In last Wednesday’s paper Calvary Rogers argued in favor of increasing soft censorship in America and at Penn. Soft censorship differs from “hard” censorship in that it usually involves social/economic action — shouting people down, denying them venues or firing them from their jobs — rather than direct legislation forbidding publication of particular opinions or ideas. Rogers lamented the fact that many at Penn believe in “speech tolerance” — even for opinions we personally find abhorrent.
In opposition to this cultural norm, Rogers argued that prompt, collective action should be taken against those who offend Rogers personally (as in his first paragraph), those who offend the sensibilities of left-leaning groups (as might happen if “conservative speakers” are not “uninvited” to college campuses) and those who make widely offensive statements (like promoting Nazism or some “preacher’s” cocktail of racism and hellfire).
I happen to oppose soft censorship both by the government and by a university that claims to foster the open exchange of ideas. But I take the time to write today because Rogers singled out one of my columns as an exhibit of speech that might warrant censorship, claiming that it “openly questioned” the “rights and humanity of LGBTQ people.”
The column in question, entitled “Not born this way,” details what amounts to a scientific consensus that no one is “born gay.” In rather dry terms I explained major, respectable studies and quoted authorities inside and outside the LGBTQ community indicating that same-sex attraction is generally the result of some combination of genes, environment and choice — with the latter two playing a dominant role for most.
As I noted in the column, this fact was worth pointing out because it runs counter to a widespread pop-culture belief that homosexuality is primarily a genetic trait analogous to one’s race or sex.
But Rogers seemed to think that it dehumanizes the LGBTQ community to point out that the practice of homosexuality does not arise from “homosexuals” being genetically different from “heterosexuals.” His statement would seem to imply that it is wrong to note that people with a distinct way of life do not necessarily come from a distinct gene pool.
This is not rationally sound. It does not question a group’s humanity to point out that that their sexual preferences — like anyone else’s — are primarily a function of their choices and environment. Some people only get turned on by sadomasochistic sex. Some prefer oral sex. Some favor "thruppling." Still others favor sex without a condom or only want to make love within a committed relationship.
Some do not want to have sex at all.
Individuals may condemn or approve of any or all of these preferences from a moral standpoint, but it is important not to confuse sexual ethics with the etiology of sexual preference. On the science, “gay people” are not “born that way.” To point this fact out is — if anything — to affirm, not to question their humanity.
Nevertheless, Rogers implied that my statement of this fact ought not to have been published by a conscientious editor. This raises one of the fundamental problems with advocating for soft censorship on the basis of perceived offense.
Individuals inside and outside the LGBTQ community let me know that they found “Not born this way” interesting and worthwhile. But Rogers — instead of countering the argument of my original column — put it on a level with Nazism and asserted it perilous to publish without even troubling himself to demonstrate why.
This is the slippery problem with advocating for soft censorship on the basis of perceived offense. Who is to be the judge of what is offensive?
Sixty years ago to even mention homosexuality outside of academia was considered offensive. While freedom of speech protected early publications like the Mattachine Review, soft censorship ensured that its ideas — suggesting, for instance, that homosexuality might not be a psychological disease — remained obscure.
The fact that evil lies are often deemed offensive does not mean that all things deemed offensive must necessarily be evil lies. Rogers’ advocacy for soft censorship is based implicitly on the assumption that, once normalized, it will be wielded overwhelmingly against those whom he — for whatever reason — finds offensive.
But a little reflection on history (or a cursory knowledge of the expressed beliefs of our president) belies this notion. Those that anoint themselves as fit arbiters of the marketplace of ideas, will quickly find competitors in their field. The result of soft censorship is at best a bitter contest on all sides to gain the social and economic power necessary to regulate speech.
Free speech, in contrast, allows an exchange of ideas, which, however imperfect, gives people a chance to weigh both sides of an argument and arrive at some approximation of the truth.
JEREMIAH KEENAN is a College senior from China, studying mathematics and classical studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.