Sunday 20 April 2008

Prohibition, Censorships, Forbidden Knowledge

It doesn't work.
The United States proved that in the twenties with alcohol.
We are proving it now with every other newer addition to the category of substances which people seem to derive pleasure from.

If people enjoy it, ban it. The slightest proof that something has some negative side, leads to a wholesale ban, in defiance of reason, in defiance of allowing a balanced judgement to be made, a weighing up of the pros and the cons, an admission that on the whole, society seems to benefit, rather than suffer, from a particular artificial stimulant being on peoples freely chosen list of lifestyle choices.

Instead, what we have, is the law being brought into disrepute. Opinion on drug legalisation, is largely a matter of experience. And the more people experience, the more the law as a whole gets dragged down. Because there are so many other laws that SEEM sillier, but are in fact more important. Such as speeding laws. But having badly thought out laws on matters such as cannabis, encourages people to look at laws in terms of 'minor' or 'major'.

Prohibition needs a solid reason.
And this brings me to something in fact, more complicated.
What knowledge do we make freely available, and how do we regulate it?

Can we truly be democratic about censorship?

This is in fact, a difficult point, perhaps one of the more significant moral questions human culture faces. Where do you draw lines, and do you put the same line everywhere for everybody?

I'll admit, I really do not know the answers here, but I'd like to raise the questions.

I can remember when we did Brighton Rock at A-level, noticing the differences between two different editions of the text. One had been slightly edited, just ever so slightly. It was just one nuance that had been removed, by the publishers.

One three occasions in the book, references to nameless figures being Jewish is removed. The references are all three of them negative references, and I guess the publishers wanted to avoid the anti-semitic implications of those particular sections, but in doing so, they removed the actual artistic point, which of course, wasn't an anti-semitic point.

The novel is essentially about Damnation. The main character believes he is destined for Hell. He believes himself to be irredeemable. In a twisted, almost puritanical way, he embraces evil. He is a kind of proto-Damian, and religious references abound. In the three instances mentioned, the reader is deliberately reminded (in the original), of events from the New Testament. This is lost, by the replacement of 'Jewesses' by 'Bitches' and 'Jews', by 'Men'. The bowdlerised passages are devoid of significance as a result.

Again, I understand the reason it has been done. But I do not agree that it was the right decision. In the same way, I did not agree with much of the criticism levelled at Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ. What happens next, censorship of the New Testament itself? The story there is what it is, historians may rightly suggest, that the story as told was biased and the basis for medieval anti-semitism. I agree. But the story is, what the story is, and in Brighton Rock, as in the Passion of Christ, we are preventing the artistic interpretation of religious themes, by censoring those interpretations.

I think this leads nicely into one the most damaging things censorship is doing today, and again, perhaps with the best will in the world.
The fact is, anti-semitism was a very nasty form of discrimination, and we have within living memory, seen it's worst manifestation.

But Holocaust Denial laws?

I'd like to hear the justification.

Because personally, my view is this. The truth is provable. Sensible people make sensible judgements. These Holocaust Deniers, if you read what they write, it all LOOKS very plausible. Some of it is well written. And what is our response?
It should be, to tear their research to shreds in the academic arena, not lock them up. All that leaves is a well written treatise, unanswered. The problem is, you and I are sensible enough to realise that the evidence shows that a lot more than 30,000 people died in the concentration camps. Personally, I don't think all 6 Million were done by the Nazis. I think it's a strange coincidence the death toll is so much higher where Russian troops arrived first, but certainly millions died and the gas ovens and Zyklon B were used on people.
But the law is to prevent more suggestible people being hoodwinked. In fact, it recruits them to the neo-nazis, because the neo-nazis say; they have no answer to us, they can only lock us up.

And in fact, a part of even ME thinks, we'll never really get to the truth about any of this, whilst we don't permit free speech and academic debate. There are areas of Second world War history, where I DO think, the atrocities weren't all where they are said to be.

And where do you draw the line? Is to be illegal to say black people weren't slaves? Or that Christians weren't fed to lions? Or that jihads and crusades never happened?

Are we to burn heretics like our ancestors did?

