Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996
Philosophical Perspectives on Free Speech and CMC

A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net

by Charles Ess

Author's Note: I first presented this argument as part of a panel discussion during the 10th Annual Conference on Computers and Philosophy, Carnegie Mellon University, August 10- 12, 1995. My thanks to all whose questions and criticisms helped correct and sharpen this position.

One of the weaknesses of the "free speech/pornography/censorship" debate is that it often leads to a simple dilemma between two morally objectionable options: either we support free speech without restrictions (even when such unrestricted free speech includes pedophilia and snuff pornography) - or we endorse censorship of some forms of speech.

There are several reasons for rejecting this dilemma: consider, for example, [] Susan Dwyer's observation that both sides of the dilemma rest on a consequentialist approach which may be less adequate than the non-consequentialist approach she develops.

In addition, in my view, this dilemma is a false one: it misses a third alternative which may satisfy interests on both sides.

To see this third alternative, I begin with a --critique of the argument that lands us in this false dilemma--a critique which uncovers "censorship" as only one kind of restriction on speech. Additional considerations suggest that we avoid both false dilemma and question-begging by re-stating the issue at hand. I then turn to develop a positive foundation for restrictions on speech that are not externally imposed in the name of censorship, but are freely chosen in light of a Habermasian understanding of democracy and the implications of communication styles on the Net as they relate to gender. I claim, finally, that if we wish to redeem the promise of democratization and gender equality in CMC, we (meaning, primarily males) will choose to communicate in ways that more effectively speak to and invite the participation of others--meaning, first of all, women. Such self-moderated speech remains free in fundamental senses, and at the same time avoids the other horn of the dilemma--i.e., externally imposed censorship.


Charles Ess is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department, Drury College. He received an EDUCOM award for his work with IRIS Intermedia as well as awards for outstanding teaching. His most recent publications include "Reading Adam and Eve: Re-Visions of the Myth of Woman's Subordination to Man," in Marie Fortune and Carol J. Adams, eds. Violence against Women and Children: A Theological Sourcebook in the Christian Tradition (New York: Continuum Press, 1995), 92-120. He is also editor of Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (New York: SUNY Press, 1996).

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