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.