The Slippery Slope of Censorship


Every once in a while, humans go crazy and burn books. Then people. Fortunately, a Western country hasn’t gone quite that crazy since the Nazi Germany, whose start-with-books-then-burn-people modus operandi is something we should always watch out for in our own governments.
A purportedly permissive age like ours takes for granted a great deal of pop-culture indecency, and has perhaps lost its capacity for moral outrage. On the other hand, in recent decades there’s been a worldwide resurgence of authoritarian and fundamentalist movements curtailing basic democratic freedoms like artistic expression, and our telling treatments of certain books over those decades demonstrate a stubborn unwillingness to uphold our own democratic principles.
In the late 1950s and early 60s Hubert Selby Jr. – probably best known for writing Requiem For A Dream, on which the famously disturbing movie was based – wrote a series of fiercely realistic stories set in a poor New York neighbourhood filled with drugs, sex, and violent crime, and compiled it into a quasi-novel titled Last Exit To Brooklyn, published in 1964.
Not only did Last Exit demolish the limits of graphic depiction of sex and violence – even sympathetically portraying prostitution and transvestitism – it further unsettled readers by employing an unconventional style of slang-like prose, completely lacking in apostrophes and quotations marks, blending the dialogue and the narration in frenetic, runaway paragraphs. One random snippet: “but as he got to his side he was kicked in the groin and stomped on the ear and screamed, cried, started pleading then just cried as a foot cracked his mouth, Ya fuckin cottinpickin punk…he vomited violently and someone stomped his face into the pool of vomit and the blood whirled slightly in arcs and few bubbles gurgled in the puke as panted and gasped and their thudded in to the shiteatinbastards kidneys and ribs…” You get the point.
In 1966, the book’s British publishers began a nearly two year long court battle. After an Oxford bookshop director failed to persuade the Director of Public Prosecutions to charge the book with obscenity, two British Members of Parliament – in Burgess’s estimate, “motivated by a desire to protect the public from reality” – arraigned the book under the Obscene Publications Act. A trial followed, and despite the testimony of defence witnesses – experts in aesthetics, sociology, and pornography – three copies of the book were ordered destroyed and the trial judge eventually declared that Last Exit, “taken as a whole, would tend to deprave and corrupt, and I cannot think…that it can be justified by literary merit.” That ruling was eventually overturned after an appeal in 1968.
In an introduction to the post-trial edition of the book, Anthony Burgess – whose ultra-violent novella A Clockwork Orange would be made into the controversially graphic 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick, which, like Last Exit, would be banned in the U.K., although until 2001 – speculated that “It is the frivolous mind that responds with pious horror to distasteful subject-matter and ignores the genuinely moral purposes for which the subject matter is deployed…The mature and well-balanced mind is, when shocked at revelations of human depravity or social sickness, concerned with making that shock fire a reforming zeal or, at least, stoke compassion.” 
Last Exit simply exposed some social evils and broke some sexual taboos of the time in order, in Burgess’s words, “to extend sympathy by publicising the bad news, broadcasting the agony.” The defence’s literary experts claimed that the value of Last Exit was in its honest portrayal of brutal social realities, comparable to the works Charles Dickens.
A similar misunderstanding occurred over the release of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which featured over-the-top descriptions of torturing women, children, and animals. Feminist groups were outraged, bewildering the author, who meant to satirize and attack chauvinistic male behaviour. Like Last Exit, it was accused of glorifying precisely what it meant to denounce. Burgess ends his introduction to Last Exit, which applies perfectly to Psycho as well, by saying, “How this honest and terrible book could ever be regard as obscene (that is, designed for depravity and corruption) is one of the small mysteries of the decade.”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution famously states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. The problem is that it’s not usually Congress that infringes upon people’s right to free expression; more it’s often socially conservative and religious groups that make a fuss about obscenity. And when the intolerant community takes it to the courts, freedom of expression is usually upheld. We have less to fear, it seems, from the government and judiciary than from the community, despite today’s cynical take on politics.
The Danish Cartoon controversy of 2005, which began when depictions of, among others things, the founding Muslim prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, is the most probably spectacular case of religious reactionism in recent years. The cartoons were reprinted around the world and some subsequent violent protests led to more than 100 deaths. The infamous fatwā issued by the leader on Iran against Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses further attests to the touchy sensibilities and violent reactions of the hardcore religious.
In September 2008, Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, writing about the firebombing of a publishing house in Britain that was about to release a novel about Muhammad’s wife after the original publisher, Random House, was intimidated into dropping the book, claimed in The Guardian that “Respect for religion has now become acceptable grounds for censorship; even the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has declared that free speech should respect religious sensibilities, while the UN human rights council passed a resolution earlier this year condemning defamation of religion and calling for governments to prohibit it.”
Glanville worried that “the threat comes not only from those who commit acts of violence, but from those who ostensibly support human rights.” She reminds us that, as Burgess put it in his Last Exit intro, “there is plenty of reforming to do…and our professional reformers must be the first to be reformed.”
Glanville was pointing out how government officials often do succumb to an intolerant community’s demands. Civil rights activists, like Capilano University’s philosophy professors Stan Persky and John Dixon, have long held the government up to its own democratic standards, and fought for the right of artists and citizens to free expression.
Persky and Dixon, also long-time prominent members of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), co-authored On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case in 2001, arguing why the federal Supreme Court was wrong to uphold the 1993 kiddie porn law, which restricts not only the possession of child pornography but also the production of imagined sexual acts with minors. Sharpe was arrested in 1995 for possessing photos of nude youths as well as self-authored stories of sex with boys.
While Persky and Dixon agree with prohibiting the production and possession of kiddie porn, in the BCCLA annual report in 2000 Dixon wrote, “By targeting materials that are the product of imagination, like paintings and stories, rather than the abuse of actual children, the law strays far beyond its purpose of protecting children and comes dangerously close to thought control,” and lamented the Court’s failure to consider reforming “the silly ‘standard of community tolerance’ test for obscenity.” 
In an interview, Persky told me, “It's almost always a good idea to be suspicious of people who want to shut other people up. Censors have a lousy record. When we historically examine the writing and speech that censors tried to stifle over the centuries, the censors almost always turn out to be wrong. It's an especially good idea to be suspicious of censors who not only want to silence others, but who have the power to do so.”
If you happen to be a fan of American Psycho you can thank Dixon, who, in 1991, as advisor to then Minister of Justice, Kim Campbell, argued that the book should be let into the country, advising her in a memo (which he attached to an returned essay of mine that quoted the book) that although “Ellis is no Joseph Conrad or Kafka or Dostoyevsky when it comes to the dark side of existence,” “I think that you have much more to lose…by advising Customs to seize a book that can make a plausible claim to being serious piece of literature.”
Even if you believe that the absolute right to free expression is ultimately more dangerous than putting limits on free speech, you might agree at least that we need some legal framework on the issue. Or maybe you don’t care. This third position might be the most dangerous of all, because when we aren’t on the lookout for those antidemocratic forces, or in Persky’s words, “suspicious of censors who not only want to silence others, but who have the power to do so,” we might find ourselves, like Nazi Germany, or contemporary Iran, going crazy, and engaged in a start-with-books-then-burn-people modus operandi.

Matt Hogan

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