Today for my podcast, I read The majority of censorship is self-censorship, originally published in my Pluralistic blog. It’s a breakdown of Ada Palmer’s excellent Reactor essay about the modern and historical context of censorship.
I recorded this on a day when I was home between book-tour stops (I’m out with my new techno crime-thriller, The Bezzle. Catch me tomorrow (Monday) in Seattle with Neal Stephenson at Third Place Books. Then it’s Powell’s in Portland, and then Tuscon. The canonical link for the schedule is here.
States – even very powerful states – that wish to censor lack the resources to accomplish totalizing censorship of the sort depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. They can’t go from house to house, searching every nook and cranny for copies of forbidden literature. The only way to kill an idea is to stop people from expressing it in the first place. Convincing people to censor themselves is, “dollar for dollar and man-hour for man-hour, much cheaper and more impactful than anything else a censorious regime can do.”
Ada invokes examples modern and ancient, including from her own area of specialty, the Inquisition and its treatment of Gailileo. The Inquistions didn’t set out to silence Galileo. If that had been its objective, it could have just assassinated him. This was cheap, easy and reliable! Instead, the Inquisition persecuted Galileo, in a very high-profile manner, making him and his ideas far more famous.
But this isn’t some early example of Inquisitorial Streisand Effect. The point of persecuting Galileo was to convince Descartes to self-censor, which he did. He took his manuscript back from the publisher and cut the sections the Inquisition was likely to find offensive. It wasn’t just Descartes: “thousands of other major thinkers of the time wrote differently, spoke differently, chose different projects, and passed different ideas on to the next century because they self-censored after the Galileo trial.”