Speaking Freely: An Interview With Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer is a Renaissance historian whose work lies at the intersection of ideas and historical change. She is currently on research leave from the University of Chicago, where she teaches early modern European history. She is also a writer of fiction; her 2016 novel, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Ada’s research encompasses many topics, including the history of censorship. In 2018, she worked with EFF’s own Cory Doctorow on a project that looked at censorship and information control in information revolutions.

I’ve been thinking about censorship for a long time, but much of what Ada said during our conversation still managed to surprise me. We talked about censorship during the Inquisition, and how that parallels to today’s online censorship challenges. We also discussed what Ada, as an historian, sees as the harmful long-term effects of censorship, some of which might surprise even the most dedicated free expression activist. It was an honor and a pleasure to get to interview Ada for this wide-ranging edition of Speaking Freely.

York: My first question is what does free speech, or free expression, mean to you?

Two very different things, because I’m both an academic studying a phenomenon, and then a human being living in a world. So, as an academic studying a phenomenon, you observe, you describe … and in that sense, I can—when having my historian hat on—speak very neutrally about it. I spend a lot of my time researching major censorship operations of the past—researching the Inquisition, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, researching the Comics Code Authority. With your historian hat on, you can discuss these things very neutrally, even with a sort of fondness of “yes, this is my subject, and these people are terrible, and it’s kind of fun in that way.”

This is very different from when you zoom out from that semi-artificial historian neutrality to the realities. One of the things that has colored my approach to free speech is trying to de-separate and reunify those things. One of the problems we’ve faced trying to understand free expression, and its significance, and what the consequences are of infringing it, is that so much of our historical research on it tries to present as neutral, because that’s how you present historical research—distanced and balanced. But, in a way, that undermines the power of that historical research to show how bad it is and galvanize action. Does that make sense?

York: Absolutely.

In that sense, I consider my work parallel in facing some of the challenges as my colleague Kathleen Belew, who works on the history of white supremacy in the U.S. We’re studying phenomena that we’re fascinated by, but when you try to think about them directly and honestly you have an ethical responsibility to consistently remind the reader of the terrible consequences of them.

York: I’d like to dig into that a bit more. Tell me about one historical phenomenon in terms of censorship that perhaps I or our readers wouldn’t know about.

One of the victims of censorship that I’ve never heard anyone else talk about, although I’m sure someone must have, is the later future capacity to tell histories of the period when censorship happened. Because, since there was censorship, it sort of invalidates the historical record and the documents that survived, which you know were coerced or doctored (or if they weren’t, were written in a state of fear and self-censorship). It renders that whole historical record patch unreliable in a way that then makes it easier for later people to come and make claims about that period that you can’t refute using the historical sources.

To give the specific example that made me think of this: I work a lot on the Renaissance and the early period of the Reformation, and this is a period where everybody knows the Inquisition is in full operation. And lots of people tell histories of the Renaissance where they claim that all these important people, big ideas people who changed the world, were secret atheists, secretly anti-Catholic, or anti-Christian. And you come to this person who’s made this claim and you show them tons of documents and the person comes back and says “oh, there was censorship, so they weren’t being honest, and if you read between the lines they really think this…”

And it’s true there was censorship, and so you have to be very careful in interpreting the documents. The fact that there was censorship means anybody can come to those documents and claim that anything was false because censorship was there, and that what people really did or thought matches their narrative.

York: Wow, that’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.

Yeah, we’re very conscious of the consequences of censorship during the short term, within our lifetimes. But censorship sort of poisons the historical record for centuries after it by making this tool by which people can invalidate things.

It’s similar to how we see people invalidating things now—like “that climate study wasn’t really valid because those people got funding from a leftist political group”—they’re invalidating the material by claiming that there has to be insincerity in the development of the document. And the more a period is known to have censorship (which isn’t the same thing as actually having it) or other pressure that are in some sense potentially distorting or affecting what people say and write, the easier it is for people to make the claim that they don’t really mean what they say.

I don’t think we think about truths on that larger historical scale being one of the victims of censorship.

