When is censorship acceptable? Justify your argument

Forty years ago the biggest social debates were about the acceptability (or not) of censorship related to sexuality. Now the preoccupation might be more with political censorship. There are many kinds of censorship, including self-censorship. Who should be drawing these invisible lines in the sand, and applied to what?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014



Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.







1. Introduction


Censorship falls into various categories. a) The first kind of category refers to who applies the censorship, and to whom. Self-censorship also applies here. b) The second kind of category refers to what is censored. c) The third kind of category refers to when and where censorship is applied.

Arguments about the desirability or necessity of censorship can apply to all of the categories and subcategories mentioned in a) to c).

As individuals, humans are not particularly consistent about claiming desirability or necessity for anything. They tend to be opportunistic, depending upon their role of the moment, their appetites, their wealth, their age, and so on. Perhaps therefore we should not expect institutions (collections of people) to be entirely consistent on a subject like censorship. However some pressure for both consistency and erring on the side of tolerance is worthwhile. In some cases it may be a matter of life and death. This is because laws and rules impact upon large numbers of different people in very blunt ways. This bluntness inevitably causes some unjust or foolish or even deadly outcomes.


2. What exactly is censorship?


Censorship is withholding information. At the most personal level, self-censorship of some kind is absolutely normal and necessary for social interaction and survival. In these terms we may give it other names, such as the scale of secretiveness, discretion, openness, candour, frankness. People vary a great deal in the censorship they exercise, both as a general pattern in their lives, and in dealing with particular people. Cultures also differ in the expected levels of social candour.

As a teacher I need to make constant judgements about what to tell a student and when. I have to exercise a kind of temporary censorship. This judgement will depend both upon the student’s level of maturation and their current level of knowledge on a topic. If I say too much too quickly, or at  the wrong level of complexity, they might not only be confused but become hostile.  These professional judgements are necessary because communicating ideas entails not just their expression, but the reception by another brain which processes and accepts or censors incoming stimuli according to previous experience and inherent intelligence.

The kind of judgements about censoring the information I communicate apply not only to professional teaching. We all make such judgements constantly in communicating with others. Sometimes the judgements are entirely personal, and at other times they are also bounded by a particular role we are playing. For example, if I am working for a company, I probably have to be circumspect to customers in expressing what I know about that company. If I am a government minister, I am privy to information which might require great discretion when presented in a public   forum, and so on.

When it comes to governments and their treatment of their publics, administrative motives are generally a mixture of offering service and self-preservation. The complete libertarian position might be that individuals should have all the secrets and governments should have no secrets. In the archetypal tyranny, the tyrant would have all the secrets and individuals no secrets. The practical reality of course is that we live on a scale between these extremes and struggle to maintain some compromise. The story of censorship is the story of that struggle.


3. When does censorship become a problem?


As with so many things in life, the appropriate use of censorship in a general sense is not a black and white issue. That is, there may be personal, professional or organizational reasons when discretion is needed. However, when questions of censorship become tangled with political power and ambition then large numbers of people may be hurt. Knowledge is power; information is power.

Dictators have always craved to control access to information, and often enough kill the messengers. For generations the Catholic Church censored not only access to the Bible (by not allowing translations from Latin), but whole libraries of other books, all with the aim of maintaining theological power over parishioners lives. The net outcome was not benevolent. For generations in many cultures, men restricted access to education for women, a lifelong censorship, thus keeping women subordinate to their ambitions. There are parts of the world where the subordination of   women by censoring their knowledge continues to be a major form of oppression.


4. Censorship as a political act


Tyrants and Juntas rarely plan for their own retirement. The censorship they exercise is a tool to maintain control over others, or sometimes an expression of personal prejudices, unrestrained by any anticipation of future consequences.

Power in a democracy has a use-by date, at least for individuals, so its unrestrained exercise may lead to unpleasant blow-back down the track. This risk of future consequences becomes in itself a motive for the vigorous censorship of current behaviour by political actors and their agents. A   distasteful example of administrative censorship is the present struggle of the American Central Intelligence Agency to censor information on its recent (and futile) use of torture in the so-called war on terror. The American political leadership of the time, who by any reasonable definition authorized war crimes, have been brazen in defending such censorship, and thus on present indications are unlikely to be punished.

We don’t have to go to anything as extreme as hiding torture to find political administrations, regardless of ideology, taking violent action to censor public knowledge of their contacts, discussions, financial resources, hidden decisions, and so on. Whistleblowers are almost universally treated as political poison, regardless of any public service they perform at great personal risk. 


