In the 1970s, I recall listening to a radio interview with the ‘beat’ writer William S. Burroughs in which he was asked if he thought that censorship was ever warranted.
Obviously, this was a question that the author had more than a passing interest in since his uncompromising accounts of hard drug use and gay sex meant that his novels constantly fell foul of obscenity laws.
His answer to the question was a categorical ‘NO’. In his view, censorship was never justified.
At the time, I thought his was an overly extreme position. Surely there were some instances where censorship was needed to protect the public from words or images which, to use the words of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, “tend to deprave or corrupt persons”. Now, I am inclined to agree with Mr Burroughs.
Let me qualify for this by saying that there are many TV shows, films, books and other publications that I personally find offensive. The issue here is that I don’t believe it is in the interest of a free and open society to ban or censor them. People should be free to see, read and hear what they want.
I don’t pretend that this short blog post can do anything but scratch the surface of this wide-ranging issue and it’s a topic I will almost certainly return to. For the moment, I will confine myself to a pair of ‘for instances’ from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 movie, ‘Persona’ which I watched again recently.
Prior to 2004, viewers in the USA would have only been able to see a censored version of this movie.
An image that was deemed depraving or corrupting was a split second shot of an erect penis at the beginning of the movie. Even in the original, this is literally a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ but on principle that is no reason for this innocuous image be excluded.
Any medical textbook or sex education manual would contain far more graphic photographs – is the argument that any representation of an aroused sexual organ is automatically pornographic?
The other cut is more serious in terms of the content of the movie. There is a key scene where Nurse Alma tells her actress patient Elisabet of a sexual encounter on a beach with two young boys.
She goes into graphic detail about what occurred but all we see is her describing these events. Her narrative story ends with her confessing that she later had an abortion; the father could have been one of the boys or her husband who she had sex with on that same day.
The scene was not completely cut but the dialogue, and subtitles, were modified so that the age of the boys was left open although from her account it is clearly implied that they were 12 or 13 years old. How is such information likely to deprave or corrupt viewers of this movie?
In this (or, for that matter, any) day and age, it is a scandal that the self-appointed arbitrators of decency can so blatantly dictate what the public is able to see, read or listen to.
Such censorship claims to be based on the need to ‘protect’ vulnerable individuals but in reality the judgements derive from subjective moral considerations and/or are politically motivated acts.
Either way they are wrong-headed and must be resisted.