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If you look at art that offends, the art looks back at you

As a writer and human rights supporter, I react to proposals to censor expression in the same way as I do with a noxious odor. Justice Brandeis was right to say that when we find bad speech — what we regard as bad, at least — the remedy is more speech, not silencing those who disagree with us. But the forces who wish to silence the ideas of their opponents or subjects appear to be a perennial bloc in humanity, and for the moment, I wish to consider what goes on in the mind of the censor.

A friend recently told me about his experiences as a low-ranking member of Army Intelligence whose job was to read the mail of service personnel to remove any sensitive information. This fitted in with some recent reading that I have done on authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century and with the long history of attempts to control what thoughts people share with each other.

The goal of the censor is to shut down the expression of an idea that is not politically correct — not in conformity with the doctrines of those in power. But this requires the person with the scissors or black marker to have some awareness of institutional objectives — a list of naughty words, a set of principles that are understood to be absolute, or in the most advanced form, a thoroughgoing comprehension of the establishment’s doctrines.

The first of these could be performed by computers today. George Carlin’s seven dirty words that cannot be said on the air are easy to detect and bleep, and a word processor’s search function will do the same on the page. And any person who conducts this sort of work is acting as a machine, since the knocking out of offensive words without consideration of the context requires nothing other than programming.

A more sophisticated censor will look not just for words, but also for arguments or incidents in the text that run contrary to official positions. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was attacked by conservative elements in the Islamic world, for example, because it includes a fictionalized account of parts of Muhammad’s life and work, especially concerning passages that were originally treated as divinely inspired but were later dismissed as having been given to the prophet by the Devil. The fact that the book addresses the affects of colonialism and personal identity while treating treating the religious beliefs of various characters as important elements of who they are mattered not at all to the people who were whispering in the ears of the Ayatollah. It was enough that something was deemed to be offensive.

Beyond that comes what is more often the role of an apologist, namely the task of understanding what the opposition is saying — ideally — and work up counterarguments. William Lane Craig’s and Frank Turek’s continual battle in defense of literalist Christianity illustrate this.

And herein lies the problem for the censors among us: how to read the arguments and entertainments of one’s enemies without becoming corrupted. Fundamentalists worry about purity, and authoritarian political organizations are obsessed with ideological conformity. For the censor, just as with the cop investigating pornography, the job is to be exposed to officially objectionable material. This makes me wonder how long censors remain in the field and what monitoring they receive from their higher ups.

This is not a call for feeling sorry for the censor. Outside of things like child sex crimes and the preservation of classified material, I have no wish for such a profession to exist. But in thinking about who censors must be — what their minds and lives must be like — it occurs to me that there is a story here.

I must get on that.

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