The word censor comes from the Latin censure, which means ‘to appraise, value, judge’; its usage in English is most often traced back to early 16th century references to magistrates in the Roman Republic: ‘censors’ whose duties involved ‘counting, assessing, and evaluating the populace’. This gives the term’s etymology an interesting connotative mix: it is of course closely related to the censorship that we think about today, but also to much more neutral terms like census. The word censor itself was also, as should be clear from the above, used initially in neutral terms; it was only a couple of centuries later (etymonline suggests the early 19th century) that it came to be closely linked to the notion of suppression. These different connotations lay out a good outline of the censorship debate as it stands: does censorship by nature involve what might be thought of as suppression – not just in literal or technical terms, but with an overtly negative connotation – or can it be, as those accused of censorship tend to assert, an attempted protection of public morality and stability?
Perhaps the most widely known historical example of censorship in the Western world was undertaken from the 16th to (formally) the middle of the 20th century by the Catholic church in the form of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (or ‘Index of Prohibited Books’), an index or list of books banned by the church. First devised in 1559, in the wake of the mass proliferation of printed material in Europe , the Index has been noted as an attempt by the Catholic Church to counter the threat of Protestantism (whose own proliferation was heavily based on the spread of printed texts) but also included other material – including now-classic texts by the likes of Erasmus, Machiavelli and Dante – deemed ‘heretical’, ‘immoral’ or ‘magical’. Burke and Briggs, in A Social History of the Media, touch upon an intriguing complication that an institution of the status quo, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, has to deal with: a direct challenge to their authority, as Protestantism represented for the Catholics, raises the question of whether or not to engage it. This is what is termed by Briggs as ‘the conservative dilemma’: to directly engage with a challenge is to validate it and make the issue at hand ‘debatable’; to choose to ignore it completely in order to invalidate it is to risk it gaining ground. Censorship, perhaps, presents itself as a tempting response from those who believe a certain status quo preserves moral order.
More contemporary examples of the same sort of censorship do of course include titles whose banning is designed to preserve a certain social order – The Anarchist’s Cookbook is an oft-cited one – but also contains the added element of political correctness and offensiveness. What has become one of the go-to examples of censorship, for example, is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, banned in a number of Muslim countries for ‘blasphemy’, but also in non-Muslim-majority countries – Venezuela, for example, banned the book in 1989 – on the grounds of it being offensive. Another similar contemporary example of censorship within multi-cultural communities on the grounds of offensiveness could be the banning of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in Egypt, Lebanon and Nagaland in India.
This evokes one of the complexities at the heart of the censorship issue: is the banner of free expression always conducive to its purported ideals? In a piece in the MMLA Journal, a former teacher talks about encountering ‘disagreeable’ opinions in class – her example is of borderline racist interpretations of literary texts – and becoming aware of how easy (and tempting) it is to censor something without seeming to ‘suppress’ it; she goes on to generally espouse the virtue of free expression while making an exception for ‘dangerous’ material – whose territorial blurriness she does not quite address. A different piece in another journal which focuses much more on these ‘dangerous’ materials is declaratively titled ‘The Criticizing of Racism and Sexism by the Council on Interracial Books for Children is Not Censorship’; the argument here is that attempts to reduce the proliferation of material that facilitate certain biases and close off other points of view cannot be labelled censorship – even if the form of limiting material for distribution might look similar to what is generally considered to be censorship.
What increasingly unfolds is similar to the sovereignty issue tackled in the last issue of OCA: an issue phrased as a debate, but seemingly centred more around the question of who gets to control the discourse itself.
- Briggs, Asa, and Peter Burke. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge: Polity, 2009. Print.
This article was written by Abiral Chitrakar Phnuyal. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
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