Does censorship work?

Mbabane, Swaziland | 7 January 2015
Bill Snaddon

Censorship is a slippery thing, much like a bar of soap. You think you’ve got a grip on it before it slips from your hand. You think you can define it before it slips from your mind.

For the past few weeks censorship has been a hot topic around the globe. It seems everyone has an opinion on what should be censored and what should be allowed. What are you allowed to say or watch? What are you not allowed to say or watch?

Whenever censorship is discussed, free speech is never far away. The peculiar thing is that some people will use their free speech to advocate for more censorship. That’s like if someone who secretly loves eating meat is arguing for the banning of eating meat while they are eating meat.

Censorship can prevent free speech and free speech can overcome censorship. They are two sides of the same coin. There is a natural and unavoidable tension between the two.

But the fact that this debate is happening is a good thing. The debate is shining a light on how different countries and different individuals define censorship — and therefore how they define free speech.

The debate is also exposing how some countries believe that by not allowing people to watch something or say something, it will make that thing go away. Which brings me to North Korea, a paranoid dictatorship in Asia that has been ruled by the same nutty family for 50 years.

North Korea, which is supported by its powerful ally China — which is no friend of free speech — was unhappy about a new American movie that ridicules North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-un. The Hollywood movie is about two friends who travel to North Korea and find a bizarre country where everyone must show respect for the leader or else they are thrown in jail or killed. The leaders live in the lap of luxury while large numbers of people starve.

From many reports, The Interview is a cheaply-made satirical film that pokes a bit of fun. Indirectly, the movie uses the truth to ridicule a very serious humanitarian problem, where countless people do die of hunger every year.

In another recent case of attempted censorship, Egypt has banned the viewing of a new movie about the biblical character Moses. The movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, is a re-enactment of the biblical tale of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

“The Ministry of Culture bans the film ‘Gods and Kings’ for historical inaccuracies,” said the Egyptian agency in a statement, as reported by CNN.

If North Korea and Egypt had not kicked up a fuss then these movies might have been forgotten rather quickly. But instead of ignoring or debating, these insecure nations expose themselves further when they demand outright censorship in the name of respect or historical inaccuracy, or some such other humbug.

In trying to censor something or suppress something, all you are doing is making it more popular. In any event, it makes people more curious.

America has its own history with banning things. In the 1920s they tried to ban alcohol. End result: Alcohol stayed just as popular but was now being traded on the dangerous and unregulated black market.

In short, censorship and banning doesn’t work if human nature desires it. And human nature desires the freedom to express itself.

A version of this column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 7 January 2015
#54_Does censorship work_7 Jan 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s