Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Censorship and Culture

Censorship: Is it a Bad Thing

Is censorhip a bad thing? Most people answer this question quickly and easily with a resounding “yes.” This is a good thing. Censorship is a problem for democracy and the fact that the vast majority of Canadians (in my view) see censorship in precisely that light is a good thing. I’m likely about to make myself unpopular to those reading this blog, however, because I want to argue that some limits on cultural expression can be a good thing and that the regular of media can, in fact, serve to increase the range of voices in the public sphere. This argument runs counter to common sense, but let me put it “out there;” if you disagree with me, feel free to say so.

First, all civil societies have restricted (usually to a very limited degree) what people can say. For example, Canada imposes what are in my view necessary and legitimate limits on freedom of expression and communication because these serve the public good and maintain the security of individuals. In Canada, we don’t allow people to communicate with each other for the purposes of commiting, say, a murder. This is a clear limit (a restriction) on freedom of speach, but in my view it is completely understandable and justifiable. The freedom of speach so necessary for a democracy is not intended to protect criminal activities or endanger the lives of citizens. To argue that it does is, in my view, to pervert the ideal of democracy. A democracy is not about allowing people to conspire to commit crimes or harm others. One needed and legitimate limit on freedom of speach, then, is on criminal activities, particularly those that threaten the lives and health of citizens.

Second, I’d argue that the state can legitimately restrict access to some cultural materials to people who are a certain age. We do this, of course, in Canada already. Making it illegal to distribute some things to children, for instance, is a completely legitimate form of cultural regulation because children do not have the ability to separate right from wrong, to understand the implications of, say, some forms of advertisement or pornography or some particularly violent scenes. Limiting access to, say, pornography to those who are legally adults, then, strikes me as another legitimate limit to freedom of speach and expression and one that I doubt few people would seriously debate. A contemporary form of this type of regulation are provisions that make it illegal to show certain TV shows on TV before a certain hour of the night. (I might add here that media industries willingly support this type of regulation and, in fact, impose restrictions on themselves because the logic of this point is self-evident to them.)

After these two points, I concede that things get a bit more tricky. We can all agree that one should not be able to scream “fire in a crowded building” if there isn’t a fire because this could reckless endanger some people’s lives. Other examples -- where, for instance, someone might want to censor a particular speaker because they find what they are saying “offensive” -- are other cases and cannot be dealt with as easily. I don’t have easy answers for more complicated situations, but there are three points I think that should be born in mind in considering potential examples of censorship (or, other forms of cultural regulation).

First, I’m likely willing to give broader scope to censors than most people are but it seems to me that a discussion of the scope of censorship needs to also include a discussion of appeals mechanisms. Even in situations where censorship seems warranted, I think that the person being censored needs to have recourse -- in perpetuity -- to appeal. I recognize that this might seem like a heavy burden but decisions with regard to censoring person X or form of expression Y are made by human beings and human beings can be wrong. Rather than tying the courts up with all kinds of cases, establishing some regularized appeal mechanism strikes me as necessary. This allows the censored person to raise there case for as long as they want. This strikes me as needed and democratic.

Second, a consideration of censorship also needs to bear in mind the fact that particular institutions -- say, a university or a town council -- need to be free to regulate the space they control as they see fit to best accomplish their aims. Periodically I hear people on the news complaining that they were not allowed to speak at, say, University X or Y and this is censorship. Perhaps, but if that person can still speak -- can still get their ideas into the public realm through other means -- is it really censorship. No one has been stopped from talking or expressing themselves. What has happened is that authority has said “you can’t speak in this place.” The fact that one is denied the right to speak at, say, a campus does not mean that that person has been completely denied the right to speak. I’d argue that the right to free speach is not the right to say what one wants whereever one happens to want. Even those who oppose censorship will, I think, acknowledge that private institutions should not be compelled to accept forms of expression or discourses they oppose.

Third, and finally, the argument I am trying to make is one that is designed to alter the way we think about censorship. I’m not trying to say that limiting the right to criticize the government is a good thing. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t know me or understand my views. What I am trying to say is that censorship might not be a yes/no issue. Censoring someone should be a last resort, a very last resort, undertaken only to enhance the security of citizens or to protect people (say, children) who are not competent adults. I might be wrong but it seems me that yes/no debates about censorship or other forms of cultural regulation miss the important grey area in which Canada -- and, likely, most other societies -- operate. As such, have a debate on the question “are you for or against censorship” can be important but it is purely academic and bears little relationship to the real world in which people live. What we need is a debate about the legitimate grounds for censorship (or, other forms of cultural regulation), the appeals process, and the regulation of spaces within which one can speak.
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