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Justifying Censorship

Updated on September 12, 2012

In liberal western culture the term ‘censorship’ has developed a pejorative meaning. Prevailing wisdom implies that a proponent of an act of censorship is almost guilty of a linguistic error. The pressures of this cultural orthodoxy can result in denial of censorship‘s occurrence, even when that censorship has occurred for ‘good reason’. This piece shall seek to illustrate cases of good reason and so provide a justification of certain acts of censorship. The reader or indeed this writers non-subscription to some of the examples provided does not negate the truth of the conclusion, so long as merely one example holds, then the conclusion must stand.

The supposition of the intrinsic value of freedom of speech presents a danger which encourages harm on individuals and indeed wider society. Evidence will be provided to support acts of censorship which have occurred in history, while suggesting had the scope of censors been extended, great injustices and wrongdoings may have been avoided. Extra attention will be paid to political and military censorship as these areas seem to have wide reaching practical implications. The case of moral censorship will also be provided with justification.

Examples of 'just' applications of Censorship?

A widely accepted just act of censorship would be the extensive measures of control used by the British state in World War II. The Emergency Powers Act of 1939 meant that one may be detained if it were deemed that their detention would promote the defence of the realm. The language of the act was far reaching and not just aimed at Nazi sympathisers and so created an opportunity for state abuse. However, the acts motivation to prevent citizens who prosthelytize for Nazism from doing so would be apparently just. Critics may suggest the workings of democracy require that all opposition speech is heard. In times of peace this would perhaps hold weight. Even in terms of war the argument may be convincing and valid, provided that the war is an aggressive war or if defeat is unlikely to produce a loss of freedom and sovereignty. In World War II this was not the case. The war was defensive and the Nazis had occupied much of Europe, thus halting democratic functioning. The value of wartime censorship is found by its ability to withhold information from the enemy, maintain morale at home and give the state the weapon of surprise. Thus restrictive measures of the British state were to aid the prevention of the advance of Nazi imperialism onto British soil, and so to the long term benefit of democracy. Further than securing democracy it would also promote the protection of British citizens, particularly those most vulnerable to Nazi persecution.

Similar lines of thinking reveal just censorship taking place in revolutionary Cuba. While levels of censorship are widely exaggerated, censorship does exist. Critics of Cuban censorship who adhere to liberal ideology may appeal to an apparent intrinsic value of democracy or freedom of speech to criticise the Cuban system. In contrast defenders of this system may with equal validity appeal to the legitimacy of the revolutionary vanguard who approve censorship in the name of that society’s accepted ideological doctrine. Such ideological lines of argument though produce a stalemate. Instead it may be more useful to analyze this censorship in practical terms in regards to what it achieves, as was done with the British example above. Unlike the British example no appeal to securing liberal democracy can be made. However, other parallels, though perhaps controversial do exist. As in WW2 Britain, the Cuban system of government is under threat by an external enemy which can borrow on internal support groups. While the methods of aggression remain on the whole more subtle than invasion it is still an aggression which aims to dismantle the Cuban system. This external enemy is the United States who as soon as two years after the Cuban revolution organised the invasion of Playa Giron by Cuban exiles in 1961. Cuba has faced further aggression by way of exiled terrorists. For instance Luis Posada Carriles carried out the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976 and was a known conspirator with the CIA. Cuba’s political leaders have also been subject of numerous assassination attempts. Just as Britain legitimately sought to prevent the voices of Nazi sympathisers being aired, Cuba does similarly regarding vocalising support for Washington’s agenda for Cuba. The extent of this agenda was revealed by document Plan Bash. This states the United States intention to hand over state assets to descendants of Cuba’s pre-socialist dictatorship, dismantle the free health and education system and put a US marshal in charge of law. Cuba’s restrictions have been justified by Raul Castro on the basis that a a truly free press is one which “serves the freedom of the people”. As was the case in Britain, Cuban censorship has thus acted to defend its citizens from the losses it would suffer if the plans of an external actor were to come to fruition. Both cases discussed so far may be justified under the broad umbrella of national security. Within this we see circumstances out of which legitimate censorship arises; the threat of domination and loss of sovereignty.

Failures of 'Freedom'

So far examples have revolved around where censorship has occurred. The next example is where censorship ought to have occurred. On November 4th 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Izthak Rabin was murdered. He had began the implementation of phase 2 of the Oslo agreement. This involved handing over the control of major West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. Protests against the policy by some of the most extreme elements of Israeli society had foretold the outcome that would await Rabin. Some demonstrators had openly and freely warned that Rabin and his wife would be executed for treason. His political murder may have been further facilitated by the preaching of extremist Rabbis. Both within Israel and the United States these Rabbis had claimed that by giving Jewish land away to the gentiles was an act for which he deserved to die. It is not difficult to imagine how the words of these religious figures may encourage violent action among their followers, making there a ‘clear and present’ danger to Rabin and his family. For this reason it may have been prudent to introduce methods of censorship which could have prevented these views being aired. Censorship which saves one from harm up to and including death is ultimately the most easily justifiable censorship, even seeming justifiable by inclination alone and not requiring of deep rational justification.

