Censorship, Imagined, Ambiguous, & Real

Censorship, Imagined, Ambiguous, & Real June 14, 2016

Censorship is a complicated thing. That time where publication was an easily controlled act and the state actively did the controlling is over. Contemporary totalitarian states do their best, but even in China unwanted information has begun to leak into the farthest corners of that nation. Today in the United States the last areas where unambiguous censorship occurs touches upon what can be deemed national security and some matters that involve sex. In Europe also some things touching on sex, national security and here and there some areas of political and even religious speech are censored. It can and is argued that the areas that remain are censored for the common good.

In contemporary Western cultures it can be argued what precisely is or is not censorship. Here in the United States people whose views run contrary to the established norms, to use a stark example, people who hold various types of Marxist perspectives feel their attempts to broadcast their views are censored. It could be. And it could be argued no one cares and the public venues for distributing information are only interested in what people care about and will look at. (Hence the expression “if it bleeds, it leads.” Unfortunate, perhaps, but true…) Still, I would hope most of us can name some political view we think doesn’t get a fair shake in the public forum. When we see those we can think the word censorship. No doubt, it can get ambiguous.

Today that ambiguity has been further muddied with the advent of social media. The era where the only way to communicate broadly was through print is long gone. In the past hundred and fifty years the advance of variety of ways to communicate has been exponential. And with it what we think of as censorship has changed.

People who are de-friended from Facebook, commentators on blogs who find their comments deleted, and people expelled from various listservs for obnoxious comments all have been known to wail loudly how they’ve been censored. Now possibly by the narrowest of definitions, the removal of offensive materials or preventing their publication by a second party are examples of censorship.

As a matter of practice, so far as social media goes, however, its obvious people who are blocked from commenting at someone else’s private site, are not prevented from sharing their opinions to the world, they simply are not allowed to use someone else’s platform to do it. There is no third party monitoring with the intent of silencing voices, again, with some specific exceptions. They are free to set up their own platform, have their own Facebook account, start their own blog, create their own listserv. Most all of these things can be done for free, and if someone doesn’t have a computer, they can use one at a public library. It’s hard to call that censorship in any meaningful sense.

To give the word censorship any real meaning for our times, we must speak an act of a government or a similarly powerful institution. Censorship is the blocking of expression. And in America if the government does that, it is unconstitutional. Except, of course, when it isn’t. I alluded to some forms of sexual expression as censorable. To be specific those forms that involve the abuse of individuals who cannot speak for themselves (as defined by law) together with the somewhat dangerous catch all of national security.

And, at the same time I can think of one real example that seems pretty text book, if veiled. I’ll get back to that.

As it happens it was on this day in 1966 that the Vatican abolished its Index Librium Prohibition, what we call the Index of Prohibited Books. While a church, the Roman Catholic Church had for large parts of its history, still does in some places, the force of government. Being prohibited to publish by the church could be the end of someone’s lifetime of work.

The issue turns on power. Censorship isn’t just a passive act. I will not publish your work. Real censorship is active. I will prevent you from expressing your views. And when one’s views about the world are challenged by someone unconcerned with your theologies, but rather with pursuing knowledge, well, we start moving into very ugly territory.

We all know Galileo’s story.

There are other events that stand in a broad area between the silly complaints around being kicked off a listserv and banning Galileo from publishing. In fact most examples of censorship today can be argued in a couple of directions. Is a record label removing a song from publication due to a pressure group threatening a boycott wrong? How about firing an offensive radio show host? Depend on who is offended, Lots of ambiguity here, with various contending “goods.”

And with that back to, gee I would have thought this would be unconstitutional.

Seems on topic as once again we find ourselves in the aftermath of some mass shooting.

Since 1996 it has been illegal for the Center for Disease Control to conduct research on gun violence. Those who justify it say that the research doesn’t really seem to be leading in any direction we need to worry about, and besides it is obvious the CDC just wants to ban guns and given the chance will fake up whatever it takes to do that. Interesting assertion that.

And, of course, it isn’t just a negative, not funding research. Funds are, after all, fungible. And so why don’t they just go ahead and do their research? Well. There is an actual law on the books that stops it. It’s called the Dickey amendment for Arkansas Republican Representative Jay Dickey, which was tacked onto an appropriations bill, one of those “must pass” things that are used to force such thing into law. It expressly prohibits the CDC to “advocate or promote gun control.” Which is understood to be any actual research. Go figure…

Does the word censorship ring in your ear? The word censorship in its truest sense?

It does in mine. Censorship.

And, sure enough, it is something ugly.

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