Sometimes, one can read something in literature, which can shock. I'll let you into a little secret; I'm a Conan the Barbarian fan. I like the Conan stories. The thing is- and sometimes it shows- the author was a white Texan living with his mother in the nineteen thirties. Consider the following paragraph;

'You said I was a barbarian,' he said harshly, 'and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft gutted civilised weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig tonight. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword's edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. Customs vary in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling!
'If you were old and ugly as the devil's pet vulture, I'd take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the colour of your hide. But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at black sluts until I am sick at the guts. I'll play this game your way simply because some of your instincts correspond to some of mine.'

What nasty, sexist, racist, sentiments. When I first read that paragraph, I put the book down in disgust.
But in half an hour I picked it up again. Yes, they aren't nice sentiments. But I realised, I had to accept this in this sense, the story was partly a historical document. In much the same way, the mindless slaughter of the infidel in Chanson Roland, shouldn't be seen as justifying the mindless slaughter of Muslims today in Iraq. The author of Chanson Roland didn't know any better, and nor did Robert Howard. I can overlook such a nasty paragraph, indeed, I just don't read that story full stop, because as long as black people don't come into his stories, they're very good.

But it's a hard one. Because some morons would read that paragraph and LIKE Conan the Racist, Male Chauvinist pig.

And this brings me to the real border, as far as I am concerned.
Because there are books and films I have come across, where I am left pondering.
Yes, I think, it's good for these issues to be addressed.
But not by everybody.

Some knowledge, some thoughts, are too dangerous for everyone to handle.

I can think of two books, both of which I have read, and both of which have been made in to films. In both cases, the films caused outcry, but in neither case, do they really unnerve as the books do.

The books in question are Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita, and Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho.

Strange books. Unnerving books. DARK books.
They are books written in the first person, by characters that are, put bluntly, warped beyond redemption, that are, by any reasonable person's definition evil.

The problem with the books, is that they are written in first person, from the perspective of in the first case, a child molester, in the second, a serial killer.
And because they are written in the first person, the novel is written as they see it, from the point of view of EVIL PEOPLE WHO DO NOT QUITE SEE THAT WHAT THEY DO IS WRONG. Never, in either book is there an apology, an admission of evil. In the first case, the character keeps justifying himself and his fixations, the second is written in such a way as to trivialise the nature of what is done. It is 70 pages before he starts talking about slicing up people with chain saws. In fact, MOST of the novel deals with the false, soulless, amoral corporatism of his work on the stock exchange, the frantic social life, whole chapters on music albums, it is essentially a novel about how the mind of a psychopath thinks, but unnerving, because of it's grounding in a world so many of us move in.

Neither of them make pleasant reading. They do, however make riveting reading, though one does end up wondering about the authors. Do they write from experience, is this their way of releasing their own desires, in a non threatening way? Does it matter? Perhaps there is something brave about them, undertaking such a thought experiment and putting their names to it.

But still, at the end of it, I find myself thinking this.
Dangerous books.

Because whilst exploring these themes has a certain value in aiding our comprehension of evil, that comprehension is only a positive, if we have no tendencies towards that evil. In the wrong hands, such texts are dangerous. As a society we don't want potential child molesters and serial killers becoming encouraged to actualise their tendencies, by reading texts like this.

See what I mean about being on the line? I'd hesitate to ban works like these, because whilst I can't say I ENJOYED reading them, I DO feel, they added in a way to my understanding, they allowed me to pick up on certain things in how other people act. That of course, is one of the key virtues of art.
What I DO believe, is that perhaps access to some knowledge and concepts needs restricting.

And of course, it goes beyond that. Even Nietzche, I think, though I hold him to be one of the greatest of philosophers, should ONLY be read, if you actually have a mind capable of understanding his points, and more importantly ACTUALLY HAVE A FAIRLY RIGIDLY INGRAINED SYSTEM OF ETHICS ALREADY, so you can comprehend where it is, Nietzche asks you to move it to.

Maybe the problem has always been, it's the thought and the speech we've tried to stop.
Maybe really, what we need to control, is who hears it.
But how do you decide that?

I really don't know the answers to this one. I'd be interested to hear what people think.


Anonymous said...

What I think is that you persist in trying to find a justification for shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre.

Posture all you like but somethings shouldn't be said.

Anonymous said...

There is only one reason why shouting 'Fire' in a crowded theatre is wrong, that there is no fire. If of course, there IS a fire, then shouting fire is the thing to do.

I'm sorry, but human progress is dependant on allowing as much freedom of maneouvure for rational conceptualisation and communication, as is compatible with maintaining public safety and the personal security of the individul.

