Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

The False Dilemma Between Free Speech and Censorship

Categorizing as "censorship" any restriction on free speech is false because not all forms of restriction on speech are censorship: rather, many forms of restriction are understood and accepted as necessary if we are to successfully communicate with one another.

As a stark example: if I speak both English and German, but I find myself in front of an English-speaking audience - it is hardly "censorship" when I choose to speak English in order to communicate more effectively with my audience. Similarly, it seems to me that we moderate and edit our speech constantly in order to better communicate with our interlocutors. We learn which words and phrases offend, which better succeed in carrying the meanings we intend, etc. We usually recognize these forms of moderation and editing as "effective speaking," "persuasive speaking," etc. - forms of successful communication we encourage and even attempt to teach.

We accept the legitimacy of such self-imposed regulation of our speech because we recognize that our interlocutors have different perspectives and beliefs--beliefs and perspectives couched in different dialects and languages. Indeed, many traditions-- cultural, religious, and philosophical--stress the value of learning to speak to others in their own terms, rather than holding to the naive provincialism which assumes that all others must speak my language, or be regarded as inferior. The provincial, when faced with differences in dialect and language, only shouts his original claim more loudly and only thinks more badly of these barbarians who do not speak his language. But given that others inhabit different perspectives and beliefs--if we are interested in both communicating with others, and better understanding the views and perspectives of others, it seems that we must leave our provincialism behind and learn the language of the other.

Categorizing as "censorship" any restriction on free speech also is a form of -- question begging.


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