The case for censorship

In yesterday’s Guardian (,11710,1598008,00.html) there is an interesting, but I think slightly confused article by the playwright David Edgar opposing censorship of the arts, particularly the performing arts. It seems to me that Edgar is arguing that art has (or should have) a moral effect, i.e. that it changes the way people feel (not just think intellectually) about particular issues. (He says near the end: ‘The awful truth is that the response most great writing about wickedness provokes in us is neither “Yes please,” nor “No thanks,”but “You too?”’). I’d agree with his seeing a moral purpose in art, but it’s then somewhat contradictory to object when people argue for censorship, since most of the calls for censorship he quotes are by people whose argument is that particular works do indeed have a moral effect, but a harmful moral effect. (There are a few cases he quotes where the emphasis of the complaint is more about offence then strictly effect (e.g. Jerry Springer the Opera and Behzti (a play which offended many Sikhs), but most of the opposition is about harmful moral effects. [Incidentally, one positive suggestion concerning the proposed religious hatred laws is that the law of blasphemy should be repealed at the same time, (see,,1597360,00.html) since this is sometimes used as a backdoor way of protesting about the offence done to religious feelings].

Once you accept the premise that a text/piece of work has a moral effect, then even if you accept free speech, there is likely to be some point at which you feel that the harmful moral effect created outweighs this. For example, the Guardian itself imposes limits on how it reports suicides (see,,973952,00.html), since there is evidence that detailed reports of suicides (in particularly descriptions of effective methods, may encourage this). Should a newspaper (or an author) just ignore these concerns, since this is not doing anything illegal? If a hypothetical play was written which glorified teenage suicide, which suggested it was noble and courageous to do this and that those who did not commit suicide were conformist cowards, which showed on stage details of how to commit suicide, would that be an acceptable use of free speech? If not, then the question becomes where the line is drawn. Similarly, I am unhappy that Edgar drags in Catherine McKinnon’s discussions of the effects of pornography. She may be wrong that watching a film about a gang-rape is exactly the same as watching an actual gang-rape, but it’s equally unrealistic to think that there are no similarities in the moral effect.

I think that an author could write a good play about teenage suicide (or gang rape) and that there shouldn’t be any taboo subject. However, it seems to me be arrogant for the author/creator to expect that they should have an absolute right to create anything. This would be justified only if they were infallible both about the moral effect they planned to create and the one the audience actually received (since there’s always this gap between intention, realisation and transmission of a message). And artists aren’t infallible. One of the examples of censorship he quotes is the artist Marcus Harvey, who did an artwork about Myra Hindley, the notorious child murderer. Harvey’s work shows the iconic image of Myra Hindley made up of children’s handprints. This seems to me to be a work that trivialises the issue of child murder without having any countervailing interesting moral effect. There are interesting things you can say about Myra Hindley, such as why that image is used in every discussion about her, (symbolically suggesting fixing her forever in her past crime), or why her crimes are thought to be so much worse than any other murders of children, but this picture doesn’t address them. It’s at the conceptual level of ‘here’s a picture of a dot made up of a lot of smaller dots’, but throwing in child murder to make it more exciting. (I may, of course, be wrong about the artist’s proposed moral effect, but if so, his art isn’t communicating it, which shows he’s not a good judge of that either).

Thus, while I think David Edgar is right to argue that there is an increasing tendency to censorship which should be opposed (particularly the view that no-one should touch some subjects), it seems to me that he needs to think rather harder about what the limits of censorship should be, and to make sure that he’s not just defending the right of mediocre artists to shock.


One thought on “The case for censorship

  1. If a hypothetical play was written which glorified teenage suicide, which suggested it was noble and courageous to do this and that those who did not commit suicide were conformist cowards,

    It’s been a LONG time since I’ve read, or even thought, about the early Romantics, but it seems to me that some of them came perilously close to this, e.g., The Sorrows of Young Werther (?), alleged to be responsible for a wave of suicides among impressionistic youths across Europe.

    If I remember correctly, would you censor Goethe? If not, I humbly accept correction.


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