Updated: 05/15/2002


Are Our Freedoms and Our Values In Conflict?

Freedom has been getting some bad press lately.

Some people say that the media (and the arts) have too much freedom and that the range of ideas presented by the media (which primarily means broadcast television) should be more tightly controlled.

As a result freedom has been losing some ground.

Given the present climate, we need to remind ourselves that the success of a democratic society is based on an informed electorate; and the only way to have an informed electorate is to allow a free flow of information.

A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth
and falsehood of ideas in an open market
is a nation that is afraid of its people.
John F. Kennedy, former U.S. President

Although we all learned about such things in our high school civics classes, today such values are easy to forget—especially when the free flow of information contains ideas that go against our basic beliefs.

Some cases in point: the patently absurd headlines and stories regularly appearing in tabloids ("Two-Headed Woman Marries Two Men!''); U.S. TV programs such as Hard Copy which have redefined tabloid journalism; and, of course, photos, films videotapes and art work that are branded "pornographic.''


Censorship for the Sake of Our Values

These and other seeming abuses of free speech have been enough to make many people cry for some type of control of the media—some type of censorship.

And that's exactly what's been happening.

According to USA Today, overt moves to censor books take place in about 20 percent of U.S. schools each year, with unreported efforts far exceeding this percentage.

Things that have been censored include Shakespeare's plays and such classic books as: The Red Badge of Courage, Mr. Roberts, Catcher in the Rye, the Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Go Ask Alice, and Of Mice and Men.

More recently, the Harry Potter books (responsible for turning on thousands of young people to reading) have been banned by religious-right forces, who feel that Harry Potter's powers are associated with satanism. In fact, the Potter books were the most censored books in 2002.

Even Webster's New World Dictionary has been banned in some schools because it contains "objectionable words.''

And, it may only be appropriate that Fahrenheit 451, a book about censorship, has also been banned.

This cleaning up of our culture must extend to nearly all domains. Theater, art, literature, movies, the press, posters, and window displays must be cleaned of the symptoms of a rotting world and put into the service of the state...to prevent a people from being driven into the arms of spiritual lunacy.

-Adolf Hitler

Interestingly, one of the most

Interestingly, one of the most disdained fascists in history, Adolf Hitler, won popular approval by promising to clean up "moral corruption" in the media of his time. 

Once he gained control of Germany he was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of:

  • 6 million Jews
  • 9 million East Europeans
  • 20 million Soviet citizens
  • 4 million German soldiers (2 million in the course of his "ethnic cleansing")
  • 1 million Western Allied soldiers

Then, as now, the idea of  "cleaning up the media" can have great popular appeal.

Censorship has not only been taking place in our schools. During the last decade or so attempts to keep certain governmental activities from the public have reached new heights.

The percentage of government documents marked "classified'' dramatically increased during the Reagan-Bush years. Many classified documents have nothing to do with national security; they include toxic-waste studies and significant findings on occupational hazards.

More recently, of course, the Internet has become a focus for censorship. This is covered here.

In the old days when a messenger gave a king bad news the king would sometimes become so upset he would kill the messenger. We see anger of this type directed against today's messengers, the news media.

Those of us who have worked in news know how readily corruption can thrive when it can be hidden from public disclosure. But thanks to technology it's not as easy to hide things today.

To cite just one example, using today's high-quality camcorders concerned citizens have documented a wide range of abuses of the public trust. We've seen some of the results on network news and public affairs programming.

Ironically, often some of those who proclaim the virtues of this "land of the free," are often the first to proclaim just as loudly that something should be done to stifle ideas and values which differ from their own.


Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself.

Potter Stewart

From a psychological perspective there is a demonstrable relationship between psychological security and tolerance. Put another away, personal insecurities are often related to an inability to tolerate new ideas, or ideas that run contrary to our own.

Despots who fear losing their position are quick to initiate censorship.

The more insecure their status the more desperate their efforts.

Throughout history totalitarian regimes and censorship have gone hand in hand. (See the article, The Broadcast Media's Growing Role in International Politics in another section).

Insecurity and the inability to confront new ideas are related to the mobilization of three ego defenses, or personal defense mechanisms.


Personal Defense Mechanisms

1. First is selective exposure where individuals try to minimize exposure to ideas that run contrary to their own beliefs. In this way their views have little chance of being challenged or changed—even though important new facts may emerge. 

Those who try to limit their own exposure (or other people's exposure) to new ideas may be creating a situation that actually works against them in the long run.

Studies indicate that those who do not have a chance to compare and defend their ideas are most apt to abandon them when they are confronted with an opposing view—even though that opposing view is unsound.

However, those who have had ample opportunity to test and defend their views are most likely to hold on to them when they are challenged.

Interestingly, some talk show hosts screen their guest so that no one who holds view contrary to their own will be featured on the show. Rather than welcome the chance to confront what they think is an inferior idea and stimulate thinking, they seem to fear such ideas.

2. Second defense mechanism is selective perception. If individuals are presented with ideas or data that contradict their beliefs, they refuse to "see" or recognize the credibility or significance of the information.

If the idea, itself, is difficult to dispute, the individuals may try to discredit the source. "You can't believe anything that (whoever) says." Attributing the idea to an incompetent, corrupt or evil source is another approach.

3. Finally, there is selective recall. Simply put, we tend to remember things that support our viewpoints and conveniently forget those that don't.

For example, after a TV program is shown which contradicts some of our personal beliefs, we tend to remember only those facts that support  our original beliefs. Or, we may remember "different facts" and feel that the program actually supported our views. 

All of these defense mechanisms have been demonstrated in studies.


Limited Ability to Make Essential Adjustments

Although these defense mechanisms tend to protect belief systems, they also limit growth and personal opportunities.

Possibly more importantly, they limit our ability to adjust to changing needs by being able to consider new solutions to problems.  (If we had successful solutions to these problems, would they remain problems?) 

Throughout history we've seen what happens to species and societies that were not capable of adequately adapting to change. Today, change is assuming an ever-accelerating pace. Part of this change involves the emergence of ideas that are new—even ideas that threaten cherished beliefs.

At one time it was heresy to suggest that the world was not flat or not at the center of the universe. Those who were bold enough to openly advocate another view were censored or even tortured until they "repented." And if that didn't work, they were simply killed "for the good of society."


When a tyrant first appears
he always comes as your protector.



The Price of Freedom

We must remember that the price of freedom involves tolerating ideas that differ from our own beliefs.  Sometimes we must defend the rights of those we disagree with in order to insure that we, ourselves,  will retain the freedom to share ideas that we consider better and more worthy.

Freedom and values are not in conflict as long as we are personally strong enough to consider alternative views while using our freedoms to effectively evaluate these views—and then act on our informed decisions.

In Germany they came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up, because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew.

Then  they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionists.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

And then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak out.

-  Attributed to Martin Niemoeller

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