The vexed question of censorship

posted in: Life and things | 1
Book-burning Berlin 1933
Book-burning Berlin 1933

Censorship The very word conjures up visions of Big Brother, of somebody leaning over your shoulder, ready to snatch the latest book or movie or song or whatever out of your hands. The mind turns to dictatorships or communism or any other form of totalitarian state and I, for one, shudder.

That interpretation is far too shallow, though. Forms of censorship have been around forever in all societies. When I was about to attend university (a few years ago, yes, but well within living memory) the Kama Sutra was banned, as was D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Portnoy’s Complaint”. To mention just three rather innocuous titles. Perth in those times and later was noted for the prudishness of the city fathers. You couldn’t get a drink on a Sunday less than thirty kilometres from town. The women in a Zulu group from South Africa performing their native dances were required to wear brassieres on stage; a performer – I can’t remember if it was Billy Connolly, Kevin Bloody Wilson or Rodney Rude – was arrested, or banned for using the F word on stage. Maybe all three – use of the F word is a trade mark for all of them. Rodney Rude was actually charged with obscenity.

They’re all forms of censorship, somebody else telling us what we can and cannot see or hear. So often the arbiter is the church, or an appointee of Government. The very notion raises my hackles. What right does anybody else have to determine what I, as an adult, can and cannot see? What makes them better, purer, less likely to be stained than me? I will decide for myself if I wish to see gratuitous sex or violence or horror or hear a comedian say a swear word or watch dancers perform nude.

That’s the self-righteous bit over with. It’s never so simple though, is it? Now we get into the murkier waters of when is it censorship and when is it not? I don’t object in any way to the grading system for movies and other material (R, M, MA PGR etc). That’s to advise and inform. I do have to wonder why sex between consenting adults is seen as so much more prurient than graphic violence, but that’s another story. I’m a supporter of freedom of speech – within reason (is reason not a form of censorship)? I don’t have the right to denigrate another person or their belief systems in public and that’s fine by me. People are also not allowed to say the Holocaust didn’t happen. Personally, I think there is plenty of hard evidence to prove it did; I put Holocaust nay-sayers in the same box as the idiots who say we didn’t land on the Moon – yet one group is permitted to spruik its stuff while the other is not.

Recently we had a case where Kobo withdrew ALL the indie titles sourced from Draft 2 Digital, a knee-jerk reaction to erotic material being made available for children. It was Dinosaur erotica, you see, and everyone knows kids love dinosaurs. (rolls eyes) Plenty of people remarked on the hypocrisy of the table thumpers, pointing out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not withdrawn. It seemed erotica from large publishers was acceptable.

One of the most interesting cases of censorship I’ve seen is the battle a couple of years ago over a book available on Amazon which was a sort of ‘how to’ manual for paedophiles. Some of you may remember it. Under the weight of outraged public opinion, Amazon was forced to withdraw the book. I was one of those who was horrified that such a book could be bought. Pull it off the virtual shelves! It’s wrong! Paedophilia is disgusting – and I don’t say that lightly, believe me.

Then I noticed a discussion on a writer’s group I belong to. One woman decried the writer of the book and Amazon for allowing people to buy it, very much a mother defending her children (and others) from monstrous acts. Another person, a man, presented a different argument. Note that the discussion was conducted strenuously but amicably and the two people actually knew each other. I lurked, reading both sides of the discussion with interest. The man pointed out that there are books available on how to build a bomb, mix poisons, carry out terrorist attacks and that such books can be purchased by people like writers for no other purpose than research. Yes, paedophilia is disgusting and depraved and such people should not be encouraged, he said. But is there not some value in knowing what techniques these people use to lure their prey? Moreover (said the correspondent) where does it end? This censorship? If the weight of public opinion rails against the koran or the bible, should these be withdrawn?

At the end I was convinced the male person in this discussion was right. “Censorship” is another word for removal of freedoms. Apple at this time has its own form of silent censorship because you cannot buy items it deems as unsuitable (such as erotica) from its online store. You might say it has the right to limit what it has available to the public – but can you then say Amazon does not have the right to sell what it wants?

Judgement is based on knowledge. Censorship ultimately leads to ignorance. I’ll end with Voltaire.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

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