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How do you define censorship? - Zer Netmouse
September 4th, 2007
02:53 pm

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How do you define censorship?
Someone commented in another journal the idea that censorship is something only governments can do.

I had defined it as something people with power do to people (publications, performances, etc) they have power over.

ETA: by power I meant institutionally-based authority, not merely physical force. "Institution" can include social institutions, such as clubs, churches, or families.

How do you define censorship?

(25 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:dd_b
Date:September 4th, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC)
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Well, first amendment protections only extend to government actions.

Other than the government, is censorship possible? It's not the same thing as "suppressing information", is it? If I want to say something, maybe Tor won't buy the book, but there's always Lulu. The only way to stop me is to invoke government power, or to kill me.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
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I think it's applicable in any case where someone applies authority that they have for some purpose other than one that is arguably affected by the expression that is suppressed. - Suppression for political purposes other than to forward the success of a play or publication or the institution producing it, in other words.

For instance, if you worked for Tor, and they warned you that your job was in jeopardy unless you stopped speaking out about photographic methods, they would be trying to censor you (the argument gets more blurry in situations where the statements you make could arguably have negative effects on the institution to which you belong - but I think economic pressure is akin to legal pressure, and seem to recall that some of the strongest censorship boards during the McCarthy era were not specifically governmental).

Schools are capable of censorship, I think, and so are parents. Prison administrations, likewise. Perhaps mental institutions and other places where someone has been given control over someone else's freedom of movement and/or activity.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 5th, 2007 12:16 am (UTC)
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Note also that someone can threaten to kill you, or hurt or kill someone you care about, or to take away your livelihood or social standing (see: blacklist and excommunicate). There are several types of leverage other than the strength of law.
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From:supergee
Date:September 4th, 2007 07:35 pm (UTC)
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Use of force: governments, religious leaders putting out fatwas, etc.
From:lizdmg
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:17 pm (UTC)
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I believe it's something the government can do. I remember having discussions about that in journalism classes. As mentioned above, if the government isn't stopping you, then who has that power? If one publisher or theatre refuses to present certain works, the party wanting it presented has the right to have it put on somewhere else. Or to create his or her own forum for it. If it's being censored, then the government's saying you don't have the right to present that.

Having put in my two cents, I'll now look at the definition linked above.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
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If your kid wanted to put on a play for his class, and the principal said that he couldn't because the play supported socialist notions, something the principal personally abhorred, would that be censorship?

Does that change based on whether that's a public (government-sponsored) school or a private one?
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From:skzbrust
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:22 pm (UTC)
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It seems to me it has to do with the supressing of information backed by the force of law, which is in turn backed by the State. I don't think even the violent supression of information by gangs, armed or otherwise, is what is talked about when referring to "censorship."
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC)
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I would say that it's suppression of information based on institutionally-established authority (and not, I agree, arbitrary applications of force). I think there are institutions other than governments that are capable of censorship, most of which we belong to voluntarily and have the option of leaving. Rather like we have the option of leaving the State, at least in some societies.
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From:jeffreyab
Date:September 4th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
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I agree and a university is a good example of an institution that can censor and have some clout because its hard to switch universities.
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From:cannibal
Date:September 5th, 2007 02:39 am (UTC)
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What about the German Student Association book burnings in 1933? Admittedly, they were backed by Goebbels, but I'm sure what they were doing was still against the law in '33, and they certainly qualify as an armed gang.
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From:jvowles
Date:September 4th, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Tough one.

There ought to be a different word for each of these concepts:

1. State censorship -- where the government actively suppresses certain materials

versus

2. Organizational or market censorship -- where those who control access to certain markets (including stuff like "the scientific community" of respected peer-reviewed journals) deny access to certain ideas.

The difference is important because the state is backed by the force of law and leaves fewer options for working around/under/through the restrictions. It's the difference between "if you say that again, you'll go to jail or suffer other penalties" and "nobody will publish my crackpot conspiracy theories!"

The rule of law in the US (at least theoretically) should promote diversity of ideas -- they're good for democracy as well as for an open market. Unfortunately, monopolies thwart those inbuilt controls rather effectively.
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From:the_leewit
Date:September 4th, 2007 09:13 pm (UTC)
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I take a longer, etymological view--- yes, I know you are shocked. Totally unlike me to bring in etymology or outdated word meanings. The original censors, of old Rome, were the men who decided, quite literally, whose vote would count-- the takers of the census. They controlled the budgets for public buildings and works and were also the guardians of the public morals--- not only who should be allowed to show what kind of skin (grin), but censuring those who, for instance, allowed their lands to go fallow in a manner that endangered one's neighbor's fields (in such a manner that pests were encouraged, for instance), were excessively cruel or indulgent to their wives or children, or generally made themselves a nuisance-from-within to Roman society.

I quite agree with you that it does not necessarily have to stem from government authority. There is, for example, self-censorship that stems from, "Is it responsible to run the Abu Ghraib photographs, where children, who are maybe not prepared to see images of sexually-charged psychological torture are likely to see them?" rather than, "We'll get in trouble with the government if we run this story or show nudity in this context!" And what do you call, for example, the actions of an editor who sends a script back requesting that be made compliant with the Comics Code, even though the CCA is not a government authority?

For me, I suppose, the classification of omitting information as "censorship" comes from the motivation--- it has to be viewed by the censor, whether rightly or wrongly, for the public good. The convenient thing about my definition is that it covers the almighty hand of the FCC pressing the bloop button when George Carlin broadcasts stand up routins as well as the WWII PFC scanning mail to make certain soldiers were not chancing inadvertently advertising the movement of their units, in case the mail should fall into enemy hands.

