This piece originally appeared on Medium on December 5, 2016.
The election of Donald Trump was a tremendous shock for many. (Whether this was from sheer delusion; whether the polls were wrong and to what extent; whether there was low- or high-level voter fraud; whether everyone believed too much in the inevitability of the Clinton juggernaut; how much Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had to do with it — all these questions have been addressed by others, at great length and in admirable depth, so they are not my concern here). I am interested in the election’s seismic effect on our cultural consciousness, in how the aftershocks will be worse than the quake itself.
A lot of things that seemed stable now require urgent reevaluation or active defense. As Masha Gessen wrote, many of the civic protections and institutional norms we take for granted are enshrined in culture, not law. This means that, rather than resting on a solid bedrock of legal protection, we’re basically on a crumbly limestone cliff of tradition and presumed good intentions.
This election — not in its progress and outcome, but in the composition of its discourse — has revealed the ungainly syntheses and violent clashes between written law and lived culture and reminded us that language is ineluctably, and maybe fatally, at the core of both. Nowhere is this more raw, nor urgent, than in questions around free speech and censorship, particularly in the Wild West of the internet, most especially as we face the unprecedented situation of a president-elect who is somehow both a foreign-policy-flouting Luddite (blithely speaking on the phone with the President of Taiwan and then rage-baiting China) and that most bizarre techno-reptilian spawn of the internet, a Twitter troll.
Language takes us over. Our brains are linguistically ordered: linguists differ on the extent and exact neurological structure, but it is a defining feature of the human condition. One major, and still influential, theory of linguistics holds that language literally shapes our thoughts. Many of the aftershocks of this election are inextricably tied to language — and to each other — in ways that require early clarification and identification lest they become hardwired as new realities of social cognition. To my mind, there are three components to the rapid transformation our language and communication are undergoing that require scrutiny.
1. Language is a primary battleground
It’s not simply that we had a seemingly fact-free election in what it’s now cliché to call a “post-factual” world. Facts do not cease to exist; rather their construction comes apart. What we engage with as social facts are more precisely compositions and structures of language, and language is precipitously close to signifying nothing. For all the sound and fury, a leitmotif of the Trump campaign, gospel in the inner circles, is that his words are not to be taken literally. And from the man himself: “It’s just words, folks.” This light-hearted, folksy defense is astounding: it is in fact among the more chilling and effectively destabilizing things he has said.
Sloppiness around language is not new in America (we’re the nation of Yogi Berra, not Flaubert) but it is not usually so brazen, nor so dangerous. The threads in the culture were already there, in the raging about “political correctness” or the easy adoption of the “alt-right” terminology to make white nationalism palatable, which amounts to putting solid-gold lipstick on a cyanide pig. (It is worth noting that the easy way the majority of news outlets and individuals have accepted, and thus validated the term, is a perfect if un-obvious example of the “anticipatory obedience” Timothy Snyder warns against in his excellent piece on resisting authoritarianism.)
On the other side are the educators and activists who sought to create safe spaces — either physical or discursive or both. The “trigger warnings” that came to characterize, and, to my mind, overdetermine, this discourse were a frequent target not only of the Pepe crowd but of university leaders and scholars. As always, there were complicated intersections: as a scholar and educator myself, I am a staunch advocate for safe spaces but have more complicated feelings about trigger warnings with literature. (The feminist writer and cultural critic Marcie Bianco, with whom I agree on most things, wrote a lucid list of feminist arguments against trigger warnings in the classroom.)
The questions are not simple, but the essential detail is this: language — what we do with it, what it does to us — has reached a breaking point in our culture. That rupture — a “witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies” — was a crucial element in the tide Trump rode to power, and it is the foundation on which he will build his gilded kleptocracy.
