November 09, 2014
On the whole I am in favor of freedom of expression, though sometimes I am equally in favor of freedom from expression. God preserve us from film stars telling us what they think about the situation in Somalia or the state of the rain forests in Borneo! There ought to be a law against it: as cobblers should stick to their last, film stars should stick to their lines.
Nor is there any denying that, overall, a degree of censorship is good for literature. It makes writers think harder; most great literature was created in conditions of censorship. Shakespeare could hardly have written about Elizabeth I in the way that Russell Brand, say, has written about Elizabeth II, but he managed to say quite a lot that’s worthwhile nonetheless, rather more in fact than Brand. Russian writers in the 19th century had to deal with censors, and on the whole didn”t make too bad a job of it: a far better job than most Western writers have made of dealing with their complete freedom.
Part of the reason that censorship, at least of a certain degree, is good for literature is that it makes writers approach subjects indirectly rather than head-on. The implicit is always much more powerful than the explicit because it requires more of the reader, and what we do for ourselves is more memorable than what others do for us. A Socratic dialogue is to be preferred to a catechism, at least once we have passed early childhood. The implicit demands of both writer and reader that they work harder, but the rewards are greater, at least artistically.
But some kinds and degrees of censorship destroy the possibility of literature. There is censorship of the kind that forbids the writer from saying certain things, and then there is the censorship that obliges writers to say certain things. The latter is much more destructive than the former, as the telling of deliberate lies is worse than not telling the whole truth (whatever the whole truth might be). It is far worse to have to say that the dictator is wonderful than to have to refrain from saying that he is terrible, or even that he has no clothes.
Another reason for approving of censorship, at least of the better sort, is that it is generally arbitrary and absurd. This gives the writer a worthy enemy and prevents him from doing truly destructive work. As children need authority the better to test limits without bringing disaster on themselves, so do writers. In fact, writers should be grateful to censors for giving their work impact when they have gone just a little beyond what was previously permitted. George Bernard Shaw brought the house down with Eliza Doolittle’s exclamation, “Not bloody likely!” What few words nowadays could have a similar impact?Politesse is more likely to cause a scandal than the bluest of blue language.
Once the f… genie was out of the bottle, as it were, within a few years people were unable to do without it. When my patients used to complain to me of their f…..g headache, I used to ask them to explain to me the difference between a headache and a f…..g headache. They couldn”t; and in fact, complete freedom of expression has led to an impoverishment of expression, because one doesn”t need to think of alternatives to the first expletive that comes into one’s mind”or is it one’s f…..g mind?
It is very unlikely that censorship will ever be reimposed in the Western nations. Writers, therefore, will have to supply its beneficial effects for themselves and indulge in self-censorship. Again, there is self-censorship both good and bad. The bad is that which arises from the fear of the action of a lobby group, or one of those balkanized states in the vast continent of modern monomania. I confess that there is one group of monomaniacs with whom I once tangled and with whom I will tangle no more. They tried to get me sacked from my job and persecuted me for a short time. Others have suffered far worse at their hands, receiving even anonymous death threats. Not being a monomaniac myself, I did not care enough about the subject to risk further entanglement with the group.
This is the asymmetrical warfare of opinion carried out by monomaniacs. Normal people care about many things, but only to a moderate degree; for monomaniacs, their one thing is the meaning of their existence. So while they can devote their miserable lives to the persecution of those who think differently from them on that one, only moderately important subject, the persecuted do not care enough about that subject to risk much discomfort in order to expound what they see as the truth about it.