Monday, December 14, 2009

Positive censorship?

Thinking about Isiah Berlin's notion of 'positive liberty', it occurs to me that this framework could be applied to a number of other areas of thought.

Take, for instance, the question of censorship. I think that most of us can agree that negative censorship - particularly the state or other powerful individuals stopping the rest of us from speaking our minds or bringing evidence into the public domain - should be kept to a minimum.

There is, of course the 'shouting fire in a crowded theatre' defence of censorship. Then there is the apparent rights that we all have to be free of damaging defamatory attacks that are based upon fiction. Other areas where we accept censorship - however grudgingly - are the D-Notice-type censorship in which the state protects it's ability to act against it's enemies or to defend itself and it's officials from personal attack.

I don't think that there are many of us that don't accept - in principle at least - the need for any of these forms of censorship - and I'm sure that there are others that I've missed along the way that we're all happy with.

However, all of these forms of censorship are rightly contested. They can often be abused to silence people who reveal something that we all really ought to be told. They can be used disproportionately, used in a way that has undesirable or unexpected consequences, or they can be used to mask instances of where the state - or other agencies - are doing something that they shouldn't be doing in the first place. Thus, I suspect, 99% of public debate on the matter.

But what about the question of positive censorship? I find that most of the discussions about censorship are grounded firmly in the view that we should be free from any impositions placed upon us by the general will. It's sterile ground and it often silences what are - for me - the big questions:

  • Should powerful or wealthy agencies be allowed to drown out rival messages by using hefty advertising or PR budgets?
  • Should we collectively be taking steps to ensure that there is a well-funded ecology of people who are researching the claims of commercial organisations and governments and providing commentary and counter-evidence?
  • Should people with money or time-resources be able to use the libel laws more effectively than the rest of us?
  • Should any business own media interests - particularly in proportions that suggest the word 'monopoly' - that allow them to amplify or promote their commercial interests at the expense of their rivals?
  • Should any organisation, business or government body be allowed to get itself into a position where it exerts a monopoly over the way it is described? Government departments and civil servants certainly have this in a way that gadget manufacturers don't.
  • Should anyone be able to monopolise the indexing of other people's content in a way that undermines their ability to produce it?
In a knowledge economy - one where we increasingly acknowledge the value of the 'hive mind', these appear to me to be key issues. It raises question that could - in theory - transform the economics of information sharing. It seems to me that the reason that content is being undervalued and unfairly appropriated in so many ways is because of Google's monopoly in indexing and carrying advertising alongside the indexes of other people's content.

If there were five equal-ish competing Googles, each of which wanted to build the best permissive index of particular pieces of content while providing us with tools that allow us to determine how our content is indexed, I doubt if broadcasters or newspapers would be laying any journalists off.

Quite the reverse.

I could go on and on thinking aloud about this one, but I'd be interested to know if this is something that anyone else has done any work on?


Shuggy said...

I'm not sure about your use of the concept of positive liberty here and I'm not sure it's a particularly useful one for the point you're making. In Berlin's framework you're not in favour of positive liberty, you're advocating less negative liberty so that some other good may arise. Why don't you simply take a more traditional Marxist line, which is implicit in what you say? How meaningful is free speech when powerful interests set the framework? Better that than trying to squeeze it into a Berlinian framework. The whole "Two Concepts" is at base a plea to stop muddying the waters and using the concept of liberty as a repository for things people find desirable. Yet this is exactly what you're doing here...

Shuggy said...

stop muddying the waters and using the concept of liberty

Sorry, that should be not 'and' but 'by'...

Paulie said...

Sorry Shuggy - not sure what you mean when you say "In Berlin's framework you're not in favour of positive liberty, you're advocating less negative liberty so that some other good may arise."

I think I'm in favour of positive liberty, though you're right - it's fair to accuse me of shoehorning a fairly Marxist position into a liberal argument. But then it seems to be the only game in town at the moment.

Shuggy said...

it's fair to accuse me of shoehorning a fairly Marxist position into a liberal argument.

Uh huh - but in the terms you;re using, it can't be done, is what I'm saying. I wasn't disagreeing with you necessarily - I'm suggesting using Berlin's concepts in a different way to their original intention is simply obfuscating the point you're trying to make.

Shuggy said...

Sorry, now I realise what I'm saying isn't very clear. Lemme try again...

You may be in favour of 'positive liberty' but Berlin wasn't. He thought it was a process whereby other values, such as equality, fraternity, security, welfare, justice etc. were given the name 'liberty'. It becomes, as Maurice Cranston put it, a 'hurrah' word - much like 'democracy', or 'motherhood'. In this sense, you're not 'shoe-horning' anything into anything - rather yours is a near perfect example of what Berlin actually meant by 'positive liberty' - in that he would argue you're giving the label 'liberty' to something other than liberty that you happen to find desirable. Contrary to popular belief, Berlin did not think liberty should never be compromised in favour of some other good because he though such 'trade-offs' were unavoidable. Rather it is a plea to acknowledge that this is what is being done. You've kinda made his point for him, if you don't mind me saying so.

The Plump said...

Three points.

First, Shuggy is right about Berlin, but the main thrust of Berlin's critique of positive liberty is that of definition. He is writing against the notion of false consciousness.

He felt that positive liberty was dangerous where it was used to suppress negative liberty in order to promote an "authentic" or "objective" interest as defined by others, rather than the people themselves.

In this case it would be the 'it really isn't in your interests to know that we are thieving bastards, that is why we have covered it up. Your real interests lie in stability' etc, etc. or 'you don't need to know, it would only make you unhappy'.

Secondly, most work on the concept of liberty has transcended the two concepts malarky and treats both positive and negative liberty as contingents. This would be more interesting to explore in the light of freedom of speech.

Reckon you can go back to a more combatant reading of Mill as in this old post (together with the debate with Will in comments)

Finally, the examples that you give are all about inequality of power and that is related to more than censorship.

Again, just thinking aloud, and possibly thinking bollocks.