New Worlds: Censorship

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Here in the United States, where freedom of speech was enshrined in our Constitution with the Bill of Rights, the word “censorship” has almost entirely negative connotation. We still have some forms of it, of course; companies may have the right to censor their employees, and the Federal Communications Commission may censor obscene content on TV or radio. But there have been many times and places where censorship is common, accepted, and even valorized.

This is especially true in hierarchical situations. Censorship fundamentally expresses the idea that one person or institution has the right to control what other people say. Those institutions may be companies, as above, but more commonly it’s a government or an organized religion, and the speech they’re most commonly controlling is anything that criticizes them or counters their dogma. It’s also possible to democratically censor, though; you can see a form of this in online communities that allow users to flag objectionable content and cause it to be hidden or removed.

Censorship goes back a long way — in fact, probably before the advent of writing. You can’t remove words from the air, but you can definitely arrest, imprison, or kill the person who spoke them. When we talk about censorship, though, we’re most often referring to media of one type or another: books, music, films, works of physical art, and so on, which fix a message and make it possible for many people to experience it over an extended period of time. The power of that kind of thing is substantial, and so societies come up with mechanisms to limit or block that power.

You can think about censorship from the angle of what type of material it’s being used to suppress. For example, we often censor things on moral grounds, in order to protect children or the general public from “offensive” material. What constitutes offensiveness varies widely, though. Intimate body parts? In some places female breasts are considered indecent and will be blacked or blurred out if they appear; in others they’re completely normal viewing in daily life. Male genitalia are the farthest frontier in our TV and movies these days, but the Greeks used to carve them into statues with no hesitation whatsoever. Some people replace the n-word in books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while others insist it should be left in place to illustrate historical prejudice, and some African-Americans reclaim the word for their own use.

Politically-based censorship is more often about controlling criticism of the powers that be, even if that criticism is couched in perfectly un-obscene terms. Merely questioning or challenging the actions of a king or other leader gets classed as disloyalty; sharing information that leader preferred to keep secret can rise to treason. The American ideal, at least in theory, is that robust dissent ultimately makes the body politic healthier — but many governments would disagree, seeing it as a poison instead. In that view, suppression is the road to stability.

The same can be true of religious institutions. The Church banned Galileo’s works on heliocentrism because they were seen as contradicting scripture, and therefore the Church’s authority as the interpreter of said scripture — if not the validity of the scripture itself. Just as political dissent can blur over into treason, in a religious context it can become heresy or atheism. (And a recent discovery suggests that Galileo self-censored, too, editing the letter he had sent to Benedetto Castelli in order to tone down his arguments and word them in a more palatable fashion. He was aware that what he’d said might go over poorly.)

In a very timely recent post (it went up while I was working on this essay!), author Ada Palmer points out there’s also a difference based on when censorship is applied. Some systems aim to control works before they’re released into the world, for example by regulating printers (and punishing those who operate without license), and often having some person or people responsible for examining the content for approval. These systems can be voluntary rather than officially imposed: the Motion Picture Association of America has no legal backing for its ratings, but because theatres often refuse to screen unrated or NC-17-rated movies, filmmakers who wish access to the general market have little choice but to comply.

Other systems control content after its release. Feel free to print or display or screen whatever you like . . . but if it violates censorship standards, punishment will follow. In these situations it’s the artists themselves who vet their material, deciding whether they want to take the risk of putting out something that might land them in trouble.

As Palmer also says in that post, technology changes how effective censorship can be. When texts are all created by hand, it’s entirely possible to capture and destroy every copy of a given work. But once you have printing presses, post-release control gets a lot harder, and even regulating who can own and operate a press can be tough. In this digital age, where copies can propagate in an eyeblink, it may be well-nigh impossible. Censorship then relies more on fear than destruction, punishing offenders in the hope of preventing anyone else from imitating them, rather than attempting to eradicate the offense itself from the world.

