On the Desire to Censor
Fear of losing the battle of ideas turns us into villains that destroy the body politic.
The desire to censor people we disagree with is caused by fear. Let us examine why we are afraid, and how succumbing to this fear destroys the body politic.
Politics forces people to grapple with heavy questions like what kind of people should we strive to be? What sort of society should we hope to live in? What should government do? How should it be structured? How should it operate? Figuring out how three hundred and thirty million different people can come up with answers to these questions without devouring one another is the principal challenge of politics.
Naturally, this challenge proves quite difficult because individuals are unique and observe the world through the lens of their own experiences and circumstances. Everyone comes to think, desire, and value different things, and as a result, each individual approaches these big political questions differently. This dilemma is precisely why politics is often thought of as a battle of ideas.
The appropriate response to the battle of ideas is a strong desire to win, but it is not exactly clear what victory even looks like. Does political victory mean winning an election? Passing a specific piece of legislation? Establishing hegemonic dominance over culture? Squashing all opposition? Extirpating dissent? Throwing rivals into gulags? Is the battle of ideas just a never-ending gladiatorial death match against people we disagree with? Or is it a sort of marathon that we have to figure out how to run together?
People tend to ignore these deeper questions at the heart of politics and instead rush headlong into the battle of ideas with a view directed by their most powerful and primal instinct: fear.
People fear losing the battle of ideas because defeat carries real consequences. Everyone wants their values and political principles to prevail; nobody wants to live in a world shaped by other people, and no one wants to compromise fundamental beliefs for the sake of serving someone else's agenda. This fear leads most people to orient their view of politics around power.
At first glance, understanding politics as a big power game seems appropriate. We can easily reason that if we do not win the battle of ideas and achieve power, someone else with different ideas will.
But politics is not a power game, and succumbing to the fear of it being one can destroy the body politic. When people seek power, they will seek to gain victory by every possible means; and when they have found power, they will always fear being defeated. The result, as we alluded to above, is chaos.
Prior to liquidations, purges, and other violent means of eliminating the threat of contrary opinions, censorship is generally the first obvious signal that society is being consumed by power politics. Censorship is an ugly business, and most people generally have a negative attitude towards curtailing free speech.
So the desire to censor must operate parallel to the desire not to be called out as some book-burner or authoritarian fascist. Invariably, censorship schemes adopt righteous causes such as "Democracy," "Patriotism," "Social Justice," or "National Security" in order to remain insulated from any mainstream rebuke.
Today's prominent political narratives have been consumed by the chaos of power politics, and it is very easy to succumb to the fear of losing the battle of ideas. The most recent example comes from the ideological left and the Democrat's feud with former President Donald Trump.
A righteous crusade has been called against "domestic terrorists," and people are being encouraged to support censorship schemes because "democracy itself is at stake and fascism is at our door!" Unfortunately, this fear overtakes people and they become completely oblivious to the dangerous pathologies that they develop as a result.
Once fear gets ahold of us and orients our view of politics towards power, our moral calculus gets corrupted. Random strangers who echo the party's ideology become our loyal and trusted confidants, but close family, friends, and neighbors who deviate even slightly from the party dogma are now regarded as enemies who must be defeated.
Dialogue becomes dangerous, any utterance could be a dog whistle, and allowing rivals on a platform to speak just gives them a license to gaslight. Once contrary opinions are seen as threats and fellow citizens can be reduced to enemies, history is not lacking in examples of the noxious creatures we can become and the brutality we can unleash upon each other.
Ultimately this fear creates delusion. It promises safety and victory but it only invites more chaos and suffering into society. It tricks us into believing that politics is just a power game where one camp is noble and the other ignominious. It leads us on righteous crusades where we feel justified defeating political opponents by any possible means. People get so caught up in this delusion that they cannot see the villains they have become. Only when the tables are turned and the villains find themselves on the weaker end of power politics does their delusion shatter. And the tables always turn.