November 09, 2014
Thus censorship comes to exist in a supposedly free society, without any need of government oppression; it necessitates self-censorship, but it is censorship of the worst kind, for it leads to a situation in which only one view of the subject can be aired in public.
There is another kind of self-censorship, however, that is all to the good. It is to literature what self-restraint is to manners: and you can”t really have good manners unless you have self-restraint. If you react in the most impulsive way to others, if you do and say the first thing that comes into your head in reply to them, you will soon be both a boor and a bore. Self-restraint and its opposite can be habitual. It is the same with writing: if you look at an Internet “discussion” that follows the publication of an argument, you will be lucky if you can get further than three or four posts before you arrive at an insult. A kind of arms race is set up: Who can be ruder than the last person to write a comment?
When there is neither external nor internal restraint in writing, there is a competition in crudity. This does not mean that every writer takes part in it, but once it starts it accelerates, because then only extremity can catch anyone’s attention. There is no point in being the seventh most vulgar writer in a language, any more than there is any point in being the seventh best javelin thrower in the world.
But, I hasten to add, it does not follow from the fact that I think that a certain kind of censorship is good for literature that I think the state should impose it. It is not the duty of the state to create the conditions for great or even good literature, and would not be so even if those conditions were knowable. Restraint must come from elsewhere. The omens are not good.