I will not support or condone censorship on grounds of taste and decency. We don't live in pre-1994 South Africa, or 50's Ireland, Thank God.

Anonymous said...

Where do you draw lines? I guess the oldest answer is the best one - where you impinge on the freedom of others. I'm uneasy with the idea that you can legalise something just because people do it - we could end up legalising everything that way. And I do think there should be "holocaust denial" laws - otherwise it could happen all over again.

Anonymous said...

You started with 'no' to censorship, and it was convincing... and then at the end, yes, as you say; not everyone is suitable for every book....

I'd say, let everyone choose what they want to read, but the one who decides to write, and the other to publish, carry a heavy responsibility. I would like to read the books you mention, but I refrain. As you say; dark knowledge, and innocence IS bliss, in matter of evil. Even with writing; there are things I don't write, and places I don't explore, for fear of unlocking the darkness, either in myself or a potential reader. Nowadays, knowledge is given to all; but not all can be entrusted with it.

Anonymous said...

What is truth ?

Are each of us as individuals able to discern ?

I think that even in the freest of states censorship exists. Concensus is reached as to where we would like society to go and we appoint people who we trust to select what we can and can't see.

That sounds so restrictive doesn't it ?

I don't mean to be so. I just feel that if people wish to seek those things out then they can - in private. But that society should voice its disapproval and draw lines and boundaries to prevent the routine coarsening and debauching of the masses (me included).

Media DOES influence behaviour - if this isn't true then why is the advertising industry worth billions ? So I'm pro banning on a wide range of corrosive and unedifying activities.

Anonymous said...

I think Welshcakes sums this up very nicely!

Anonymous said...

Welshcakes- It depends on how many, and in what way. As a general rule, laws are there to protect. No victim, no crime, in my opinion.
The thing is, it's not illegal to say a numner of downright stupid things. It isn't illegal to say Apollo 11 never landed on the Moon, though that is pretty offensive to all those who went there. Admittedly, not on the same scale.

I don't really see how anything the holocaust deniers say can ever make anti-semitism right. Fact is, in an open debate, they'll b proved wrong, and the subject dies for good. I think the German law as it stands, fuels the neo-nazis, in the same way as internment in the '70s simply drove people to the IRA.

Eve- This is where I'm at, yes. I don't think there should be forbidden thoughts, just maybe control of who has access to them. The books I mentioned, I do think, are pretty shocking at a certain level, they haunt, and I dread to think of the effect they would have on someone who had entertained thoughts of that nature. It's a delicate balance, and the thing is, it would be great to be able to prserve the art/knowledge, yet keep it safe from those who wouls misuse it.

E-K- And where would you stand on Nine Songs and such films? Personally, I have no objection to such films becoming mainstream, but certain religious groups would. Whereas, I do object to some of the medical programmes broadcast on terrestial TV. Sorry, I don't want to see people's insides. But I have a choice. I don't have to look.

I think we still have some strange cultural ideas regarding what we censor. We'd rather young people saw people being slashed to pieces than making love. Bizarre, if you ask me.

CherryPie- I think most would see that as a good framework. However, then we have people trying to sneak in concepts such as the 'moral majority', a lovely myth of the right.
I think the thing is, we all need to stop being so offended so easy.
Let me put it this way- click the blog link below mine in the BP blogroll. The most recent post there CERTAINLY offends me, in fact most posts on that blog do. But I reserve the right NOT to click the link. Simple.

Anonymous said...

That is what I was meaning. We do need a framework, but I do very much believe in freedom of speech. So where do you draw the line between the two?

Yes I agree I have seen blogs which I find offensive but people do have the right to say what they think. I just choose not to visit them. It usually not so much what they are saying on their blogs, it is how they express themselves that puts me off!

Anonymous said...

I'm very opposed to censorship of itself but I do think we need to keep certain things away from children.

How we do that is often a minefield as many parents have stricter guidelines than others consequently want books banned from school libraries for example which others see as harmless.

I won't comment on legalisation of drugs. I'm just not convinced for what I think are very good scientific reasons, but of course others do not.

Anonymous said...

Cherry Pie- I guess so, some people seem to just put your back up, don't they? Expressed with niggling stridency.
There is an art to it, I guess. Being able to railroad through taboos without anyone taking offence.

