On Censorship

When the topic of profanity filtering comes up on forums or other community sites, it is nearly always discussed in terms of whether or not filtering is censorship. That framing produces much acrimony and little useful discussion. This is my response to one such thread. By the time I had written it the discussion had devolved into ad hominem attacks and been closed by a moderator, so I’ve chosen to post it here instead.

So far this discussion has focused almost entirely on whether profanity filtering is censorship as a proxy for whether it is acceptable, on the assumption that censorship is always wrong. That is a false argument. Profanity filtering, or indeed any filtering of the discussion, is always and incontrovertibly censorship. Once we accept that we can have a frank and honest debate as to whether such censorship is acceptable and appropriate for our community. Until then we’ll just continue talking around each other and getting nowhere.

Due to the shared, unspoken assumption that censorship is always wrong, those in favor are stuck with the indefensible position that filtering is not censorship. Those against must explain that it is to people who are bound to ignore them. The resulting din prevents anyone from coherently conveying their opinion. Indeed the true point of this discussion, the pros and cons of profanity filtering, is not even mentioned. We must, therefore, discard our assumption.

Censorship is not always wrong or evil. We encounter a great deal of benign censorship in our day-to-day lives. Our own moderators’ valiant efforts to quash spam posts are censorship, yet they harm no one and benefit many. The laws against speech which causes direct and significant harm are censorship, but society has deemed them necessary. The prohibitions in our member agreement against hate speech and personal attacks are censorship, but we have agreed to them because they make our discussion more productive. Some censorship is necessary.

Having set aside the censorship argument, we must first decide our position as a community on the use of profanity. Is it ever acceptable? In what situations might it be appropriate? If and only if we decide that profanity is never acceptable, we must still decide whether a filter is an appropriate solution to that problem. There are certainly others, from simple community pressure to moderator intervention. Whatever our ultimate decision, we can reach it only by open and intellectually honest discussion of the options and their merits.