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Censorship

Righty: I might disagree with Lefty’s pronouncements 93 percent of the time, but I’d defend to the death Lefty’s right to pronounce those pronouncements. All right, maybe not to the death, but I’d take a good kick in the brisket rather than stifle our progressive friend. Like our Founding Fathers, I believe in the free marketplace of ideas. For example, if some left-wing nutjob advocated monetary reparations for women (oh, the pain of all those centuries of forced domesticity!), I’d trust the wisdom of the people to heckle the nutjob off the podium. That’s democracy in action.

Lefty: Censorship has no place in a free society, but neither do hate-spewing, small-minded demagogues whose virulent ideas can cause actual harm to others. I see nothing wrong with banning neo-Nazis or Rush Limbaugh from airing their repugnant tirades in public. In such extreme cases, we owe the people a measure of protection from the dangers of rabid demagoguery. That means banning hate speech over the airwaves and monitoring who gets to speak on campus. As Fidel Castro said, “The universities are open only to those who share my beliefs.”

The New Moderate:

When it comes to free speech, our stand should be staunch and uncompromising: all ideas, however objectionable, deserve a hearing. And, as the good Dr. Johnson used to say, “There’s an end on’t!”

But I have a confession to make. The woeful state of our culture has convinced me that the free marketplace occasionally goes awry. I have no objection to even the most objectionable ideas, and I would never push for censorship in the realm of words — whether printed, broadcast or delivered in person. It’s the sounds and images that are starting to rankle me and fill me with dread — the dark, satanic ugliness of cultural artifacts aimed at adolescent boys, in particular. Rap music that lures young minds into fantasies of rape, domination, thuggery and murder. Video games (like the vile and alarmingly popular Grand Theft Auto 4) that glorify a brutal, soulless, survivor-take-all mentality. Over-the-top pornographic images, available by the thousands online, that would sicken Hugh Hefner and even the Marquis de Sade. Not to mention all the atrocious “shock art,” replete with sliced corpses and bodily effluvia, aimed at more discerning audiences.

I’m really not a prude, but all my instincts tell me to fight the spread of brutalism and degeneracy. I’m old enough to remember when our culture actually promoted nobility of character (what a concept!) along with the charm and easygoing laughter of a more innocent time. Something has to be done before we slide irreversibly into a bottomless cesspool.

Too late, you say? Not really. But have we reached the point at which we need to start imposing restrictions on the purveyors of shabby culture? If so, do we risk becoming an authoritarian society that suppresses freedom of expression? Whose standards do we honor?

As usual, I think there’s a middle ground. And there’s a precedent.

From 1934 to 1968, Hollywood effectively censored its own productions to avoid possible government intervention. The Hays Code, which went a little overboard in limiting our glimpses of ladies’ thighs, underwear and other charming sights, nevertheless coincided with a golden age of American popular culture. The films of this era still enchant us today, and they did it all without a single F-word. By aiming up instead of down, Hollywood appealed to the best instincts of its audiences. This was self-censorship par excellence.

We’ll never return to the squeaky-clean standards of the Hays Code era, and I don’t think we should. But if we value our souls, and the soul of our civilization, we need to start exerting some pressure on the folks who deliver our cultural goods. Even in the Internet era, most of our commercial movies, TV fare, music and games come to us from a handful of giant media corporations. We need to convince them to stop the flow of cultural sewage. Let’s not dictate what they can produce, but let’s call them to account when they bombard us with repellent dreck. Let’s urge them to examine why they feel compelled to produce such dreck, and whether they could survive — whether, in fact, they might even thrive — if they appealed to our better natures. So far, we’ve managed to convince them that sleaze sells. Let’s do the opposite.

In the end, of course, we get the culture we deserve. It won’t be easy to stuff all those evils back into Pandora’s Box. But I think we deserve better, and I hope Righty and Lefty would agree.

