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Excerpt: Censoring Culture

Camouflaged censorship is a little discussed form of restricted speech -- and it's on the rise.

Excerpted from " Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression," edited by Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva

Censorship has always been a dirty word. (It derives from the Latin for "census taker" or "tax collector, " designating one of the most reviled citizens of the Roman Empire.) In the legal sense, censorship is the governmental suppression of speech. In a broader sense, it refers to private institutions or individuals doing the same thing, suppressing content they find undesirable. The difference is that the former is prohibited by the First Amendment and the latter is not. Regardless of its legality, however, censorship is unpopular.

The classic image of the censor depicts a narrow-minded and prudish bureaucrat blind to the transcendent flights of the imagination we call art, burnishing his red pen or his stamp and inkpad with perverse pleasure. This portrayal renders the censor as the very opposite of the creative artist. But censorship often operates more subtly than that, sometimes disguised as a moral imperative, at other times presented as an inevitable result of the impartial logic of the free market. No matter how it may be camouflaged, however, the result is the same: the range of what we can say, see, hear, think and even imagine is narrowed.

Of the many debates about censorship in recent memory, not one has opened with a public official saying, "Let's censor this." On the contrary, the standard initial talking point is "This is not censorship, we do not censor, "followed by: "We need to be sensitive to community standards"; "We need to protect children who might see this"; "We can't spend taxpayers' money to support work that might offend"; or "We don't consider this censorship at all, because you are free to exhibit your work elsewhere. "The censor's current disguises of choice are the moral imperatives of "protecting children"and of exercising "respect for religious and cultural beliefs and sensitivities" -- both, in themselves, laudable objectives, and for this reason, perfect disguises for other, less savory motives.

A discussion of censorship that only takes into account attempts to repress existing works, however, misses all those works that never came to life: Perhaps, because this novel didn't seem sufficiently commercial, there was no chance of its being published or, perhaps, because that play might have offended somebody, the playwright censored himself at the outset and decided not to write it at all.

"Censoring Culture" expands the notion of censorship beyond the acts of removing a photograph from an exhibition or canceling a performance to include a much larger field of social conditions and practices that prevent artists' works of all kinds from reaching audiences or even from being produced. The narrow collecting purview of a museum, for instance, might be irremediably problematic for contemporary painters if no museum in their country collected work by living artists. Or, consider the modestly successful, mid-career writer: Although her books have earned back her publisher's investments, at certain houses, she may be ignored, given the all-consuming editorial quest for the Big Book.

Finally, the temporal extension of intellectual property rights practically prohibits American artists from working with images from the cultural vernacular of their day, such as Barbie or Batman and Robin. In few of these cases did somebody make a conscious decision in order to frustrate or limit artists' opportunities for expression. Nonetheless, within these situations, we see constraints on creativity and access to needed cultural materials. Such limitations both impoverish our culture and undermine our shared ideal of freedom.

The central goal of Censoring Culture is the expansion of the very notion of censorship. The specific disguises, mechanisms and systemic factors that are discussed within the book -- with the exception of the internet -- all predate the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.We make no claim to identifying entirely new phenomena. The fact that a phenomenon has been recognized, however, does not mean that it is sufficiently, or well, explored.

The dire effects on free expression of corporate consolidation, especially in the media, for example, have been noted. The self-defeating extremes of political correctness have been subject to harsh criticism. (They are often dismissed as the whining of political "others.") The subtle but powerful force of self-censorship, on the other hand, remains little discussed or understood -- although its ubiquity in totalitarian societies and familiarity to artists and writers in every society is hardly a secret.

Censoring Culture broadens the debate about culture and free expression by assembling existing contributions into a larger, overarching composition, and by exposing the mechanisms that limit free speech today as part of a complex system of economic, political, cultural and/or social arrangements. Although the effects of corporate consolidation are most visible in the communications and publishing industries, they are also present in every other aspect of cultural production. Political correctness, though often ridiculed by the right, is similarly invoked by the right and the left to silence unorthodox speech rather than to engage with it.

We have brought together material in a variety of formats ranging from interviews to round-table discussions, and from diary entries to analytical essays. When existing analysis was insufficient, as with self- censorship, we have commissioned essays or conducted interviews with key authorities in the relevant fields. When the views of involved groups or stakeholders were underrepresented, we invited them to speak: a roundtable with teens, for instance, offers an essential reality check for adults who would ban a book from a school library before reading it, much less consider the concerns of the young people they are trying to "protect."

