Sunday, 16 January 2011

In Defence of Censorship

I never thought I'd say this, being the artsy-fartsy, liberal-(with a small l)-minded person that I am, but thank goodness for censorship.  Thanks goodness there are groups of people in the world who gather with the specific intention, and requisite authority, to decide that there are certain things that the public should not have general access to.  There, I said it.  It felt wrong, but I know it's right.

It's easy to mock the censors.  "OMG!" we cry, derisively.  "They cut bits out of 'From Here To Eternity' because she had too many shirt buttons undone!  How prudish!  How backward!  And how dare they decide what we can and can't see!"

The fight against censorship has been led over the years by artists, writers and filmmakers, who find the idea of a board of anonymous, grey-suited guardians judging what is morally appropriate anathema to their creative expression.  They argue strongly that art must carry us forwards, that we move forwards anyway, and art must reflect this.  James Jones, who wrote the novel on which 'From Here to Eternity' is based wrote, in defense of the use of expletives and gay sex scenes in his original manuscript which his publishers were insisting he remove, that "the things we change in this book for propriety's sake will in five years, or 10 years, come in someone else's book anyway…and we will wonder why we thought we couldn't do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve…"  Over and above this is the philosophical point that we are capable, as complex and high-functioning life forms, of viewing and taking in art, films, books, without becoming morally corrupted by the content, and that any attempt to decide what society is and isn't capable of absorbing safely without losing all sense of our own civilised humanity is not just laughable but also a little fascist, a little scary. 

But then you have 'A Serbian Film'.  A horror film released last year, it's now notorious for having the longest cuts ever made by a censor - four minutes (which, given the content of some of the films out there, seems remarkably short to be the longest ever).  And I'm glad they cut it.  I'm glad there's a board of anonymous, grey-suited guardians out there willing not only to watch all the crap, all the grim, dark misery and violence on my behalf, but also willing to stand up, in the face of all of anger they'll receive from filmmakers at the time, and all the derision they'll get from smart-arse social commentators in the future, and say "Enough.  This is not acceptable." 

Because it isn't.  I've thought a lot about whether to include here, for those who might not know, the content of the cut four minutes.  It weakens my arguments not to be able to shock you with it, but at the same time, I have no real wish to disseminate it.  I came across it by accident in an article in a Sunday paper recently, and I wish I hadn't.  So, if you want to know, google it, if not, then take my word for it, it's nasty.  And until I read how nasty it was I had the same reaction to the four cut minutes that I generally have to all reports of censorship.  "Tsk!" I thought, "Who do these people think they are?  I'll decide what is and isn't suitable for my consumption, thank you very much."  But then I read what was cut out and it made me stop and think.  And, having thought, I will join the censors and stand up publicly and say this: "Not everything is art, just because you call it art.  Not everything can be art, just because it can be imagined.  Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

It's a position that got the comedian Mark Watson into trouble recently with fellow comedian Frankie Boyle.  At some point last year Watson wrote a blog post (we're all at it) about the incident in which Boyle upset the parents of a Down's Syndrome child with some, oh, shall we call them tasteless jokes at one of his live shows.  Watson considered carefully the various defences comedians have in this situation, but concluded "... they don't entirely address the issue of whether, in the 21st century, a rich, successful and physically healthy man should be able to make tons of money by taking the piss out of Down's Syndrome, and pass it off as entertainment. Even though I'm part of a comedy industry which will argue, till it's blue in the face, that you can say whatever you like, I'm not convinced that it represents progress if we're allowed to say things like that."  Boyle reacted angrily and it all kicked off on twitter.  Until recently, I'd actually have sided with Boyle.  I still think the parents in question were hideously unfair to him (they were huge Frankie fans, relishing all of his other, oh, shall we call them off-colour jokes until they were suddenly in the firing line themselves) but my emotional response to what was cut out of 'A Serbian Film' has caused me to reassess.  Maybe Watson has a point.  Maybe it's not enough to just shrug and say "if you don't like it you don't have to watch it". 

And it would appear that people have been taking this to heart recently.  The recent EastEnders Christmas storyline about dead-baby-live-baby-swapping has attracted around 8000 complaints.  Many centre around the sensationalist way a serious topic such as cot death has been handled, but I suspect people are also just fed up with all the relentless, pointless darkness passed off as entertainment.  The EastEnders Christmas storylines included, as well as the death of a newborn baby, someone trying to kill themselves and someone trying to murder their husband. The complaints have caused the 'Enders producers to bring the babyswap story to a premature end, wrapping it up at Easter instead of dragging it out for a whole year as originally planned. 

Maybe this is the start of a new trend.  Maybe people are starting to reject the worst excesses of sensationalism disguised as artistic expression. But even if they do, we still need those anonymous grey-suits.  We can't expect film-makers to self-censor.  It doesn't work if creativity is stifled by the artists having to say "Should we go there?  Are people ready for that?"  We need those who create to continue to push the boundaries, and we need censors to protect us, not from Deborah Kerr's reckless shirt buttons, but from the worst excesses of the human imagination. 


  1. i totally agree. i think the whole film should be censored.

  2. Well I can see both sides. Sometimes restrictions increase creativity and art. It takes no effort to shock with certain words or images. Can you tell the same story without those cruches?

    As the the comedian that makes the jokes about Down's syndrom children. Surprise but artists do not have a special right to freedom of speech. That isn't censorship. It is freedom of speech. If a person can not be
    judged by what they say and do then what can they be judged by. Guess what they really do not like what is said and they are using their freedom of speech.

  3. It was really interesting. All human activity requires parameters, otherwise what else is there to push against? Consensus grows to construct what is acceptable, but the pushers take us forward. That is not to say, however, that just because something can be said or done that is should be; we have to decide what kind of society we would choose as individuals to live in, and how much effort we are prepared to put into achieving it.
    In case that sounds rather smug, it goes without saying that we should be open to what other people want to say and why they want to say it, and we should be prepared to reevaluate those ideas we have always held dear. Sometimes a gentle push is all that is needed to start people thinking.