Friday 15 June 2007

Self-ish censor

Censoring Culture, ed Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva

For something generally considered so grave as to be a liberal-secular sin, censorship is a rarely analysed phenomenon. Whilst many proclaim a deeply held conviction to artistic freedom as cornerstone to a healthy democratic society, and galvanise to condemn censorship, there are few discussions of what exactly censorship is or of how it presents itself in today’s culture.

A battle cry of ‘censorship must be stopped!’ should not be mocked, but without an understanding of how censorship works, will pack all the punch of a soggy teabag. As the introduction to Censoring Culture points out, the censor is not simply a black-suited bureaucrat with a red stamp. And it’s worth noting that invoking Orwellian notions of ‘doublespeak’ and ‘thought police’ often diminishes mature debate further rather than upholding it. Whilst a fully blown conspiracy theory of ‘them’ suppressing ‘us’, of the establishment gagging the boy next door, may be rhetorically appealing, the reality of censorship is a slippery and subtle affair, and over-simplifying the picture only makes deeply-rooted practices harder to spot. The harrowing main theme of Censoring Culture is that in contemporary society it is very often a case of ‘us’ censoring ourselves.

This inch-thick collection of critical essays about American arts censorship is, then, a thoroughly unsettling, madly challenging but brilliantly necessary read. It is published by the New Press – a ‘not-for-profit alternative to the large commercial publishing houses currently dominating the book publishing industry’ – in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) co-edited by its arts director Svetlana Mintcheva and art historian and writer Robert Atkins, and it’s a shame there isn’t a parallel volume exploring censorship in Britain. Dealing as it does with a country that has freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment, there’s the thought this book should never have to have been written at all – it prompts the question, does enshrining a right to free speech in constitution make people think their freedoms will never be encroached? Does it make them less likely to notice that censorship is taking place? Does it make them complacent?

Given the differences between American and British culture and politics, the morals to be drawn from Censoring Culture do not – and should not – transpose easily to censorship in the UK. But this does not detract from the political potency of the problem: once cultural censorship is understood as being inextricably woven into the fabric of society, it becomes short-sighted to suggest that censorship in the arts affects only those interested in padding galleries and crocking their ears at concerts. (Significantly, it is often those who don’t view exhibitions who try to ban them; and people frequently defame texts they haven’t bothered to read.) As British artists chose to engage with issues as wide ranging as the Iraq War to paedophilia, they have a platform to air opinions discouraged in public debate and unrepresented in mainstream media. But more importantly than this, the principle that in culture people should be free to express whatever they want to can – and is – generally accepted even by those who have little interest in the arts or who hate contemporary artworks. Better understanding the multifarious nature of cultural censorship is quite rightly important to more than artists and aesthetes.

Not afraid to shy away from complex issues Censoring Culture embarks on a thorough exploration of different forms of censorship focusing on five interrelated areas: economics, the internet, protecting children, cultural diversity and hate speech, and self-censorship. Each section has a clear and valuable overview in the form of an editorial introduction and features essays by lawyers, academics and cultural theorists, as well as interviews with artists and transcripts of roundtable discussions. The essayists conduct a comprehensive investigation into the ways in which censorship works and analyse its effects, going far beyond simply logging case studies to be righteously angry at. There’s not one unoriginal essay in the whole book.

Interview transcripts show the probing questions of the editors in determining what people really think of censorship (from ‘I disagree with censorship entirely’ to ‘the n-word should be banned from all language ever’) and discussions with teenagers show an important willingness to engage with them as adults. What quickly emerges from reading is the multi-faceted and chameleon nature of the censor, alongside the worryingly fashionable trend of repressing artworks under the guise of ‘being sensitive’ or ‘respecting other people’s values’. In contemporary society, censorship is rarely called what it is and is rarely recognised as such.

