major studio in a major way, and so they suffer the double-whammy of a limited distribution channel and necessarily VASTLY smaller promotional budgets (often three or four orders of magnitude smaller than the budget that will be spent publicizing something like Avatar or Iron Man or The Dark Knight).

(Oh, and the less said about Showgirls, the better.)
Bobyourbob on May 17th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
My apologies for the brain-ft that forgot the switch to "NC-17" (which is "so much better" than X [sarcasm at the marketing ploy mine]). I was aware, when I'm awake, of all the examples you cite. I continue to think the MPAA NC-17 rating is rather effective censorship. If it weren't, the studios wouldn't need to try to R their NC films.

I don't believe the government is the only body that can censor things - having studios so scared of Walmart and having theater owners so scared of "insert moral police org here" that they won't consider having an NC-17 rated film is a rather strong form of censorship. Ostensibly it may be called market-driven, but there's a big difference between "we won't carry" and "no one will buy".
Kymrikymri on May 17th, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC)
I would certainly agree on the censorship issue, but since it isn't government censorship it's a much trickier subject.

While it sucks that WalMart refuses to carry something and thus it is less likely to exist at all, it's difficult to come up with a better argument against that behavior than 'that could be censorship!' because it is equally possible (in fact, probably more likely) that it's just sound business practices.

For all we know, the cost of carrying 'smut' (which is not what I believe these things to be) in more conservative areas might well be a significant backlash and hit to the revenue. Of course, it might not matter at all, but that's what makes the issue so tricky.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 17th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
I think it's absolutely untested if a "fully transparent government" would have survived WWII. (And, y'know, Godwin's law, I should add.) I think that pretty much the same thing would have happened, regardless of our transparency. The Axis powers lost because they didn't have the personnel or resources to do what they were trying to do.

I also know that Nazi science was so incredibly dogmatic that even if they had been reading each and every paper written by Allied scientists they would not have been free to implement them - especially the stuff written by Jews. There are exhaustive examples of Nazi scientists not following productive lines of research because they were tainted wit Jewry. But beyond that, the Allied nations would have been doing scientific progress even faster without so much research being state secrets. It wouldn't have just been some guys in Berkeley and MIT and Oak Ridge working on the bomb - it would have been every physicist with an interest in kicking German ass. It would have been group-sourced to use modern vernacular. I think that the pace of technological invention during WWII (which actually fell off during the wartime period, contrary to popular opinion, largely because of the imposition of state secrecy on a bunch of stuff) would have been so much higher and faster than any other power that the fact the Axis powers would have had access to some Allied research would have been rendered irrelevant (and after a certain point, even having access to that research would have been irrelevant without the technological and educational infrastructure to do anything with it).

Of course, that's just an opinion. But so is the idea that a transparent government is somehow more vulnerable to tyrannical conquest. There is no proof, though it is clear that free societies generate technological advances much faster than tyrannical societies, even in those areas where information flows freely across borders (like with much of science). I can't think of a single tyrannical nation - even China - whose technology matches democratic republics with a lot of personal freedoms even in those areas where information travels freely. So I will say that I believe the evidence is to the contrary to the idea that military secrecy is necessary.

Or, really, any kind of secrecy at all. Secrecy does not work.
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
Much of World War 2 was won via code-breaking and deception. The pacific war was won primarily at Midway, and Normandy would not have been possible without secrets.

It is not worth the bloodbath that it would be to the soldiers who fight, to make military movements, supply and deployment public knowledge. There's very little domestic gain to that (what possible use against domestic tyranny would it have been had the US citizens known the date and target of the Normandy landing?) and very real risk to the troops.

Fortunately, this is a very compartmentalized area of knowledge. You don't need to share direct military matters, and military technology; these issues have almost no bearing on the sorts of domestic information control that can lead to tyranny. Now, not saying you're at war at ALL, that'd be different. But there are things that the public legitimately has no need to know in advance.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 18th, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
That's a narrative that I don't think has too much basis in fact. The Japanese lost not because of code-breaking but because they had less industrial capacity than the Allies. The code-breaking was a fairly minor issue compared to the overwhelming advantage of the Allied, particularly the US, capabilities.

But beyond all of that - what you are offering as evidence is just assertion. As I said, it's never been tried - it's just taken to be axiomatically true. Why?

For instance, it's quite easy to demonstrate where untested secret intelligence has been disastrously in error - like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When discussing this subject, everyone points to the perceived successes - like the code-breaking - while forgetting the numerous disasters that arose because of the tendency for secret intelligence to be . . . well, wrong. No one remembers the disasters caused by the use of secret intelligence while praising the "successes". That's pretty unfair, if you ask me.
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 04:10 am (UTC)
Those are two entirely different types of information, though.

