Censorship

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Politically, there exists only what the public knows to exist.
("Politicamente, só existe aquilo que o público sabe que existe.")
António de Oliveira Salazar, 1933,
on the foundation of the Secretariado Nacional de Informação
(the propaganda ministry)

Censorship usually refers to the state's engaging in activities designed to suppress certain information or ideas. In the past, this has been done by burning books, jailing dissidents, and swamping people with government propaganda. In modern times, the same techniques can be used, but in places like China it is complemented with a nation-wide Internet firewall and the co-option of journalists.

Contents

[edit] General usage

Censorship can be very active in its methods. Book burning actively destroys the information contained in books to prevent it being read.

More generally, the term is also used any time people in positions of power try to prevent facts or ideas embarrassing to them from coming to light. This can be done by editorial boards of periodicals and journals, by restricting what their writers can actually research or write about, or by restricting and censoring what they do write, preventing it from being published. This can be done for many reasons, including due to fairly legitimate issues of style, or topics that editors just don't think are right for their publication. This type of censorship is not (and probably should not be) illegal; to force a journal or web site to promote ideas the owners and editors find anathema would be a violation of free speech. Actual censorship, however, is usually done much more maliciously and threats (financial, legal or physical) can be made to prevent something going to publication.

One pernicious result of this "right to not publish" can result in a form of censorship wherein all "major" outlets of information are owned by large corporations, which tend to have certain interests in common, and might, as a group, make it very hard to find information critical of those interests.

Censorship can also come from a government level, and it is this that is usually considered the worst kind of censorship. While individual corporations or private ventures have a right to control the information they host, and their readers are welcome to go elsewhere for their information, governments have a hold over everybody without exception. This leads to a population at large being denied information and more often than not, forcibly fed incorrect information. It should be noted that, while citizens in most Western countries are safe against government censorship (for the most part, at least), other places have almost completely state-run media where literally no alternative exists for the public to access their information. In recent years, China has been somewhat notorious in censoring large portions of the internet from its citizens.

[edit] Burying the needle in straw

In modern times, due to ubiquitous channels of mass communication, a kind of censorship can be performed (intentionally or otherwise) by swamping the people with other information to hide some particular point. This form of censorship is associated with the Huxleyan flavour of dystopia (e.g. Brave New World),[1] in which pleasurable, visceral, immediate, concrete stimuli (e.g., supermodels, baby bumps, or Charlie Sheen) crowd out troubling, cerebral, long-range, abstract stimuli (e.g., global warming, nuclear safety, the epidemiological consequences of vaccination refusal).[2]

Counterprotests "shouting down" a group of people are sometimes accused of being censorship, but since they don't usually actually prevent or deny the free expression of what they are protesting, again, this is not really censorship. But the waters can get murky at times!

[edit] Timing bias

Also, there is the now almost time-honored way of releasing "bad" political news - do it on Friday evening, after the major news outlets have wrapped up their stories. By Monday, it's not news any more, and often gets much less attention that it might have otherwise. This was brought to light when someone mentioned that 11th September 2001 was a "good day to bury bad news".[3]

[edit] Free speech zones

The United States has recently seen more use of this insidious form of censorship. In order to "accommodate" demonstrators at high-profile events, they are shepherded into a pre-assigned area rather being allowed their right of free assembly. These areas are usually placed well out of the media spotlight - for instance, at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention in Boston, the "free speech zone" was some distance away from the building where the convention was held - in a wasteland of construction debris and fences under a roadway that was partially dismantled.

[edit] The Bible

If the Bible were a new book, and not sensitive for religious reasons, it would certainly continue to face censorship in many or most Western countries for its unsuitable content. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Bible translations into local languages were often censored or prohibited.

It is interesting to note that a whole bunch of books which were considered scripture, or just as valid primary sources on the life of Jesus, were excluded from the books included in what we today know as the Bible. These include dozens of books among which the better known are the Gospel of Thomas and the Old Testament-period Book of Enoch. This is perhaps because those books include doctrines which may have been downright embarrassing to the church fathers, and are very different from what is recognized as Christian doctrine today: the Book of Enoch refers to fallen angels having sex with humans producing a race of giants as offspring, while the Gospel of Thomas states that a woman must make herself into a man in order to be saved. This censorship of some books of scripture by the early church may have contributed to Christianity becoming what it is today, instead of something very different.

