free speech, critical thinking, editing, censorship, and the internet.

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both–James Madison

I’ve been wanting to write something on this topic for a while. This comment by Susan at Liberality got my mind working:

Two hundred years ago the founders of the republic would have been deliriously happy at the idea of Americans able to be informed by the sheer volume of available facts the digital information age would produce. The fatal assumption was that Americans would choose to think and learn, instead of reinforcing their particular choice of cultural ignorance.

I am thoroughly in agreement with what she says in that the Internet, like Television can be a force for spreading knowledge and culture. On the other hand, it has become a place where opinions tend to be reinforced by similar viewpoints. Dissenting voices are shot down by astroturf posting.

I am well aware that one of the criticisms about this blog is that I moderate comments, which in no way is a violation of someone’s free speech. The problem is that the opinions that I do not publish are repeated across the internet–some are far overrepresented. Additionally, the comments come from someone who also blogs or has a forum in which to voice their opinions. The concept of free speech is to allow for dissenting opinions to be heard. They are not heard if someone comes in and drowns out that opinion with something that is overrepresented.

What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

Given that definition, and the other ones found here, I am in no manner or form engaging in censorship. Additionally, I have a commenting policy:

These are my opinions and I don’t care if you read this. I blog for myself, but don’t mind if others read what I write. I don’t really want to hear from you–unless you agree with me or unless you can offer intelligent and constructive comments or can say something interesting and informative, don’t waste your time doing such as your comments end up in the electronic dustbin without being read. Quality over quantity is my preference for comments.

Also, any comments left here become the property of this blog for me to do as I wish. So BEWARE!

This takes us back to my comment about astroturf. George Monbiot pretty much sums up my feelings about the repeat, ignorant, and irrelevant comments:

I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible – which appears to be the point.

The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.

I don’t mind comments if they are truly interested in debate, but as most people who blog about gun-control, climate change, and other controversial topics will tell you, the comments they receive are there to shut down debate. For example, when I made my posts on inalienable rights, it was very clear that most of the posters had no idea of what I was talking about in those posts. Additionally, the tone is that of religious reverence for a philosophical position which is very much up for debate and hardly a “settled matter”.

I routinely delete comments that repeat questions or ask questions about material which can be properly researched. I will also add that I have investigated some of these topics and written blogs posts which outline my conclusions. Again, if the repeat posters would take time to RESEARCH, they will probably find the answers to their questions. I do not force my opinions on anyone and prefer not to have people force theirs upon me.

Which gets to critical thinking, which is defined as:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.

The founders assumed that people would be properly educated and be able to use critical reasoning skills to assess points of view not merely say:

“It’s all over the internet, it must be true”
“It came from — facts, it must be true”

Part of this is being able to use one’s experience to verify what is being written, and the other is the research skills to further investigate what has been asserted. I will admit that I like going into depth on topics that interest me, which is something you may have noticed if you read this blog on a regular basis.

The Founding fathers were indeed supporters of education, which seems to be lost on the current generation. For example, the two quotes from James Madison can be found on the left side of the main entrance of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress:

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

On the right side of the entrance:

What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?

And these quotes from Thomas Jefferson on the Jefferson Building:

Educate and inform the mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.

Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, and John Witherspoon was President and head professor of what would become Princeton University, which demonstrates that education was important to the founders in order to have the type of debate necessary to run the republic. Which is an interesting aside and somewhat germane to the topic since Susan pointed out that “The fatal assumption was that Americans would choose to think and learn, instead of reinforcing their particular choice of cultural ignorance”.

The American War for Independence was an idealistic act, and with most idealistic acts and philosophies, its beliefs have run into hard reality. Beliefs such as Anarchy, Democracy, Communism, Socialism, Libertarianism, and so on sound good in theory, but don’t works so well in reality. For example, Anarchy believes that government is not necessary since people know the rules and pretty much obey them, breaking them only when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, Anarchy tends to descend into nihilism. I contend that one of the failings of the Independence movement was that the voices of the Tories and more moderate forces of independence were shouted down, which means that the guarantee of free speech was a little too late (but that’s another aside).

Anyway, debate and open discussion is a wonderful thing, but it does seem to be a rare commodity on the internet.

And I just liked this quote:

Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.–James Madison 

References:
http://editorsnote.blogs.tuscaloosanews.com/10007/editing-or-censorship/
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/whodecides/definitions.html
http://www.monbiot.com/2010/12/13/reclaim-the-cyber-commons/
http://www.criticalthinking.org/
http://www.criticalthinking.org/aboutct/define_critical_thinking.cfm
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/james_madison.html
http://www.loc.gov/loc/legacy/bldgs.html
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/index_1.html

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