Some of the works of Sade raise interesting moral questions. Not in terms of, we should copy what is depicted, but in terms of pushing the boundaries of socio-political radicalism.

jmb- I think you need to remember that parental decisions are only part of it. If the parents are too strict, and kids se they CAN'T do what all their classmates do, they'll rebel to the other extreme. Like it or not, parents need to be awatre of where the cultural centre of gravity is. My parents tried the strict approach, and it had completely the opposite result to that desired.

Anonymous said...

"If of course, there IS a fire, then shouting fire is the thing to do."

and there we have proof you don't understand anything whatsoever about human nature.

Even if there is a fire you don't shout "fire" because in a crowd that will induce panic, what you do is calmly move people away from the fire and out of the building.

Could I suggest more thought and less incontinent spraying of bullshit?

Anonymous said...

I have never heard of the film Nine Songs.

I feel that broadcasters, writers and film makers have the power to set agendas - this needs to be tempered or we end up with individuals of immense undemocratic influence who are, incidentally, wealthy enough to live far from the consequences of their work.

I don't think that the mainstreaming of either graphic violence or graphic sex is good. Leave those things in an inconvenient place where people can find them if they must. The State's position should always be one of disapproval and boundary setting.

Why ?

Because boundaries will always be pushed. You are partly right that banning doesn't work - the authorities know this. But by setting the boundary at a given distance (usually farther from the danger zone than the transgressor realises) the authorities maintain control whilst enabling a certain amount of healthy rebelliousness without too much damage.

The alternative is ever increasing degeneracy and degredation as we are witnessing now.

Some people, for example, think that we live in more liberated times now that we can say the words 'fuck' or 'cunt' without too much censure. I doubt that older people would agree though - and it certainly doesn't appear to be older people kicking people's heads like footballs or breeding like feral animals. I bet the head-kickers and feral-breeders use the words 'fuck' and 'cunt' quite liberally though, possibly while they're kicking heads, 'making love' or probably both - coincidence do you think ?

Anonymous said...

Baht At- I'm willing to lay good money on the possibility that I know a hell of a lot more about human nature than yourself...
The whole life experience thing, you know. But that isn't really the subject being debated here. Further, it is a descent into ad hominem argument.

Now to be frank, I'm having difficulty trying to work out what point you are trying to make.

I don't see the connection, to be honest, between shouting 'fire' in a theatre and the general principle of free speech. The question is, does someone (or their reputation) get hurt.

If you are still stuck in the question of the blog you objected to, then that is completely irrelevant to the point of this post, which actually dealt more with the issue of censorship in art and literature, something which is anathema to me, on the whole.

I am going to return the suggestion to yourself. How about revelling in the wonderful panaromaic view of opinion available to us and voice diagreement in a polite and courteous way?

E-K- The first film on mainstream release with actual sex scenes in it. Something of a milestone. As you can probably imagine, I don't really have a problem with it.

Violence is something we want to get rid of. Sex, hardly. It's a bodily function and a pretty necessary one. And in fact. most of us enjoy it and funnily enough, enjoy watching it. I think keeping sex under the carpet, allows it to get attached to fairly nefarious things.
Take the word porn. It includes depictions of something we all do, with the vilest acts known to the species. That can't be right. I'd like to see NORMAL sex rescued from that gradation scale.

As a species, we are passing through adolescence. Up till now, we've preety much been children, told what to do by KIngs, Nobles, Religions. We're only just shaking thst off. It's going to be hard.

But in the long run, better. I believe we CAN and WILL govern ourselves RESONSIBLY. We're learning, as a species, how to do it. This is part of the journey, the destruction of taboo, and the creation of codes of behaviour based on pure reason.

Anonymous said...

Having a poo is a natural function too.

I don't want to see it happen though.

Some things need only be suggested in films - Psycho, for example, had no gore in it at all but was far more effective than most modern horror films. But that's beside the point.

Anonymous said...

ah crushed dear boy you are so up your own arse you can't see anything but tonsils.

The point is that your blog appears to be generated by your body without any input from your brain and you regularly return to the same old topic that you should be allowed to be as stupid as you like and people shouldn't point out the flaws in your argument.

Anonymous said...

E-K- No,I have no interest in seeing that either. :)

Omen II, best horror film of all time.

Baht at- Dear, dear. No, I don't recommend stupidity, any more than I recommend your debating style.

I do however, fully endorse freedom of speech.