Nadia Eghbal

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Why do millennials support government censorship?

A Pew Research study released last month found that 40% of U.S. Millennials believe government should be able to censor speech that is “offensive to minority groups”, higher than any other generation.

Millennials account for 25% of the U.S. population, so this statistic is a strong contrast to the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech”. The battle for free speech is being fought on college campuses nationwide with the “trigger warning” debate, has manifested in the “cultural appropriation” wars, and is certainly testing the patience of many U.S. citizens in our current presidential election.

But isn’t that strange? It seems counterintuitive that increased access to information online should make us want to censor more, not less. (If China knew that’s how it worked, surely they’d reverse their policies.) Did too many YouTube comment threads destroy our faith in humanity?

And doesn’t it seem strange that Millennials are known for being highly tolerant of differences, supporting same-sex marriage, interracial dating and immigration? Calling themselves post-racial, post-gender? How does one mesh that utopian worldview with the desire to censor others who are different?

I suppose “censorship of what” matters here: 40% of Millennials support censoring speech that they perceive to be offensive to minority groups, which sounds like a worthy cause. But these are the edge cases where the protection of free speech matters most. We may not agree with That-Presidential-Candidate-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, but the First Amendment requires that we permit him to peacefully express his views. (We don’t have to listen, react, or seriously consider his propositions, though.)

Criticism of his views is framed around the “other”: what is wrong with America, that they support this guy?

I propose we turn that question on its head: what’s changed about us, that we can’t stop talking about him?

Scott Alexander wrote a great blog post last year titled “The toxoplasma of rage”, in which he suggests, in so many words, that we’re all just looking to pick a fight with someone else on the Internet. The content that pisses us off the most is also the content we share the most, because it strengthens our identity. And we all face a choice: keep sharing that content and getting mad about it, or recognize the futile masturbatory nature of our acts and let it go.

I suspect censorship stems from the same desire. Someone wrote an offensive tweet or made an off-color remark? May a thousand fires rain upon them! These days, with enough angry retweets, anyone can censor anything.

Why have Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders caused a stir in this election where Rand Paul or Ralph Nader couldn’t? Has America become more (A: conservative, B: liberal)? Or is it just easier for extreme perspectives to spread and catch fire?

Look, we’re all nice people here. We all want the world to look as good in real life as it does in our heads. But censorship is no longer a government undertaking. Writing an angry post about so-and-so’s latest offensive remark is technically an exercise of your right to free speech, but as part of a critical mass, also contributes to censorship of your peers. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. Look no further than the New York Times piece earlier this year for stories about how public shaming and angry mobbing ruined real people’s lives.

World peace is here, but it’s a little dystopian. Rather than the colorful patchwork quilt envisioned by 1960s free-love hippies, we’ve got citizens policing adherence to a politically correct set of views. Eventually we need to decide: do we still want to protect freedom of speech as a civil right?

(Cross-posted from Medium.)