Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Censorship in Society

I've recently been having an exchange with my friend Rob, on this older post of mine about censorship in education. As he quite rightly points out, the example I use in that post is of a particular poem being removed from a GCSE anthology because of its bad influence, and this restriction of context is quite different in kind from a total ban on the poem itself.

Nonetheless, the point that I wanted to make is that we do care what we expose children to - controversy over 'Gollywogs' in Enid Blyton being another example - and, if this is our general concern, then there has to be a worry that context restriction will never be enough. (Of course, there's a balancing that goes on here: we may think that context restriction sufficiently limits harm with minimal loss of liberty, while a total ban - as Plato proposes - would be too great a price to pay to prevent undesirable influences).

Here, it seems, is an example where concern goes beyond mere context restriction. The controversy surrounds whether it is ok to use the term 'retard' in satire. That could be a matter of context, because there are some things that we think it ok to discuss but not make fun of; but as I read it, the suggestion is that the term - like, perhaps, 'nigger' (with the possible exception of between blacks) - should be taboo and not to be used at all, even in comedy (which is sometimes exempt from certain restrictions).

Note, in particular, the BBC headline: The path from cinema to playground. The concern is, in particular, the effect on the young, but the proposal is censorship far wider than school textbooks or even the school context. As Myles Burnyeat puts it, in his Tanner Lectures, "Plato’s insight is that if you are concerned about the souls of the young, it is no good simply laying down rules for parents and teachers, or agreeing to keep sex and violence off the TV screen until after 9:00 P.M. His conclusion: for the sake of the young, the entire culture must be purged" (p.47).

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At 2:26 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

Isn't the relevant difference here between thinking you shouldn't do something, and thinking it should be banned and presumably have some kind of criminal sanction attached to it? I think Jim Davidson is despicable, and that if he disappeared from the face of the earth, it would be a better place, but that's not a call for him to be banned.

What Burnyeat says about Plato I think is a) right about Plato and b) right on the merits. What what he says obscures though, is that Plato's idea of what needs to be purged and the methods which we should employ in purging it so illiberal as to be untrue. For example, we can agree that a world without Jim Davidson would be better, and disagree both about why it would be better and what that betterness would justify doing.

At 2:50 pm, Blogger Ben said...

Well, Plato is imagining what he considers an ideal society. If the ideal society wouldn't have Jim Davidson or imitative poets, then nor will the society he describes.

Of course, I take it that when you say a world without Jim Davidson would be better you mean one where he simply doesn't exist rather than one where he does but is banned. Presumably, Plato would agree with this - the ideal society isn't one where people want poets but they're driven underground by state repression, it's just one where there are no poets because no one wants poetry. More Brave New World than 1984...


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