Censorship as Expression

Bouncing around random links from this week's BritBlog Roundup, I ended up at a Mark Lawson piece in the Grauniad on censorship in the theatre.

There was a breathtaking exchange on a Radio 5 programme this week. A leader of the campaign to disrupt Jerry Springer: The Opera was interrupted by another guest in the studio who said: "But I'm also a Christian and I don't believe that Jerry Springer should be banned." The religious censor pounced: "Yes, but you can't impose your interpretation of Christianity on everyone else."

The key to understanding this exchange is that in the current media world, the most obvious way of expressing dislike for something is to try to ban it — to the point where it appears as the only way of expressing opposition. The first speaker in the passage above was expressing his opinion of Jerry Springer: The Opera by campaigning to ban it, and his opponent, by criticising that, was effectively saying the first speaker should not express himself, and thus attempting to censor him.

In an ideal world, the anti-Springerist should have been able to express his view of the work, and have that view publicised, without threatening to forcibly prevent people from seeing it. In this world, to achieve such a thing is so difficult it probably never occurred to him, and, if it did occur to him, he would rationally have been bound to discard it as a strategy. He would not have been able to get such views discussed at all, let alone on Radio 5. In our culture, it is difficult to get people to even understand the concept of opposing something without making it illegal, and if you succeed in getting the idea across, you will still lose impact and be seen as wishy-washy or over-complex. This is the problem for anti-prohibitionists in the drug debate, for example.

Again, in the ideal world, he could have taken out advertisments urging people not to go to watch the offending work, or campaigned for clergy to condemn it in the pulpit. I feel slightly silly even making these suggestions. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to demand a ban. If you don't get it, that doesn't matter so much. You will have expressed your view, and got media coverage, and you will have shown both your friends and your enemies the strength of your support.

How to get to my ideal world? I can see two approaches. One is to try to delegitimise censorship off the bat, and refuse to engage with the substantive opinion of someone demanding censorship. The second is the opposite, to treat the demand for censorship as purely formal, and have a debate only on the actual objections of the would-be censors, without taking seriously or considering the practicalities of how the censorship would actually happen.

Neither approach looks much like working to me. Does anyone have a better idea?

I suppose we should also ask how we got to this situation. I guess it's just that greater democratisation of society, and greater access to mass media, has meant that a vocal minority actually can ban things, and that has made doing so the obvious way of expressing dislike.