Each of the collected pieces touches on one (or more) of a range of sometimes seemingly unrelated issues that affect, directly or indirectly, cultural production and distribution. A number of the writings in this collection do not directly refer to censorship. Nevertheless, within this context they reveal the multiple pressures -- social, economic, legal and/or personal -- that lead to the shuttering of an exhibition or the decision not to publish potentially controversial material about a particular subject.

Our approach is based on the simple assumption that, to paraphrase the old saw about quacking ducks, if something results in limiting the range of what can be produced, exhibited, printed, imagined or thought, we are entirely willing to entertain the idea that this condition or phenomenon is censorship. This includes censorship as we know it -- a public official making sure that what goes on public exhibition isn't likely to arouse anybody's concerns about "appropriateness" or other subjective criteria for viewing -- and censorship outside of our traditional understanding of the concept.

In general, responses to censorship -- whether activist or analytical -- have come after the fact. By contrast, Censoring Culture examines systemic factors, which are poised to bear upon free speech now or at a future moment; that is, it identifies the conditions that present the potential for censorship. This is especially true of new technologies: Just as the internet promised the unfettered exchange of ideas, copyright laws quickly threatened the Net's potential for the uncensored dissemination of ideas. The ability to identify and address systemic factors prior to overt incidents of censorship suggests the possibility of a proactive approach based on dealing directly with the structural conditions that ensure future censorship.

Censorship has generated considerable attention in recent years, primarily because of interest in the issues raised by the recent, arts-oriented phase of the American "culture wars." Writings about the controversies surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's "Perfect Moment" retrospective or Andres Serrano's photograph "Piss Christ" often focused on the divisive question that fueled the culture wars: "Why should so-called average taxpayers fund art that offends them?"

Censoring Culture is an effort to get beyond not only this public-funding tug of war, but also beyond the very notion of a culture war. The problem with the media-driven concept of a culture war is that, rather than simply describing a state of affairs, it helps perpetuate an image of a nation in combat, one divided by radically opposed views. And not insignificantly, it diverts the political conversation from class and race to values, moral codes and lifestyles. The concept of a culture war creates the illusion of millions of cultural warriors at the ready, muskets -- or at least PCs -- in hand. This illusion helps magnify the thousands-strong campaigns organized by special interest groups into actions that seemingly represent the views of millions.

Although the issues might change, the strategy of creating controversy in order to mobilize a constituency is standard operating procedure for many activist groups: Once the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a focal point of emotion in the 1990s, stopped funding individual artists or controversial projects, right-wing groups returned to the perennially popular call to arms, "decency on the airwaves." As ever, pundits and politicians can be counted on to exploit -- and exaggerate -- such cultural fissures. To reenter the realm of reality, the vast majority of Americans do not, in fact, subscribe to the mediagenic, imaginary extremes of the so-called culture wars; they hold judiciously moderate positions. As the texts collected in Censoring Culture demonstrate, censorship today is a result of multiple factors, none of them directly related to a cultural rift at the heart of America.

Censoring Culture is divided into five parts that progress from background to foreground, from the systemic and institutional to the personal. The first two parts offer portraits of our era of triumphant capitalism as seen through its effects on contemporary expression within the new, global economic order and the brave new world of digital media. The component writings in the next two sections interrogate, analyze and deconstruct the disguises from behind which today's censors often operate: The moral imperative of protecting children from "inappropriate" material, exploitation or molestation; and the imperative of demonstrating respect and sensitivity toward the beliefs of a diverse population. Together, the four parts comprise a multifaceted portrait of the conditions and institutions, attitudes and behaviors that limit expression in the varied precincts of cultural life.

Censoring Culture concludes with material devoted to what is likely the most important and least understood topic under consideration -- self-censorship. This is the point where public and private, economics and psychology, social sensitivities and political repression, intersect. It is also the point where censorship becomes invisible. Contrary to what opponents of public funding in the arts claim, the salvation of free speech is not likely to be found in the marketplace. In fact, possibly the largest threat to free expression comes from the widening influence of corporations.

Fewer, larger corporations now wield multinational influence, sharply contrasting with the national reach of previous generations of big business. During the past decade and a half we have seen an unprecedented amount of consolidation within all branches of cultural production. This process of consolidation has frequently resulted in de facto monopolistic control. Although more books are published than ever, more films are released and more cable channels seem to go online weekly, quantity should not be confused with diversity, much less quality. Although this anthology focuses on consolidation within the book publishing industry, similar developments affect -- and afflict -- virtually every other medium.

The pressure corporations exert on expression is also felt in recent, aggressive moves by entertainment and media companies to impose their ownership on material that, by all rights, is part of our shared cultural heritage. Congress has supported this power grab by repeatedly extending the duration of the period of copyright, invariably at the behest of entertainment industry giants such as the Walt Disney Company. But what is a gift to copyright owners is an impediment to the public-at-large, some segment of which is undoubtedly eager to see Mickey Mouse enter the public domain.

