Magazine article The Spectator

Censorship Wasn't All Bad

Magazine article The Spectator

Censorship Wasn't All Bad

Article excerpt

We live in a culture that at one moment celebrates stupidity as wisdom, ugliness as beauty, insensitivity as honesty, offence as virtue, yet, in the next, sees dissent from respectable opinion as a cause for suspicion and the expression of uncomfortable ideas as a crime. On 31 January the government was busily trying to ram its Racial and Religious Hatred Bill through the Commons -- a measure which is both unnecessary and a dangerous infringement of free speech. It suffered a wellmerited defeat. Meanwhile, all around us, those same hard-won, fragile freedoms are exploited by tabloid witch-hunts, by Celebrity Big Brother and, of course, by the vast bran-tub of masturbatory imagery and random, often incorrect, information that is the internet.

Any assault on freedom today takes place against a background of unprecedented licence. To most, there is no contradiction here. According to our prevailing philosophy of banal romanticism -- designed by figures such as Rousseau, Caspar David Friedrich and Blake, and refracted through Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Hugh Hefner, along with a multitude of others -- we should all do what we feel like doing, as long as no one else gets hurt in the process.

Of course, quite a lot of people do get hurt but no one is keeping the score. It is an axiom of our age that desire trumps all considerations and, in virtually any newspaper or magazine you open, you can stumble over sentences like, 'it just felt so right' or, 'I had to follow my heart'.

As we anxiously observe the world through the spectacles of a sex-crazed adolescent, our commitment to liberty is vitiated by our terror of truth: in theory we can say what we like but, if we do, we are pilloried by an army of busybodies, seeking to ensure that we do not think the wrong thoughts, say the wrong things, use the wrong language. The general taboo against explicit sexual material, which operated before the 1960s, has been replaced by a more restrictive form of censorship, a haunting fear of causing offence. We may have pornography on demand, but we are more frightened of our own thoughts, and others' words, than an army of Victorian matrons.

Perhaps that's what happens when freedom becomes licence. Edmund Burke was on to the problem: 'Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.' Over the past half-century, the Western world -- and increasingly the whole world -- has been subjected to an unprecedented experiment in mind manipulation. The internet is only the latest turn of the screw.

Modern media bombard us from every angle with powerful images and sounds, emotive pictures, dramatic and frequently unfounded claims. The common defence of this Niagara of inane, sometimes vicious, chatter presents it as both the cost and the benefit of free speech, offered to us for our entertainment in a spirit of democratic egalitarianism. However, we, the audience for this speech, are also shaped by it, in an endless reverberation which works to rob us of our sense of discrimination and judgment, not to mention our time and energies. …

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