Land Use and Censorship: It’s Time to Speak Up

It is actually harder to nail down a good definition of censorship that one might think. Since the word is so loaded, it means different things to different people. I won’t bother to go through all the different senses of the word here, but I will add my own definition.

In today’s Internet world otherwise known as the blogosphere, I have noticed a trend in the comments section of posts that is, depending on the situation, either mildly annoying or outrageous: the idea that a venue should stop allowing my writing to appear because it is disagreeable to the commenter. And this trend is getting worse as we get closer to the bone about who has the most influence on development in Seattle.

Here’s a typical example from commenter louploup on my article about the Bauhaus Block in Crosscut:

Mr. Valdez’ uninformed and uninformative columns elicit irritation rather than promote dialogue. Crosscut needs to find a more competent and balanced regular urban affairs writer.

Here’s another one from VeloBusDriver who mistakes me on a different post as an employee of Sightline:

Roger, I really expect better from a Sightline employee. You may not be posting this as a representative of SIghtline but it really tarnishes the brand.

Here’s a particularly bitter one from Crosscut:

Your articles are consistently factually incorrect. The only way you get away with it is (a)The long comment threads are good for pageview counts for those sites that care mnore about pageviews than integrity, and/or (b) The editors aren’t so immersed in the horrifically complicated world of land use to recognize they are wrong.

I’m hoping David continues to keep Crosscut out of the (a) category, which he can do by getting rid of your articles.

Now this isn’t the same as a sponsor making a threatening call to a magazine or newspaper and threatening to pull funding because of an editorial on the Op Ed page. It isn’t the United Sates Army coming into a publishing house and smashing the printing presses. And it isn’t a book burning. But why do I call it censorship?

When a commenter says, “I think your idea is terrible, and here’s why,” that is dialogue. When a commenter says, “I hate you, you’re a big fat idiot,” that’s an ad hominem attack. Both of these are fine in public discourse. The former is about opinions, values, and facts, and the later is just pure frustration. Either way the commenter is accountable to themselves and other commenters.

But there is something insidious about commenters who say in one way or another, “hey [insert blog or publication here], you really shouldn’t publish this person’s ideas because they are objectionable to me.”

An analogy is in order here. Imagine a town hall being run in which local people can appear and spout off on any topic they choose. A certain speaker gets up, says something, and someone in the crowd tells the management, “you shouldn’t let that person speak anymore, because they are uniformed and they irritate me.”

Either that individual is just saying, “I don’t like that speakers ideas because they irritate me,” or they genuinely want the person stopped. In English speaking countries, generally, we don’t condone silencing someone because they are uniformed and irritating. In fact, we tend to bristle at the notion that someone would be prevented from speaking simply because a lot of people disagree with them. This is a deeply rooted tradition, going back to very irritating people like John Lilburne and Thomas Paine, the latter whom I admire, the former who just irritates me.

Eliciting irritation: John Lilburne

More about page views than integrity: Thomas Paine

I am laboring on this point because I have seen these kinds of comments have an actual effect on organizational decision-making. Most blogs and venues around here are non-profit, and what commends them to readers is that just about anyone with an idea and a computer can get their ideas some airtime.

The problem is that they are non-profits; they are dependent on donations as well as readership that support ad sales. That means they aren’t much different than a for-profit venue; they need financial support from interested parties to survive.

Calls for my removal from the forum have mostly, in my experience, proven futile. Venues usually brush them off. But, sometimes, when financial or brand insecurity sets in, I have seen venues crack under the pressure. Lots of negative comments, or negative comments from funders, can raise the heart rate of an executive director or editor. “Maybe that was too harsh,” or “maybe it was incorrect or off the mark,” they might think.

Getting facts wrong is one thing. When a writer gets facts wrong he should always correct or respond. But when a writer can “elicit irritation,” and we call for a venue to shut him down because of it, we’re treading toward what I would call censorship. I think Seattle has a very strong passive aggressive tendency that I have written about before. But passive aggressive is only mildly annoying, even banal; but banality can easy turn into something else.

More people need to go on record about the dominance of single family neighborhoods in the way land use policy is made in Seattle. City Councilmembers need to hear criticism when they’ve made a mistake. And sometimes those of us who advocate for the principles behind sustainable land use and planning need to take on interest groups we like and our friends when we disagree with them. Censorship thrives on fear but change depends on courage.

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One Response to Land Use and Censorship: It’s Time to Speak Up

  1. MarkSJohnson says:

    The complaints you cite seem to focus some of their irritation on the articles being factually incorrect. When someone claims that something is factually incorrect and don’t give a specific example, their comment is of no value and can be ignored. But if they give an exmaple of what they are talking about and it proves to be be factually incorrect, that is a different matter. It isn’t censorship to tell a journalist that facts need to be correct. That said, I haven’t noticed a pattern of incorrect “facts” in your articles, just provacative interpretations of the things you see. Although I often take exception to your opinions, I would not like to see your articles dropped from Crosscut. My own differences of opinion are usualy based on things that I have seen that maybe you haven’t, or that you are not looking at.

    That leads to the accusation of being “uninformed”. Rhetoric always involves getting people to look at a limited set of facts in a specific way. It may be sign that a writer is not convincing people when they accuse him or her of being uninformed, but that alone is not a reason to drop them from a publication. I am pretty sure negative comments often come in higher numbers that comments that agree with a writer’s opinion. With any news source but especially with an online news source, the fact that people choose to read your articles enough to form an opinion about them suggests that there is an attraction to them- otherwise, why click on them. I would suggest that people keep in mind that they are not reading “the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts” when they read Crosscut, but are reading advocative journalism, hopefully supported by verifiable facts, but not every possible related fact. You think you have a more informed opinion- let’s hear it.

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