Censorship and the Liberal Arts

A few months ago, I interviewed a researcher highly respected in his field to support marketing efforts at my company. Before conducting the interview, I was asked to send my questions for pre-approval by the PR team of the corporation with which the researcher is affiliated. Backed by the inimitable power of their brand, the PR scions struck crimson lines through nearly half my questions. They were just doing their job, carrying out policy to draw no public attention to questions of ethics, safety, privacy, security, fear. Power spoke. The sword showed that it is always mightier than the pen, fool ourselves though we may.

Pangs of injustice rose fast in my chest. And yet, I obeyed.

Was this censorship? Was I a coward?

Intellectual freedom is nuanced in the private sector because when we accept a job we sign a social contract. In exchange for a salary and a platform for personal development and growth, we give up full freedom of expression and absorb the values, goals, norms, and virtual personhood of the organization we join. The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant explains the tradeoffs we make when constructing our professional identity in What is Enlightenment? (apologies for the long quotation, but it needed to be cited in full):

“This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By ‘public use of one’s reason’ I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call ‘private use’ that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community–a world society of citizens–(let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions. This is nothing that could burden his conscience. For what he teaches in pursuance of his office as representative of the church, he represents as something which he is not free to teach as he sees it. He speaks as one who is employed to speak in the name and under the orders of another. He will say: “Our church teaches this or that; these are the proofs which it employs.” Thus he will benefit his congregation as much as possible by presenting doctrines to which he may not subscribe with full conviction. He can commit himself to teach them because it is not completely impossible that they may contain hidden truth. In any event, he has found nothing in the doctrines that contradicts the heart of religion. For if he believed that such contradictions existed he would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it. Therefore the use which a scholar makes of his reason before the congregation that employs him is only a private use, for no matter how sizable, this is only a domestic audience. In view of this he, as preacher, is not free and ought not to be free, since he is carrying out the orders of others. On the other hand, as the scholar who speaks to his own public (the world) through his writings, the minister in the public use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak for himself. That the spiritual guardians of the people should themselves be treated as minors is an absurdity which would result in perpetuating absurdities.”

Kant makes a tricky distinction between our public and private use of reason. What he calls “public use of reason” is what we normally consider to be private: The sacred space of personal opinion, not as unfettered stream of consciousness, but as the reflections and opinions that result from our sense of self as part of the species homo sapiens (some criticize this humanistic focus and think we should expand the space of commonality to include animals, plants, robots, rocks, wind, oceans, and other types of beings). Beliefs that are fair because they apply to me just as they apply to you and everyone else. Kant deems this “public” because he espouses a particular take on reason that is tied up with our ability to project ourselves as part of a larger universal we call humanity: for Kant, our freedom lies not in doing whatever we want, not in behaving like a toddler who gets to cry on a whim or roam around without purpose or drift in opiate stupor, but rather in our willingly adhering to self-imposed rules that enable membership in a collectivity beyond the self. This is hard to grasp, and I’m sure Kant scholars would poke a million holes in my sloppy interpretation. But, at least for me, the point here is public reason relates to the actions of our mind when we consider ourselves as citizens of the world, which, precisely because it is so broad, permits fierce individuality.

By contrast, “private use of reason” relates to a sense of self within a smaller group, not all of humanity. So, when I join a company, by making that decision, I willingly embrace the norms, culture, and personhood of this company. Does this mean I create a fictional sub-self every time I start a new job or join some new club or association? And that this fictional self is governed by different rules than the real me that exercises public reason in the comfort of my own mind and conscience? I don’t think so. It would require a fictional sub-self if the real self were a static thing that persists over time. But there’s no such thing as the real self. It’s a user illusion (hat tip to Dan Dennett for the language). We come as diads and triads, the connections between the neurons in our brains ever morphing to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Because we are mortal, because we don’t have infinite time to explore the permutations of possible selves that would emerge as we shapeshift from one collectivity to the next, it’s important that we select our affiliations carefully, especially if we accept the tradeoffs of “private use of reason.” We don’t have time to waste our willful obedience on groups whose purpose and values skew too far from what our public reason holds dear. And yet, the restriction of self-interest that results from being part of a team is quite meaningful. It is perhaps the most important reason why we must beware the lore of a world without work.

