Freedom of Expression or Censorship

The title phrase of this article presents certain ambiguities with respect to the question or questions it proposes to investigate and answer that should be clarified as feasibly as possible before any ethical argument can be attempted in either direction. What seems apparent here is the copulative combination of two nominal phrases, one of which is given a more complex adjectival or possessive form by a preposition, the other of which is a standard common noun of a single word. Its most confounding component may be the copula, but before advancing there, let us first examine each nominal phrase.

Although “censorship” commonly connotes an act of negation by which some entity taken to contain pure meaning is altered or destroyed, putting into play a polarized power relation between the censoring body and the thing to be censored, this act has as much to do with the diffusion of things that can mean as it does with negation, for the censor is not a nihilist but one who reproduces, wittingly or not, the signs of a certain arrangement of powers. Censorship is a productive activity that is realized functionally, in so far as it implements specific modes of meaningful reference to things in the world through the behaviors of human actors situated in a socially organized space.

What is censored certainly undergoes a meticulous process of correction. But it is unclear whether, were it never to have been censored, it could be classified as having been freely expressed, if anything could be said of it at all. This is because language is an overtly social behavior. It functions by means of rules because for it to serve any social purpose, it must preserve an abundance of uniformities which can be recognized by others, and which can correspond correctly and consistently with recurring stimuli. Thus here, the nominal phrase “freedom of expression” cannot fully assume the connotation most often attributed to it by the subjects of the laws of constitutional democracies. Anything freely expressed would seem to defeat the purpose of speaking, since to communicate with others requires an astonishing capacity to conform to the rules of language.

Thus the coordinating conjunction “or” seems a bit puzzling on two fronts. First, if we wished to apply the Hegelian tactic, it seems that there could never be any such thing as censorship if there were not simultaneously freedom of expression. To purely have one would cause the other to vanish, but this other's vanishing would bring about the vanishing of the first, so that neither extreme could prevail. Secondly, and I think more sensibly, comes a critique of the notion that even the illusion of choice exists between two nominal phrases, and thus that any Hegelian synthesis is possible. This is because, without even needing to know why or how it came to pass, we can verify that language operates as it does only to the extent that it can be applied socially through the recurrence of uniform uses of signs. Other people use language, and for me to be able to fulfill certain desires and to survive, I am given to understand that I should be able to use it in much the same way that they do. Thus I do not choose to express myself, or to censor others; I simply partake, with greater or lesser efficacy, in the economy of signs and the rules that govern their circulation.


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