York: Yeah, the way that you framed this reminds me of something I’ve been thinking of, which is how the LGBTQ movement here in Berlin was censored by the Nazis…but that’s kind of the opposite of what you’re saying. Here it’s the lost information about what happened in Berlin, and what you’re talking about is the mistruths that result from that.

Yes – it will never be possible to write a history of LGBT issues during and before this patch of censorship. Everyone’s always going to be combing through partial records trying to construct what might have been. A good historian will be modest in their claims. You can coax a lot out of a few documents, though.

It’s easy for anybody who has a strong pre-expectation of what must be true to project that pre-expectation onto the material, because anything that doesn’t match that pre-expectation can be dismissed as unreliable or false. And so it will make it both easier to create histories that distort in a pro-LGBT and an anti-LGBT way and in many other ways that will tie into future political issues we haven’t even gotten to. [You] know, 50 years from now when the new frontier of ethics is, I don’t know, octopus rights (because we will have already given civil rights to high primates and will be working on octopuses next), the factions in that battle will be able to exploit documents to advance narratives on any and all sides of a polarizing issue.

York: That’s really fascinating. I don’t mean this to be such a big question, but … what led you to that particular interest in the historical aspects of censorship?

I was led to it because I did my dissertation on Atomism and Epicureanism and we associate these with the history of atheism, which I was always very interested in. So I sort of came to it wanting to find secret atheists. And yet the more I looked at the material, the less I saw any evidence of that, and the more I saw rather orthodox Catholics nonetheless being interested in and reading this radical material.

As I’ve published and had to defend this thesis, I will then over and over have the following conversation:

“But aren’t all these people secret atheists?”

“No, here’s all the things that they say that is incompatible with atheism.”

“Oh, but they’re just being disingenuous.”

It’s been fascinating to watch that ineradicable repetition of “oh, but they’re just secret atheists, right?” But this happens with all our myths about the past. And yet, when I’m working with Renaissance materials, every single book I pull out has been censored, especially in the printed period where quite early in the dissemination of the printing press, the Inquisition had this system set up where you had to submit a text to a censor before you could have permission to publish it. Every book has a page at the front that says who censored it and that it has official permission to be censored, and that it’s good. And on many Italian books it’ll be one page, but if they’re produced under the Spanish or Portuguese regime where the Inquisition was better funded, it will sometimes be dozens of pages or, in a few of extreme examples, half of the book will be filled with letters from censors. The censorship is extremely visible and extremely integral to the text.

At the same time, the Inquisition was allowing the circulation of Lucretius, which says there’s no such thing as immortality of the soul, and prayer doesn’t work, and the gods didn’t create the cosmos…there’s this confusing apparent paradox of: “Inquisition, why are you spending so much effort and yet allowing these things that we think should be your number one target to circulate with your permission and even recommendation on the title page?”

And so I’m fascinated with trying to figure out what the Inquisition was doing when it wasn’t going after who we think it should’ve been. If you had a time machine, you’d go back and tell the Inquisition “You know, you’re fighting the wrong battles —if you want to really want to ferociously control the world, you should be going after Voltaire and not these bizarre Jansenist theologians no one in the future will have heard of.”

And so I became fascinated with the question of what the Inquisition’s actual goal was … and then that became a larger interest on a global scale, which is what my current project is: taking the patterns I’ve observed in European censorship and comparing them to China, the USSR, the Indian subcontinent both before and after British rule, to try to figure out what big global patterns there are in censorship that operate differently from what our expectations are.

York: I’ve thought about that as well, in terms of how countries censor the Internet. In my previous work at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, I managed a project that looked at the various reasons and ways in which governments censor the Internet and the tools that they use to do so.

Okay, I want to talk about a couple of parallels here: You’ve got some countries that are more secretive, and others that are very visible in the way that they display blockpages. And then you also talked about the goals of the Inquisition, and I’d love to get your thoughts on why governments—and companies for that matter—censor today.