Punishments vary, as you might imagine. A TV station that broadcasts bad language will find itself slapped with a fine; a person who shares sensitive military or political secrets might be tortured and executed. In many cases the punishment involves trying to stop the offender from expressing themself again, by forbidding them from publishing, locking them away with no access to communication, or physically maiming them (breaking hands, gouging out eyes, and so forth). And then, of course, there’s the punishment of watching one’s creation be destroyed, with books burned or statues smashed or images painted over — the latter sometimes retrieved after the fact by modern conservation techniques. For people who have poured their effort and their hearts into their work, watching someone obliterate it can be agonizing.

But to those who advocate for censorship, that pain is much preferable to the larger-scale harm of allowing dangerous material to reach others. Even today, we have constant debates over how to balance the individual right of free expression against the greater good of the community: where we should draw that line, and who gets to draw it. The question has never been an easy one to answer.

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New Worlds: Censorship — 14 Comments

  1. I don’t know who first made this claim – but it is interesting (even if I don’t entirely agree – especially whether the advantage is worth the costs):

    Censorship often creates good art.

    When the U.S.S.R. censored political protesting in movies – all movies were full of implied political positions.

    When Hollywood censored sex, sexual innuendo was creatively added all over the place.

    There were other examples that I’m not thinking of right now – but you get the idea.

    • Censorship may not create good art, but it certainly piques public interest where none may have existed before. I’ve heard many authors joke that they would welcome having their books banned, because that would lead to an instant jump in sales. Think “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

      In recent years, I have heard this called the “Streisand Effect,” after Barbara Streisand, who attempted to prevent people from taking photographs of her estate, but in the process ended up drawing more attention to it.

      All you have to do is tell someone they can’t do something and they instantly want to do it, even if they’ve never given it a thought until that very moment. Humans are very strange creatures.

      • Censorship as publicity, yeah. When you’ve got easy mass production and the people attempting to censor a work are effective enough for you to hear about it, but not effective enough to significantly limit the supply, it may well backfire in exactly the way you describe. We do like to go after the forbidden fruit . . .

    • There’s certainly the argument that constraint of any kind fuels creativity: formal poetry, e.g. a sonnet, requires you to come up with phrasings that fit the meter and rhyme rather than slapping in whatever words come to mind, the malfunctioning of the animatronic shark in the original Jaws forced Spielberg and his team to change how they were going to show their monster, etc.

      On the other hand, people have also written perfectly brilliant free verse, etc. 🙂 And there are certainly ways in which censorship stifles art instead of feeding it.

      I don’t think anybody can measure what the net effect is, unless we’re able to look at an alternate reality where the censorship wasn’t in effect, to see what kind of art people would have created without those limitations. All we can really say is that it fuels some kinds of creativity, because people will do their best to find their way around the constraints.

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  3. There’s another aspect to this, not because companies or governments want to suppress unfavorable opinions.

    There’s also the need in groups of humans to get along with each other civilly.
    To this end we self-censor: I don’t tell prickly aunt Marge her hat looks awful, because I don’t want to ruin everyone’s visit. This is generally seen as a good thing, which we learn as a kid from our parents: when a little child points as someone on the street and says “look at that lady, why is she wearing such an ugly hat?”, Mom generally tells her it’s not nice to say that what other people are wearing is ugly, maybe the lady really likes that old hat and it might hurt her feelings to hear other people say it’s ugly. That too is censorship by mom, and teaching her kid to self-censor.

    In larger groups of people, this principle gets extended. We’re taught to be polite to strangers on the street or at the office, even when we’re having a bad day.
    In the more pleasant places online, as well as among strangers in a bar, you don’t start inflammatory discussions about politics or religion by calling the other sides idiots, even when what they’re doing is idiotic. Without that censorship on volatile subjects, either self-imposed or imposed by the rules of the bar or the website (and the moderator or bouncer), you get barfights and internet troll flamewars. These can be attractive to some thrill-seeking prople, but are not generally considered a good idea to spread widely among the general population – not just by an abstract government, but by most people themselves.

    If you allow anyone to say anything at any time, anywhere, some of the worst elements will make full use of that permission to stoke unrest and hatred.
    Now consider the echo-chamber effect of at least some internet-bubbles, where people drawn to a slightly extreme viewpoint can get a lot more radicalized by hearing only those ideas and worse echoing around them.