[edit] Censorship in films

This varies depending on the country and local views and laws.

[edit] USA

Many "rental" and even "on sale" videos are censored. Scenes involving nudity, especially of the male frontal variety, are usually removed. Sometimes one will see both versions on offer, with different ratings on the box. When offered as television broadcasts, similar steps are also taken, with additional editing often employed to make the film fit its time slot. This is sometimes done to lower the level of gore for a film to be broadcast at particular times. For American television in particular, bad words (which are considered worse than all-out gun-toting violence) are also bleeped, cut, or voiced over.

[edit] Continental Europe

In some parts of continental Europe there is almost no censorship of sexual scenes. In Spain, for example, late-night free-to-air local channels may broadcast uncut hardcore pornography.

[edit] United Kingdom

In the UK, the BBFC will not censor movies without the permission of the film's producers, but this censorship may be necessary in order to give the movie a specific rating. For example, to preserve its PG rating, Star Wars Episode II is censored to remove a headbutt that would have given the film a 12A rating if it had been left in. Similar guidelines apply for nudity and bad language.

On television, most types of nudity are usually allowed to be shown after the "watershed" of 9pm, except for shots of an erect penis, which are forbidden. Scenes of simulated sexual activity are permitted; real depictions of sex are typically not.

[edit] Censoring of books

Censorship of books has often included an outright ban on publication. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was not legally printed in the UK until 1960, for example. Its publishing was part of possibly the greatest social upheaval of the 20th century; the prosecutor asked if the book was one which "you would wish your wife or servants to read" (it used the word "cunt" - shock, horror!) This sort of censorship persists to the modern day, with the works of authors such as Judy Blume being frequently challenged.

Other censorship can occur for the less blatant but more insidious reason of marketability. The third "Hitchiker's Guide" books, Life, the Universe and Everything, was censored for the American market. Two occurrences of "Asshole" were changed to "Kneebiter," and "The Most Gratuitous Use Of The Word 'Fuck' In A Serious Screenplay." was altered to "The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word "Belgium" in a Serious Screenplay."

[edit] Self censorship

Producers of films also engage in two kinds of self censorship. Often just one scene or shot is all that it takes to change a film's rating. Both kinds involve paying attention to the "standards" while making the film in order to achieve the desired rating. One seeks to obtain a "friendly" rating (such as G or PG in the US) by reducing objectionable material, possibly due to a contractual obligation to keep the film below a certain level. The other, quite perversely, seeks to obtain a racier, or cooler, rating in order to promote the film's "adultness", usually to teenagers who wouldn't be caught dead paying to watch a "family friendly" movie. This can certainly be seen with so-called "torture porn" movies, where the aim is often to film something so horrific it is banned, or must be cut, to allow the film to go on general release. Such scenes later emerge as viral trailers for the film, and are undoubtedly anticlimatic.[4]

Film-makers will also engage in a practice not closely related to censorship, but interesting nonetheless, where they include a scene or a line intending for it to be rejected by the producers or studio, in order to cover for other slightly less "objectionable" material. One example is the line "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school", from Fight Club, which was originally presented as "I want to have your abortion" as the line they could back down from, although the original line is included as a deleted scene on the Fight Club DVD. (The latter line "I want to have your abortion" was actually the original line from the book.[5])

[edit] Censorship dressed up as human rights

See the main article on this topic: Hate speech

Lately, in several countries, a new form of censorship has been afoot. Unlike with previous forms, its promoters and practitioners not only pretend to be "committed to free speech," but also to be advocating or carrying out the censorship in the name of promoting or enforcing human rights.

