‘We invite you to think about where you would draw your own lines.’
Extract from Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control
By Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis
Published by the British Library
When we refer to the freedom of speech, we do not mean the freedom to go out into the wilderness and whisper to the night sky or scribble in the sand. If nobody will hear or read our words, we may express anything, but can communicate nothing. The freedom of communication is what counts, and communication requires one or more recipients. It is something that people do with other people, and such actions are constrained by the rights, freedoms, and often the wishes of everyone involved, as well as by the social norms that shape what we can say, and even what it occurs to us to say. Those involved in a particular communication include the speaker or speakers, the audience, and others who may be affected even if they do not participate directly, such as the one who is being spoken about. Though censorship is something of a dirty word, and nobody wants to be called a censor, censorship is inevitable because people impose limits on each other’s actions.
Isn’t speech fundamentally different from action, though? What harm can words do? This reasoning can lead to the conclusion that speech should never be restricted because it cannot actually hurt anyone, and that those who believe they have been harmed by speech simply need to grow a thicker skin. We find this position unconvincing. Speech involves action, and has tangible effects, though these are rarely easy to predict or control. The same power that exposes a corrupt government can incite mob violence against a vulnerable person. A state can declare war, a judge can pass a sentence, and anybody can give names to things. As the philosopher Judith Butler argues, the names that others use for us, whether categories like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘Black’, and ‘White’, or any number of terms of abuse, add up over time to become the stuff that our sense of self is made of. There is some room to push back against these names, change them, make them our own, and reject them. There is no way to escape them. Because speech is powerful, our freedom to speak must be defended from unjust restrictions. Because speech is powerful, however, that freedom cannot be absolute. Like action, speech will always raise ethical and legal questions.
Whether through laws, regulations, policies, or social conventions, people restrict speech because of the actions that they believe it to be performing. To give a few examples, laws have historically prohibited speech that incites crime or violence, betrays the state, foments political dissent, reveals classified information, disturbs the peace, corrupts morals, promotes hatred against groups, denies genocides, damages reputations or business interests, steals intellectual property, extorts money, insults rulers, questions religious doctrine, attacks religious figures or gods, invades privacy, and harasses, abuses, threatens, blackmails, or defrauds individuals. Are these restrictions good or bad? Unless you happen to accept the possible consequences of every imaginable speech act, then you will find some restrictions reasonable and others arbitrary, ill conceived, oppressive, or unethical. We suggest that most people are actually okay with many different kinds of censorship. Censored deals with more contentious cases, in which those whose speech was restricted have struggled against the constraints.
Our aim is to tell stories that reveal how the censorship of literature has developed over time. We strive to be fair and accurate, but not neutral. There are many instances of injustice and the abuse of power in this book, as well as cases that are more difficult to call. Hit Man, for instance, presents itself as a handbook for would-be assassins. When its instructions were used to commit a murder, an appeals court found that the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech, did not protect Hit Man’s publisher from a civil lawsuit. Given that the publisher admitted that he intended the book to be used to commit crimes, was this a reasonable limitation of his liberties or a slippery slope leading to the censorship of crime novels and films? We invite you to consider the perspectives we present, and to think about where you would draw your own lines.
Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis is out now published by the British Library priced £25. It was published in September during Banned Books Week.
Matthew Fellion is a writer and independent scholar who lives in Edinburgh. Katherine Inglis is a lecturer in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.