The Paranoid Psychology of the Censorial Mind

No matter who they are or where they fall on any sociopolitical or religious spectrum, I would posit that the psychology of those who are comfortable with censorship beyond the regular speech and art taboos concerning the sexualizing of children have some things in common. I haven’t seen much about the psychological aspects of the censorial worldview, but my reading of history from ancient Greece, through the Roman Empire, through the Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance and into the modern era tells ME that the thought patterns that inform censorship don’t really change much through time.

  1. Censorial Minds Believe the Social Fabric is Fragile–Censors believe that a functional society is a like a pane of very thin glass that just a few arguments or riots can shatter. This is a common belief among the powerful who must rule cosmopolitan/diverse societies. It seems that powerful people in such societies hear a constant drumbeat of complaint and counter-complaint from bickering interest groups and, over time, they come to see the threat of conflict everywhere. In an effort to be proactive, they come to support limits on expression to keep the peace.
  2. Censorial Minds are True Believers Who Think the Information They Fear Is Very Convincing and That People Are as Easily Convinced as They Themselves Are/Were–Censors tend to exaggerate both how closely average people are paying attention to the flow of information through their lives and how convincing any of that information is. These people presume the average person is an idiot given to believing and acting on the last decently-produced thing they read or saw. If one looks at the French Revolution as an example, the minds “on the inside” of the Revolutionary movement were very angry, keyed-up, pamphlet-hungry types–real True Believers. These kinds of people, being so easily swayed and generally so emotional themselves (and also so lacking in empathy), tend to believe that other people are very much like them and that the flowery language of so-called “Men of Ideas” can convince other people as easily as they themselves were convinced. Thus they seek to control information and punish those who seek to elude that control. These are people so given to taking bait that they find it hard to believe that other fish can just swim by uninterested.
  3. Censorial Minds are a Combination of Power-Hungry and Fearful–In the case of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, new arguments about the faith and calls for a limit to the power of the Church led to both schisms and community problems (see number 1 above), but also inspired believers in new interpretations of the Christian faith to defer less to the Vatican and the Nobles the Vatican propped up with implied spiritual threat. This was an enormous dual political and financial threat to the interlocking power systems of Europe. As a Catholic, I recognize that some Catholic censors and Inquisitors may have had a genuine worry for the immortal souls of any led astray by what they saw as bad theology/Christology, etc., but I would tend to think that the vicious and sadistic punishments the Inquisition doled out were inspired more by the desire to scare future “arrogant upstarts” than to punish those in cahouts with Satan.
  4. Censorial Minds Believe in Sudden and Dramatic Conversions–When Ted Bundy was on death row, he gave some interviews in which he hinted that he would have maybe been normal if he hadn’t found some detective magazines that featured images of sexy women tied up and gagged in ways that hinted at torture. The Evangelical Christian interviewer he was talking to seemed to be eating this narrative up with two fists, as it fits pretty neatly within the Evangelical worldview: Paul can be converted all at once on the road to Damascus by a vision of Christ, and Teddy the altar boy can be converted all at once into a pervert and serial killer by a picture of a busty woman hogtied and gagged with lace panties. I don’t mean to pick on religious people here, either. I’ve met people who seem to think that one racist or transgressive cartoon might have the power to turn a heretofore progressive Unitarian minister’s gender-fluid son into a Klansman with just one exposure. If every bit of information has this power to “convince by surprise,” then better safe than sorry is the thinking, I guess. I find it ironic how aligned these people can be on opposite poles: a gay-themed comic book might somehow convert a straight kid to gayness and an anti-gay comic might turn a kind ally into a vicious Skinhead.
  5. Censorial Minds Believe People are Achingly Fragile–People’s emotions are tied to their mental and physical health in intimate ways, and thus expression that stirs up people’s feelings in ways that hurt them are a literal threat to their well-being and self-image. This is especially true of so-called marginalized people who, unfortunately, are forced to exist in societies that just play one long droning note of injustice after another over the melody of their lives. These injustices exist in the forms of words and images–both contemporary and vintage–that may cause people to feel as though they don’t belong or are inferior. “Othering” is the strange verb that has been invented for this. If one can suppress and limit these “othering” works and words from being seen and heard then–at least in the minds of the censorial–lives might be saved!
  6. Censorial Minds Believe They Have Especially Acute and Superior Powers of Discernment and Thus Can Defend The Rest of Us–For many censorship enthusiasts, they believe they exist in a state of enlightenment impervious to any of the negative effects of information–thus their knowledge of what transgression or misinformation really looks like–and can spot it and save we the ignorant from it. They are, in their own minds, like Superman, standing with their chests out in front of we confused citizens, the bullets of problematic expression bouncing off of them and coming nowhere near mere mortals! As such, they often scowl at our ingratitude. It is simply inconceivable that we would INSIST on wanting to read what {INSERT PURVEYOR OF FILTH AND/OR MISINFORMATION AND/OR WRONGTHINK HERE} has to say! What are we? Stupid? Unholy? Racist? Opposed to goodness? Wanting to be hurt? To questions like these, censors are always inclined to answer “yes.” We are very often silly children in the eyes of those who would keep things from us–silly children who don’t know what’s best for us. These kinds of people will often bristle at the use of the word “paternalistic,” but it fits precisely.
The savior fantasy of the censor.

There is a general historical theme to censorship. That theme is FEAR and/or DISTRUST. No matter why it is that censorship is going on, those two emotions are in the foreground.

Consider for a moment the example I did not discuss: wartime censorship. Why doesn’t the government want us writing mom to tell her when our Army unit leaves for whatever country we are en route to invade and occupy? Obviously because they fear what someone might do with the information and distrust those who might intercept it. In wartime, this is reasonable. In a state of war, someone might actually use information to do real harm. Or, the information might have real and destructive effects on the morale and effectiveness of other soldiers, factory workers back home, families on the home front, etc.

But that begs the question: why are so many people so censorial NOW, when we aren’t in a state of (open) war with any external enemies?

And that question leads to this simple answer–a point I did not make in “No Mere Mechanism.” The answer as to why so many are so censorial right now is because in the mind of the Fanatic, we are ALWAYS at war. As the number of Fanatics has increased (and perhaps still increases daily), the intensity of the sociopolitical war will as well. Until people reach a sufficient exhaustion with the so-called “culture war,” censorship, counter-censorship (by which I mean one set of Fanatics strategically censoring types of information another set of Fanatics wants to publish or distribute in response to an initial censoring effort) and ANTI-censorship (which librarians are supposed to be engaging in) will be in our Google newsfeeds more and more often.

Unless, of course, Google suppresses the stories for some reason.

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