This long exploration of Kant’s distinction between public and private reason leads to the following conclusion: No, I argue, it was not an act of cowardice to obey the PR scions when they censored me. I was exercising my “private use of reason,” as it would not have been good for my company to pick a fight. In this post, by contrast, I exercise my “public use of reason” and make manifest the fact that, as a human being, I feel pangs of rage against any form of censorship, against any limitation of inquiry, curiosity, discourse, and expression.

But do I really mean any? Can I really mean any in this age of Trumpism, where the First Amendment serves as a rhetorical justfication to traffic fake news, racism, or pseudo-scientific justifications to explain why women don’t occupy leadership roles at tech companies?* And, where and how do we draw the line between actions that aren’t right according to public reason but are right according to private reason and those that are simply not right, period? By making a distinction between general and professional ethics, do we not risk a slippery slope where following orders can permit atrocities, as Hannah Arendt explores in Eichmann in Jerusalem?

These are dicey questions.

There are others that are even more dicey and delicate. What happens if the “private use of reason” is exercised not within the a corporation or office, affiliations we choose to make (should we be fortunate enough to choose…), but in a collectivity defined by trait like age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or class (where elective choice is almost always absent except when it absolutely is present (e.g., a decision to be transgender))? These categories are charged with social meaning that breaks Kant’s logic. Naive capitalists say we can earn our class through hard work. Gender and race are not discrete categories but continuous variables on a spectrum defined by local contexts and norms: In some circles, gender is pure expression of mind over body, a malleable sense of self in a dance with the impressions and reactions of others; in others, the rules of engagement are fixed to the point of submission and violence. Identity politics don’t follow the logic of the social contract. A willed trade off doesn’t make sense here. What act of freedom could result from subsuming individual preference for the greater good of a universal or local whole? (Open to being told why I’m totally off the mark, as these issues are far from my forte.)

What’s dangerous is when the experience of being part of a minority expresses itself as willed censorship, as a cloak to avoid the often difficult challenge of grappling with the paradoxical twists of private and public reason. When the difficult nuances of ethics reduce to the cocoon of exclusion, thwarting the potential of identifying common ground.

The censorship I accepted to enact the constraints of my freedom as a professional differ from the censorship contemporary progressives demand from professors and peers. I agree with the defenders of liberalism that the distinction between private and public reason should collapse at the university. That the university should be a place where young minds are challenged, where we flex the muscles of transforming a gut reaction into an articulated response. Where being exposed to ideas different from one’s own is an opportunity for growth. Where, as dean of students Jay Ellison wrote to the incoming class of 2020 at the University of Chicago, “we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial,** and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” As an alumna of the University of Chicago, I felt immense pride at reading Bret Stephens’ recent New York Times op-ed about why Robert Zimmer is America’s best university president. Gaining practice in the art of argument and debate, in reading or hearing an idea and subjecting it to critical analysis, in appreciating why we’ve come to espouse some opinion given the set of circumstances afforded to us in our minute slice of experience in the world, in renting our positions until evidence convinces us to change our point of view, in deeply listening to others to understand why they think what they think so we can approach a counterargument from a place of common ground, all of these things are the foundations of being a successful professional. Being a good communicator is not a birthright. It is a skill we have to learn and exercise just like learning how to ride a bike or code or design a website. Except that it is much harder, as it requires a Stoic’s acceptance that we cannot control the minds or emotions of others; We can only seek to influence them from a place of mutual respect.

Given the ungodly cost of a university education in the United States, and our society’s myopic focus on creating productive workers rather than skeptical citizens, it feels horribly elitist to advocate for the liberal arts in this century of STEM, robots, and drones. But my emotions won’t have it otherwise: They beat with the proud tears of truth and meaning upon reading articles like Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here?, where she celebrates the humanities as our reverence to the beautiful, to the possible, to the depth we feel in seeing words like grandeur and the sadness that results when imagine a world without the vastness of the Russian imagination or the elegance of the Chinese eye and hand.