In recent years corporations have sued, or threatened to sue, numerous artists for violating copyright or ignoring trademarks. To cite one typical example, Mattel sued a book publisher, a record company, and a photographer for using images of its Barbie doll without permission. Mattel ultimately lost all three cases, but the mere threat of extraordinarily expensive litigation with an unpredictable outcome (Chanel, unlike Mattel, has tended to win suits against artists for trademark violation) is likely to discourage anyone from continuing to use such material in their work or asserting their rights under copyright law's fair use provisions. Ironically, this trend toward stricter control of copyright material flies directly in the face of contemporary artistic methods. Postmodern approaches such as "sampling" in music or "appropriation" in art both rely on the strategic use of already existing material to comment about contemporary matters.

For a while it appeared that the internet was the answer to corporate domination of cultural production. It made low-cost publishing available to anyone with a computer and an online connection; it revolutionized access to international news, independently produced music, activist networks, and nonmainstream art works. Best of all, the rhizomatic structure of the internet made top-down control impossible. However, and somewhat predictably, the internet's expansion has been paralleled by expanded legal efforts to regulate content. Those efforts are provoked by both economic and moral motives. Economic concerns have arisen from the ease of disseminating copyrighted material online. Endless rounds of litigation over music file-sharing for noncommercial purposes eventually reached the Supreme Court and essentially put homegrown companies like Napster and Grokster out of business.

The morality-derived category of issues ostensibly aims to "protect" children from age-inappropriate material or from pornographers lurking in chat rooms. Instead, these laws have been effective in restricting access by viewers of all ages -- especially low-income adults -- to constitutionally protected entertainment and sex sites, as well as sites featuring educational and health information. Government regulation is not the only problem facing the new medium. The internet's potentially universal accessibility inevitably clashes with local laws and customs.

If a French court could effectively prevent an American internet service provider (Yahoo!) from hosting sites containing hate speech, a Chinese court might well try to suppress information about the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is possible that new and relaxed international regulations will come into play soon, but it is crucial to be aware of the nature of the internet as contested turf: The conflicts may variously center on the regulation of speech, the ownership of this virtual "real estate, "or the possibility of near-monopoly control of bandwidth by large corporations. Protecting children, one of the rationales for government regulation of the internet, is also the most convenient disguise under which the impulse to control speech operates in general.

Children -- a king-size blanket term covering the range from toddlers barely able to walk to seventeen-year-olds on the verge of enlisting in the military -- are rarely allowed to speak for themselves or, when they are, hardly ever regarded as credible witnesses. Transformed instead into blank slates for the projection of adult fears and prejudices, children provide an effective pretext for banning the display of nudes, installing filters on computers in public libraries or censoring TV broadcasts. The evocation of an innocent child is so politically potent that the lack of credible evidence to back up the claims that sexually oriented material harms children is almost beside the point.

The moral panic accumulating around childhood sexuality has created collateral damage -- perhaps most unjustly affecting those mothers who have innocently taken pictures of their naked kids, only to find themselves criminal suspects. Public officials, including police officers, prosecutors and judges, are mandated to examine photographs of children with a focus on whether these images might appeal to a pedophile, and whether they might constitute evidence of child abuse. Because federal child pornography law makes no exception for writers, scholars, physicians or journalists researching the traffic in sexually explicit images of children, those undertaking such investigations are themselves subject to prosecution. As a result, the only way to gauge the extent of sexual abuse of children in the production of child pornography is to examine court records, which show little evidence of a rampant problem.

This conclusion is seconded by sociologists, who have found that most incidents of child abuse are not sexual. Needless to say, the problems most affecting children -- poverty, the state of public education, a lack of health care and, in too many cases, parental neglect -- have nothing to do with pedophiles. Hunting for them among middle-class mothers, banning drawn or photographed nudes in public exhibition spaces, or bleeping four-letter words from TV broadcasts is unlikely to solve any of these problems.

Of the disguises worn by censors to mask their generally frowned-upon activites, respect for religious and cultural sensitivities is nearly as popular as the need to protect children. Taking its cue from the left-leaning cultural diversity movement active in the 1970s and 1980s, the religious right, a decade later, began vociferously to demand sensitivity and respect for its values. The controversies about Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Temptation of Christ , Terrence McNally's play, Corpus Christi and Chris Ofili's painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary," among many examples, focused less on the allegedly blasphemous nature of the works than on the offended feelings of Catholics, who saw in them the "desecration" of their symbols.