I don't think all censorship is bad, either--- but it's a very slippery slope.
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From:cannibal
Date:September 5th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
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I don't think you've clearly stated the role of Roman censors... I recently finished Rubicon: the last years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland because Asya checked it out of the library and I ran out of books. According to him, the censors were the two magistrates who decided precisely how much your vote would count (everyone had a vote, but the more money you had the more your vote counted) via the power to promote or demote you between the seven classes (from equestrians down to proletarii). In the early republic, your class depended purely on whether you could afford a horse or good weapons and armour. Later, your wife's name, number of children, land, money, slaves, and possessions all had to be collated by scribes and assessed by the censors. The best way to be demoted would be to lose your money, especially given bribery and dirty politics in the late republic. According to Plutarch, even "personal tastes and appetites should be subject to surveillance and review." The fact that the censor only reviewed each citizen once every five years doesn't tie well to what we now consider freedom of speech or the press.

Censure in the Roman Catholic Church was a punishment which did not allow anyone to communicate with the offending party. Certainly, Galileo is a good example, and this is probably the source of the modern usage. Most of us would agree that this was a bad thing, and that clearly was censorship, so I would argue that church censorship came before government censorship. The McCarthy blacklists are another example of this kind of censure.

Censors in the US Army in WWI and II were responsible for reading mail, whether sent home by soldiers or the press, and eliding anything which might give specific information on necessarily secret troop movements. We learned military censorship from the British, who started it in the Boer war. A famous example was the D-Day invasion of Normandy, when we ran a massive misinformation campaign to convince the Nazis that we were going to attack somewhere else. I think anyone would agree that this sort of censorship is necessary - although of course whether it is good or not depends on which side you're on.

Recently, some idiot named John Norman claimed that the Worldcon was censoring him because he asked them (Philcon, I believe) to invite him as a guest, pay for his room and membership, and put him on panels, and they responded, "not interested". He wrote a long letter to Locus about how awful the concom were for censoring him. I heard about this because Howard wrote a reply making fun of him for being an idiot (not to mention a plagiarist, since his first Gor book was a total rip-off of ERB's Princess of Mars). In my opinion, for the con to turn him down, or an editor to decide not to buy a story because it is crap, is not censorship. It may be an example of showing discriminating taste, but that is the subject for another post.
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From:rmeidaking
Date:September 4th, 2007 09:54 pm (UTC)
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I define censorship as suppressing any paper, book, artwork, or other item because of ideological, political, personal or ethical reasons.

I censor my kids all the time: They can't swear, they have to be polite, they can't walk around naked, etc.

Various churches issue lists of censored materials all the time. Lots of good Christians are not even supposed to read about other religions, or about any sort of behavior that's not officially accepted by that church (e.g. a paper in support of birth control, or in favor of abortion, or about the practice of Hinduism).

They censor movies by giving them official ratings. That's done by a board which is supposed to be independent of both the film industry and the government - yeah, right.

Censorship should not be confused with editing, as in only picking out the best stories to put in one's magazine, or only displaying the best books in one's bookstore.

Censorship is something that can be - and is - done by most people at one time or another.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)
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Sounds like your definition and mine are pretty much the same.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:10 pm (UTC)
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( I tried to think of a "for such-and-such reason" clause, but wasn't sure how to put it. I think you did a good job )
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From:the_leewit
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
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Neat question, btw!
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From:netmouse
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
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thanks!
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From:the_leewit
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:28 pm (UTC)
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No, thank you... it's so deliciously annoying to "have" to go back to an entry several times in an hour and read what others are saying...
From:sethb
Date:September 4th, 2007 10:47 pm (UTC)
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I define censorship as A preventing B communicating something to C, when B and C are willing participants in the communication.

A saying "I'm not going to help you communicate" isn't censorship.

Therefore, censorship requires some sort of force or power. It can be done by a gang just as by a government (what's the difference?)
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From:cannibal
Date:September 5th, 2007 03:05 am (UTC)
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Okay, it isn't just governments, although one might argue that The Church in the 13th century was the biggest government. Idealogical groups can do it too.

It isn't just something people with power do, an editor exercising his power to maintain his vision for a particular publication isn't censoring. John Campbell certainly taught authors to write stories according to his vision, and wouldn't buy them otherwise.

An idealogical organization certainly has the right to choose what they publish. It wouldn't be censorship for the Catholic Monthly to refuse to print "How to be a Wiccan".

On the other hand, if an organization has no part in the creation, publication, or transmission of a given work, and their only role is to limit what can be published or transmitted, that is censorship. They must needs have the power to control that publication or transmission. Groups like the Moral Majority can censor - one idiot writing a letter complaining that you shouldn't make movies where a black man has sex with a white woman is just whining, a thousand of them organized together are trying to impose effective censorship. Comstock's Society for the Suppression of Vice was not a part of the government, but they burned books and put pressure on the government to pass the Comstock Obscenity Laws.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 5th, 2007 03:38 am (UTC)
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I wasn't saying that anything people with power do (to control expression) is censorship, I was saying that censorship is something that can be done by anyone with power.
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From:cannibal
Date:September 5th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC)
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I sort of agree... although it may depend on their role. If an editor decides to self-censor, is he really a censor in the same way as a political commisar is?
From:sethb
Date:September 10th, 2007 08:06 pm (UTC)
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Deciding what you're going to say (or write, or post) isn't censorship (unless it's done due to external pressure, in which case that external pressure might be censorship).
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From:rmeidaking
Date:September 17th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)
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The Emmy show last night had a couple of moments of serious censorship - most notably cutting to a weird overhead shot while having *no* sound during Sally Field's acceptance speech; she was apparently in the middle of saying that if Mothers were in charge, there would be no war. We'll never know, because Fox cut the feed.

This is the purest censorship: Oops, we don't want you to hear that!
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