Seriously, do you REALLY believe that complete disclosure of troop information would NOT drastically increase US casualties? That seems pretty crazy to me - and what benefit does sharing that information give? No basis in fact? Can you imagine the Normandy landing if Germany's primary forces in the region had not been diverted miles and miles away from the landing zone, given how bloody the landing already was, because we helpfully publicized where we were going to land?

That's hardly the same thing as the results of weapon investigations, without even going into the political bias on the information that's come from there.

My point is there's a few things that it's okay to keep secret. Not everything, not most things, but I can certainly think of a few things. Can you come up with a good reason to publicize the specific things I've mentioned in advance?
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
I meant to add, compare to Vietnam (and Rolling Thunder), where we tended to disclose air operations ahead of time as an attempt at political pressure, and had a great deal of trouble with the targets being suddenly fortified or gone when the attacks came.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 18th, 2010 04:29 am (UTC)
Except . . . the military didn't listen to the people who were critical of those operations. A lot of people knew that Vietnam was a horrible idea and made a lot of predictions that came true - and the military consistently ignored them. Which, if you're going to ignore all the advantages of public information, might be cause not to make that information public in the first place . . .

The military, of course, still ignores everyone outside of their club. What happened in Iraq and Afghanistan were not only predictable but were predicted.
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
This is very ignorant of what actually happened in Vietnam. I don't mean to be harsh here, but that's flat out wrong. The /military/ itself was one of the biggest detractors of plans like Rolling Thunder, yet they carried them out anyway because they were ordered too. These plans were drafted /by civilians/ who were attempting to micromanage the military from the outside.

Generally, very few people will have anything meaningful to add to the process, because most people do not understand it in the slightest. This is not a knock to them, simply reality - having public debate guide a surgeon would not produce better surgeries, because most people are not qualified to be surgeons. In fact you'd kill a ton of people through indecisive waffling and arguing while crippling the ability of the person who KNOWS what to do - the surgeon - to act. THIS is what happened in Vietnam.

The same is true of military plans. The public is not going to have the training or knowledge to make useful decisions on deployments and the like. They need to know who we're at war with certainly - secret wars would be a horrible thing, but trying to publically manage every soldier is a huge mistake and just sets him up to be a human target.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 18th, 2010 05:00 am (UTC)
That's incorrect. Johnson was pressured into Rolling Thunder by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Johnson initially opposed giant bombing programs as being liable to draw the Chinese and/or Russians into direct conflict with the US but the Joint Chiefs pressured him into it because the more targeted bombing campaigns weren't "working". Indeed, your are mischaracterizing Vietnam. Militarily? Uh, we won that. Of course we did. It was a one-sided fight. However, conquering a country always leaves the question of "what next?" The US was driven out of Vietnam because it was a nasty, imperialist war and they had been fighting for their freedom for eighty years and weren't going to stop unless we were willing to kill them all. Which, thankfully, we weren't. But the military did not lose in Vietnam. Indeed, we pulled out after we had conquered the whole country! All of it! Oh, sure, then the corrupt and stupid government that we supported instantly collapsed, because support for the communists were about eighty percent, which was the root of the problem - that the government that we wanted there was nothing like what the Vietnamese wanted. But militarily? They never had any chance to beat us, and they didn't. However, it's clear you're now arguing tangential points. You're saying that Vietnam was war by consensus and we "lost" it, when the truth is that Vietnam was a war badly managed by both the civilian and military administrations that we militarily won but lost because the conditions of victory had no relationship to the situation on the ground - that the US had no moral mandate to be fighting the war in the first place. Lots of people predicted what would happen in Vietnam and no one listened. What I'm saying is . . . maybe the military should start to listen and stop relying on impossible to judge secret information that seems to always get us cocked up big time. Which was definitely the case in Vietnam. The war was started on false pretenses and fought on false pretenses, so it's hardly surprising it was a disaster. Vietnam doesn't refute my point, it demonstrates it.
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
This is totally false. The JC's initial plan was not rolling thunder, that was JOHNSON's plan. You have it backwards ;) Even a quick wikipedia has that info, complete with source references: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Rolling_Thunder#Implementation
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 05:12 am (UTC)
Actually I think I see how you came to that conclusion. 'Pressured into it' means he was pressured into letting them start under the constraints he put into place. Of course the operation was military conceived, because the president can't draw military plans, but it was done so under the list of guidelines Johnson pushed down on them that formed the framework of Rolling Thunder. Which is why I say it was Johson's plan (IE, if I tell you to go to the store to buy a soda, but you can't ride vehicles with wheels, must walk backwards and hop on one foot, but you can take any route you like, then if you're caught hopping backwards on one foot, you'd be quite fair to say that was my plan regardless of what road you were on ;) )
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 18th, 2010 04:24 am (UTC)
Well, you brought up the code-breaking, so now I feel you're moving the goalposts a bit - but I expected someone to bring up the battle plans argument, so I'm not precisely defenseless. ;)

