Socrates Exchange: Is Censorship Ever Acceptable?

Mar 31, 2010

Are there some forms of expression that are simply too crude or too offensive to be allowed to be disseminated? What kinds of things, if any, should be censored? Who should do the censoring?


  • Max Latona, Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Anselm College


Background Reading 

To censor: Merriam-Webster defines it as “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable”. The English form of the word was taken from Ancient Roman and the position of “censura”, a government position who not only was in charge of the city’s census and certain areas of the government’s finances but also to ‘supervise public morality’. As you can see, censorship has been around almost as long as there have been people who have wanted to express themselves freely. Both in Ancient Roman and Greek societies, censorship was looked on as ‘honorable’ since it helped shaped the moral character of its people. The Greek philosopher Plato emphatically defended that any art that could corrupt morality should be censored. “Let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad,” said Plato, “and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.” Ironically, his teacher (and our project’s namesake), Socrates, ended up being one of the earliest victims of censorship, as he was sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for impiety and corrupting the youth. Almost 2500 years later, the censorship debate remains strong. It’s a discussion that occurs almost every day in our media, schools, libraries and in popular culture, and with this debate arrives a host of Socratic questions on both sides of the argument. The first amendment comes up often in debates around censorship. It allows us the Constitutional right to free speech and free press, but it does have its limits. We can’t scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater, there are laws against slander and libel, and we hope the press will report ‘the truth’. But the press and the media have greatly expanded due to technology. It allows us to access more information than ever before. So how much of this information should the press report? Does telling ‘the truth’ go too far when it could compromise the safety of people or our nation? Should embedded war journalists report on secret military locations, strategy and weaponry? Should we permit homeland security plans to be revealed if terrorists can use them to find possible loopholes? DNA sequences of some of the most deadly pathogens known to man (small pox, polio, and 1918 Influenza) can now be purchased over the internet. Is that permissible? But if we start censoring there, where does it end? Do you create a slippery slope once you begin to censor? Then there is harm. We have a right to express ourselves freely but it’s generally agreed that we shouldn’t try to harm each other. In that respect, we DO censor both on our Socrates Exchange radio and web discussions. We don’t permit certain vulgarities on our air: if we did, we would incur major fines from the FCC. We also don’t allow disparaging remarks, name calling or threats on our web discussion because we want to create an environment for people to post, respond, debate and yet feel safe. Many media outlets have discussion pages, blogs and comment sections that go unmonitored. There you do find vulgarities, slanderous statements, misinformation, and threats. As cyber media grows and continues to become more relaxed, does that in part make censorship meaningless and irrelevant? Then there is the classroom. For years debates have raged over the possible banning of certain books. Examples of this include the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for using the word ‘nigger’, Alice in Wonderland due to implications of drug use, Harry Potter because some feel that wizardry depicted has ‘satanic overtones’ and Heather has Two Mommies due to its discussion of homosexuality. Likewise debate has come up about the teaching of creationism, evolution, safe-sex and abortion. Those who support censoring in the schools say that as parents they have a right to censor the ideas that their children are exposed to. Those against this parental control ask why we should ban a book for all because it offends the beliefs of a few? Should one or two bad words exclude a masterpiece of literature? Do religious principles stand up in schools? If you don’t ban a book that offends a particular church, then is it OK to teach the Bible or the Koran in the classroom? Is expunging “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance censorship? If we don’t ban certain books in school due to language, sex or violence then should we allow pornography or graphically-violent novels in schools? One final outlet in the censorship debate is art and pop culture. Gone are the days where TV couples sleep in different beds. TV cartoons like South Park constantly push the limits, and then push more. Video games have become increasingly violent and some music is chock full of vulgarities and vitriol. Because of this rein-loosening, some feel that lines have been crossed. Some say the lyrics and subliminal messages behind Ozzy Ozbourne’s 1980 hit “Suicide Solution” led to several deaths by teens who had listened to the song. There was Ice-T’s 1992 rap “cop killer” that some say incited police violence. After the Columbine school massacre, there were those who looked to blame movies and video games. It was said that one of the killers had named his sawed off shotgun after a character of the video game “Doom” and that their dressing in trench coats copycatted the violent movie “Basketball Diaries”. Closer to home, the senseless murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon, NH last October has been linked to the musical group “Insane Clown Posse” and the ultra-violent lyrics to which the teenagers listened. But the same has been said in the past of Elvis, of the TV show “Bevis and Butthead” and the art of Robert Mapplethorpe (which when compared to the extremes of today seem far milder). Most listen to Cop Killer and don’t think about killing police; most can play Doom or listen to Insane Clown Posse and not resort to violence. Shouldn’t we then allow these forms of art even though there are a few “bad apples”? Or has the tolerance of increasingly more graphic and extreme violent, sexuality, and lewdness begun to erode our sensibilities and numb us to their depravity? If so, what is the next envelope to be pushed if we don’t censor at some point? How about when it offends a whole religion? A Danish cartoonist recently depicted a picture of Mohammed in several comics. Is it OK to censor someone who offends a whole religion to the point of blasphemy? Maybe there ought to be no limits to freedom of expression. If there should be, then what are those limits, and whom do we trust to articulate and enforce them? The topic of censorship is extremely controversial. Get Socratic! Let us know what you think. Respond to other postings while you are here!