Saturday, August 24, 2013

Censorship Part 1- The Secrecy of Responsibility / Chewing the Cud

Censorship, aka Burning Books
Censorship. It's a negative word. Censorship is for prudes and dictators, and as we know, prudes are dictators with less power and even less style. However, most everyone believes in some form of censorship, even if it is just for kids. Even if you argue that art should not be judged by moral standards (see my post on The Divorce of Art and Religon), I doubt anyone would argue that art doesn't have moral effects, especially on children. After all, we recognize a form of censorship when children aren't allowed in R-rated films. While I'll talk more about the purposes and practices of censorship later on, I want (if you'll allow me) to assume that there are at least some situations where censorship is not only okay but morally right.

Censorship is fascinating to me because it brings a specific set of questions to the problem of authority. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues from the story of Abraham and Isaac that there are times when we cannot justify our actions to others. In other words, from a moral standpoint, there are times when we must keep our motivations secret for what we're doing. In a culture that from its beginning has valued open discussion, this secrecy can be seen as offensive. Most people dismiss Kierkegaard's argument because they claim that it's an exception. After all, Abraham had a direct command from God. At first, this response seems legitimate, but what's fascinating about censorship is that censorship only works when the reasons for it remain hidden. Of course, we can share, "I'm doing this for your good," or "You don't need to know this right now," but these reasons hide the real reason. The real reason always has to do with the information itself. We can hardly explain in detail why we censor something. Because art deals with particulars, the question of censorship is a question of judgment, and to make a judgment, you must be acquainted with the particulars of the situation.

When an authority chooses to censor something, their reasons remain their own. This is true if the authority is one person or a committee. Even if a child eventually learns what was hidden by their parents, they can only judge after the act of censorship has happened. An obvious caveat here is just because the authority cannot justify their censorship to others doesn't mean they shouldn't justify their censorship to God. Censorship is a matter of conscience, and as such, is one of the heaviest burdens that an authority can bear. What you choose to censor cannot rest on anyone but yourself.

As a final observation, we often view the negative side of censorship, but we don't often recognize the protection it provides. In a fundamental way, the censor is a scapegoat, bearing the problems of the community so that others don't have to. When we choose to censor, not only is that a heavy burden to bear, but we are the ones exposed to sin and lawlessness that we protect others from. While censorship can be bad, we also need to recognize and be thankful for the suffering of those above us.

I'm writing a multi-part series on censorship (hence the Part 1), and I'm hoping to write a paper on it, which means I would be very happy to get some feedback. What do you think? Is censorship necessary? Can we justify censorship? Should we justify censorship? I look forward to hearing from you.


I'm indebted to Kierkegaard and Derrida for much of these thoughts. See my review of Derrida's The Gift of Death.

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