Most people on the right distrust government at least a little. We Libertarians really don’t trust it. I think that, fortunately, most people in our culture would still agree that it is wrong when government uses its power to censor, whether it be books, art, movies, music or games. In the past, political or religious totalitarians tried to use government to ban the things they thought people shouldn’t be allowed to see, read, hear or play. Lately though, the totalitarians among us have gotten a bit smarter about it. They learned other equally effective ways to censor while hiding behind the claim that if it isn’t the government doing it, it’s somehow alright.
Is it, though? Is it only censorship if the government does it? Or is censorship something that can be done by groups or even individuals who do not have a government’s power and authority?
This censorship question has become especially relevant in the various salvos of the culture wars between those of us who value free speech and those people who try to use claims of social justice as a way to control the lives of others. Usually people call the second group “social justice warriors,” but that sounds like social justice is somehow the problem or that these people actually give a crap about social justice. Neither of which is true. So I prefer to call then “pseudo-activists” or the “Outrage Brigade.” Both of those are much more accurate and insulting.
Recently, we saw another little skirmish in this long tiring war. Most of you wouldn’t even have heard of it because it wasn’t about TV shows like Game of Thrones or science fiction awards or video games. Instead, it was about a subject close to my heart but far from the mainstream: tabletop roleplaying games.
The tabletop hobby is about games like Dungeons & Dragons, which is not played on a computer but in person with your nerdy friends using dice and “character sheets” written in pencil. It’s so tiny compared to massive industries like science fiction novels or video games that there’s actually just one major company specializing in the sale of Roleplaying PDFs: “Onebookshelf” (OBS for short). The RPG hobby today is driven by internet sales and OBS is so important that most RPG writers and publishers probably couldn’t stay in business without it.
Last week, an RPG book went up for sale on OBS called “Tournament of Rapists.” The name was obviously intentionally meant to be controversial. The book was a stupid and crude play for attention by its author, and I could understand people being offended by it. But the Outrage Brigade weren’t just offended. They demanded not only that the game be banned, but that OBS’ CEO Steve Wieck had to “do something” to make sure that no such offensive content should ever be seen again. Wieck, after a lot of obviously spineless chatter about free speech, caved in completely. The game was pulled and a new policy announced, the already fascist-sounding â€śOffensive Content Policy.” It states that if enough Pseudo-Activists press the report button on ANY game they don’t like (without any guidelines whatsoever about what constitutes a definition of “offensive”) that game will be pulled by “default” from OBS’ website.
This awful policy means that the very active Outrage Brigade contingent of the RPG hobby will now be able to target any game whatsoever, and have it banned from access to the single most important commercial content aggregator of the entire hobby. It will give them the power to bankrupt anyone they don’t like. It will create a climate of fear in all the other publishers who sell at OBS, who will constantly try to avoid writing anything that might risk attracting the attention and censorship of the Pseudo-Activists.
When I and others spoke out against this move to censorship, we got the same stupid response over and over again: “It’s not censorship because the government isn’t doing it.” Some libertarians might at first glance be inclined to agree; after all, a business has the right to not sell a product, right? Except in this case, Wieck and OBS are cowering to a tiny but very well-organized lobby of fake activists. They are threatening to boycott and demonize him and his site if he doesn’t comply with their demands. They are using social pressure in an attempt to FORCE a business owner not to carry products he would otherwise want to carry. This is very different than a business owner choosing, of their own free will and accord, to sell or not sell what they want.
But regardless of business owners’ rights, the actual attempt to use power and manipulation to ban games is in every respect censorship. You don’t need to be the government to engage in censorship. All you need is to use coercion, manipulation or force to take away any opportunity for OTHER PEOPLE to get to read or see or purchase or play something they might otherwise want to. The big difference with government is that it allegedly has a legitimate power to use force. I would argue that any use of that power to limit freedom of speech or expression any more than is absolutely necessary is an illegitimate application, but that’s another story.
In 15th century Italy, the mad monk Savonarola didn’t have either secular or religious authority to ban anything. But he whipped up the mobs of Florence into revolt and established an illegitimate mob rule. He and his mob peaked with the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, where untold numbers of books, works of art, musical instruments and games were taken often by force and always by threat, and burned in the public square to purify the city of vice. Savonarola had no legitimate claim to authority, but he engaged in censorship through the power of his mob rule.
The Nazis were famous censors. They banned books, political pamphlets, any organizations they disapproved of, â€śdegenerateâ€ť art and, finally, entire races of human beings. But they were burning books and using force to silence their enemies before becoming the absolute power in Germany in 1933. Nazi student groups in universities engaged in massive book burning campaigns. They destroyed the works of Jewish, communist and other “subversive” authors. Creators of the books, music, art or poetry the Nazis didn’t like lived in a climate of fear. They were at risk of violent assault and vandalism before the Nazis had government authority to make it legal.
So were Nazis only doing “censorship” after July 1933? Was stuff they were doing before that just “social activism?”
Today, universities have their own censorship-obsessed student groups. And just like the ones in the early ’30s, they have no government authority. But even without it they have managed to bully, shout, threaten and disrupt their way into banning or trying to ban everything from movies to books to plays, or even the U.S. Flag or Constitution. And just in case you think I’m being too mean in comparing them to Nazis, they even tried to ban Jews from holding administrative offices. I guess everything old is new again, even rabid antisemitism.
Fundamentally, the claim that only government can censor is a cheap way to weasel out of admitting that you’re pro-censorship. Censorship isn’t about who or what is banning something, it’s about INTENT. If you want to know if someone is trying to engage in censorship, just ask these two questions:
- Are they trying to stop other people from being allowed to decide for themselves what they should get to read/watch/hear/play?
- Whether or not they actually have that level of power, if they could, would they make it so that NO ONE could get to decide for themselves about the item in question?
If the answers are yes, it’s censorship â€“ whether it’s you, me, the government, a preacher, student “activists” or Hermann Goering doing the censoring. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.
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Kasimir Urbanski doesnâ€™t write on a specific subject; heâ€™s EveryJoeâ€™s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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