Monday, August 17, 2009

what censorship is

There is a strange paradox with censorship in the modern state. Most of us like to nurture the belief that with ideas of civil liberty, freedom of speech and increased access to education getting more and more entrenched in society, we are gradually moving towards a world of lesser and lesser censorship. And yet, when we scour through today’s media, we get a feeling that these same tools have started playing havoc in a pluralistic, liberal milieu. Let us be clear on one thing from the outset- it has never been easy to decide on three things as far as censorship is concerned. First, is it morally and ethically correct to do so? Secondly, if it is a necessary evil, how much should be censored? And finally, is the state the best party to do it?

Traditionally, liberals have posited the right to freedom of speech and expression as among the highest ideals of civilized society, and have therefore, objected to censorship as the tool that undermines that right. It must be noted that ‘no censorship’ is a position that becomes difficult to defend, although it is a philosophical stand worth arguing for. Liberals hold that once you agree to ‘some censorship’, then it is difficult to decide between ‘good censorship’ (which might have some justification in the ends it serves) and ‘bad censorship’ (which is a tool of control and convenience under the guise ‘good censorship’). Condemned as we are to this bifurcation of expression, we must now perpetually reside in a state of constant tussle with the state and with opposing parties and with our own changing selves to move towards but avoid the attainment of the ideal case (another paradox in itself).

All societies that guarantee freedom of speech and expression do so with riders. For example, in India, it is qualified by subjection to ‘the integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence’ (Article 19). Proponents of censorship frequently appeal to these exceptions, which seem to be heavily loaded in favor of the status quo. One problem should be obvious by now. Who is to define what constitutes ‘decency or morality’? Who can judge whether an action or expression would have gone on to cause a legally unacceptable action or another action that would have caused a legally unacceptable action? One might say that the courts and judges would. But they work within a constitutional and political framework. Such frameworks have their concomitant pitfalls – they could have been framed to appeal to majority opinion (after all, most governments are elected), they could have been a product of the times and contexts in which they were created (and so, out of place today) or they could be a victim of the difficulty whereby, in failing to find a practicable and integrated equivalent of a philosophical position, we settle for the nearest alternative (for example, we know that ideally, punishment should be commensurate to the gravity of the offence and yet different countries would award different terms for the same offence, say, the theft of a car).

We are going to look at the issue of censorship in a philosophical sense. By such a sense, we mean a quest for something grounded less in the material and more in the perpetual. But censorship must work in the real world, one might object. Yes, it must, but in order to do so, we should try and develop moral and ethical arguments that are not a function of the government that is in power or of the events of the previous week. Censorship works within the larger domain of justice and following Rawls’ cue, it is worth looking for a parallel ‘Principles of Censorship’. Some of the issues that would need to be considered are – the nature of censorship, the relationship of the state and the individual, the legality of the laws of the state, the harm and the offence principles that are used to judge objectionable material, empirical evidence (or the lack of it) to justify causality and the non-state actors that have a say in censorship (the individual and society). Finally, we would see if a ‘maximum’ or ‘minimum’ principle would be best in determining the extent of censorship.

What is censorship?

The word ‘censorship’ is derived from the word ‘censor’, which has its etymological roots in the Latin word cens─ôre, meaning ‘to give as one’s opinion’. A censor was a magistrate of high rank in ancient Rome, whose primary responsibility was to take the ‘census’ or to keep an account of those people who would be entitled to the benefits of citizenship. From this followed the power of regimen morum (keeping the public morals), for,
‘they would, in the first place, be the sole judges of many questions of fact, such as whether a citizen had the qualifications required by law or custom for the rank which he claimed, or whether he had ever incurred any judicial sentence, which rendered him infamous: but from thence the transition was easy, according to Roman notions, to the decisions of questions of right; such as whether a citizen was really worthy of retaining his rank, whether he had not committed some act as justly degrading as those which incurred the sentence of the law.’

Thus, the ideal of a government authority deciding what is to be allowed and what is not is almost as old as civilization itself. In the everyday sense, when we hear the word censor, we think it to be ‘a removal of material considered offensive or harmful’. This sense derives from the fact that censorship makes news only when it has either been actuated or when it has raised the possibility of implementation through public debate. In fact, there are many times when censorship is not noticed because it works more silently. For example, when we are at a workplace, we try and ensure that our language is gender-neutral and does not come across as demeaning to our co-workers. This is an instance of ‘self-imposed’ censorship. And it has been self imposed either because there is a law in place or because there is no law but the fear of social reproach. Thus, censorship is not always ex-post. Hence, we must add ‘prevention’ as one of the key features of censorship.

One may qualify the word ‘removal’ in the definition as well. When we go to watch a movie, we ask about the rating it has received from the censor board. The ratings are a result of give and take between the owners of the film and the censor board. If the board finds certain scenes objectionable, it has three alternatives. It can ban the movie outright because there is no possibility of showing it in a coherent form without inciting major unpleasant consequences. It can keep the movie intact, but rate it for a restrictive audience. Or it can remove the objectionable scenes and allow it for general viewership. The owners of the movie do a cost-benefit analysis and chose the option that best suits them (essentially, they almost never choose the first one). Thus, in the second case, there has not been so much ‘removal’ as ‘limitation’. One could argue that there has been a ‘removal’ in another sense- a part of the intended audience has been removed from potential viewership because of the restrictive rating. But there are two points to be noted here. One, that the integrity of the material has not been compromised. And two, that there is a possibility that everyone can see it, although with a lag now (movies certified ‘adult’ can be seen by people as and when they qualify as ‘adults’).

Finally, a definition of censorship has to accommodate the censoring authority (the Roman magistrate, if you please).

We can now have our workable definition of censorship.

Censorship is the prevention or removal or limitation of material considered offensive or harmful, as determined by a censor.

Censorship happens in a social context. If one merely spoke out objectionable lines within the confines of one’s own room, there would be no need to censor him. However, if the same lines were spoken at a public rally in front of a violent mob, they would require consideration. Thus, it is the impact that is sought to be avoided. The matter can be brought to the notice of the censor by parties that consider it offensive or harmful or the censor can take suo motu action in the light of the laws and precedents.

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