Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Why Censorship Does Not Work

I have written previously in here about the idea that freedom of speech also inherently entails responsibility for speech, but also (referring to Philip Pullman) that we do not have a given right never to be offended. For some, these two ideas might almost seem contradictory, yet I would argue that they are not. There are differences between setting out to offend and to accidentally offend, to challenge powers that be and to attack (mercilessly) those in a lesser position. There is not necessarily an easy line between these categories, of course; while clear cut cases exist in abundance, there are most likely even more things that are hard to position as either-or, and sometimes perhaps even more easily both-and.

The responsibility for speech that I favour is an on-going discussion of what we can say, not in terms of freedom of speech, but in terms of a moral relationship with the Other. However, and this brings us to today's main topic, censorship can never be a solution in this equation. On that level, freedom of speech must be absolute (or at the very least more or less; it is naive to think that it is ever absolute in any literal or pragmatic sense. Most countries have libel laws if nothing else). Because there is a problem with discussing something you have not read or seen, not to mention being offended by it.

In an interview taped on 27 January 1989 by Bandung File (and ironically aired on 14 February on British Channel 4 that year), Salman Rushdie said, "If you don't want to read a book, you don't have to read it. It's very hard to be offended by The Satanic Verses, it requires a long period of intense reading. It's a quarter of a million words" (in The Rushdie File 26). Rushdie's comment was a response to a number of rather vicious critics of the novel, who rather brazenly admitted that they had not read it, in fact had no intention of doing so. For instance, one of the politicians behind the banning of the book in India, Syed Shahabuddin, wrote the following in The Times of India on 13 October 1988:
You are aggrieved that some of us have condemned you without a hearing and asked for the ban without reading your book. Yes, I have not read it, nor do I intend to. I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is. My first inadvertent step would tell me what I have stepped into. (in The Rushdie File 47)
Now, on one level (and bear with me, please), there is a certain level of logic in Shahabuddin's argument, and one which I think most of us apply to varying degrees and in different manners. As human beings, we continuously judge things unseen (or partly unseen) or unheard (or partly unheard) all the time; especially in terms of art in its various forms. This in itself is a natural form of selection for us, because, quite literally, there is too much out there for us to read, view, watch, listen to it all. And thus we make our choices, mostly based on what we think will be to our liking, or have some sort of artistic quality to it, or... Regardless of what criteria we apply, apply them we do; and like Shahabuddin (albeit, with hopefully a more modest and less aggressive tone) we deem some of the material less worthy of our attention, perhaps even to be filth we do not want to step into; and we are in our full rights not to.

However, while we do have the right not to read something, why would we have the right to stop others from reading it? And why would we blindly accept somebody else's interpretation of the work without wanting or even worse being able to make up our own minds by looking at the actual work with our own eyes? And this, to me, is at the very heart of why censorship does not work, in fact cannot ever work – because how can we judge art (or any type of utterance) properly without reading/viewing/watching/listening to the work in question? How can we debate a thing without knowing the thing itself, without having the reference? Simply put, it is one thing not to read/view/watch/listen to something and a completely different one to offer an unenlightened strong opinion on the matter.

A review of something where the reviewer has not taken in whatever he/she reviews is not worth a moment's time to read, because it is about nothing more than an uninformed opinion. Similarly, I do not think it is difficult to grasp the inherent problem in banning something without even taking the time to seriously take the work in question in; and even then, why should your opinion be the decisive one, the one to block this work from current and future generations (as if that one even ever truly works)? And if it is not your opinion, why should you trust it so inherently, without questioning it? Offence can be taken, and given, but offence taken at surface level echoes uninformed offence (i.e. the offended party does not even properly know what has offended it, there is merely the statement that it has been so).

Admittedly not all works of art are "a quarter of a million words." An image (e.g. a cartoon) can be so direct as to not allow us the option to avoid it in all contexts before it has managed to offend in a deeper sense (although, I would still say that offence taken without that exposition aligns itself with my discussion in the preceding paragraph). Naturally, this does not give us the option of forbidding the existence of this visual "utterance" any more than we can forbid the existence of a novel or a film. Once more, in this sense, freedom of speech, of expression, must be absolute (or as absolute as "absolute" gets). However, we do have a right to argue against this expression, to raise our voices and tell our own side of the story, to explain why it may be offensive, why it might be inappropriate – but, importantly, in order to do so, we must also see the thing we criticise, we must ourselves have access to it in order to criticise the thing and not a chimera, a phantom image of the thing.

In his article "The Satanic Verses and the Politics of Identity," Peter Jones writes that "[w]e may even fight shy of curtailing our conception of the non-legal rights of authors; we can criticise the use that people make of their rights without implying that they have no right to do what we criticise" (in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie 321). Jones' approach is one that is in total accord with my own. Because if the freedom of speech cannot be used to criticise abuses of that very freedom, without necessarily prescribing a censorship (which by defaults robs the debate of its centre), then how free is that speech? How strong? I would argue that the freedom of speech is not only strong enough to include such a debate, but that it is a necessary condition that it includes this idea by default. If nothing else, because the freedom of speech is our best way to dissent and disagree, and to protect that right, we must also be allowed to vocally dissent against utterances made by others, against verbal or visual offences. Not in order to imply that these others did not have the right to do it (to echo Jones), but in order to question whether it was right to do it. There is a difference and it may seem subtle, but it is essential to discuss that. And censorship can never contribute to that discussion

Works cited:

Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, ed. The Rushdie File. London: Fourth Estate, 1989.

M. D. Fletcher, ed.
Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994.

No comments:

Post a Comment