My title is the name of an Iranian institution I discovered in Access Denied, by Jonathan Zittrain and others – a valuable if depressing catalog of how governments around the globe filter and censor online material.
I love that name. It says so much.
Theoretically, the Committee identifies, for suitable action, “sites that carry prohibited content.” Censorship laws in Iran, originally aimed at mass media, ban the promotion of atheism, criticism of the ayatollahs and their ruling ideology, and any visual proof that women have breasts or legs.
But a group calling itself the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites won’t be satisfied with measuring and judging: it seeks to determine. Prohibited web content will be what the Committee decides it is. In other words, this isn’t about rules but about people and hierarchy. Some are strong of mind and virtuous in spirit. They determine. The rest are weak, infantile, and desire-driven, and must be protected from themselves.
About the current regime in Iran I have already had my say. Its core institutions are far more indebted to the rationalist fantasies of Plato’s Republic than to the Quran.
Here I hope to dissect the psychology of censorship: why some people insist they should determine what others can read or watch or hear. Somewhere along the line, I promise we’ll connect with the spirit of the present American moment.
The effect sought by censorship is, on the face of it, unclear. If, as most censors claim, they wish to prevent the dissemination of lies, this can be achieved more persuasively, and with far less trouble, by means of argumentation and evidence. If – as most Americans probably believe – the censors themselves represent a regime of liars, then no amount of snipping or suppression could ever conceal reality. It’s simply too large.
Even if the censors succeeded in imposing their terms, the effect would be to have people behaving as if lies were truth: the benefit of which is once again unclear.
I suspect most censors are in some degree sincere. I imagine members of the Committee believe themselves to be defenders of truth and virtue, which those Unauthorized Sites would subvert. For reasons we will get into in a moment, they reject argumentation. They refuse to debate their decisions with the public. If pressed, one would expect them to appeal, with finality, to the necessary moral or political effect of their work: yet here another puzzle confronts us.
The existence of the Committee as a standing institution is proof of the Committee’s failure. The effect of their censorship, self-evidently, has been to spawn more sites which require censorship: otherwise they would have disbanded. To continue in their jobs, members of the Committee must insist on their own long-term ineffectiveness.
No doubt there’s a job-seeking aspect to censorship: a manifestation of bureaucratic eternalism. But to the degree that censors are sincere, their work appears to contradict itself.
The psychology of censorship must reconcile, first, the belief that truth can be imposed by suppression; second, the refusal to debate even when in possession of the winning argument; and third, the censor’s embrace of his own ineffectiveness.
Because censorship has always bloomed in a particular ideological soil, censors have justified themselves, across history, in remarkably similar language. Protestants in seventeenth-century Britain considered Catholic publications a “snare” for the public, Catholic propagandists “spiders” catching the unwary reader in their webs. Likewise a nineteenth-century defender of the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books spoke of “duly protecting the minds of the masses.”
Follow this thought to its conclusion. Certain texts and images are snares, traps, predatory webs set for the public. Most people, being lazy-minded and desire-driven, are liable to fall into the snares set for them: in other words, they will be persuaded by lies, and behave seditiously or immorally. Those who are strong and virtuous must therefore protect the minds of the public – and the safety of the community – by suppressing the snares.
This situation is irremediable, a fact of human nature. There will always be a majority who are gullible and weak, and a minority who are rational and pure. Given these conditions, truth is never a persuader. Public opinion is always corrupted by evil and secretive spiders. Debate is dangerous, except among the wise. The masses will always need protection, hence there will always be a need for the censor.
The psychology of censorship is the logical offspring of the aristocratic ideology – the belief by self-appointed elites that they alone are worthy, while all others are fools.
Censorship, so framed, is an act of paternalistic kindness, the labor of good shepherds who look after feeble-minded sheep. During the wars of religion and the age of absolute kings, the higher objective was to preserve the stability of the status quo, which had been hallowed by God and custom. By protecting the masses, the censors of the time worked to preserve the traditional aristocracy.
With the French Revolution, the aim of censorship became more ambitious. To induce virtue in the people, the Committee of Public Safety (a not-so-distant ancestor of our Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites) intended to perform radical surgery on French society. The bizarre Saint-Just assumed the guise of a Roman censor. Robespierre became a preacher in the cult of reason.
The point was to declare war on the past. The status quo was to be destroyed, root and branch. Tradition was seen as the mother of all corruption and superstition. The French people, heirs to a grand religious and political tradition, were to be terrorized into becoming good republicans.
The brutal censorship imposed by the Committee was the intellectual equivalent of the goddess of reason dancing on the high altar of Notre Dame. Its goal was to transform, not to preserve.
This god-like vision of social transformation was absorbed and refined by the totalitarians of the twentieth century, who unlike their French prototypes enjoyed complete command over the techniques of mass media. Language itself was turned into a weapon of war, a development mocked by Orwell’s “newspeak.” Certain words advanced the future. Others belonged to the past and, along with the utterers, were to be extirpated like a cancer.
Political mandates over language, I note in passing, long ago infected our public sphere, where a homosexual must be “gay” no matter how miserable he feels, and a Washington politico using the word “retarded” must spend a week in ritual apologies.
Old regime censors came across as weary and grumpy, revolutionary censors typically felt angry and frustrated – but both represented elites which assumed that unrationed knowledge would confuse and agitate the lower orders.
There are people in this country who, deprived of the power of censorship by that pesky First Amendment, betray every symptom of its psychology. There are elites which label themselves progressive yet show an old regime skittishness about the effect of information on the rabble.
In 2008, at the height of the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama promised: “Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.”
But apparently it’s going to take a while before we get there. Here’s John Kerry, just three days ago:
“We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.”
Behind those “simple slogans” one would expect, in the words of the Protestant censor, a secretive “spider” catching inattentive voters in its web. And sure enough, the President in his weekend radio address blamed “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names,” and again – in case we weren’t paying attention – “special interests using front groups with misleading names.”
These are groups which dislike what President Obama and John Kerry stand for, and say so in public. The astonishing thing isn’t that the President and Kerry, in turn, detest the criticism, but that they clearly assume it will persuade the voters. The obsession with the names of the “front groups” is telling – presumably, truth in advertising would force a change to Committee of Evil Spiders in Charge of Perverting Democracy for Our Profit, and the dull-witted voters would then wake up and cry, like Mr. Bill, “Oh noooo!”
The aristocratic ideology assumes that people are stupid. Our progressive elites, curiously, think the same. When the first lady lectures about obesity, she gives a pass to the over-eaters, who are mindless victims of their own “natural desires.” Responsibility falls on restaurant-spiders which make money by giving the masses what they want, while ignoring the school-masterly advice of the best and brightest (“a commitment to promote vegetables and fruits”).
The difference between the mullahs of the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites and our own self-righteous elites is that the latter are constrained by the wisdom of the Founders and the cantankerous character of the American people. Let’s be thankful for that.