There has been increasing debate about censorship in its many guises in recent times; everything from what constitutes pornography to what people should be allowed to wear. There are deep fundamental issues here that do deserve to be talked about and acknowledged. These issues ultimately boil down to questions of freedom of expression and openness to ideas; any ideas. These twin concepts are a cornerstone of vibrant democracy, which is why being precise about the meanings of the words used in the discussion is important.
Restrictions on free expression and openness come in various forms. Classification is communally deciding that certain ideas are inappropriate in certain contexts. Censorship dictates from on high that certain ideas are inappropriate in any context.
Almost no one has a problem with classification. Australians agree that some material is inappropriate for children, that discussion about religion may not be appropriate in the workplace, and that walking around naked is inappropriate in public venues. Classification is also a useful tool for people to decide what kind of media they want themselves or their families to be exposed to.
Censorship, on the other hand, has few friends, as no two people will agree on where the line should be drawn between which ideas are valid and which should be banned. People advocating censorship are often surprised to see their own ideas turn controversial when society’s mood shifts.
Censorship proponents argue that the simple act of exposure to certain ideas causes material harm. This is an old argument. Originally, it was aimed at the uneducated labourers, who were deemed to not have the necessary mental capacity to appreciate risque art or modern ideas that the wealthy enjoyed. As literacy increased, it was then aimed at women who were deemed to be too sensitive to be able to understand certain material. To accept this argument would, in fact, destroy our justice system: every defendant could use exposure to dangerous ideas as an excuse for their behaviour.
Indeed, there is scant evidence for this argument, despite its long history. Exposure to pornography does not cause sexual assaults. Watching violent movies does not cause violence. Listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll does not cause drug addiction. Ideas only become dangerous when they are elevated to the level of dogma. This is a form of censorship in itself. Considering any idea to be sacrosanct prevents open discussion and ultimately, improvement in society. White supremacism, creationism, extreme climate change denialism, and religious extremism are ideas too highly elevated. Such ideas are clung to because they cement power for those who have it or limit responsibility.
Other pro-censorship arguments stress a shared morality among the public. History shows that morality is neither absolute nor shared equally by everyone and certainly changes with time. Slavery and honour killings were once morally justified by the law and the Bible. In modern times, euthanasia is a good example of a controversial idea. It is currently illegal to provide information assisting euthanasia in Australia because it is considered an instruction to crime. Yet most Australians are in favour of euthanasia of some form, and many people’s attitudes towards it change when they’re forced to watch their loved ones suffer with no hope of recovery.
The definition of pornography is another example. Pornography is very difficult to define. Is Michelangelo’s David pornography? Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? Classic works of art like these were considered pornographic in times past and many were censored. More recently, there have been calls to ban some advertising material on the grounds it is pornographic. Even child pornography can be difficult to define. Numerous lists of the best literature of the 20th century include Lolita, yet this novel includes sexual relations between an adult and child. In Australia, cartoon characters, such as the Simpsons, are considered real people and possession of drawings of such characters engaged in sexual acts has seen someone convicted of possessing child pornography. Yet in both cases, no actual child was harmed.
More fundamentally to democratic society, freedom of expression allows unpopular ideas to still have a voice. For example, access to surrogacy when parents are unable to conceive is a generally accepted idea (although not in Victoria), yet religious groups, say conservative Catholics, are free to voice their disapproval and certainly avoid using such technology. An Australian Republic is openly discussed even though some consider the concept treasonous. After the Victorian bushfires, a minister of a religious group popular with some politicians claimed the fires were God’s wrath for allowing abortion.
Simply, ideas have different qualities. Some are almost universally considered of huge societal benefit, like democracy; others are almost universally considered detrimental to society, like fascism. Censorship itself is an idea, aiming to hide ‘bad’ ideas from society thereby limiting potential ‘damage’ as determined by the censor. The concept sounds valid, but it has always been a sub-optimal solution, and frequently abused. Hiding symptoms does not fix any underlying social cancer that is the breeding ground for ‘bad’ ideas. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away; they just fester and grow.
Any disease of bad ideas must be confronted and challenged – bright light and fresh air are the best remedy to ‘bad’ ideas. Open discussion is what diffuses damage. Good ideas are strong. They have evidence and righteousness on their side, even if they are unpalatable to certain segments of society. This is how slavery was overcome.
That doesn’t mean that ideas should be forced on anyone. This is where classification comes in. Our individual judgement gives us tools for knowing how we will respond to certain classes of ideas. It is enough to know a movie contains horror for the squeamish to avoid it. Those uncomfortable with nudity can avoid nude beaches. Christians, Muslims and Hindus are not forced to read “The God Delusion”. No one needs to stay fixated on a website that doesn’t suit their values. As long as we have the education and experience to judge ideas, they cannot harm us.