5. Antidotes to political censorship


a) The most effective antidote to political censorship is strong investigative journalism by talented individuals, and an alert, educated public. There are good investigative journalists, yet they have to fight an endless war of attrition. As for readers and viewers, the last thing most political power holders want is an alert, educated public. There is ample evidence in many countries that education for critical thinking has been deliberately degraded, while the media is swamped with trivia.

b) The journalistic ecosystem: Journalists, like anyone else, need a source of income, and willing sources of information. The number of independent sources of journalistic income, even in a country as supposedly open as Australia, are severely limited. In the Australian case, several large  commercial groups effectively control the public media landscape. Those who control the media empires themselves are subject to political pressure and to commercial pressure. Depending upon the character of their leadership, these media groups in turn exercise disproportionate influence on what journalists are able to write and investigate. That is, journalists are censored editorially, and for career reasons also exercise self-censorship. News Ltd (the Murdoch empire) is particularly notorious for pursuing a political agenda and shaping the public conversation in the Anglophone sphere. Politicians themselves strongly influence the information which journalists can make available to the public. They do this by favouring those journalists who do not insist on awkward questions, and who create an optimum public image of the politician.

c) Legal protections against censorship: The main legal antidote to political censorship is Freedom of Information legislation. Not all political jurisdictions have FOI legislation, and where it does exist the experience has been that whatever political party is in power, that party will do its utmost to frustrate the intentions of the legislation. The castration of FOI legislation can take numerous forms. The enabling FOI office may be starved of resources. Exorbitant charges may be made for providing information to the public under FOI. The processing of FOI requests may by deliberately delayed. When FOI information is finally forced from a reluctant government, it may be severely “redacted” (selectively censored) in the name of “security” : that is, the employment security of those who are threatened with embarrassment.


6. Censorship as a narrow vehicle for petty power


Politicians have no monopoly on the wish to exercise power over others. This kind of power, no matter how petty, seems to act as an aphrodisiac to large numbers of the human species, extending right down to job, school and family level. It is no surprise then that given the many levels of government and administration in modern societies, petty censorship of one kind or another is a fairly common phenomenon.

Quite often it is rather difficult to filter out the real motives for what is going on. When a parent decides to censor what a teenager can watch, the concern may be genuine or it may just be bossiness. No prize for guessing the teenager’s interpretation. When a district library or school board decide to censor what books the public can borrow, the board members may be  religious bigots, or narrow minded curmudgeons, or tin hat dictators. In most such cases, they deserve to be challenged, but local social conditions can make that difficult.


7. Promoting censorship


If censorship is withholding information, then there are many ways of doing that. Explicit censorship is probably the crudest and least effective way of keeping information and understanding from other people. This is because it is a direct challenge to the dignity and intelligence of those others, and will therefore incite a response to defeat it. Because it is inherently aggressive, sophisticated censors prefer to avoid confrontation and to censor in more psychologically subtle ways which might not look like censorship at all.

The best way to keep something valuable from thieves is avoid alerting thieves that something valuable is available to be stolen. This is the philoshopy of keeping your computer in a battered old backpack and driving a rusty pickup truck. It is also the philosophy of having companies whose articles of association are indecipherable, or of legal contracts containing pages of jargon. It is the philosophy of publicity departments, politicians and civil servants who deal in weighty generalities, while never mentioning the real targets and outcomes of their activities.

The second best way to avoid scrutiny of questionable activity is distraction. The controllers of modern states and large companies invest heavily in distracting attention from the most significant elements of what they are doing. In general, you could call it the white noise and confusion technique. There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and most people after all are involved mostly in their own comfort zones. If their lives are filled with the temptations of fashion, gossip, eating, sex games, spectator sport, anodyne television shows, and so on, then they are unlikely to devote too much critical attention to big, complex and difficult issues which might or might not destroy their lives tomorrow. Those who wish to conceal and manipulate in this way are greatly assisted by the self-indulgence of the wider public itself.

The third substitute for censorship is keeping the threshold of critical thinking low in a population. This is a long term stratagem. It involves the nature and funding of public education systems, the selection and status of teachers, the control of media ownership, the funding of public news and information sources, and so on.

8. Defeating Censorship


The struggle between censors and their opponents has always been a never-ending war of attrition. It always will be. Violence and extortion have been used to conceal, and also to expose. The law is, and has been used to conceal and to expose. Publicity media of every kind is, and has been used to conceal and to expose.

The induced apathy and inherent mental laziness of overall populations is proving the most potent tool for those who wish to conceal. Because concealment is so often malevolent rather than benevolent, the ultimate failure of institutions or even states due to malevolence is in a way the cost effective brake on malevolent concealment. Of course, by the time of failure, many lives will have been ruined.

In every generation there are people, a minority, who seek to do good by exposing that which they consider bad. Usually they suffer disproportionately, even at the hands of those who ultimately benefit from open knowledge. In modern institutions, such people may be known as whistle-blowers or "deep throats". In certain dramatic instances, such as the Watergate scandal which brought down US President Richard Nixon, their exposures may lead to apparent changes in legislation and practice. The historical evidence seems to be that such reforms are often more cosmetic than enduring. However, also across the span of history, the patient work of historians and institutional reformers has led, in some parts of the world, to societies which are genuinely more open and less brutal than those which came before. There is no guarantee that these states will endure. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.