    Society can absorb some friction and stay civil, but not endless and neverending amounts of it.
    This is why many European countries have laws against hate speech. You’re allowed to mock the government, the king, religion, the pope, the bible, Jesus, God (and gods), the prophet Mohammed, the koran, etcetera; but you’re not allowed to call for the extermination or expulsion of (specific groups of) people, or advocate attacks on them, or anything like that. You don’t have to like them, and can say you dislike them, but you have to be civil.
    We have seen where allowing people free rein to escalate dislike into hatred, and verbal hatred into actions, can lead; so I think this is a good thing, even though many Americans consider it censorship and thus bad.

    I know Europe is polarizing again, but it seems to be doing so a bit less fast and far than what I’m seeing from the USA (except for those countries where the far right has gained control of the media); and maybe this is a factor in that extreme “flight to the right”, when what we would consider hate speech is not limited to internet bubbles but allowed and even encouraged on tv and radio. Combine that with large geographical media monopolies promoting corporate interests, and you create giant real-life radicalizing echo chambers, I fear.

    • I didn’t go into much detail on self-censorship partly for reasons of space limitations, but also because I feel like that’s more a facet of etiquette than of the institutionalized control of speech.

      Hate speech, definitely — I’d include that under “moral grounds,” as the n-word is significantly charged in that regard, and far from the only example.

      There’s a tendency over here right now to screech “but the First Amendment!” whenever you get any community, especially online, enforcing standards of conduct. Which misses the point that what the First Amendment protects you against is governmental censorship — and not even all of that, as we have various types of speech that have been exempted from protection for the public good. But a non-governmental group of people can say that they don’t want particular types of speech in their venues and enforce that all they like, because “freedom of speech” doesn’t mean “nobody anywhere can ever tell me not to say something.”

  4. In a paleontology group I follow, frequent mention is made of upcoming publications about one clade of fossils or another, but there is an understanding – usually but not always unspoken – not to discuss the findings made during the research (which led to the publication) until *after* the publication is *officially* published. There is no punishment that I’ve seen or heard of for info-leakers, other than other paleontologists being not inclined to work with the leaker on future projects.

    I was about to mention Aldrich Ames when you mentioned dissent…and then you mentioned secrets and punishments, which fits Ames well. 🙂

    As I understand it (and I am likely wrong), Galileo’s biggest crime was putting the words of his best friend, into the mouth of The Simpleton character…particularly with a friend who is a sitting Pope. The charge of unBiblicalness was probably an excuse to forge ahead with legal proceedings.

    • From what I know of the Galileo Affair, the “unBiblical” angle had more to it than just a pope feeling offended . . . but yeah, that part didn’t exactly help.

      • I tend to measure the reaction against Galileo, against what happened to Newton. Yeah, there was physics and math, but one of the guy’s bigger projects was calculating the date of the next Great Flood – the very thing that in the Bible God promised not to ever send…thus calling God a liar.

        (also, after all, the idea of other moons was fine – Mars with its pair, after all, was known – and I’d wager that the Cardinals et al could have rationalized a heliocentric system away…just as man orbits God, so does the Earth with the Sun, or something)

        …though the punishment probably also didn’t help that Galileo was almost literally in the Pope’s backyard – less effort to bring down the figurative hammer on anyone like him or the Passagians.

        • Very different time periods, though. Newton was born the year Galileo died; rather a lot changed in the interim.

          And I’d say geography had even more to do with it than you suggest. It isn’t just that it’s less effort to bring the hammer down on Galileo because he’s nearby: England may have flirted with a return to Catholicism for a while there, but on the whole the country was Protestant. If anybody had asked the Pope, he would have said Newton was a heretic regardless of his scientific theories — a heretic in a heretic country, whose statements on the topic of religion were a priori wrong. Nobody’s surprised when somebody like that blasphemes. But when it comes from within the ranks of the faithful . . . that’s a much bigger problem.