But as the desire to live a meaningful life is not enough to fund the liberal arts, perhaps we should settle for a more pragmatic argument. Businesses are made of people, technologies are made by people, technologies are used by people. Every day, every person in every corporation faces ethical conundrums like the censorship example I outlined above. How can we approach these conundrums without tools or skills to break down the problem? How can we work to create the common ground required for effective communication if we’ve siphoned ourselves off into the cocoon of our subjective experience? Our universities should evolve, as the economic-social-political matrix is not what it once was. But they should not evolve at the expense of the liberal arts, which teach us how to be free.

*One of the stranger interviews James Damore conducted after his brief was leaked from Google was with the conservative radio host Stefan Molyneux, who suggested that conservatives and libertarians make better programmers because they are accustomed to dissecting the world in clear, black and white terms, as opposed to espousing the murky relativism of the liberals. It would be a sad world indeed if our minds were so inflexible that they lacked the ability to cleave a space to practice a technical skill.

**Sam Harris has discussed academic censorship and the tyranny of the progressives widely on the Waking Up podcast (and has met no lack of criticism for doing so), interviewing figures like Charles Murray, Nicolas Christakis, Mark Lilla, and others.

The featured image is from some edition of Areopagitica, a speech John Milton (yep, the author of Paradise Lost) gave to the British Parliament to protest censorship. In this speech, Milton argues that virtue is not innate but learned, that just as we have to exercise our self-restraint to achieve the virtue of temperance, so too should we be exposed to all sorts of ideas from all walks of life to train our minds in virtue, to give ourselves the opportunity to be free. I love that bronze hand.

8 thoughts on “Censorship and the Liberal Arts

  1. “But they (our universities)should not evolve at the expense of the liberal arts, which teach us to be free.” Love this! I have never heard of Kant’s public/ private distinction before. It is a very interesting way to look upon, and begrudgingly accept, the constraints often put upon us by the type of work we choose to do. I also like the Milton quote (in translation.) I like how this desired freedom of speech, to him, includes the freedom to keep quiet–especially if one has nothing to say!


  2. Dear QP,
    Never accept filters between your words and others. If they filter you, refuse to join in. There are people who will not be censored out there. We will hear you.
    Spludge (somewhjere in England!)
    PS – I also follow Steph. Bianchini – do you? I recommend her.


  3. Really appreciate this post here and now. You’ve teased up some threads of ideas I’ve struggled to sort out for myself lately.

    As a software engineer who studied CS at a liberal arts college, I agree wholeheartedly that there’s particular value there.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Universities will continue to struggle what is freedom of speech on their campuses and by their employees (academia). Faculty and their teaching assistants are employees…and no, not all universities are the same in the “freedom of speech”. Lofty, yet need to look who they hire as deans and university presidents in North America & Europe. The university is a reflection of also its own power structure.. which may or may not immediate society where it’s located geographically.

    Freedom of speech, prestige and power is publishing in English language..same as the business world. It’s just reality..especially in the applied, social sciences and most prestigious, innovative thinking in the humanities. We are deluding ourselves about censorship or less in academic world….it’s not censorship but also another pressure for some academics serious about their career and notoriety..to master English. Unfortunate, isn’t it?
    I’m just playing devil’s advocate, how much knowledge and expertise is hidden in other language publications.

    As for ethics and reasoning after leaving academia: if one must work for a company which rubs opposite to personal core values, the benefit might be just to learn the inner workings of such company’s. Then leave eventually.

    I worked for one of the global accounting firms –in tax research. For certain, I do have opinion now to critique more usefully about how complicated tax planning schemes just barely squeak by tax law, that benefits large firms and individuals to save thousands of tax dollars for govn’t coffers. Tax law is the most arcane, technical and primarily boring law, to non-tax lawyers. The ordinary citizen/layperson cannot challenge law that’s crafted for only tax lawyers and savvy accountants to understand.

    Sorry for this long example. 🙂


    1. What resonates most in your comments is how we can learn from participating in any organization. We’re basically engaged in a local sociological experiment, and can reflect on what works and what doesn’t work, and carry those lessons forward when we move to the next environment.

      Liked by 1 person

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