Summary: We should never ban ideas, even when the free marketplace seems to be enamored of the worst of them. But the ever-spreading ugliness of contemporary pop culture calls for serious soul-searching and just possibly a new wave of self-censorship on the part of our cultural establishment.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 9, 2010 3:25 am

    We might not need censorship if people were smart enough to recognize stupidity in the first place, and deny it any credibility. That most people watch or endorse mindless fluff, shows that no, they are not smart enough to see past the idiocy for the vulgar trash it is. Although I must admit a certain joy in watching the jackass movies, that feeling of supery-ority (misspelled on purpose, to make a point) over the jackasses I suspect most people are… Hmm… Damn, I hate learning unpleasant things about myself, it’s quite a bubble-burster. (and probably healthy) Censorship can be used to shield the gullible from poor behaviour they may try to emulate, but on the other hand this interferes with Darwinism, reducing the whole of humanity to two people shooting rockets out their asses. Also, it is used in sinister ways, to quash ideas found unsuitable by governments/networks. And, on a foot, I guess, (hopefully I won’t have to use all the extremites as analogies…) Some trash just so vulgar, it defies everything, but if put on TV, will still be watched. What can be done about this? Ultimatley, it is up to those who choose to watch/read (yeah, right, like anyone really reads anymore. Sigh) to make up their minds about what we see, for better or (probably) worse. Other people should stop concerning themselves with what others watch, and find something constructive to do.

  2. Ami permalink
    November 7, 2011 2:48 pm

    Agree with the Moderate point of view for the most part. But have no tolerance for any “art” or it’s expressions inducing people to violence. If somebody’s going to sell music from some jerk singing about raping whitey and his hos, etc…I am PERFECTLY willing to stomp on his/her rights to “free speech”. People have every right to be STUPID as far as I’m concerned, but inducing other idiots to commit crimes is not acceptable. Likewise if Nazis want to march in Nazitown they are more than welcome to do so. Don’t do it anywhere else. Everyone knows about THAT history and what the end goal is there. Same thing. Just inducing people to commit savagery against other people. The problem may not be their expression of their idiocy. But the problem is all the IDIOTS they recruit who choose to act out on their garbage. What about the black man in Texas who was dragged to death by white supremacists back in the 90s? Guess their right to free speech was more important than his right to be left alone.

  3. June 25, 2012 12:56 pm

    Ami: Sorry I didn’t notice your comment until now. You make a good point about drawing the line where speech incites the audience to acts of violence. I’d be in favor of suppressing any speech that advocates violent crime.

    It’s tricky, though, because there’s a gray zone between acceptable speech and incitement to violence. It’s what we’ve come to call “hate speech.” Yes, it’s objectionable to spew venom against blacks, Jews, gays, and other minorities. But the PC police would expand that gray zone so that you can’t even voice legitimate criticism of “protected” groups. (Somehow it’s always acceptable to bash men and rural white Christians, of course.) That kind of control over free speech looks too much like a slippery slope.

    I guess the key criterion should be whether the speech advocates criminal behavior. Otherwise, I’m inclined to let the haters hate; at least it keeps them from bursting at the seams.

  4. August 28, 2012 4:15 pm

    Surprising your Righty doesn’t exhibit any features of the typical “Moral Guardian”. If you want to call out the excesses of both sides… (I’m talking Mary Whitehouse sort of excess here, or whatever your equivalent of her is- though I’ll admit she had a point on occasion).

    That said, there are some things which are beyond the pale, and I’d actually not averse to preventing that even by legal means. Freedom of speech should be just that- freedom to express your ideas in words. It shouldn’t be an excuse for gross obscenity, it probably should not be an excuse for pornography (which I believe could be damaging to society by allowing people to see others as little more than sexual objects), probably the same with advertising junk food to children, and certainly not an excuse for provoking a riot or driving someone to suicide (you have to prove that last one, though).

    How you do not do that is the way our video recordings laws work in the UK- if a video hasn’t been rated by the BBFC, it can’t be supplied to anyone else. So I can buy an import DVD from its country of origin (if the copyright holder doesn’t mind), I just can’t sell it n or even give it to a charity shop. Moreover the need to pass this ratings system perhaps prevents the thing from getting a UK release- as a would-be anime fan in partiuclar, I find it’s a bit awkward when you guys get a decent selection of stuff and we don’t.

    I don’t think in terms of so-called “hate speech”, saying something that happens to offend a particular category of people, or use a percieved slur, is a reason to override free speech. Only if it is a serious threat to the public order.

  5. August 28, 2012 4:18 pm

    Basically, free speech should not just be free *speech*, but *free* speech.

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