"Has Anyone Been Censored?" Is the Wrong Question

By Nishiten Shah || Issue 148-21

I appreciate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Martha Umphrey’s effort to complicate our discussions surrounding speech by adding more questions for us to think about. But I do want to voice a concern. I want to focus on one question in particular that I fear obscures the most important issue facing our community with respect to the Common Language Document (CLD).

The question “Has anyone really been censored?” is given a resounding, if implicit, answer of “no” by Professor Umphrey. Although I agree with Professor Umphrey about this, I fear that this question may set us off in the wrong direction by leading us to think that, since nobody has been censored, there are no important issues of academic freedom at stake. In fact there are, and to see why, let us turn to another question: would the publication of the CLD, by an office of the college, be inimical to our educational mission? Of course, our mission involves many aims, but I would hope that it is uncontroversial that central to our pedagogical mission is teaching students how to excel at thinking for themselves, especially about important political, social and moral issues. Would the publication of the CLD by an office of the college be inconsistent with teaching students to think for themselves?

One might think that, since nobody has been censored, the answer is “no.” But I think the answer is “yes.” The stated goal of the guide is laudable (if possibly quixotic): to fill a need for a shared understanding of the meaning of important terms in order to foster communication across difference. But by baking controversial positions on important issues — such as the nature of our identities, the effects of capitalism, the nature of social justice, etc. — into definitions, the document, especially if taken to be stating official college positions, forecloses the possibility of the very discussions that I think it was intended to foster. For instance, if it is just part of the definition of “capitalism” that capitalism is exploitative, then it would make about as much sense to deny this as it would to deny that bachelors are unmarried. Many of these “definitions” takes sides on issues that we all need to think about for ourselves if we are to hold views about them; we cannot allow ourselves to accept substantive claims about important issues just because they have been packed into definitions that have been handed down to us by an office of the college.

Returning to the question of whether anyone has been censored, the important point that might be obscured if we get sidetracked into debating it is this: if the guide’s stated aims had been achieved and the definitions had been adopted as a framework for discussions on our campus, we would have been foreclosed from having some of the very discussions about identity that we must have if we are to be true to our mission.