Yes, private censorship is censorship

In light of some Australian store chains taking Grand Theft Auto 5 out of their shelves, and now from Hatred being removed from Steam Greenlight, there has been a depressing trend among gaming journalists and self-proclaimed cultural critics to excuse these events in all manner of ways, from arguing that “it’s not real censorship” to “yes it’s censorship but it’s good censorship”, always with thinly disguised celebration, for the sake of plausible deniability should public opinion turn on them.


“I wasn’t celebrating burning comic books, I was just pointing out how they make for great tinder. It’s a shame you couldn’t capture the subtlety of my critique.”

That spectrum of “not censorship” to “yes censorship but good” is enough to feed many posts (maybe I’ll do a series on the various fallacies), but this one is dedicated to one particular fallacy in that spectrum: that it’s not censorship because it wasn’t a governmental body that acted on it.

Personally, I this ridiculous idea is probably an outgrowth of the common conflation of the American constitution’s 1st amendment with free speech in general in the modern English-speaking world. These misinterpretations of the letter of the amendement often lead to two opposed but both flawed conclusions. One is that any curtailing of speech is a violation of the 1st amendment despite the law saying clearly that only the government can’t exercise that censorship; the other is the “no-true-censorship” nonsense that has become so fashionable in the videogame press now.

I can’t mince words here: this notion that censorship requires a state to qualify as actual censorship is absolutely moronic. There’s no shortage of literature on the reality of censorship by private parties, be they businesses or citizen’s associations or whatever other non-governmental group, so I’ll just keep to a few notorious figures.

John Stuart Mill

Among pro-GG sites there have been a couple of quotations floating around to illustrate it. One is by John Stuart Mill, the portrait of a liberal humanist. When discussing the topic of tyranny of the majority, Mill is clear to dispell the notion that only “political functionaries” can act against “individuality”:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

It’s important to note here that while arguing here about “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”, his argument holds true regardless of the size of the group, so long as it has the means to “compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own”.

Ray Bradbury

Another common text about private censorship making the rounds is Ray Bradbury’s coda for his own Fahrenheit 451 from 1979. Bradbury has often offered supplementary comments on the book, seeing as it’s often considered simply an attack on government censorship, and he wanted to make it clear that the govenrment’s censor role in Fahrenheit 451 is almost a passive one, because society itself had effectively banned books already, as some people took upon themselves to censor offending texts as they had “the will, the right, the duty” to do it.

It would be a bit much to print the whole text here, but it’s neatly summarized in two of its own sentences:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.

An interesting aside is that he claimed in his latter years that the story synthetized a fear that television would drive away people’s interest in literature. According to his interviewer, “he was far more concerned with the dulling effects of TV on people than he was on the silencing effect of a heavy-handed government”, and earlier than that, this exact same fear was directed at radio. This has been used as a demonstration of some knee-jerk reactionism in Bradbury’s part and thus as refutation of Fahrenheit 451‘s coda’s message about private groups as agents of censorship. This is, of course, a misinterpretation of the interview. He considered TV a bigger threat to books compared to government, and at no point does he disown, or even mention, the danger of private censorship. As he himself said, there’s more than one way to “burn a book”, and television, he feared, would be but only one of them.

Karl Marx

In additions to the previous two diatribes against private censorship, which are common currency in pro-GG sites, I’d like to add another one from someone who a lot of social justice advocates mention but few read.


Pixelation makes any picture seem videogame-related.

In a series of articles on the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, Marx expounds in defense of freedom of the press. Obviously this touches on government censorship, but he of course warns of the interference of “trade” in the press as well, which is what we’re interested in for this post.

In the article published on 19 May, he states regarding the various “species” of freedom:

Freedom of trade, freedom of property, of conscience, of the press, of the courts, are all species of one and the same genus, of freedom without any specific name. But it is quite incorrect to forget the difference because of the unity and to go so far as to make a particular species the measure, the standard, the sphere of other species. This is an intolerance on the part of one species of freedom, which is only prepared to tolerate the existence of others if they renounce themselves and declare themselves to be its vassals.

Freedom of trade is precisely freedom of trade and no other freedom because within it the nature of the trade develops unhindered according to the inner rules of its life. Freedom of the courts is freedom of the courts if they follow their own inherent laws of right and not those of some other sphere, such as religion. Every particular sphere of freedom is the freedom of a particular sphere, just as every particular mode of life is the mode of life of a particular nature.

So a freedom held to the standards of another freedom, would be an aberration. Yet in capitalism, it’s clear that many freedoms are subordinate to or parcels of freedom of trade, including freedom of press:

To make freedom of the press a variety of freedom of trade is a defence that kills it before defending it, for do I not abolish the freedom of a particular character if I demand that it should be free in the manner of a different character?

An interesting detail is that he goes so far as to say that the opposite (i.e. to consider freedom of trade only a form of freedom of press) would be similarly wrong. Regardless, he goes on (emphasis in the original):

The writer does not at all look on his work as a means. It is an end in itself, it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence.


The primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade. The writer who degrades the press into being a material means deserves as punishment for this internal unfreedom the external unfreedom of censorship, or rather his very existence is his punishment.

Of course, the press exists also as a trade, but then it is not the affair of writers, but of printers and booksellers. However, we are concerned here not with the freedom of trade of printers and booksellers, but with freedom of the press.

In other words, the output of the writer inevitably suffers as he’s subjected to the market demands. This is obvious in hindsight, as yellow journalism demonstrates, and the same applies to any other creative endeavor, not just in communications but the arts.

So then, in order for the press and the arts to be completely free, they must be free from commercial concerns. Again, the conclusion is common sense, but Marx’s analysis sees the material reason for it: profit motive interferes with freedom of the press.

Marx’s proposed solution to free the press, as was outlined in the Communist Manifesto, was to centralize it in the hands of a properly democratic state. Well, the debate about whether the error was in Marx’s theory, the Russians’ practice or both is a subject that fills literally entire libraries and occupies minds far greater than mine, so let’s skip that debate, yes?


It wasn’t for lack of warning, I guess.

Regardless, his point about freedom of the press in capitalism stands: the creative work must conform to the market, and private censorship is but one of is many problems.

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