So, in recurring patterns, one thing I’ve noticed is that pretty much every censoring operation post-printing press—which is of course earlier in the East than in Europe—recognizes that it isn’t possible to track down and destroy every copy of a thing. You’re never going to track down all of the copies once it’s been printed, and efforts to attempt to do so are actually remarkably rare in addition to being consistently unsuccessful. We think of the Inquisition as doing a lot of book burning, but an Inquisition book burning was the ceremonial burning of one copy of a book. In fact, the Inquisition kept examples of all of the books they banned in order to have them for reference.

So what is the Inquisition doing if it’s not trying to obliterate texts? I think it’s trying to do a couple of different things. A big one is projection of power, because every time you pick up a book, the first page you see is that the Inquisition had control over this book. Every time you’re thinking about publishing, you’re thinking about getting past the censor. Whether you’re the author, publisher, or especially the reader, the act of reading becomes an act of being reminded of orthodoxy, power, et cetera, especially in the practice of expurgation, which ties into the visibility question for the internet.

The expurgation system was basically “you may have this book, but you must go to page 210 and cross out paragraph 3—that paragraph is forbidden, but the rest of it you may have.”

What you produce at the end doesn’t actually obliterate the content—you can put a light behind it and see the text, it’s not that hard—but what it means is that every time you turn the page and see the blacked-out parts, you’re reminded of power, reminded that there is an authority out there, lurking. And one of the most telling examples of this is that the content censored isn’t always what we’d think of as the most meaningful.

Here’s an example: There’s an encyclopedia of animals, think a subset of Wikipedia, published by Conrad Gessner in the late 1600s, and he’s collected material that’s been sent to him by people all over Europe who observe animals. He has pictures of animals and little articles, and it’s really as close to Wikipedia as anything gets, because it’s crowdsourced in the pre-modern world.

And the Inquisition looks at it because he’s a Protestant and because they look at everything. And they say “okay, you can have the animals,” but under each animal he’ll usually thank the learned and excellent Doctor So-and-So. But if Doctor So-and-So is a Protestant, he must cross out “learned and excellent,” because Protestants aren’t learned and excellent—they’re bad and wrong. And so you have to go through this six-volume giant encyclopedia and find every point where he praises a Protestant as learned and excellent, and cross it out.

Notice no information has been destroyed at all—what this is is a didactic tool, it’s just like making Bart Simpson go through and write “I will not do X” over and over again on the blackboard.

York: [laughs heartily]

It’s making you go through and write “Protestants are bad”, “Protestants are bad”, “Protestants are bad” on every single page. So it’s about turning your reading process into a tool of power for this entity, to reinforce barriers, to reinforce what is taboo and not taboo, and to remind you through every bit of the reading process that there is this authority out there. And that’s what parallels the versions of censoring the internet where they make it obvious, whether it’s having a box pop up, or having the page partially load—that reminds you with a little chill that you tried to do something forbidden. And it has a didactic, power-projecting purpose.

York: That’s so interesting and true.

I see that over and over…they know they’re never going to eradicate material that’s already there, but they can turn that material into a tool for advancing their own agenda. And then the other half of this is that a lot of these activities aren’t for erasing information that already exists, but to cause self-censorship and prevent the production of new things that don’t yet exist.

The motto for the book I’m currently working on is, “The vast majority of censorship is self-censorship, but the vast majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by an outside power.”

York: Yeah, absolutely.

We had a great discussion in class at one point about the Galileo trial—you’re the Inquisition, here’s this guy Galileo, you think his ideas are dangerous. You then have a giant, showy trial that makes him a hundred times more famous than he was before, so that everyone is talking about him and he remains a major figure in the history of culture for hundreds of years afterward…what are you doing? It would be much more sensible to have him quietly murdered, which is not hard in 1600. It would be more sensible to smear him, say nothing, accuse him of sodomy, any normal sort of destroy-your-enemy tactic of 1600 makes more sense, if what you want to do is silence Galileo.

