A PDF version of this essay: InDefenseOfCensorship
We Westerners are used to hearing about the need for laws to protect the rights of the individual. No doubt it seems strange to our ears to hear that there must also be laws to protect the community, and yet it is true. The community has its own character, by which I mean something different than the sum or the average of qualities of the people who make it up. One obnoxious person can spoil the atmosphere of a party; a company of men is often braver as a group than any of them would be as individuals; a religious congregation can be said to collectively accept articles of faith about which many of its members harbor private doubts. In each case, it’s a question of what belief sets the tone of the group, not the secret thoughts of individuals. A set of shared beliefs, customs, and authority is the very stuff of which a community is made. Its members have a strong interest in making sure that the beliefs are true, the customs good, and the authority respected. The communal atmosphere has a powerful influence (for good or ill) on the conscience of each individual; a strong collective sense of justice and piety is also a good thing in itself. An attack on a group’s beliefs and customs is an attack on the group itself, a call for it to be reconstituted along different principles. On vital matters, the community will always have an opinion, and those who disagree will find their voices less welcome in the public sphere than will those who agree. Censorship is a community defending itself against attack. No society ever has or ever could survive without it. Censorship is the basis of civilization.
Why then does censorship have such a bad name in our society, so much so that when we do censor (as every society must) we always feel the need to call it something else? There are two main arguments against censorship. The first is to deny that there really are such things as collective beliefs or collective morals in the sense I described above. Only individuals have beliefs. Individual beliefs can’t be legislated, and to attempt to do so would be tyrannical. Therefore, censorship is both tyrannical and futile. This argument would be very strong if there were indeed no real collective beliefs and if censorship really did therefore aim to control private beliefs. However, I think it’s pretty clear that something like what I’ve called the collective “tone” does exist. Consider an example. Sixty years ago in the United States, when someone publicly defended extramarital sex, he was accused of being a “pervert” or being “immoral”, and he would certainly not be regarded as respectable. The collective belief and expectation was that sex only belongs in marriage. Unmarried couples knew better than to openly flaunt this expectation. Of course, many privately dissented from this view and acted on their dissention, and many more accepted the belief in theory but acted against it anyway, but the public line was clear. Today, by contrast, when someone publicly criticizes extramarital sex, he is accused of being a “prude” or a “religious fanatic”, and he is liable to be ridiculed in university classrooms and late-night talk shows. Unmarried couples openly cohabit, and it would destroy a person’s reputation if he publicly criticized them. The collective opinion has definitely turned from chastity to licentiousness. Once again, many people dissent from the collective view, but they are keenly aware of holding a disapproved opinion. I think it would be difficult to argue that this change has not occurred or that it hasn’t had significant effects on teenage pregnancy rates, divorce rates, and many other matters of public importance.