Action Alert!

How conservative ideas are censored, and how to break that barrier

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 02, 2017

Back in the 1980s, a young staff member at a Christian public-interest group in Washington created a bit of a sensation during a television appearance. I’m sorry that I don’t recall the details—the names and the places—but the general outline of the incident remains clear in my memory, and it makes a good story. So….

The hero of our tale—let’s call him Mr. X—had been invited to join a panel discussion on the controversial recordings of a certain rap artist. As usual, the panel was stacked. Everyone else on the show, including the host, Mr. Y, thought that the rapper’s tunes should be broadcast freely. Only Mr. X argued that the recordings, which were obscene and brutally derogatory toward women, should not be on the airwaves.

The debate proceeded for a while along predictable lines, with most of the panelists talking about freedom of expression and artistic license, and Mr. X making his lonely case for community standards. Then Mr. X dropped a bomb. He calmly began to recite the lyrics from one of the rap artist’s hits.

Mr. Y, the host of the TV show, was apoplectic. “You can’t say those things on television!” he shouted, quickly cutting off his guest’s microphone. Mr. Y finished off the segment in a huff, treating Mr. X like a skunk at a garden party, shaking his head in disbelief that had committed such an unforgivable offense against civility.

You do see the irony, don’t you? The man who argued against censorship was censoring his guest. He didn’t believe that radio stations should censor an obscene rapper, but he himself censored a critic who quoted the rap lyrics. Mr. Y wasn’t going to let anyone use that language on his show. He wanted a conversation about obscenity, but he wanted to keep it abstract. It was offensive, in his view, to disclose the true nature of the material that was under discussion.

Mr. X had neatly illustrated how the media can thwart intelligent debate. How can you form an opinion as to whether the material is obscene, if you don’t know what the material is?

In this case as in many others, the mass media, typified by Mr. Y’s television show, had created a Catch-22. You couldn’t ban the rapper from the airwaves unless you could demonstrate that his work violated community standards. You couldn’t demonstrate that unless the community knew what the rapper was offering. But you couldn’t say what the rapper was offering. So the advocates of freedom of expression won the argument by default; their opponents weren’t allowed a chance to—how shall I put this?—express themselves.

Last week I saw the same sort of censorship at work when YouTube took down a video of Planned Parenthood partners discussing the harvesting of fetal body parts. The video was deemed to be offensive, and indeed it was disgusting to hear light conversation about the methodical dismembering of unborn babies. But here again, the guardians of community standards were placing the blame on the critics of an obscene act, rather than on the act itself. Again the argument was stifled. It’s tough to convince the public to oppose Planned Parenthood unless you show the public what Planned Parenthood actually does. But you can’t show the public the evidence, because what Planned Parenthood actually does is too vile for public consumption. So Planned Parenthood retains the mantle of respectability, while you—the one who wanted to expose their butchery—are deemed offensive.

The same pattern can be seen in the discussion of nearly any controversial topic. If you provide a graphic description of a late-term abortion, or call attention to the grotesque displays at a gay-pride parade, you are offending against civility. If you question the scientific evidence for global warming, you are not only wrong but ignorant. If you uphold the age-old understanding of marriage, you are a “hater.” In all these cases, the guardians of community standards believe that you should be silenced.

Alexis de Tocqueville, that most astute observer of the American character, saw it coming. Although Americans enjoy untrammeled freedom of speech, he remarked, nearly two centuries ago, that we have a habit of self-censorship. Our freedom of expression is not constricted by law, but by a social pressure to conform. Once an argument is declared to be beyond the pale, few Americans will be bold enough to make that argument in public.

So who has the authority to set the limits of what is acceptable, or what is fashionable? Who are the arbiters of public taste?

First, teachers. Schools do not just educate students. (In fact they do that less and less effectively.) They also inculcate in young people a sense of what is appropriate, what is socially acceptable. Once a majority of students come to accept a common perspective, they exert tremendous peer pressure on their classmates.

The mass media also play an important role in shaping public opinion, as does the entertainment industry. At times, when they are enlisted in a common cause, their influence can be remarkable; notice for example how attitudes toward drunk driving, or cigarette smoking, have changed over the past generation, thanks largely to campaigns in the media and entertainment industries. Smoking is no longer chic; driving drunk is no longer a subject for chuckles, at least in respectable circles.

Now what do the fields of education, the media, and entertainment have in common? In America today, they are all dominated by the Left: by secularists, political liberals, champions of the sexual revolution. For at least the past two generations, conservative activists have put their trust in the political system, leaving these fields uncontested. Conservatives have been busy trying to shape the country’s laws; liberals meanwhile have been shaping the country’s children.

So it is that the standard of public opinion—the sense of what is respectable—has been shifting steadily leftward for years. While the country’s voters are split, roughly evenly, in their political choices, on a typical college campus it is difficult to find any support for the more conservative candidate. In the entertainment world there are few complaints when Ariana Grande performs her songs, giving detailed descriptions of sex acts, for an audience of pre-teen girls; but when Tim Tebow genuflected in prayer after a touchdown, that was regarded as a show of poor taste. And mainstream media pundits, who were so sensitive to slights against Hillary Clinton, were caught off guard when some people took offense at a “comic” depiction of the severed head of President Trump.

You say it’s a double standard? Yes, it is. But we’ve been saying that for 40 years, without much effect. The people who set the standards don’t see a problem.

Defenders of traditional morality cannot win debates if our best arguments are censored. And we cannot expect political victories if we do not win the debates. We cannot win the culture wars—we cannot even hold our current ground; we cannot resist the onslaught—until we join the battle to mold public opinion, to define what is respectable and acceptable and fashionable.

Yes, by all means keep fighting the political fights. But in the long run, we can’t expect victory by political means. You can’t win a cultural contest by a political campaign. We need to rejoin the battle on the campuses, in the media, in entertainment. If we find ourselves barred from entry to existing institutions, we need to set up our own.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Jun. 03, 2017 9:49 PM ET USA

    There are a few conservative colleges. These colleges should be training teachers. Many should try to get teaching jobs in colleges. I did so at the University of Delaware and was successful in informing the students on conservative ideas. In addition, we need to have teams of conservatives, as do the liberals, who comment on articles, including social-media "articles", explaining conservative principles and their application. Conservatives might also have a reliable news service.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Jun. 03, 2017 12:38 PM ET USA

    We HAVE set up our own. Catholic Culture is a prime example. There is no shortage of startups as well, Funds are never adequate to offer a serious alternative to the MSM. Until a format is developed to appeal to the masses, while retaining the Catholic message, we shall remain a splinter in the plank of mass media. Your article cries out for a far wider distribution than the formidable CC can provide.

  • Posted by: bill.mureiko5646 - Jun. 02, 2017 5:14 PM ET USA

    Completely agree, but we also find ourselves in another Catch 22 with many faithful Catholics who would view your last paragraph as an admission of defeat and retreat into the ghetto. See, e.g., the majority response to the Benedict Option. But instead of retaking Harvard for the Kingdom, shouldn't we instead be retaking our families and parishes? Perhaps a new kind of Harvard (or Georgetown) would grow out of the renewal.