And a student in the class was asking: “How do we judge when censorship succeeds?” The answer is we have to figure out what the goal of the censorship was, because if the goal of the Galileo trial was to silence Galileo, it was one of the worst failures of anything anyone has ever tried to do in the history of the planet. But if you think of it differently, the goal of the Galileo trial is that it gets Descartes to withdraw his treatise that was about to be published, and then revising it to be way more orthodox and way more Catholic, and then publish that, which continues to be the dominant force in the French intellectual world for a century, and results in a much more orthodox and much more Catholic France than it would have if Descartes had published the uncensored original version—that’s the victory of the Galileo trial.

York: This feels like what we’re seeing in Egypt at the moment—the silencing of some of the louder voices in order to prevent more people from coming forward…of course, the main impact is self-censorship.

Yeah, and…I’ll talk to people sometimes about censorship and they’ll want to say things like “okay, we’re going to talk about real censorship, not self-censorship, that’s different.”

York: [laughs]

And I have to say “No, it’s not different.”

The other one I sometimes run into is “We’re going to talk about state censorship, because only state censorship is real censorship—”

York: Yes, that’s my life.

[Palmer laughs] Nooo, it’s not true! And if you want an absolutely foolproof thing that’ll shut that person up for a few minutes while they try to come up with a rebuttal: “The Inquisition wasn’t the state. The Inquisition was a private organization comparable to Doctors Without Borders or Unicef that was organized through Rome, but run by private organizations like the Dominicans and the Jesuits, and was decentralized with lots of offices all over the place and often competed with the state.

In addition to which, the First Amendment—Congress can make no law—there is absolutely no incompatibility with the Inquisition operating in the U.S. right now like the way that it operated in France and Spain and everywhere else. What it is is an organization that has permission to have private police, and have private prisons, and arrest people on private authority and do its thing…the U.S. allows all that stuff. There’s nothing in the First Amendment or the U.S. legal system that wouldn’t allow the Inquisition to operate. There are particular things about policies against religious restriction that might mean they’d have to work around certain local laws in certain states, but [the Inquisition] could absolutely operate the same way here, and it wouldn’t be against the state, and it wouldn’t be against the First Amendment.*

And when you get that across to people who are trying to argue that it isn’t censorship when it’s not the state, I’ve found that to be very successful in getting people to wake up and see that it’s more complicated. Because nobody would ever argue that the Inquisition wasn’t censorship.

York: In that sense, I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts on the increasingly centralized—I mean, I’ve called it censorship but I’m not sure everyone agrees—behavior of platforms like Facebook.

Right, it’s a major example of the dangers of centralization, which is to say that we want to have lots of platforms that have radically different policies so you can move from platform to platform and voice to voice, and they all can regulate stuff, because they’re private groups and they do. But if you have a plural set of voices, then you’re always going to have some spaces where things can be said, just like you have a plurality of printers printing books, and some will only print orthodox things and some will only print radical ones. It creates an ecosystem in which the consumer of media knows perfectly well which printer to go to.

One of the things that electronic stuff is enabling is that for the first time we’re approaching levels of things that were sort of undreamt of in the pre-digital world in terms of scale and efficacy…they’re now possible. You can make a program that can hunt down every instance of a particular phrase and erase it from being there. That’s something the Inquisition would surely have liked to do if they could have.

It’s always been the case, before and now, that when you get to the very bottom of it, there’s a deeply human penetrability of all censorship systems, because censorship has to be done by people—not only by people, but generally by more educated and more literate people. What is the Inquisition? It employs thousands upon thousands of fresh-out-of-college lit majors with a first job out of college where you go through books, and read them, and report dangerous content. And that’s your day job while at home you’re writing your own treatise.

We have letters of these young scholars whose first job it is while they’re looking for a second job.And we even have letters where they’re writing to each other, like, “Oh Francoise, I got your book to censor today, and I’ll be sure to do an extra good job and make sure that it gets through.”

