Category Archives: censorship

The Hard Consequences Of Soft Censorship

internet-censorship

If you walked up to any random person on the street and asked them how they feel about censorship, chances are they would say they’re against it. Absent any context, most people equate censorship with tyranny and rightly so. Historically speaking, tyrannical societies are not beacons of free speech.

When you add context to that same question, though, then people are a bit more diverse in their response. They may say they’re against censorship, but they’ll also oppose hate speech and even support efforts to remove it from certain venues or platforms. It’s not the same as government-suppressed speech, but it’s still censorship on some levels.

A government’s effort to prohibit or punish speech is more daunting. That’s exactly why we have things like the First Amendment. Governments are big, powerful entities with armies and tax collectors. Their brand of censorship is a lot more concrete than others. That’s why such extensive legal protections are necessary.

When it comes less overt forms of censorship, though, the line isn’t as clear and neither are the legal protections. It can take the form of de-platforming a controversial speaker, which has happened on college campuses. It can also take the form of banning certain websites or certain subgroups within a website. These efforts aren’t usually called censorship. They’re usually referred to as preventing the spread of hate.

Personally, I don’t buy that excuse. As much as I abhor some of the things people say, both online and in person, any attempt to indirectly silence them is still censorship in my book. I call it “soft censorship” because it doesn’t involve government force. In many cases, it’s a grass roots effort to combat certain ideas that many find offensive.

That seems to be the most notable standard these days, the offensiveness of certain speech. That’s understandable, given how the world is more connected than it has ever been in human history. It’s now easier than ever for hateful, offensive speech to spread. Conversely, it’s also easy for the outrage to that speech to spread as well.

As a result, the forces behind that outrage are often the most powerful forces behind soft censorship. That outrage takes many forms too. It can be driven by political correctness, religious dogma, and general trolling. Censorship or suppression of speech is not always the stated goal, but it is often a desired result.

Given the ongoing changes to the media landscape, this brand of censorship seems to be getting more prominent than anything government effort. In fact, the reason I chose to bring this issue up is because of a few notable incidents that highlight the growing disconnect between free speech and movements to combat hate speech.

The first incident happened earlier this year and came from the gaming world, a domain that is no stranger to censorship and targeted outrage. The outrage in this case, though, had nothing to do with how beautiful women are depicted and everything to do with the policy of the popular Steam platform by Valve.

The particulars of the issue are simple. Valve was getting criticism for allowing too many violent, adult-oriented games on their platform, including those with overtly erotic themes. For a while, it looked like they would follow the same policy as Nintendo and Apple, who don’t allow anything that can’t be shown in a Disney movie.

Surprisingly, and refreshingly for some, Valve opted for a more libertarian policy. The standards are simple. As long as the content isn’t illegal or outright trolling, then it’s permitted. In the context of freedom of speech and creative freedom, this should count as a victory. However, that’s not how some saw it.

Almost immediately, Valve was heavily criticized for this freedom-centric policy and for all the wrong reasons. Some went so far as to call it irresponsible and cowardly, daring to permit games on their platform that might be overly graphic, crude, or sexy. Being a private company and not a government, that’s certainly their right.

Even so, it generated outrage. People didn’t see it as an act to promote free expression. They see it as a means of spreading hateful, offensive, sexist content and profiting from it. At at time when the video game industry sparks outrage every time it depicts a female character, Valve really took a chance by taking this approach and it’s sure to generate plenty more controversy, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Those same reasons showed up in another incident involving Reddit, a site on which I’m very active. Specifically, it involved a subreddit called KotakuInAction, which emerged in wake of the infamous GamerGate controversy in 2014. As a result, it has a reputation for being pretty brutal in its criticisms of regressive, far-left attitudes.

It’s oftent cited as one of the most “toxic” places on Reddit. There have been more than a few efforts to ban it. At one point, for reasons that I’d rather not get into, it was actually removed by its original creator. However, it was saved and put back up within less than a day, much to the relief of the nearly 100,000 subscribers.

