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Classifying censorship: the shadow without end

By Arved von Brasch - posted Friday, 2 October 2009

There has been increasing debate about censorship in its many guises in recent times; everything from what constitutes pornography to what people should be allowed to wear. There are deep fundamental issues here that do deserve to be talked about and acknowledged. These issues ultimately boil down to questions of freedom of expression and openness to ideas; any ideas. These twin concepts are a cornerstone of vibrant democracy, which is why being precise about the meanings of the words used in the discussion is important.

Restrictions on free expression and openness come in various forms. Classification is communally deciding that certain ideas are inappropriate in certain contexts. Censorship dictates from on high that certain ideas are inappropriate in any context.

Almost no one has a problem with classification. Australians agree that some material is inappropriate for children; that discussion about religion may not be appropriate in the workplace; and that walking around naked is inappropriate in public venues. Classification is also a useful tool for people to decide what kind of media they want themselves or their families to be exposed to.


Censorship, on the other hand, has few friends, as no two people will agree on where the line should be drawn between which ideas are valid and which should be banned. People advocating censorship are often surprised to see their own ideas turn controversial when society’s mood shifts.

Censorship proponents argue that the simple act of exposure to certain ideas causes material harm. This is an old argument. Originally, it was aimed at the uneducated labourers, who were deemed to not have the necessary mental capacity to appreciate risqué art or modern ideas that the wealthy enjoyed. As literacy increased, it was then aimed at women who were deemed to be too sensitive to be able to understand certain material. To accept this argument would, in fact, destroy our justice system: every defendant could use exposure to dangerous ideas as an excuse for their behaviour.

Indeed, there is scant evidence for this argument, despite its long history. Exposure to pornography does not cause sexual assaults. Watching violent movies does not cause violence. Listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll does not cause drug addiction. Ideas only become dangerous when they are elevated to the level of dogma. This is a form of censorship in itself. Considering any idea to be sacrosanct prevents open discussion and ultimately, improvement in society. White supremacism, creationism, extreme climate change denialism, and religious extremism are ideas too highly elevated. Such ideas are clung to because they cement power for those who have it or limit responsibility.

Other pro-censorship arguments stress a shared morality among the public. History shows that morality is neither absolute nor shared equally by everyone and certainly changes with time. Slavery and honour killings were once morally justified by the law and the Bible. In modern times, euthanasia is a good example of a controversial idea. It is currently illegal to provide information assisting euthanasia in Australia because it is considered an instruction to crime. Yet most Australians are in favour of euthanasia of some form, and many people’s attitudes towards it change when they’re forced to watch their loved ones suffer with no hope of recovery.

The definition of pornography is another example. Pornography is very difficult to define. Is Michelangelo's David pornography? Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? Classic works of art like these were considered pornographic in times past and many were censored. More recently, there have been calls to ban some advertising material on the grounds it is pornographic. Even child pornography can be difficult to define. Numerous lists of the best literature of the 20th century include Lolita, yet this novel includes sexual relations between an adult and child. In Australia, cartoon characters, such as those in The Simpsons, are considered real people and possession of drawings of such characters engaged in sexual acts has seen someone convicted of possessing child pornography. Yet in both cases, no actual child was harmed.

More fundamentally to democratic society, freedom of expression allows unpopular ideas to still have a voice. For example, access to surrogacy when parents are unable to conceive is a generally accepted idea (although not in Victoria), yet religious groups, say conservative Catholics, are free to voice their disapproval and certainly avoid using such technology. An Australian Republic is openly discussed even though some consider the concept treasonous. After the Victorian bushfires, a minister of a religious group popular with some politicians claimed the fires were God’s wrath for allowing abortion.


Simply, ideas have different qualities. Some are almost universally considered of huge societal benefit, like democracy; others are almost universally considered detrimental to society, like fascism. Censorship itself is an idea, aiming to hide “bad” ideas from society thereby limiting potential “damage” as determined by the censor. The concept sounds valid, but it has always been a sub-optimal solution, and frequently abused. Hiding symptoms does not fix any underlying social cancer that is the breeding ground for “bad” ideas. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away; they just fester and grow.

Any disease of bad ideas must be confronted and challenged - bright light and fresh air are the best remedy to "bad" ideas. Open discussion is what diffuses damage. Good ideas are strong. They have evidence and righteousness on their side, even if they are unpalatable to certain segments of society. This is how slavery was overcome.

That doesn’t mean that ideas should be forced on anyone. This is where classification comes in. Our individual judgment gives us tools for knowing how we will respond to certain classes of ideas. It is enough to know a movie contains horror for the squeamish to avoid it. Those uncomfortable with nudity can avoid nude beaches. Christians, Muslims and Hindus are not forced to read The God Delusion. No one needs to stay fixated on a website that doesn’t suit their values. As long as we have the education and experience to judge ideas, they cannot harm us.

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About the Author

Mr von Brasch is a software engineer in the Canberra region, and a strong believer in civil liberties.

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