Free speech versus Homo Censoris

The term censor comes to us from ancient Rome. Curiously, the word is etymologically linked to the word census. A Censor was a magistrate of high rank in the Roman Republic. They were responsible for maintaining the census, overseeing certain aspects of government finance and supervising public morality. It was the latter role, which gives the word its current meaning.

The struggle between the right to free speech and the desire to censor is not new and history is littered with examples. We can go back to Greek times to see the executions of Socrates and Aesop. Later on we had the Inquisition with its hunt for heretics and the systematic suppression of scientific discovery. More recently we have witnessed the case of the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, shot down by Muslim fanatics.

Censorship has always had its ridiculous side too – The English physician Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare’s work that he considered more appropriate for women and children. In 1818 he published the infamous The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. That book may have vanished from our bookshelves but his name lives on in the eponymous verb to bowdlerise, which conjures up images of the unsubtle censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs. Nazi Germany was famous for its censorship. However on one occasion it seriously backfired. In 1937, in Munich, the Nazis organised an exhibition called Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) the intention was to ridicule modernism but the exhibition proved extremely popular. In fact, it was seen by 3 million as it toured the country. The 650 works chosen were a sample of the thousands the Nazis had confiscated from German museums. The works were hung in a chaotic way and were accompanied with slogans such as “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”, “An insult to German womanhood”, “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself – in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art” and ”Nature as seen by sick minds”. In Spain attempts to censor Mogambo were also to prove counterproductive. When the film was dubbed into Spanish, Franco’s censors found the adultery between Victor Marswell (Clark Gable) and Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) immoral. What was their solution? They became brother and sister thus converting adultery into incest. More recently Evangelical Christians have burnt Harry Potter books because of their references to witchcraft.

As any reader of my blog will know I am a fan of free markets. And I think it is also useful to talk about what they call in the U.S. the marketplace of ideas. For me this is a very powerful image. The rationale behind it is that conflicting ideas should compete in free, transparent and public discourse and from here the best policy will emerge. It is of course a very imperfect process but I’m convinced that all the alternatives are much worse. The ability to express our ideas freely is fundamental to our system. I think I am right in saying that no democracy has ever had a famine. (It was also said that no two countries with McDonalds had ever gone to war but one only has to look at this year’s war over South Ossetia to disprove the theory. Both Russia and Georgia have the famous Golden Arches on their territory.)

Free speech is something that people may pay lip service to but in it can be uncomfortable when we allow others to speak their minds. But that is the necessary price we have to pay. If you allow people freedom, there will be times when they abuse it. One of the unlikely heroes of the struggle for speech is free speech is pornographer Larry Flynt, owner of the magazine Hustler. Don’t get me wrong – Flynt peddles bad taste and his magazines have few redeeming qualities. In a famous case Flynt published a story about Jerry Falwell, leader of the Christian fundamentalist group The Moral Majority. (I go along with Woody Allen who said: “If they are the moral majority, who am I, the immoral minority?”)  The piece was a typical example of Flynt’s outrageous style; he claimed that Falwell was a drunk who had had sex with his mother. In Falwell v Flynt in 1983 Judge William Renquist, considered by many to be a reactionary, led the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision to favour Larry Flynt.

They probably would like to have voted against Flynt but they felt there was no way to produce an objective criterion to distinguish between the kind of legitimate criticism of a government the first amendment and what Larry Flynt produced. The first amendment recognises no such thing as a false idea. An attack on public figures can be vitriolic and caustic – you can exaggerate, mock, satirize and caricature those in power. I have no idea what his motives were but Larry Flynt undoubtedly helped to give a new lease of life to this vital constitutional principle. 

What about the future of freedom of speech? As the title of this article suggests maybe our species should be called Homo Censoris because trying to shut people up has proved to be a very popular activity throughout human history. Today free speech is under threat from many sides. Two examples spring to mind. We have this blanket term islamophobia, which seeks to deny people the right to criticise a religion. In my opinion criticism should be seen as something to be learned from. If our beliefs are strong enough, then criticism, mocking or any other challenge will be irrelevant. Secondly we have the law in France which states that it is a crime to deny the Armenian holocaust. This is not the way to proceed. These people should be opposed with evidence and rational debate. Free speech is never going to be something we can take for granted. We now hear about a right not to be offended but for me the right to free speech should trump this. Obviously there are complicated areas such as “hate speech” but censorship should really be the last resort of any government.


One Response to Free speech versus Homo Censoris

  1. Isabel Novi says:

    ” Free Speech versus Homo Censoris ” is a very inspiring and brave ” brainstorm ” Congratulations ! Just want I needed to read in these difficult times.

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