2. Social media language is fast and sneaky:
Insidiously, cleverly, the white nationalists have wrapped themselves in the banner of the First Amendment in their war on “political correctness”; on the message boards and on Twitter and on Facebook, they made it fun to be vile. The bully that bloodied your nose then said you couldn’t take a joke became a righteous figure, an enlightened defender of free speech. You don’t have to be a white nationalist to play this nasty brinksmanship: a quieter variation happens every day. In Facebook comment threads, Twitter feeds, and friendly emails, “censorship” has become a facile, righteous cry of “moral foul” (usually when someone deletes a comment deemed hurtful, insulting, offensive, rude, or simply annoying). Because language breaks down in easy ways, though, and because the collapse of personal relationships is at the heart of what enables authoritarianism to function on a quotidian level, what is happening is graver than mere annoyance. It is revealing, and it is alarming.
3. Legal language matters: what censorship really means
Legal language is under assault from both sides: in the seemingly innocuous ways we wield it as civilians, and in the very real attacks on the legal rights of the press that have already begun.
In American law, Black’s Law Dictionary defines censorship as:
“Review of publications, movies, plays, and the like for the purpose of prohibiting the publication, distribution, or production of material deemed objectionable as obscene, indecent, or immoral. Such actions are frequently challenged as constituting a denial of freedom of press and speech. Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 716, 51 S.Ct. 625, 75 L.Ed. 1357; Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498; Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 22, 93 S.Ct. 2607, 37 L.Ed.2d 4 19.”
The Black’s definition is illuminating. For one thing, the stakes it lays out are intrinsically higher than those in a social media post. It is concerned not with interpersonal communication, but with larger scales of production and distribution — it’s for Gutenberg, not billets-doux. It is not about intimate dialogue, but about the dissemination of media and its limitation by a reviewing body. Secondly, it shows that there is indeed a long case history of censorious actions being “frequently challenged as constituting a denial of freedom of press and speech.” Whatever the motivations of the parties in question, it is heartening to look back at American history and see how vociferously and constantly the freedoms of press and speech have been defended.
Those freedoms of press and speech are grounded in the First Amendment guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The crux, as it applies to our own moment and to how we communicate in the evolving landscape of social media, is this: “Congress shall make no law.” In depriving someone of space on your own personal platform, as is the case with Facebook comments and Twitter replies, you are not a) a government b) making a law or c) abridging the freedom of anyone’s speech. A concise example: Trump threatening the press constitutes a real threat of censorship; the Times choosing not to print your op-ed does not.
Censorship is a practice of most governments, to varying extents and for more and less defensible reasons. Trump has already attacked the press and claimed he will “open up” libel laws (whatever that means) so he can sue people — and publications — who criticize him. What we are dealing with here is not the business-as-usual keeping of information from the public, it is the president-elect of the United States threatening repression of the free press for political reasons. Censorship of the press matters because of its reach, because of the inherent inequality of its impact: the Washington Post has an access, and a presumed authority, that the average individual civilian does not (hence the legal definition’s emphasis on publication and distribution).
By contrast, anyone who is posting on someone else’s social-media thread suffers no parallel inequality — they have the (unabridged) freedom to post on their own, identical page. This slippery false equivalence, disguised as righteousness, has, I suspect, driven many people to enable and participate in discourses that they know to be problematic, damaging, and in bad faith.
When the president-elect constantly excoriates the press, when members of his staff say journalists should be imprisoned for doing their jobs, then the threat of censorship is real. In the countless daily personal fracas involving Facebook comments or Twitter feeds it is not real (unless you are denied access at all because you are in, say, North Korea). Deleting someone’s post from one’s personal feed, or blocking someone on Twitter, does not infringe on their First Amendment rights. It does not impede them from speaking, writing, or publishing freely. It is not censorship. Solzhenitsyn was censored. Bulgakov was censored. Rushdie was censored. Xialou Gou and Bao Pu were censored. The Marquis de Sade was censored. The aggrieved poster of a deleted Facebook comment is not.
Perhaps it speaks to the magnitude of privilege in the United States that so many people feel comfortable throwing the word “censorship” around, proclaiming themselves victims of something very few in this country have ever truly experienced or understood. A less generous reading is that they know full well what they are doing, and are employing a bullying and disingenuous tactic to shut down those who, quite simply, choose not to engage their level of discourse. Whatever the case, true censorship — the scary kind, the kind that involves prison and real suffering — is now very much on our national horizon. The stakes are too high to play political Mad Libs. It’s time to use our words with intention, with clarity, and with a sense of — and responsibility to — history.