Few will call that a victory for free speech. Those who criticize Valve and Reddit for permitting it don’t see their actions as suppressing speech. They see it as combating harassment and hate. Therein lies the problem with that effort, though. Harassment and hate are serious issues, but attacking only the speech is like attacking a single symptom of a much larger disease.

Even if Reddit had permanently banned KotakuInAction and Valve had opted to censor offensive games, it wouldn’t have made the ideas behind them disappear. Like putting a censor bar in front of female breasts, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and that they have an impact.

You could turn off the internet, burn every book, and shut down every newspaper tomorrow. That still wouldn’t stop people from thinking and feeling the things that lead them to want to say something offensive or create an offensive game. Speech is just a byproduct of ideas. Attacking the speech is not the same as confronting the source.

In fact, doing so can be counterproductive. There’s a real phenomenon called the Streisand Effect wherein efforts to hide, remove, or cenors something ends drawing more attention to it. The fact that Area 51 is a super-secret government facility that everyone knows about shows how powerful that effect can be.

In the context of combating hate, efforts to censor those behind it can end up elevating their message. When someone is censored, there’s an application of force implied. Whether it’s from a government or a moderator on a message board, censorship requires some level of force. Applying it to anyone is going to put them in a position to feel oppressed and that oppression tends to fuel hatred.

Harassment is different because when it comes to free speech, the line between discourse and threats is a bit less ambiguous. The Supreme Court has established a criteria for what constitutes “fighting words,” but it’s when things happen on a computer screen where it gets tricky.

Like hate, though, there’s a right and wrong way to deal with harassment. The right way to deal with a direct threat is to contact local law enforcement. The wrong way is to make it into a spectacle that requires that both the harasser and the platform they used to be condemned.

It’s an inescapable fact of life in any functioning society. The same platforms we use to interact will be used by others for disgusting, hateful, and offensive activities. We may feel disgust and revulsion for these things, but trying to silence both the people and the platform doesn’t make the sentiment behind it go away.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t wired that way.

That’s the ultimate danger of soft censorship. It’s not like a censorship-loving government that can be overthrown or reformed. It’s a mentality that seeks to remove content from certain mediums in hopes that it will subsequently discourage the mentality behind it. Considering the impact of the the Streisand Effect, it’s utterly backwards.

I’m all for confronting hate and combating harassment, but not through censorship, hard or soft. It’s hard enough trying to change someone’s mind in an era where they can customize their news feeds. At the end of the day, we can only truly affect someone’s heart and mind by focusing on the person and not what’s on their computer screens.

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Filed under censorship, Current Events, human nature, media issues, political correctness

Why We Should Accept James Gunn’s Apology And Support His Re-Hiring

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In the spirit of honesty and transparency, I’m going to admit something that should surprise no one.

I, Jack Fisher, have said horrible, offensive things in the past. For that, I sincerely apologize.

I’ll give everyone a moment to recoil in shock. Now, I’ll turn off the sarcasm and get serious because this is an issue I’ve already done plenty to belabor. People say offensive things. People write offensive things. I know I have, given some of the sensitive topics I’ve covered.

I’m certainly not alone. These days, it’s hard to go more than a day without reading something horribly offensive on social media. Not all of the offense warrants the same outrage, though. Some comments are just trolling. Some trigger reactions that lead to actual crimes. Not all offensive speech warrants immense outrage is what I’m saying.

That brings me to James Gunn, the man who made movies about a talking raccoon, a talking tree, and the goofy guy from “Parks and Recreation” that went onto make over $1.6 billion at the box office. His star really rose fast after the unexpected success of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He’s credited with taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe to cosmic heights. He has accomplished a lot in the past four years.

Now, he’s been fired. He’ll have no part in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.” The circumstances, context, and fallout from this huge turn of events is astonishing, but for all the wrong reasons.

The particulars here are striking. Mr. Gunn was not fired because he committed a serious crime or got embroiled in a disturbing scandal. He got fired because someone who didn’t agree with his political views dug up some old social media posts from 10 years ago that were lewd, offensive, and downright disgusting.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gunn apologized for it immediately. He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t whine about fake news. He didn’t claim his account was hacked. He took ownership of the things he said and apologized.

Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo. As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor.

It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over.

In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies.

For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it.

Anyway, that’s the completely honest truth: I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore. I don’t blame my past self for this, but I like myself more and feel like a more full human being and creator today. Love you to you all.

It still wasn’t enough, though. He still got fired and there’s a very good chance that the career he worked so hard for has been damaged beyond repair. It’s all because of horrible things he said 10 years ago. That’s worth emphasizing because the person someone is now and the person they were 10 years ago can be very different.

People grow, develop, and change over the course of their lives. I certainly have. In that time, people will say and do things that they don’t realize will have major consequences 10 years down the line. We can’t even know what kind of person we’ll be a week from now, let alone 10 years.

We’re going to do and say dumb things. That’s just a part of being human. However, now that the internet and social media document these things, our worst moments and most ill-advised decisions are there for all to see. We can no longer trust people to just forget. In Mr. Gunn’s case, someone went out of their way to dig up these horrible comments and that continues a dangerous precedent.

That precedent was already set with Rosanne Barr and this effectively raises the stakes. Now, even when you don’t blame sleep medications and give a sincere apology, you can still lose everything you’ve worked for. All it takes is someone with enough free time, resources, and hatred to do it. For celebrities, these are dangerous and unforgiving times, indeed.

Now, I know it’s hard to feel sympathy for celebrities, who live in big mansions, get preferential treatment wherever they go, and never have to worry about their next mortgage payment. Mr. Gunn is probably going to be okay thanks to the millions he’s already made. At the same time, though, what does undermining his career accomplish?

It doesn’t undo the things he said. It doesn’t undo any of the offense people felt. If anything, it sends a message to aspiring celebrities that anything they say and do will be used against them in the future. Even if that makes some people more careful about what they say online, it doesn’t change the fact that people will say and do dumb things every now and then.

It’s a no-win situation. If you can’t make excuses or offer a sincere apology, then what is the recourse? What was Mr. Gunn’s alternative? Short of going back in time and punching himself in the throat, there was nothing he could’ve done. How is that fair? How is that even logical?

On some levels, I don’t blame Marvel Studios and Disney for cutting ties with Mr. Gunn. They’re a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate that is very sensitive to the value of their brand. They’re also a private entity and not a government so the first amendment does not necessarily apply to them. They can fire whoever they want for whatever reason they want.

Even so, there doesn’t appear to be much effort to accept Mr. Gunn’s apology. While some have expressed understanding, there isn’t much effort in terms of undoing the damage. It’s as though this is the new normal. This is what happens to anyone who dares to let their stupidity end up on the internet. There’s no forgiveness. There are no second chances, either. If you mess up once, you’re finished and your career is over.

Think about the larger implications of that situation. If that’s how we’re going to deal with people who say offensive things, then where’s the real incentive for people to learn from their mistakes? Why would anyone even try to apologize or show regret if the end result is the same?

That’s not to say the situation is hopeless. There is already a Change.org petition to urge Marvel and Disney to rehire Mr. Gunn. As of this writing, it has over 150,000 signatures. Whether that’s enough remains to be seen and the fact that something like that is necessary to accept someone’s apology is still saying a lot.

I already worry that the next time a well-known celebrity says or does something offensive, they won’t even bother with apologizing. Why would they if it’s just going to sink their career or require a petition to keep it going? What kind of excuses will they resort to and how much more damaging will they be?

Accepting apologies aren’t just good values to live by. They’re critical to helping people grow as human beings. I believe Mr. Gunn meant it when he apologized, but I worry that he and other celebrities like him will come to see it as an empty gesture that won’t save their careers.

There are plenty of cases where accepting someone’s apology just isn’t warranted, especially if they have a history of saying and doing terrible things. Mr. Gunn is not such a case. If ever there was a time to set a precedent for accepting someone’s sincere apology, this is it. Even if it’s too late for Mr. Gunn, it’s still a precedent worth setting.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, censorship, Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology, superhero movies