This comes out especially strongly in the section on protecting children, which is most devastating when it shows how adults can ‘piggy back’ their own hang-ups on supposed child protection legislation. Rather than shielding children from the evils of violent and sexual art, ‘being sensitive’ by banning often serves to create a comfort zone for adults, where difficult questions never arise and important issues are never addressed. Concerning the difficulties of puberty, racism, religious beliefs etc, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. A case in point concerns a children’s author who included a passage in her book where the young teen protagonist masturbates. At the behest of her publisher, she removed this section, mindful of the uproar it would cause. Strange that she’s been writing such material for the last ten years and only recently have her books been removed from school libraries. And important to notice too that it was not the school that initiates the censor, but the parents, who decided the material was inappropriate and would somehow make their children into sex-crazed maniacs.

A piercing essay on violent video games further challenges this consensus that strong links pertain between what media children are exposed to and how they act. It seems a truth universally acknowledged that children who grow up thumbing the keypad on shoot ‘em ups will have a greater tendency to violent behaviour. Far from this causal link being proved (complicated additionally because media influence is difficult to measure) it has had little actual investigation, and one study in fact suggests the contrary.

The discussion probes still deeper into the wisdom and effectiveness of banning material in order to relieve the evils of society. A provocative essay on pornographic images of children considers whether the very act of deciding which material to censor doesn’t make the situation worse. For example, to determine whether photographs of children are pornographic or not, we must see them from the ‘point of view of the paedophile’: to distinguish the pornographic from the holiday snap we must think, ‘if I were a paedophile, would I find this arousing?’, a way of thinking brilliantly satirised in a controversial episode of Brass Eye.

Whilst the idea that this method makes us see all pictures of children as sexualised is convincing, it’s too easy to blame the entire situation on censorious legislation. Things are more complicated than that. For instance, a good reason for thinking of children as sexual beings is because they very often are. What this kind of censorship shows all too starkly is not so much that we over-sexualise children, as that we are obsessively convinced of the power of images. Is a dodgily pixelated photograph really the thing we should be worrying about, and is its sober removal from the face of the earth somehow going to stop the sexual abuse of children? As the essay points out, most cases of child abuse are not sexual incidents, and lack of education, housing and opportunity are much more widespread problems. What flapping about child photographs most avidly portrays is the desire of adults to hide things from themselves – the fact that small boys have penises and teenage girls touch their breasts; the fact that there are gross inequalities in society impoverishing children. And once the desire to hide things is shown to be a common reason for censorship a lot of the material dealt with in Censoring Culture falls into place.

The final chapter exploring the idea of self-censorship brings this to a head and promises an explosive exploration of the point of censorship. The ideal censorship is no censorship at all: rather than needing to ban books and delay exhibitions, books simply don’t get produced and symphonies are never written because authors and composers censor themselves. Rather than having innovative expression that challenges and experiments, expression is narrowed to merely affirm established norms. An obvious example of this ideal is a totalitarian regime that needs no explicit bans because everybody knows what they must keep to themselves. Such self-censorship leads to a situation where unorthodox views are never put forward and eventually cease to be imaginable. This is important not because unorthodox views are valuable in themselves, but because nearly all important political and other ideas begin as unorthodox.

The issue of self-censorship in contemporary American culture is not straightforward, however, and the discussion in this section deals intelligently with what it is a troublingly tricky issue. The introduction says, ‘one of the first things we learn as children is that there are things you can say and do at home, but cannot say or do on the bus, or at school’ and goes on, ‘our concern for ethical principles necessarily constrains us, limits what we say or do…sensitivity to the feelings of others is obviously not altogether a bad thing’. The important question to ask about self-censorship is then which restrictions are sensible and acceptable, and which are not?

And in considering this question it’s important to bear in mind that there is another way to imagine the censor’s ideal of no explicit censorship. A culture with no explicit censorship need not be one where everybody self-censors, but can be one where sensible decisions are made about what is expressed and where. Because freedom of expression does not mean being able to express whatever you feel like wherever you happen to be, but means not having to restrict yourself in ways and situations where it matters.

The difficult moral to be drawn from Censoring Culture is that as culture changes so does censorship, and that if censorship must be eradicated the fight is ongoing. What we censor reflects what we value, and the fact that we censor reflects the world in which we live. A considered reading of this brilliant book shows that if we think freedom of expression is valuable we must be able to recognise and campaign about its most complex and important restrictions.

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