Censorship: It’s in our genes

Monday, November 16, 1998

The human being arrived in this world with three basic instincts: the urge
to hunt and gather food, the urge to procreate, and the urge to censor. All
these millennia later, we are farming out the first, still in denial about
the second, and making the third our one, true reason for existence.

As the world's pinnacle of civilization, the United States is steeped in
censorship, of course. Here, we have honed censorship to a fine edge,
inserting it into our daily life as easily and painlessly as inserting a
knife blade between shoulder blades.

There is no aspect of life or communication today that is beneath or beyond
the sensibilities of the censor. The mayor evicts a citizen from the city
council meeting for not staying on topic or within the time limit. A
principal threatens a youngster with suspension for wearing a T-shirt with a
religious message. A public library board instructs the staff to filter
filth from the Internet. A prosecutor hauls bookstore owners into court for
stocking certain books. A judge orders a reporter to jail unless he reveals
a confidential source. Police officers knock on a citizen's door and
confiscate an award-winning movie he is watching on the VCR.

Who are the censors? All of us, actually, because all of us have some speech
that we just cannot abide, whether it challenges our faith, our
sensibilities, our authority, or our parenting skills. It's not clear
whether there is a censorship gene or whether we just learn it from our
earliest years.

Parent: “Shut up.” Child: “Why?” Parent: “Because I said to.” Child:

Principal: “Get rid of that T-shirt with the religious message.” Student:
“Why?” Principal: “Because we don't allow Marilyn Manson T-shirts, either.”
Student: “Oh.”

And so we have become a species of censors, over the years evolving into a
variety of distinctive subsets:

  • The Regulators: Elected and appointed officials who routinely
    deny access to government information and public meetings, and draw up laws
    to regulate how and when and in what tone of voice citizens may criticize
  • The Righteous: Their faith is such that it endows them with the
    ability to see the wickedness in words and images that others might not see.
    It also gives them the humility to demand that those who don't believe the way
    they do, live the way they do or think the way they do must be converted or
  • The Sex Police: They maintain huge stacks of pornography in
    their closets and garages and on the hard drives of their computers to prove
    that our society is awash in indecency. They pore over their horde
    ceaselessly, ever ready to demonstrate to anyone who will listen, especially
    lawmakers and judges, that even accidental exposure to pornography perverts
    the mind and shrivels the soul.
  • The Language Police: Found primarily on college campuses, they
    monitor fraternity parties and draw up speech codes.
  • The Redistributors: Often found in the same habitat as the Language
    Police, they are the self-appointed spokesmen for those whose speech is
    suppressed by corporate media and other major institutions. They operate
    under the remarkable premise that speech is a finite commodity, so they
    petition The Regulators to take some speech from the powerful to give to the
    powerless. (If indeed there is a speech shortage, it could quickly be
    remedied by striking from the language such terms as “Foucaultian
    post-modernism” and “Derridian deconstructionism.”)
  • The Culture Patrol: They parse public discourse for examples of the
    crude, rude and lewd. To punish those whose sensibilities don't live up to
    their expectations, they are relentless in their pursuit of talk shows and
    book advances.
  • Finally, there are The Calibrators, occupying the highest rung on the
    evolutionary ladder of censorship. They are particularly adaptive, taking
    new technology in stride and harnessing it for their mission. They have seen
    the utility of machines and devices in regulating time, temperature and
    virtually every other aspect of daily living. Why not submit language and
    thought to technology's tender touch?

The business world has been quick to exploit the new market created by The

  • The nation's largest provider of television sets has refined the
    V-chip so that not only will it cleanse our television programming of
    indecency and violence, but also of news, sports, commercials and other
    culture-coarsening elements.
  • A Maryland firm has announced new software that will allow the blocking
    of individual segments within a TV program. That might save us from any new
    TV programming for hundreds of years by tying up all the producers with
    rating current programming scene by scene.
  • An Arkansas firm has introduced technology that can block profanity,
    which changes somewhat the penultimate scene in “Gone With the Wind”:
    “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a —- [static].” Roll credits.

Nowhere has the new technology brought more comfort and control to the
censor than on the Internet. Dozens of filtering and blocking software
programs — labeled “censorware” by those who foolishly fear it —
are now on the market. Using keywords, rating systems and the sophisticated
reckonings of a vast army of highly trained monitors, these systems protect
the visitor to the World Wide Web from bad words, images and thoughts that
frequently leap upon the innocent from electronic ambush.

The Calibrators see these new technologies and their progeny as the
realization of a vision of the future in which they can leave censorship to
the machines and finally turn their attention to their primary instincts:
eating and, uh, —- [static]. Roll credits.

Paul McMasters can be e-mailed at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.