It creates this level of sympathy and human penetrability to the system. [The] great example of this is a treatise against Jesuit education and endorsing radical enlightenment education, written by one of the leading lights of the Portuguese enlightenment in the 1740s. And it’s printed in Naples because he knows he can’t get it printed in Portugal where the Jesuit-led local Inquisition is very powerful…just think of the Inquisition as very, very decentralized: a plural group of organizations that have to run themselves separately but are pretending to be one thing. He has it printed in Naples. And the local Jesuits find out, intercept the boat at the port in Lisbon, raid it, and seize the entire print run—this is as close to eradication as the Inquisition gets—and they destroy that print run, leaving only the copies that the printers in Naples had as their reference copies. However, within three months, a new edition of this book is printed in Portugal by one of the Inquisitors whose job it was to destroy the first edition. He’d kept a copy from the library of banned books, and then liked it and secretly printed it.

The human being is the point of penetrability there. And that doesn’t happen to every book the Inquisition tries to destroy, but it sure happens enough that it makes an enormous difference. So whether it’s a fresh-out-of-college English major who decides this radical book is actually kind of cool and lets it slip, or it’s this person printing an underground version of a forbidden book, there’s always been this hidden level where, when enough of the culture supports an intellectual movement, the human beings doing the censoring also become sympathetic to that movement and let it slide.

That has enabled, for example, the proliferation of local materials against attempts at global censorship. When, the L’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert radical enlightenment encyclopedia is printed in France, France loves it. It’s full of the richest, newest enlightenment philosophy, it’s full of cool technical illustrations. We have a wonderful report of where the King and Queen were looking up how silk stockings are made, and she was excited to learn how her silk stockings work. We have an endorsement from the king and so on. They gave it official royal permission to be printed despite all of its radical and especially anti-centralized church stuff. It got as far as volume seven until the Papacy was like, “No, this is not okay.” And so it was banned in Rome. And when things are banned in Rome, the order is it must also be banned in France, and France has to have a ceremonial book burning and ban this book. But everyone in France likes this book, including the king. So what they do is have a ceremonial book burning in which they carry the Encyclopédie over to the fire, but then set it aside and burn in its place volumes of Calvinist sermons which they don’t like.

And so they keep the Encyclopédie, and from then on everyone in France knows that it’s officially forbidden but they don’t care. And they keep printing it in secret across the border in Switzerland, and smuggle it in, and it’s allowed to be smuggled in with such regularity that people who are printing more radical forbidden works wrap them inside the Encyclopédie—because if the border guards catch you they’ll just let you go, because the whole of France is angry at the Pope about the ban and wants to support the book.

That’s a space where you can say the region of an empire was able to, independently because of a cultural movement, allow the dissemination and proliferation of a text even when it had been banned by the central government. But we’re talking about books, and those take weeks to travel on horse. In the electronic world, that kind of regional, local autonomy and permeability starts to become much harder. Hackers can hide things on the darkweb and so on, but your average citizen of 18th-century France had much more access to the Encyclopédie than your average citizen in Guangzhou in China right now has access to electronic materials banned by the central government. You see that difference?

York: Yes, definitely.

So I think that’s one of the key things that’s changing.

York: I think what concerns me is the effectiveness of censorship now.

I think of it as saturation—how much of the material can be touched by the censorship. And that varies. So if we look at something as simple as how the Kindle automatically updates books that Amazon puts in, but the Kobo doesn’t change ebooks unless you give it explicit permission. If some malign actor took over the administration of both Kindle and Kobo, that malign actor could delete every copy of 1984 off every Kindle simultaneously and replace them with a propaganda wheel. But, in the case of the Kobo, it would say, “We want to update your copy of 1984, is that okay?” A few people would not know what was going on and say yes. But a few people would notice what was going on, say no, and a large number of Kobo owners would retain the original text. That very simple difference between the design of two ebook readers would therefore result in 100% saturation of censorship implemented through the Kindle, but maybe between 30-80% of saturation of censorship through the Kobo, depending on how many Kobo users get alerted to the censorship before they hit okay on the button. And both of them are censorship, but one of them is far more irrevocable.

York: That’s certainly true. I think a lot about how architecture of a technology influences the impact of censorship. Okay, I have one last question for you, one that I’ve been asking everyone: Do you have a free speech hero, either from past or from present?

