Want to Make More People Believe Something? Censor It!

People are more likely to believe restricted—that is, censored—information.

That was one of my biggest takeaways from Robert Cialdini’s Influence.

If I tell you that ‘the sky is orange’ is censored, that you can’t post pictures of orange skies on social media, that newspapers will refuse to publish stories about orange skies, that painters who depict orange skies will have all of their artwork removed from galleries, then you are more likely to believe that the sky is, in fact, orange.

The sky is totally dark and orange
If I told you that the media censored pictures of orange skies, would you be more inclined to believe this photograph of an orange sky?

Let’s see how this relates to the recent bills banning ‘critical race theory’ in classrooms.

Regardless of what those legislators, schoolteachers, activists, the public, etc. think ‘critical race theory’ means, these laws make ‘critical race theory’ more attractive for a simple reason: censorship creates scarcity, and scarcity attracts people.

Thus, banning ‘critical race theory’ in schools will make ‘critical race theory’ (however people understand the phrase) more popular than it otherwise would be.

This is a logical fallacy. Censorship doesn’t mean information is true. We shouldn’t believe censored information more than uncensored information. Yet we do. Even I noticed myself giving more credence to the story last year about Hunter Biden’s laptop because Twitter and Facebook blocked links to the New York Post story. I wouldn’t have even known about the article without the blocks since I don’t read the New York Post (that’s the Streisand effect) but I also was more inclined to believe it because Twitter and Facebook blocked an old, famous newspaper, though that shouldn’t have any bearing on accuracy.

Micromanaging how teachers do their jobs has other effects, mostly bad. According to this article, the most common reaction of teachers to these legislative bills is confusion: they don’t know what these laws mean and how they will affect their work. These laws also make them afraid that they’ll be put into no-win situations.

Legislatures banning anything in classroom teaching is never good. Even banning ‘teaching that one race is superior to another’ is bad because a) it’s too vague and b) it might make that idea more alluring (see above) and c) it might interfere with useful history and/or cultural education (for example, it might ban some books with educational value). Sometimes legislators adding to school curricula makes sense, such as the Japanese American reparations law which mandates that the public be educated about the history of the Japanese American internment camps. Banning content from classrooms is bad. That doesn’t mean it’s good for any and every idea to be taught, just that the legislature is not the place to exclude content.

Banning ‘critical race theory’ has an extra wrinkle. The supporters of these bills claim that they are in favor of teaching the history of slavery, they just don’t want white children to feel that they are oppressors or personally responsible for what white people in the past did to people of color. This request would be reasonable, if white students weren’t so inclined to find self-blame in plain statements of, for example, what 19th century white people did to indigenous people, even when the plain statement of the facts makes no comment about white people alive today.

I remember the teacher of a ‘American Indians and U.S. History’ class talking about how she has to go out of her way to reassure her white students that they, as the individuals sitting in her class, were not responsible for the atrocities she was teaching them about, but it is her job to teach the history accurately. That’s why she didn’t like teaching the class. Why did she have to actively reassure white students? Why couldn’t she just lay out a factual history and let the students draw their own conclusions? It’s because, without someone else providing reassurance, white people tend to react to accurate histories of the relationship between the United States and indigenous people by feeling guilt and a sense of inferiority.

See what’s happening there? Living white students acting as if history about dead white people is about themselves personally and insisting that the teachers assuage their guilt imposes an emotional labor burden on the teachers, which discourages the teachers from teaching the history. It’s passive-aggressive resistance.

Some teachers fear that, with these new bills on the books, if they accurately teach U.S. history, even if they make no comment about the students in their classrooms, some students (and their parents) will construe this history as a way to make them feel ‘inferior’ because they are white, and then sue in court. Though this will increase belief in the idea that white people have, in fact, committed gross injustices against indigenous people, and maybe even that white people are an ‘inferior’ race, that won’t protect the teachers.

In short, the effect will be to punish educators, not to stop people from believing whatever they believe ‘critical race theory’ is.

Now let’s talk about those Dr. Seuss books which Dr. Seuss Enterprises stopped publishing.

As the copyright holders, Dr. Seuss Enterprises has the right to cease publication of any Dr. Seuss book for any reason. However, if their goal was to stop Dr. Seuss books from spreading racist ideas, ceasing the publication of those six books was the wrong move. Inserting disclaimers/disclosures/discussions in new introductions and donating the royalties from those books to organizations which support the people of color is a much better way to address racism in Dr. Seuss books. Why? Because adding new introductions and donating royalties doesn’t impose scarcity on the ideas in those books, whereas ceasing publication does. And imposing scarcity on those ideas increases their allure.

Thanks to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop publishing those six books, those books got way more attention than they deserved. Other organizations’ decisions, such as eBay’s, to further restrict those books only made the situation worse. Making Dr. Seuss books artificially scarcer increases their desirability as well as belief in the messages those books convey.

Financially, it was a good move for Dr. Seuss Enterprises. Sales of Dr. Seuss books soared. Perhaps Dr. Seuss Enterprises cynically ceased publication of those books rather than add introductions/disclaimers/etc. and donate royalties because they wanted to drive up sales.

I’m not concerned about what these bills against ‘critical race theory’ will do to critical race theory. Critical race theory will be fine. It’s the effect on people, especially educators and people of color who sense that powerful people want to shut them up, who I’m worried about.

1 thought on “Want to Make More People Believe Something? Censor It!

  1. Pingback: Why Isn’t the News Screaming About the Guy Who Committed Perjury to Get Julian Assange Prosecuted? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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