Reading List


Australian Broadcasting Commission (2014) "Censorship" - multiple stories in this category. ABC online @ http://www.abc.net.au/news/topic/censorship

Australian Human Rights Commission (2014) "5 Current issues of ‘Internet censorship’: bullying, discrimination, harassment and freedom of expression". Human Rights Commission online @ https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/background-paper-human-rights-cyberspace/5-current-issues-internet-censorship-bullying

Australian Parliament (2001) "Censorship and Classification in Australia". Parliament of Australia online @ http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary _Library/Publications_Archive/archive/censorshipebrief

Baldassarro, R. Wolf (21 November 2011) "Banned Books Awareness: “The Canterbury Tales”". Banned Book Awareness website, online @ http://bannedbooks.world.edu/2011/11/21/banned-books-awareness-canterbury-tales/

Cai, Peter (31 March 2014) "The fog of censorship in China’s media". Business Spectator online @ http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2014/3/31/china/fog-censorship-chinas-media

Chen, Lu (December 4, 2014) "‘Big Brother’ Goes to College in China". Epoch Times online @ http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1121414-big-brother-goes-to-college-in-china/

Chris Zappone, Chris (December 8, 2014) "Taiwan a canary in the coalmine of cyber warfare". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/technology/technology-news/taiwan-a-canary-in-the-coalmine-of-cyber-warfare-20141207-120v73.html

Cristofaro, Emiliano De (18 November 2014) "Lessons on censorship from Syria’s internet filter machines ". The Conversation website, online @ http://theconversation.com/lessons-on-censorship-from-syrias-internet-filter-machines-33951

Electronic Frontiers (2014) "Censorship and Free Speech". Electronic Frontiers (Australia), online @ https://www.efa.org.au/Issues/Censor/

Hamel, Gary (December 2011) "First, Let’s Fire All the Managers". [Censorship within companies by managers manipulating information for power is a major problem. This article documents another way]. Harvard Business Review online @ https://hbr.org/2011/12/first-lets-fire-all-the-managers

Hosenball, Mark (December 10, 2014) "'Enhanced interrogation' torture techniques by CIA were 'far more brutal' and ineffective in stopping terrorist plots: US Senate report". ["redaction" as censorship. Delete the whole truth, and nobody takes a rap]. Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/enhanced-interrogation-torture-techniques-by-cia-were-far-more-brutal-and-ineffective-in-stopping-terrorist-plots-us-senate-report-20141209-123pyc.html

IndexOnCensorship.org (2013) Worldwide journalistic coverage of issues involving censorship. IndexOnCensorship.org online @ http://www.indexoncensorship.org/

Knott, Matthew and Ben Grubb (December 10, 2014) "Ultimatum issued to ISPs in Abbott government's online piracy crackdown". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/ultimatum-issued-to-isps-in-abbott-governments-online-piracy-crackdown-20141210-1246rv.html

Libertus.net (2014) "About censorship and freedom of expression, in Australia and elsewhere". [a collection of pieces]. Libertus.net online @ http://libertus.net/

McDougall (November 2, 2011) "The Once and Future Way to Run". [The leading magazine on running, Runners' World, almost collapsed when its editor published research showing that running shoes caused injury and Nike pulled $1 million in advertising. That is, the editor failed to censor for commercial interests. An uncommon story. Commercial censorship of the truth about running shoes has since returned to the magazine. Note: this McDougall article is also a superb account of how to run injury free.] New York Times online @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/magazine/running-christopher-mcdougall.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all&

McKinney, Luke (26 September 2014 ) "Australia’s most ridiculous instances of video game censorship". Techly website online @ http://www.techly.com.au/2014/09/26/australias-ridiculous-instances-video-game-censorship/

Metthe, Newth (2010) "The Long History of Censorship". Beacon of Freedom website (Norway), online @ http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/liste.html?tid=415&art_id=475

Milton, John (1644) "Areopagitica". [One of the most influential speeches against censorship every made, in this case to the English parliament]. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagitica

News Ltd. (2014) "Censorship". - multiple stories in this category. News Ltd online @ http://www.news.com.au/technology/online/censorship

Refinery 29 (December 2014) "17 favourite books that were banned and why". EssentialKids site, online @ http://www.essentialkids.com.au/photogallery/entertaining-kids/parenting-and-childrens-books/17-favourite-books-that-were-banned-and-why-20141208-3m2r7.html#utm_source=FD&utm_medium=lifeandstylepuff&utm

Sainz, Jorge (December 13, 2014) "Spain's WikiLeaks-inspired Xnet fights graft using technology, courts". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/spains-wikileaksinspired-xnet-fights-graft-using-technology-courts-20141212-126e1d.html

Skwirk.com (2014) " Year 9 » History » Australia and World War II » Government control » Censorship and propaganda". [Tutoring site for Australian high school students]. Skwirk online @ http://www.skwirk.com/p-c_s-14_u-91_t-201_c-673/censorship-and-propaganda/nsw/censorship-and-propaganda/australia-and-world-war-ii/government-control

The Guardian (2014) "Censorship" - multiple stories in this category. The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/censorship

Wikipedia (2014) "Censorship". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship

Wikipedia (2014) "Censorship in Australia ". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_Australia

Wikipedia (2014) "Censorship in China ". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_China

Wikipedia (2014) "Freedom of Information Laws by Country ". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


When is censorship acceptable? Justify your argument (c) Thor May 2014