The issue is not censoring speech. It is really about censoring grievances.

Roderick Graham
6 min readAug 29

One of the major battle lines in the modern culture wars revolves around free speech and censoring in society. I am talking about social media platforms removing content or deplatforming accounts that those platforms deem hateful or spreading misinformation. I am also talking about university students attempting to “cancel” event speakers, preventing them from giving talks on their campuses. All of these phenomena fall under the general label of censoring.

And there is certainly a debate to be had about this.

On one side are those who believe it is acceptable for platforms and institutions to prohibit certain words and ideas. At least one of the reasons, they argue, is for the good of other users and society. Exposing people to hateful rhetoric can be traumatic to them directly, causing anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. There are also historical precedents where hateful rhetoric towards minorities has been the precursor to legalized discrimination and physical violence. On the other side are those who believe that words and ideas shouldn’t be muzzled. Prohibiting speech, the logic goes, is antithetical to Western values of free expression. Moreover, the free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of democracy and scientific progress.

In full disclosure, I fall more on the side of censoring speech. But regardless of what side you are on, the underlying issue is not censoring free speech. We are arguing about the wrong thing.

The issue is censoring grievances.

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Imagine if a social media platform informs its users to abstain from foul language and that repeated uses of profanity will result in a permanent ban. Would the culture warriors come out in mass, decrying the censoriousness of the platform? I doubt it.

And why not?

Because most people don’t get upset over censoring speech in the abstract. Instead, they get upset over censoring their specific grievances. People want to express their grievances in public spaces (or spaces that function as public, such as social media sites like YouTube).

Pay attention when you hear or read something about censoring or related phenomena — canceling, deplatforming, and the like. At the root of that argument is someone not just advocating for free speech in the abstract — but attempting to…

Roderick Graham

Gadfly | Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University | I post about social science, culture, and progressive politics | Views are my own