Censorship and Conformity
“But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
The goal of political censorship is not so much the suppression of ideas, but the suppression of appearances. Put another way: the ideas communicated matter less than the fact that they are being communicated. The very presence of dissent is more dangerous than the arguments it employs.
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch performed a series of conformity experiments. Groups of participants were shown a sequence of cards, each with a line on it. They were asked to match the length of the line to one of three lines of different lengths shown on a reference card, labelled A, B and C, saying out loud which they thought was nearest in length. Only one of the participants in each group, however, was real—all the rest were actors. In the “critical trials” stage of the experiment, all of the actors intentionally picked the same obviously wrong length. The experiment was setup such that the real participant was always the last to answer. Asch wanted to see how many people would assert their own reason against the pressure to conform.
A third (35.7%) of real responses went along with a blatantly wrong consensus, with 74% of the participants giving at least one wrong answer. That many went along with the crowd despite their doubts is no surprise. What’s more interesting is what Asch did next. In a followup experiment, one nonconformist who would always say the right answer was introduced into the groups. The number of participants sticking with the majority fell to just 5%. A single dissenting voice was enough to inspire most people with the confidence to say what they really thought.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt mentions an anecdote by Seneca about how the Roman senate once thought about getting slaves to all wear the same dress so that they could be easily distinguished from free citizens. The idea was rejected because “the slaves would now be able to recognize each other and become aware of their potential power.” Arendt points out that it wasn’t so much the number of slaves that was the issue but the fact that the dress would allow the slaves to appear in the public sphere as a distinct political entity.1
Like the anarchists in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, we live in a world of appearances. [Warning: spoilers ahead] When the hero of the story infiltrates the anarchists’ not-so-secret meeting, he thinks that he is an undercover detective among a group of criminals. What he doesn’t realize—what nobody else in the group realizes—is that they are all undercover detectives. But, because they cannot see beyond their false masks, they continue their charade. They deal with each other as anarchists because they assume everyone else is an anarchist. The reality of what other people believe differs from what we think they believe. Our perception is shaped by appearances, by what they say in public, but what they say in public is in turn influenced by what they think we and everyone else believes.
What the political censor cares about is not the spreading of some idea that is new to the public, but the speaking of an idea that the public already believes but is hesitant to talk about. It is difficult to convince people of something new, easy to clearly define for them what they already subconsciously believe. The point is to suppress the few dissenting voices that could make everyone else realize that they are not alone.
Anti-war demonstrators in Russia have been arrested for standing on the streets with empty signs. Blank sheets have also been used in protests in China, and in anti-monarchy demonstrations in the UK. What threatens the authorities is not so much the message, which is so obvious to everyone that words are not even necessary, but the very appearance of dissent. This is why censors seek to “deplatform” people rather than to redact ideas. When someone asserts a position, their stance becomes a part of their identity, even if their words are censored. It thus becomes more important for the censor to remove the messenger from a public platform than to erase his or her message, because their very presence gives others the permission to speak.2 Remove the source of dissent and people become like Chesterton’s fictional anarchists, separated from one another by the impenetrable wall of their public masks, each thinking himself alone in his dissenting views.
“Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation,” writes Chesterton, “and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, chapter 5, footnote 53. There is a similar phenomenon that began in the past century with respect to political uniforms, which some countries have banned in response to their use by far-right and far-left parties. For example, the use of political uniforms during marches was banned in the UK in 1936. The prohibition is still enforced today: leaders of the Britain First party were convinced on two occasions for wearing political uniforms.
The removal of statues and other political symbols is part of the same process. The very presence of a statue in public broadcasts the values attached to it. When one ideology replaces another, it is compelled to sweep away the conflicting symbols of the past.