I dislike talking about WWII because . . . it's such an emotionally charged subject. If I say, "I think if the invasion of Normandy were public information, a lot of problems that existed with the invasion could have been avoided because there could have been a robust discussion of the flaws of the invasion - of which there were many - creating a far better invasion than the one we actually had", it will likely be dismissed because the narrative concerning Normandy is so powerful that realistic discussion of it is nearly impossible. Which is, I think, why you're bringing that up and not, say, the Bay of Pigs or even the invasion of Iraq (which was definitely hurt because of the reliance on secret information). (Also, I am not terribly qualified to discuss Normandy - I haven't read anything about WWII for, oh, decades, now, and while I know there were all kinds of fuck-ups because of bad planning, I can't recall them off the top of my head, so framing the conversation in that light might just expose my ignorance of the specifics of that military action.)

But the reason you'd be open about even invasion plans is because secret information is bad. Because it is secret, it is seen only by a very small number of people, often people who have very little on-the-ground knowledge of what they're talking about, and it excludes a large number of other people who have better information - not to mention all those eyes which could improve the operation.

Keeping information secret creates bad information. It can't be discussed, it's flaws remain hidden, the biases of the people controlling the information are unrevealed.

I'm not certain this would make better wars. I think the best war is the one unfought. You probably could design a real wargame to test for this sort of thing, but no one would do that because it is merely taken for granted that secret strategic information must be so indispensable to military action. But it is certainly untested and even with strategic there are considerable reasons to believe there might be some advantages to being more public with the information - more people would be able to check it for flaws, we would be able to see the biases of the people who generate the information, and more people would be able to make constructive suggestions. So, yeah, there are reasons to try it.
Iridium Wolfiridium_wolf on May 18th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
ALL secret information is bad? So you have no problem sharing your SSN (if you have one), your bank account number, and all other such information with us? We can help you check it for flaws and make constructive suggestions.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on May 19th, 2010 06:30 am (UTC)
This is almost an interesting point, but I think it's outside the limits of the discussion - I was talking about military censorship of stuff like scientific advances and battle plans, which is different than protecting the privacy of individuals. I think you're comparing apples (secret government programs and plans) with oranges (personal information about individual citizens).

Additionally, the US has a means to get that information - you can subpoena it. So, our legal system has already addressed that need.
Iridium Wolfiridium_wolf on May 19th, 2010 11:13 am (UTC)
I was addressing your assertion that all secrets lead to bad decisions. Is that what you were saying or not? If an individual can keep secrets and still make good decisions, why is it impossible for a government, where there is no secret that only one person knows (therefore giving the advantage of multiple view points that you state leads to better decisions), to do the same?
Tombfyretombfyre on May 17th, 2010 11:25 pm (UTC)
Couldn't agree more there chief. :p We should all be wary of Nehemiah Scudder and his ilk.
Corsethgalis on May 18th, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
Also yeah, ratings are not censorship. The material is still out there and still available just fine.

It does cause Hollywood to avoid some topics and push others, to get the ratings they want. This is still not a censorship issue, because Hollywood is a /business/ first. If people in my neighborhood buy more cookies than lemonade, I should open a cookie stand; it doesn't mean I /can't/ open a lemonade stand.

Ratings can be used for censorship though (Australia and Germany are somewhat notorious for this, where you can't sell unrated media, it has to have a rating, and if their board doesn't like something they refuse to rate it, thus prevent it from being legally sold). However the basic concept is fine.
Starblade Enkaistarblade_enkai on May 18th, 2010 04:05 am (UTC)
Quick question. Do you support Obama's decision to place Elena Kagan on the Supreme Court, even after she wrote to The University of Chicago Law Review? You know, the article that can be found here: http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Private-Speech-Public-Purpose.pdf ?

It just goes to show that religion isn't free speech's only enemy.
Starblade Enkai: Dragonflystarblade_enkai on May 18th, 2010 07:15 am (UTC)
Religion AND military, I might add, to put it in the context of your article.
Iridium Wolfiridium_wolf on May 18th, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
I have been watching this discussion for a while, not sure what to say about it. My career has become intertwined with this issue, and I have now about ten years of professional experience with it. I work for a very large government agency, I am intimately familiar with Executive Order 12958, as amended, and I am experienced with the Freedom of Information Act. I even have some passing familarity with the Privacy Act.
Iridium Wolfiridium_wolf on May 18th, 2010 05:33 pm (UTC)
Hit reply too soon, my apologies.

Athelind knows me and my political leanings, and I am all for more government transparency and a freer flow of information. That said, there is some information that is classified for very good reasons and remains so for very good reasons. Not all information should be shared completely and freely. There is no reason the average person needs to know the technical specs of how to build a nuclear weapon, for example, or to know the encryption algoriths for military communications

Privacy information kept confidential is also a secret, with very good reason. Should the government freely disperse your tax information, your social security number, and anything else about to all comers? Or should that be kept secret?