Similarly, had preventative measures of censorship been present in the Weimar Republic era of Germany the rise of Nazism could have been avoided. This case is the most obvious of free speech being a catalyst for great atrocities. State propaganda may have been used as an educational tool. This was a feature in classical democracy whereby the guardians of society protected the masses from anarchy and dangerous ideology. Censorship may not be desirable to modern day democrats but it may have been an efficient short term measure for safeguarding democracy’s long term future by silencing dangerous ideology. Allowing the free flow of hate speech ultimately aided the defeat of democracy and helped entrench patterns of oppression. On coming to power the Nazis formalised these patterns of oppression against minorities, most noticeably the Jewish population. This may have been avoided by prohibiting statements ‘likely to cause harm’. Canadian law contains such an article although it is limited to false statements. This allowed for the trial of holocaust denier Ernst Zundel in 1985. As this was limited to false statements the trial centred on proving that the holocaust did happen. Removing any issue of truth would increase citizens protection by keeping criteria to the foundational statement of ‘likely to cause harm.’ Such criteria would perhaps maximise liberty by granting freedom of speech up to the point where it threatens to negate the liberty of others.

These cases of censorship are all pertaining to either political and/or military censorship. There is also a case to be made for censorship on moral grounds. French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that society is underpinned by a moral consensus which citizens may be obliged to. This rationale is what allows for censorship of child pornography. The collective morality of most society’s deem child pornography unacceptable and acts to prevent its occurrence. This is one real manifestation of society demanding conformity to its underlying morals, as Rousseau had argued for. This moral censorship is also justifiable by its protection of minors. For this reason it is legitimate in practical terms and not just with regards to taste and decency. This is different from legislation against pornography containing consenting adults. Such censorship would seemingly not have a practical side but is solely a matter of forcing individuals to conform to a collective moral code. This area of moral censorship mainly relates to issues of taste and decency. Society may judge that only certain members of society need be protected from the distasteful. This is why film certificates are stratified by age and violent or sexually explicit material will appear on television post-watershed. Society’s moral code deems that some requiring protection from such material as they lack a maturity to deal with the issues such artistic work provokes.

It has been argued then that censorship has justification in many circumstances. Types of easily justifiable censorship include political, military and moral censorship. Political and military censorship have been justified in circumstances where national security and sovereignty are threatened. Other circumstances which encourage just censorship are when the safety of an individual or groups of individuals within society are threatened by the flow of free speech or artistic works. This threat to individual safety has been shown to be a circumstance which cuts across, political, military and moral censorship. The right to life, one's existence must always be paramount over secondary freedoms such as expression. Indeed it is irrational to suggest otherwise, as without life one cannot exercise any other right or quality.


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    • profile image

      Sanxuary 4 years ago

      Truth does not require censorship. If every show involving weapons showed the carnage and destruction caused by them, I doubt that anyone would glorify having such things. Owning them would have a true reason and keeping them from those who think they are for other purposes would alert us to their insanity. Sex leads to unwanted children and disease but we seldom show that on TV. We give you sex to purchase a vehicle or even a paper towel, what the hell. Truth is what we need, not censorship. The other thing we need is common sense and reality. This drug might give you an erection. The real reason why you can not get an erection is most likely caused by cardiovascular disease and a vegan diet will most likely cure you. Go ahead take the drug and the side effects are the very things that kill those with cardiovascular disease. The problem is truth and those who profit from your death. It can be disease or sin but its all the same, I choose to be a martyr. You can play all the sex and violence you want just make it real.

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 5 years ago from Texas

      Sorry rationale is totally flawed. To use the concept of censorship to promote dictatorship...the Cuban System holds no water. Your analysis on the Iraelis situation is beyond the scope of rationale in terms of giving any creedence to this article. I was somewhate intrigued early on that would you put forth such an argument but after reading through it...I am amazed that you would. WB

    • Comrade Joe profile image

      Comrade Joe 5 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      I completely agree. There is a tendency to assume that censorship is inherently wrong, which may sound nice and liberal, but is also potentially dangerous. Saying a quality is universally good fails to account for specificity. On the flip side, censorship for censorship's sake is equally naïve.

    • Josak profile image

      Josak 5 years ago from variable

      Excellent hub, it is one of those questions that truly requires reflection and discussion as the merits of both sides are notable.