Censorship in America: Thin skin is the death of free speech

In 2015, the U.S. is beginning to show signs of a dangerous disease: Thin-Skinned Crybaby Syndrome. Primary symptoms: an inability to handle dissenting views coupled with a selfish need to silence their source.

Like chickenpox, this is something that people are supposed to catch in their youth, and then be cured of by the age old advice of “Sticks and Stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt me.” While this may be a gross oversimplification of stoic principles, it tends to work. People get over it and learn that when people say mean things about them, it is not, in fact, the end of the world.

No one apparently inoculated the folks at the UN and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, who last month released their long-in-the-making report on “Cyber Violence against Women and Girls." This report repeated long disproven “facts” like video games being a direct cause of violence (their source: Lyndon LaRouche) and the idea that “cyber” is a real word people still use after 1996. It was a farce that attempted to equate trolling, petty insults and differing opinions on the internet with serious threats of physical harm, and was as dismissive of the subjects it was theoretically trying to defend. Apparently, though men get harassed online too, only women are susceptible to this “cyber violence," on a visceral level. All this in an effort to spur the UN into action to censor the internet through increased centralized control of it so that precious feelings might not be hurt in the future.

Cooler heads prevailed and laughed derisively at the report’s hastily thrown together, shoddy, and verifiably false “research," and it was sheepishly scuttled by the body. But these same cool heads were missing when the folks at Twitter recently revealed their newest bannable offense: disagreeing with someone.

Twitter’s page to report users engaged in abusive or harassing behavior now includes “Offensive, disrespectful, or in disagreement with my opinion," as an option. If enough people report a person the account is banned, and the person effectively silenced on one of the largest social media platforms on the internet.

Worse than the obvious ability for mob majorities to silence the voices of those holding a minority opinion is the implication behind this change. Twitter is a business. They would never have made a policy shift like this unless a substantial number of people had requested such a feature – make no mistake, labeling disagreement as abuse came from the user base first, not the policy makers.

One constantly growing trend that does come from policy makers though is the encroachment of free speech on college campuses. Some universities, not content with existing speech codes and designated free speech zones to limit student discourse and “safe spaces” in case someone’s feelings are still hurt after all of that, feel ever more measures are necessary.

Last month, the regents of the University of California’s Committee on Education Policy proposed a policy to “outlaw intolerance” along a host of vague guidelines after receiving pressure from activists to limit anti-Israeli sentiment on campuses by students from the left. At Louisiana State University, Teresa Buchanan, a tenured professor was fired for saying “F--- no” in June. Additionally, there are countless examples of student groups themselves attempting to scrub their curriculum of potentially offensive ideas that might “trigger” them over the last year.

All of these incidents have their common root: that Thin-Skinned Crybaby Syndrome again.

Part of the reason is the ever growing divide between the left and the right sides of the political spectrum in the US. This is in no small part due to people increasingly living out their social lives online. On the internet it’s all too easy for people to retreat into their own safe communities of like-minded individuals, sealing themselves away in hermetic bubbles of opinion.

It is no wonder that when this occurs people recoil from hearing oppositional thought as if struck.

A lack of exposure to the elements of discourse leaves one very weak when reinitiated into the practice.

The other side of it lies in academia, which has taken a leftward trend from the 1960s and calcified along these lines ever since. The result is what you see today— campuses that instill diversity as their highest ideal in all forms save one: political diversity. Much to the same outcome as seen online: echo chambers of oversensitivity.

But as much as this is about politics, merely looking at it from the left-right point of view is inaccurate. It wasn’t so many years ago that similar sentiments came from the right after all; during the height of post 9/11 war-frenzy the offensive ideas weren’t based around acceptance of minority groups or women’s issues, but whether or not people were patriotic or jingoistic enough. “You’re either with us or you're against us” is a sentiment that neither conservatives nor liberals own exclusively, and both sides reach into that well when faced with ideas that disgust them beyond a rational discourse.

Because whether coming from the left or the right, it isn’t taking offense to speech that’s the problem; it’s the impulse to seek censure and censorship as a result. This is a belief that comes from a different place entirely. A new divide that isn’t between left and right, but between a belief in authoritarianism or cultural libertarianism.

Looking at the divide in this way is more accurate, but it also leads to a false hope. To merely state that one sides with liberty and free speech and will hold both ideals sacred is a maxim that’s easy to espouse, but harder to hold to.

Because the emotional root for why people end up swayed by authoritarian arguments where the ends justify the means still lies in that terrible disease: Thin-Skinned syndrome.

To that there is only one solution. Take a page out of the stoic Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

” . . . if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. You will find fault with no one, recuse no one, do nothing against your will, no one will hurt you, and you will have no enemies, nor will you be harmed.”

Grow up, toughen up, and realize that you cannot control what others are going to say, only your reaction to what is said. Once you realize that, you will know the truth – that only you have to power to let others’ words hurt you.

Choose not to let them hurt. Grow thicker skin. The alternative is not only a life led by the antagonism of others, but one where you may end up finding yourself silencing people for merely speaking their minds.

OpinionAdam ThomasComment