Bill Maher on Censorship: Curmudgette on Web Communities

Sunday, June 04, 2006

I love this quote from Bill Maher in his Time interview.

I wish more people were provocative. I wouldn't ever say there's censorship in this country. But there's a lot of peer pressure. Because when anybody says anything that's the least bit feather ruffling, everybody just goes nuts. If anybody in this country is forced to undergo a single moment of discomfort, the person who caused it just must go away.

I've always been a bit of a feather ruffler so I suppose I'm more keenly aware of this than others may be. In recent years I've been observing the peer pressure phenomenon in the "liberal" blogosphere. I admit it surprised me at first. It made no sense to me that sites that were springing up in cyber space largely as a reaction to the repressive tactics of the Bush regime were, themselves, so repressive. In time I came to see it for what it is: human nature. Without carefully instituted policies in place to protect free speech and provide for the unfettered freedom to state minority viewpoints, human beings just run roughshod over each other.

Web sites are private property not "free speech zones." Site owners do not have to respect First Amendment protections. That much is a fact. But you'd think that some of these site owners would display enough self-awareness not be total hypocrites; criticizing Bush for silencing dissent one minute, silencing their own dissenters the next. Unfortunately each site develops its own culture and its own taboos, which are enforced not only by the management but by self-appointed enforcers of societal norms. The result is that most of these sites ultimately become stifling environments and self-reinforcing echo-chambers of group-think.

Beyond banning and the much abused "troll rating" systems, there are a number of increasingly predictable shaming tactics designed to quell dissent in web communities. Here's a rundown of common devices used to silence any view that runs counter to the status quo and causes what Maher calls "discomfort."

  • If you hate this site so much, why are you here? Don't let the door hit you in the ass.

  • [Insert the name of site owner here] can ban anyone he/she wants. Nothing is stopping you from starting your own blog if you want to talk about [insert issue/viewpoint here].

  • Aren't there more important issues you could be devoting your energy towards? Why are you wasting time discussing this when [insert daily headline issue here] is going on?

  • Why are you attacking other liberals?! We should be working together! Save your criticisms for the Republicans who are ruining this country.

  • [Insert name of site owner here] is very tolerant of alternative viewpoints. Just last week so-and-so wrote something really outrageous (that wasn't outrageous at all) and he/she wasn't banned. It's just that [insert name of recently banned person here] went too far.

  • This site is very tolerant. I am very outre and I've never been silenced. (Generally stated by very boring people who think they're terribly shocking.)

  • I've always known [insert name of site owner here] to be very fair. I'm sure he/she has his/her reasons and it's not my place to question them.

  • We're guests here. Management is gracious enough to let us use this space to post and comment. (More like guest workers; providing the content and page views that sell the ads that pay for costs and profits.)

  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (Translation: We only deal in conventional wisdom here, even though we love to think of ourselves as terribly groundbreaking.)

  • We don't discuss that type of thing here. This is just not that kind of site. So-and-so was banned for that. That's not a threat. I'm just sayin' is all.

  • To make a tasty [insert recipe for some bizarre food item here]. (I will never understand this device as long I breath Terran air.)


Simon Malthus said...


Another post you've saved me from writing. I've got a bit to add regarding so-called 'extraordinary claims,' but it'll have to wait for later.

Curmudgette said...

And while we're on the subject of Emerson:

"For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour. If this aversation had its origin in contempt and resistance like his own, he might well go home with a sad countenance; but the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and a newspaper directs." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson from "Self-Reliance"

Michelle said...

Bill Maher rocks and so does Dorothy Parker...

I'm swooning.

Simon Malthus said...

one to add to your list of shaming techniques: the pony pic.

another bizarre one. originally, it seemed clear to me that the pony pic was used as a response to any post deemed by the savants to be whining. in part, the pony is a sort of dismissal by identification of archetype. attach a dismissive label and ignore all content.

then - this is all my subjective experience - as people began to express irritation with the whole insipid practice, there began a campaign to in effect obscure the negative connotation of the pony. this is the wierd and interesting part. the Pony Rehabilitation Project struck me as a means to paper over some ugly behavior - and of course, to express that opinion was to reveal oneself as humorless and inept. that is: only whiners complain about ponies.

in effect, the original meaning of the pony was cast down the memory hole, while the emotional history was distorted. i mention this because it seems to me that there's a key in here somewhere. remember Orwell: who controls the present controls the past. who controls the past controls the future.

Curmudgette said...

Pony pics, huh. I'd missed that one. That's up there with the bizarre recipes. So many ways to discourage discourse and marginalize people. Human beings are just endlessly inventive.

Carrie said...

Excellent summation and analysis. I've just found you via Simon Malthus' post over at Booman Tribune; check it out if you get a chance.