By Patrick Harrington
On August 20th 1997, during the Edinburgh Festival, I and other Third Way members attended a symposium organised by LM magazine; it was on the subject of censorship. LM was formerly known as Living Marxism, and published on behalf of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I have read LM for some years, and prior to that read the RCP paper The Next Step.
The RCP were always refreshingly different… they took issue with the “no platform for fascists” policy most of the “Left” slavishly and unthinkingly sought to enforce. While no less opposed to fascism and racism than any other group, it seemed the RCP alone had sufficient faith in the merit of their own arguments, and in the British public, as to be unafraid of free and open debate. They realised that once the basic principle of censorship was accepted it would inevitably be extended, and their subsequent opposition to censorship has been both consistent and comprehensive.
The symposium was inspiring — so many people of diverse backgrounds united in their opposition to censorship and conformity…. LM supporters proved to be highly articulate, intelligent, presentable and professional — a very far cry from the sad psychological basket cases who form so many of the “leftist” and “extreme-right” groups.
On 8th August 1997, just before the censorship symposium, Edinburgh University had sacked psychology lecturer Chris Brand. An article by Jennie Bristow in LM 103 pointed out that :
to call for the removal of a lecturer on the basis of his political views, as the anti-racist campaigns against Brand did, is not only an attack on academic freedom and free speech. It also betrays a highly patronising attitude to university students. It assumes that students are too vulnerable and impressionable to cope with offensive ideas. The fact that students are adults, at college to test out ideas and think for themselves, is simply not considered.
It seemed that the symposium had come just in time… whenever one looked at the news, it reported yet another attempt at censorship. Where was the debate? Did everyone now agree that we couldn’t think (or be allowed to think) for ourselves?
Some of the arguments ran thus :
Alcopops may encourage underage drinking — so let’s ban or further restrict them.
Smoking is bad for you — so let’s not allow certain forms of advertising.
The far-right BNP are a danger to democracy — so let’s censor or ban their election broadcast.
Pro-Life’s election broadcast and website might antagonise or upset some people — so let’s censor and block them, too, just in case.
What rubbish! Whatever happened to letting people make up their own minds?
During my time as a Philosophy student at the then Polytechnic of North London considerable efforts were made by the Socialist Worker Student Society and their fellow-travellers to not only curtail my right to free expression, but to exclude me from the institution altogether. Numerous legal actions I initiated and won have clearly established precedents which will protect any student from such attempts should they be made in future.
The aspirant commissars and gauleiters are, however, undaunted… codes of conduct and (allegedly) equal-opportunity policies which seek to limit free association and expression proliferate, and have not yet been legally or politically challenged. Muslim students have been victimised by the “Campus Watch” scheme, and the “Right” also has its own extensive list of items it would dearly like to censor. My own experiences have made me loathe the would-be censors of any persuasion, and I find it worrying that more people don’t feel the same way. We are in serious danger of allowing a repressive consensus of conformity to be created and imposed.
The controversy over The End of Alice is the latest example. This book deals with a taboo : the sexual abuse of children. It is not a pleasant subject, nor is it a pleasant book. The NSPCC has called for a ban, and WH Smith, who can always be relied upon to “censor” in response to the slightest objection (a recent example was the Private Eye just after the death of Di) are unlikely to stock it. Milos Forman, the director of the film The People v. Larry Flint, has commented :
I’ve lived in two societies where it was the pornographers and perverts who were publicly attacked and censored first – The Nazis and the Communists. We all applauded – who wants perverts running through the streets, after all? It’s the easiest thing for the government to find support for the censorship of pornography. But they are smart : they have ways of formulating the laws so you suddenly learn that Shakespeare was a pervert, Jesus was a pervert… that, in fact, everyone who does not conform with the government is a super pervert.
To allow the government to censor our information is even more dangerous than to allow leftist bigots to interfere with our rights. Once we accept the principle that someone has the right to decide which views are acceptable and which views are not, we are on a slippery slope. Works by Shakespeare have been frequently targeted — over the last four centuries Hamlet, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and the Tragedy of King Richard II have been banned and challenged for political and religious reasons. This year, Twelfth Night was removed from a New Hampshire (USA) Library in accordance with a policy which bans anything that might have the “effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle”.
Such petty little Hitlers and Stalins have also challenged Judith Guest’s Ordinary People (for handling suicide “inappropriately”) and Ryan White: My Own Story (for depicting teen smoking). In Lindale, Texas (USA) Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were removed form the high school’s reading list because “they conflicted with the values of the community”.
I have several objections to this growing acceptance of censorship :
I question the authority of people who want to prevent me from expressing or hearing views they don’t like. I’m an adult entitled to make up my own mind; I have not appointed them, nor agreed to be bound by their subjective rules and values… my desire is for direct access to the source information, upon which to freely base my own decisions.
Even if views are in error, they are part of a process which leads us to consider different possibilities. We are going to be a very bland, superficial society if we exclude all views which might be deemed offensive. Conformity is death — Diversity, dialetics and debate are life!
Because a creative work deals honestly with a negative subject, that does not mean it is itself negative. Trainspotting came in for a lot of criticism because of its depiction of drug abuse. Going back a little further, Bad Lieutenant was criticised… but both are, in my view, very moral films. The superficiality of the would-be censors beggars belief, and one really must question the competence and values of these fearfully self-righteous people.
US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in Texas v.Johnson, said most eloquently :
If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
If you want to restrict what yourself or your children read, that’s fine. But don’t call on government or public agencies to prevent me or other people reading or seeing material. You don’t – or shouldn’t – have that right.
Anyone who values the notions of freedom and democracy cannot but offer best wishes to LM in their campaign against the all-pervasive creeping culture of conformity, control and censorship….
The LM website is at http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM
Below are links to some other websites covering censorship and freedom.
A non-profit civil liberties organisation run by Yaman Akdeniz of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds. All aspects of internet law, censorship and control, free speech and privacy are covered in articles or in jumplinks to other relevant sites and university departments, home and abroad. Cases and precedents are detailed for internet legal issues.
News on the fight for security and privacy on the Internet is available on the Encryption Policy Resource Page, a joint project of the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Voters Telecommunications Watch.
The Web Page of Sean Gabb, a Libertarian.Many links and writings about truancy, guns, sex, religion, id cards, money laundering, etc, plus articles from Free Life, the journal of the Libertarian Alliance.