CounterCurrent Week of 8/14/2023
Fears of censorship are “overblown,” said the Guardian in 2019. Now, a few short years later, both sides of America’s political spectrum acknowledge that censorship is a problem. However, both disagree on what information should squeeze through the Overton window. Should we allow second-graders to access books containing detailed sexual acts? Should college professors be allowed to criticize university objectives such as DEI? Is the discussion of possible gain-of-function origins of the COVID-19 virus off the table?
Such debates often boil down to discussions of misinformation and disinformation, as well as when such contested information should or should not be censored. For those confused about the difference between the two, today’s featured article gives us a brief definition: “[m]isinformation is simply incorrect or misleading information,” while “[d]isinformation is the intentional dissemination of misinformation.”
The article, a position statement by the National Association of Scholars, discusses the uses and abuses of “disinformation censorship.” Such censorship in higher education often occurs through labeling opinions held by professors—in which there is disagreement about a given hypothesis or theory—as mis- or disinformation in hopes of stigmatizing the “wrong” opinion. This type of censorship has real consequences beyond faculty in-fighting: it can lead to academic cancellation and the loss of employment. Even worse, the pursuit of truth is hindered when students and professors choose not to pursue research or discussion within taboo topics for fear of repercussions.
It is against this background that the NAS has decided to declare its opposition to disinformation censorship. The statement takes two forms, a full version and an abbreviated version. Our statement “seeks to do more than declare what we consider to be the best answers to perplexing questions, it seeks to lay out distinctions, consider arguments, and examine parallel matters.”
When discussing contentious topics, it is important to establish boundaries. Censorship can be legitimate or illegitimate. Legitimate censorship might occur when someone publishes copyrighted material or libel. Such censorship is a necessary component of “civil discourse” and is distinct from the “wrongful suppression of speech.”
The full statement notes that “proponents of disinformation censorship often justify it” to protect the vulnerable and to prevent the spread of “dangerous ideas.” These rationales can and do encourage the censorship of contrary ideas. Last month, a federal court in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction against the Biden administration’s attempts to coerce social media companies into removing or screening such “dangerous ideas.”
The full statement places this debate within the context of K–12 and college education, asking and discussing important questions relating to the application of censorship and the purpose of education:
[. . .] at what age and grade level are students capable of the fair-minded assessment of contrary hypotheses?
[. . .] how capable are teachers of presenting the alternatives without bias?
[. . .] how can students be encouraged to pursue open-minded inquiry in the context of a society saturated with single-threaded ideologies?
How should education balance the sometimes-conflicting ideals of transmitting knowledge, challenging old ideas, discovering new possibilities, and validating novel claims?
Lastly, the full statement discusses the weaponization of disinformation censorship:
The National Association of Scholars opposes disinformation censorship because this censorship is a tool used by those who wish to preserve exclusive control over education to further their illiberal political agenda.
Disinformation censorship has already done much harm, both to the public by stigmatizing important ideas and to individuals who have faced the wrath of censors. The NAS sees disinformation censorship as a hindrance to the pursuit of truth, the protection of academic freedom, and the creation of virtuous citizens.
Until next week.