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What is particularly difficult to argue for, and to maintain, is an arrangement that, while it leaves a people clearly free politically to discuss fully all matters of public interest with a view toward governing itself, routinely prepares that same people for an effective exercise of its considerable freedom.
In such circumstances, there are some who would take the case for, and the rhetoric of, liberty one step farther, insisting that no one should try to tell anyone else what kind of person he should be.
Such statements would no doubt have been received with hostility, and probably with social if not even criminal sanctions, throughout the ancient world.
In most places in the modern world, on the other hand, such a statement could be made without the prospect of having to endure a pained and painful community response.
Thus, Leo Strauss has observed, “The quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns concerns eventually, and perhaps even from the beginning, the status of ‘individuality.’ ” All this is to say that individualism is made much of in modernity.
The status, then, of censorship very much depends on the standing of government itself and of legitimate authority, revealing still another aspect of the complicated relation between “the individual and the state.” One critical source of the contemporary repudiation of censorship in the West depends on something that may be distinctive to modernity, an emphasis upon the dignity of the individual.
Furthermore, it is now believed that what may be properly forbidden by law is quite limited.
Much is made of permitting people to do with their lives (including their opinions) as they please, so long as they do no immediate and evident (usually physical) harm to others.
One consequence of this approach is to identify an ever-expanding array of forms and media of expression that are entitled to immunity from government regulation—including not only broadcast and print media (books and newspapers) but also text messaging and Internet media such as blogs, social networking sites, and e-commerce sites.
The shift from the more political to the more individualistic view of liberty may be seen in how the constitutional guarantees with respect to speech and the press are typically spoken of in the United States.
Restraints upon speaking and publishing, and indeed upon action generally, are fewer now than at most times in the history of the country.
(Even those rulers who act without the authority of the people must take care to shape their people in accordance with the needs and circumstances of their regime.
This kind of effort need not be altogether selfish on the part of such rulers, since all regimes do have an interest in law and order, in common decency, and in a routine reliability or loyalty.) It should be evident that a people entrusted with the power of self-government must be able to exercise a disciplined judgment: not everything goes, and there are better and worse things awaiting the community and its citizens.