China Review: Is censorship the root cause of uncivil speech on the Internet?

The power of the Internet as a tool for rallying public opinion in China has drawn increasing attention from the Western press and China watchers in recent months. At the same time the Internet has come under more intense fire within China for the often uncivil nature of the speech that appears there, on personal blogs and in online chatrooms. Citing these problems officials have intensified controls on Internet speech, most recently through bans on so-called “malicious spoofs”, or e’gao. The following editorial, which appeared originally in China Review magazine and was republished by Southern Metropolis Daily yesterday, suggests that lack of civility and reason in online speech is a direct result of government censorship:

The benefits of the Internet are apparent to all, especially insofar as many people now have a channel for expressing their own thoughts, perspectives and feelings such as they never before had. But I also believe it’s inadvisable at the moment to get one’s hopes up too high over the Internet. I’d like specifically to address the healthy development of ideas and some of the rather unwholesome characters that have lately appeared on the Web – I’m talking about [the phenomenon of] online abuse. On the slightest provocation it becomes, “Kill X”; “you’re an ass!”; “Oh, hell!”; “I’ll kill your whole family” or some more extreme form of personal attack.

Why are things this way? Perhaps it is because our politics over the past century have been marked with a tradition of such cruelty, and because our longer-standing spiritual traditions lack the sort of deeper reckoning with our darker selves that might lead us to tolerance and reason. Perhaps it is because a great many of these scorn-heapers are inhibited in their actual lives and have no other avenue of release, and so use the Internet to vent their anger and resentment. This has already become one reason why people are calling for an intensification of controls on the Internet. But of course another reason [for this type of behavior online] is the management of the Web itself [NOTE: the writer avoids directly saying “government censorship”, presumably to avoid attracting too much attention]. Managers [of the Web] do not value and cherish it, and sometimes on the contrary inhibit and diminish the development of reason on the Internet, which helps to ensure that vituperation prevails.

I support the idea that the Internet be regulated. Still, I don’t think the issue is the revilers themselves, but rather ensuring we get rid of the market and incentive for such hatefulness. On the one hand, we need to promote the idea of self-discipline among individuals and Websites, to clear up the field on their own, including the development of strong critical opinion; on the other hand, we need to make sure that voices of reason expand on the Web, which means those sites with intellectual content and a sense of learnedness should expand and receive protection. The relationship between reasoned discussion and irrational scorn is one of inverse proportions [“as one is ascendant, the other is in decline”]. If Websites of authority that approach questions with reasoned thought and earnest exploration are few and far between, then naturally they deserve to be treasured. If among these are thoughts or viewpoints that are rather vehement or “unorthodox”, this means an intensity of ideas and not that the language is unreasonable or cruel.

But we have seen these Websites suffer repeatedly, so that scorn and meaningless personal attacks can flow unobstructed in the name of a number of ideologies, or prevail under the banner of noble generalities like “morality”, “justice” or “patriotism”. Meanwhile, moderate, reasoned and constructive viewpoints need only differ in understanding from the tenets and standards of some few managers [NOTE: i.e., party leaders] to meet with trouble and lose the Web platform through which they are expressed.

This kind of brutal and arbitrary management not only interdicts the development of moderate, reasonable and constructive intellectual Websites, but by its very method provides the paradigm for the brutal and peremptory.

For any normal society, an attitude of respect for reason has importance and precedence over what particular viewpoint one holds. That is to say, how one expresses oneself and resolves differences of opinion is more important than one’s actual position.

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 3, 2006, 3:50pm]

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