Specifically, they have provided "hate speech" laws and (in some cases) special "human rights" tribunals, which function in the following manner:

  1. Person A, being a member of some designated "protected" group, is offended by something said by person B.
  2. A issues a complaint to the tribunal.
  3. The tribunal charges person B with a hate crime and brings him in for a hearing or trial.
  4. Now B is guilty until proven innocent. If he cannot falsify the charge by proving his innocence of the hate, B is convicted.
  5. At this point B may be fined, jailed, or ordered to make a public apology to A, though this apology be an outright lie.

This went on with little remark for many years, since the only people being convicted were neo-Nazis who advocated violence against Jews and other non-neo-Nazi groups.

That situation has changed with the designation of two new groups as "protected": Muslims and gays. Unlike race, both homosexuality and adherence to Islam are held by a significant sector of the population to be a "mutable" characteristic; homosexuality being deemed that way by proponents of reparative therapy, while adherence to Islam being indisputably so (arguably some Muslims will tell you apostasy results in capital punishment, but places with such practices are unlikely to have freedom of speech anyway). This means that, unlike in the cases of racism or anti-Semitism, much of the opposition to Islam and (to a lesser degree) homosexuality is not based in hate. Hence, prosecution of "hate speech" on these grounds is often regarded as ideological censorship.

In the U.K., the acquittal of Nick Griffin on the charge of calling Islam a "wicked vicious faith" spurred the enactment of a new hate speech law, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, specifically targeting blasphemy offensive speech on the grounds of one's religion.

In Canada, when the Western Standard magazine published the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, a human rights complaint was brought against the magazine's publisher, Ezra Levant. Alan Borovoy, a lawyer who had helped make the human-rights laws under which the complaint was made, stated that the laws had not at all been intended to be used in such a manner.[6] The complainant, Syed Soharwardy, later withdrew it, saying he had gotten a better understanding of freedom of speech and now thought he might be abusing the laws.[7]

[edit] "Advisory boards"

When certain advocacy groups are unable to convince the government to censor content that they deem offensive, those groups often establish an "advisory board." These boards then advise like-minded people to avoid certain films, books, TV shows, etc. Sometimes these groups are relatively weak, so they come off as more annoying than ominous. Others make it their mission to influence public policy. Some religious organizations, however, have gone a step further, since most religious leaders have no qualms about bullying their followers into obeying their demands.

In the early 20th century, the Catholic Church established the Legion of Decency to "advise" parishioners on which movies to avoid at the risk of condemning their immortal souls to everlasting hellfire. No, really! Catholics were told that if they watched certain movies, they were committing a cardinal sin and that they would go to hell for willfully disobeying the Church. Even future Oscar™ winning films weren't spared the wrath of the Legion.[8]

Other such advisory boards include:

[edit] Crazy but true tales of censorship

Some people who promote censorship aren't closet totalitarians. Sometimes they're just nuts.

  • In the mid 1980s, a woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started a letter writing campaign to get the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm removed from the local newspaper. She objected to one particular strip that showed the character Grimm, a dog, drinking out of the toilet while thinking "It doesn't get much better than this" (a popular beer commercial slogan at that time). Fans of the strip countered with their own letter writing campaign. The whole back-and-forth played out on the paper's editorial page. Finally, after a few weeks of this, someone at the cartoon's syndicate decided to call the woman and ask her why she objected to the strip. Her response: She was worried that if dogs read the strip, they might get the idea that it's also okay for them to drink out of the toilet.[9]

[edit] See also

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Censorship.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Maybe Fahrenheit 451?
  2. By contrast, direct censorship (such as book banning or burning), is associated with 'Orwellian' dystopias.
  3. BBC News - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1823120.stm
  4. http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081016100035AANfpFP
  5. Yeah, there's a book! See
  6. http://www.safs.ca/issuescases/aborovoy.html
  7. http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/city/story.html?id=7e0d6665-0c5d-41b8-a706-d95f3b0329be
  8. "10 Oscar Films Condemned by the Legion of Decency", GoldDerby.com website, posted 18 February 2012, accessed 20 February 2012.
  9. "Saturday profile: Mike Peters of 'Mother Goose and Grimm'", at Comic Strip of the Day.com
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