Aggrieved sensitivities are not the exclusive property of the right or left; they span the entire political spectrum. Ethnic and sexual minorities, empowered by a growing respect for sensitivity toward cultural difference, also grew more public in their complaints about bias in this museum program or that educational curriculum. African-American parents called for the removal of Huckleberry Finn from schools because of its (historically accurate) use of the term "nigger, "while concentration camp survivors called for the cancellation of an exhibition at The Jewish Museum that contained work by an Israeli artist/peacenik/serviceman who approached the Holocaust in unorthodox, critical fashion.

Whose voice matters more? Who is allowed to speak about the painful history of an ethnic, racial or sexual minority? Does anybody own identity and history? Some questions are so complex they resist resolution. We acknowledge the complexity of such matters and -- in good faith -- insist that not every question is answerable. We also assert that the practice of civility and the cultivation of patient listening can transform shouting matches into discussions, enabling everyone involved to actually hear opposing points of view. The most difficult sort of censorship to analyze -- and even recognize -- is self-censorship.

Self-censorship is the interiorization (conscious or subconscious) of every mechanism and rationale for censorship: It is present when an artist hesitates about creating a work that might disturb viewers or might infringe on copyrighted material; it is operating when a fiction writer decides to purge sexual explicitness from the language of her characters; and it is apparent when museum curators refuse even to consider exhibiting work by artists with politically contentious points of view, fearing that showing such work might lead to losses of support from audiences, public officials and funders. Typically, self-censorship remains unrecognized -- even by the person or institution guilty of it.

To be sure, it is often very difficult to draw the line between editing -- the discriminations and judgments that are at the heart of the creative process -- and the realm of self-censorship. To complicate matters further, there are many motives for self-censorship and some are undeniably legitimate. They range from fear of political retribution or financial fallout, to consideration for one's family or community. Self-censorship is so shaming an activity, though, that those who opt to do it in light of one of the "good" rationales mentioned above -- that is, choosing to self-censor rather than to disgrace the family or to avoid facing some unpleasant financial music -- tend to deny the nature of their actions. In an informal poll we took, we found that nobody wants to admit s/he ever self-censors. Perhaps the single thing we can all agree on about self-censorship is that a more detailed exploration of this uncharted terrain is necessary.

"Censoring Culture" is an unfinished project, an exercise in connecting the dots. We hope that readers will help continue our work by applying some of the methodological signposts we've outlined to their own lives, to the sometimes-difficult-to-detect habits of the culture at large, and publicly disseminating their findings for the benefit of the rest of us. We hope that "Censoring Culture" might serve as an antidote, however small, to the appalling and disingenuous lip service frequently paid to championing freedom of speech, and the gargantuan volume of hot air expended by those among the powers-that-be who, at the same time, seem neither interested in free expression nor in broadening its reach through promotion or policy.

Happily, the conditions described in this book are not immutable. On the contrary, the mechanisms of censorship also provide openings, possibilities for action, innovation and change. The censor's disguises are not impenetrable, either. "Censoring Culture" may help, we hope, to identify some of those openings and possibilities, and to provide encouragement for exposing censorship in all its guises. It is time to state the obvious: It is necessary to restore the value, in public life, of reasonableness and respect for others, of truth-telling and plain speaking, and of the freedoms that have previously been broadened and deepened by each generation in succession.

If we are to actually confront the social problems at hand, we must face up to some unpleasant realities as part of the process. If we are to ameliorate the condition of children, we must initiate a truth-telling campaign that encompasses the sometimes disingenuous meaning of "protecting" children and the unscrupulous manner in which politicians have used children to impose their views of what is "appropriate."

If the internet is to fulfill its potential as a site for community building and a space for genuinely open, noncommercial communication, we must be alert to initiatives to privatize its infrastructure or to control its content. We should also reassess the balance between stimulating creativity (through copyright protections) and stifling creativity (through copyright overprotections). And finally, if we wish for a better world for those victimized by historical injustice, we must do more than purge our vocabularies of a dozen unacceptable epithets and deepen -- or initiate -- efforts to actually improve our fellow citizens' lives.

In an age when representative governments are on the rise worldwide, societies that seem to understand the nature and operation of censorship are surprisingly rare. Tragically, their understanding is all too often a by-product of their experiences with dictatorships. Despite the ignominy of these pasts, their cultivation of present-day liberties reminds us that the very exercise of freedom of expression is both salutary and life-affirming. Free expression resembles nothing so much as art, especially through its provision of pleasure. This makes us hopeful about its future.

Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva, 2006. This piece originally appears as the introduction to " Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression," published by The New Press on April 10, 2006. Published with the permission of The New Press.