Freedom of speech does not give us the right to say anything we please. Words can cause damage, whether it is a company director giving inside knowledge, shouting fire in a crowded room, or knowingly lying about the actions of others. However, that does not mean that we have a right to not be offended. In any typical day we will meet with confronting ideas that do not suit our values. Whether this is non-Catholics having to put up with World Youth Day, or religious school funding, government policy on illegal immigration, or emission trading schemes, we are all put out by different things. An offence free world would be a dystopia without dialogue of anything meaningful. Only the group doing the censoring benefits from censorship.
Classification, though, illuminates: it guides the population about what is and isn’t appropriate in particular situations. These are the rules of polite society that we encourage that make Australia a pleasant place to live.
Censorship has a long history as a tool of control. It is far too easy to abuse. What is censored cannot be known. This is the paradox: people are unable to review whether the censored ideas are actually repugnant, and therefore the public is not in a position to agree or disagree with the censorship. Once a censorship system is in place other ideas are slowly added as different groups hold political sway, or as maintenance of power becomes a consuming goal.
Fear, uncertainty and doubt are the weapons of political control, of those whose fundamental drive is anti-freedom. The reality is that the world is not as scary as fear-mongers would have us believe. We accept risk in everything we do; indeed a full life requires risk. Risk is a statistical reality that humans have difficulty measuring. We are far more likely to die in car accidents than we are in a terrorist attack, yet we will stay up at night worrying about terrorism but won’t think twice about getting into our cars.
Fear is a control tool, and a population afraid is easy to control. Repressive forces create fear by spreading uncertainty and doubt then subtly suggesting danger. Claiming certain ideas are something to fear is exactly what censorship is about. It’s an attempt to control the public. It suggests the public are too feeble to make choices properly and that we need the government to do it for us. It suggests that punishment should proceed the crime.
If someone tries to make you fear something, ask yourself why. Why be afraid? Why are they attempting to make you afraid? What benefits does your fear provide them? Does it impose their ideas, values and morality on you? Why should their judgement be better than yours… for you? Apathy is ultimately what destroys civil liberties and allows fear to take hold; and it is born by accepting ideas at face value and thinking that nothing can be done.
Australia has some of the most extreme censorship laws in the first world. Our multiple classification systems have been twisted and corrupted into a censorship system and its reach continues to grow. Publications on euthanasia are banned even though the majority of Australians are generally supportive. Video games deemed unsuitable for 15 year olds are banned, even though the average age of video game players in Australia is above 30 (this on the say of a single man, the Attorney General of South Australia).
Documentation of consensual sex acts are illegal to sell throughout Australia. Yet politicians and their staff visiting Canberra are able to (and do) purchase pornography, it’s just their constituents that can’t. The Australian Communications and Media Authority wants to blacklist videos showing the violence in the recent 2009 Iranian election protests on the Internet, yet these same videos were shown on news media outlets like CNN and Sky News Australia.
We should be scaling back censorship laws, not expanding them further as the World Internet Villain of the year, our Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy wants to do. But, even with fearsome ministerial promotion about the dangers to children, most child support groups are against the proposal.
A look at the groups backing censorship of the internet reveals a vocal minority; very vocal, very minor. The Australian Christian Lobby is most vocal, even though they speak for a minority of Australians (Christians have been in decline in Australia for more than a century, and even so, most are more liberal than the ACL). Other supporters include people who will benefit commercially from internet censorship, and companies that will provide the filtering equipment necessary. The profits of these censorship boosters would come from taxpayers, either through government subsidies, or higher access costs and slower downloads.
Until recently, the Federal Government had a reasonable compromise: if parents wanted to filter their children’s access, they could get software for free to do so. Their freedom of choice, and freedom from payment. (Although, like television, the Internet should not be considered a babysitter for our county’s youth.) Conroy’s proposed system takes censorship and classification out of the Attorney General’s department and into his own, increasing government power and limiting people’s freedom of choice.
The current list of material the government is blacklisting has already been leaked multiple times: it already contains political content such as euthanasia, anti-abortion material and now political protests in Iran. It is hardly the ‘worst of the worst’, and indeed of very poor quality compared to the leaked lists of other countries.
The point shouldn’t be whether it is technically feasible to censor the internet (it isn’t). The point is that censorship is wrong in principle, and that the shadow of censorship will continue to cloud our lives only if we let it.
Originally Published: September 2009