A lot of people don’t know how hard Diderot worked on the Encyclopédie. Diderot was prizedly, personally an atheist, and his atheistical writings are absolutely gorgeous. They’re fascinating to read from a modern standpoint, because the atheism of his century was totally different from post-Darwin atheism, it’s the atheism of somebody who doesn’t have science on his side.

York: Oooh—

…who doesn’t have an atheistical explanation for how the world works, and why forest animals have forest camouflage and desert animals have desert camouflage. Who, when he writes about it, admits that science is in fact on the side of theism and that he doesn’t have good explanations for things, but that he nonetheless in a groping and incomplete way feels like atheism describes the actual events that he sees in the world around him—the chaoticness of daily life, and the lack of apparent meaning and providential action in human life. And therefore he feels sort of, as he says, on an irrational and instinctive level that atheism is true, and he’s trying to grope toward a coherent atheism but doesn’t have it yet. It’s really beautiful and some of the most heartful, honest—a philosopher telling you that he doesn’t know the answer and that he’s uncertain of his own convictions. Beautiful material.

In the 18th-century, or really the very end of the 17th, is really the first point in Europe’s history that there started to be atheism as a movement. But it wasn’t just a silent thing or something that people use as a slur toward other people. There was actually atheist literature, atheists talking to each other, atheist poetry, and Diderot was perfectly positioned to really be the leader and center of this movement. But he self-censored everything, and he didn’t publish any of his atheistic work in his lifetime at all. He circulated it privately among friends and that’s it, because he was the editor of the encyclopedia.

The purpose of the encyclopedia was to enable universal education for the first time, to empower everybody by giving everybody the knowledge to understand their tools, their agriculture, the way society was put together. It was a project to try to transform the world to where everybody had the power that only elites had before. And, as he also articulates it, it’s insurance against a new dark age. That if a new dark age should come upon humanity and only one copy of the encyclopedia survives, it would preserve all the technology, all of the social and ethical development, kindness of law that had developed at that point so it would be possible to reconstruct all of those things, and humanity would never be doomed to lose its achievements again.

He knew that if the editor of this project was known to be an atheist, that they would absolutely crack down on this and they would never allow it to circulate. So, in order to protect everyone else, in order to protect the achievements of everybody else leading up to him, and in order to achieve effective immortality of everybody else’s life, he self-censored his own and didn’t allow any of it to be published in his lifetime, leaving orders that it be printed not only after his death but after the death of his daughter, who was a pious Catholic and he didn’t want her to be sad that her father was going to hell.

As the result of this, some of his works were permanently or temporarily lost or inaccessible. This is a bit part of why Voltaire’s works are on high school syllabuses and almost nobody knows Diderot wrote anything that wasn’t the Encyclopédie.

Rameau’s Nephew, which is one of the most absolutely most amazing philosophical works I’ve ever read—the work in which Diderot wrestles with the fact that by radically changing the education of the new generations, and encouraging them to dismantle current institutions, and create better ones—Diderot realizes that this also means creating a future in which his generation will no longer have a place, in which his values will be outdated and replaced by values that will be better but also frightening to him and to his peers who didn’t grow up in that world. [It wrestles] very directly with the problem of progressivism versus conservatism, and the fact that being progressive means that by the time you’re old, the world will be a place where you’re no longer comfortable.

It’s an amazing work, and it survived only in one handwritten copy which was missing for over a century until it only turned up by chance in a used book stall on the side of the Seine in the late nineteenth century. If that one copy had been destroyed, we wouldn’t have it at all. And he decided to risk that for all of his work in order to give us the encyclopedia and universal education.

York: That’s really powerful. Thank you so much for sharing that.

What we want is a world where nobody ever has to do that again.

* Under US law there are some situations in which a private actor may be considered a “state actor” subject to First Amendment restrictions. But these are difficult and highly specific legal questions. Although EFF has First Amendment experts, we are not historians and do not know enough about the Inquisition to know whether a good state action argument could be made under modern US law. Nevertheless, recent history has shown that modern-day private censors like the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family, or the various private groups that sustained the Hollywood Blacklist, have been able to exercise great influence without official state action.

https://www.eff.org/speaking-freely/ada-palmer