Communication, stereotypes and dignity: the inadequacy of the liberal case against censorship.
Empedocles: European Journal for Philosophy of Communication, 2
J. S. Mill’s case against censorship rests on a conception of relevant communications as truth apt. If the communication is true, everyone benefits from the opportunity to exchange error for truth. If it is false, we benefit from the livelier impression truth makes when it collides with error. This classical liberal model is not however adequate for today’s world. In particular, it is inadequate for dealing with the problem of stereotyping. Much contemporary communication is not truth apt. Advertising and journalism, film and fashion portray images that can be neither verified nor refuted. Moreover, where these images do bear some relation to reality, any truth they may possess is not necessarily beneficial. Cultural stereotypes, for example, can be harmful even when true, to the extent that they reflect a distorted reality (the realities of life under conditions of injustice and exploitation). Exposure to such stereotypes affects a community’s self-conception. The resulting harms may be direct or indirect. Indirect harm is done when a stereotype affects a community’s capacity for self-determination, perpetuating existing inequalities by restricting the options its members understand to be available to them. Direct harm is done when a stereotype induces a distorted self-conception. Pace Kant, human dignity is not purely a function of our capacity to be authors of a universal moral law. It also resides in our capacity to achieve an undistorted self-conception. Thus true communications that reflect a distorted historical reality may threaten our dignity, through their effects on our self-conception, independent of any consequences they may have for self-determining action.