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October 04, 2004

Anthony Daniels proposes himself for the role of Chief Censor

Posted by Anthony Daniels

On 30 September of this year, The Guardian newspaper published a story under the headline: Daily Mail sacks writer who painted Hindley picture. The writer in question, Jane Kelly, is also a part-time artist who exhibited a painting of Myra Hindley cradling an infant and a teddy bear in her arms. The Guardian reported that she was a member of an artistic group, or movement, called the Stuckists, who believe in 'honest, uncensored expression'.

'Unfortunately', The Guardian commented, 'the Daily Mail does not appear to share those values'.

Is this true? Or, if true, is it unfortunate? Does anyone, in fact, adhere strictly to the value of 'honest, uncensored expression'?

First, it does not follow from the fact that a publication refuses to publish the work of someone of whom it disapproves that it does not believe in uncensored expression. No publication can be obliged to publish everything. Selection is not censorship. As far as I am aware, which is as far as the article in The Guardian informed me, the Daily Mail made no attempt to prevent the offending picture from being exhibited, or called for its destruction. It was merely saying (implicitly) that if this is the kind of picture you paint, you won't work for us. I leave aside entirely the question of whether the Daily Mail's aesthetic or moral judgement in this case is correct: but there is no attack here on the idea of uncensored expression.

But does The Guardian, or for that matter anyone else, believe, without any reservation whatever, in the principle of uncensored expression? Let us do a little thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that a writer for The Guardian were discovered in his spare time to be exhibiting pictures of a violently racist nature. Is there any doubt that he would be immediately dismissed? Or would the powers that be at The Guardian simply hold up their hands in horror but invoke the sacred principle of free expression?

The only people who believe in uncensored expression in daily life are psychopaths – their own uncensored expression, I mean, not that of other people, on which they are usually rather less keen. For the rest of us, the utterances of which we are most ashamed are usually precisely those that fall into the category of uncensored expression.

Of course, it is not wise to extrapolate directly from the private sphere to that of society as a whole. Nevertheless, it is surely at least possible to question the benefits of uncensored expression, even as far as its effects on artistic production are concerned. The idea that masterpieces are impossible to create under a regime of censorship or restricted expression is historical nonsense. No doubt some great art was produced directly in opposition to the censorship of its day, but it would be wrong to conclude that it owed nothing positive to that censorship. One of the greatest literatures of all time, the Russian of the Nineteenth Century, was produced in conditions of censorship, albeit capricious and unpredictable. It may well be that Russian literature achieved its universality because of the allegorical nature sometimes forced upon it, and the need to approach matters obliquely:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
Success in circuit lies...
There is censorship and censorship, of course. There is the type that forbids the expression of certain ideas (for example, that the government is rotten), and censorship that requires the expression of certain ideas (for example, that the government is splendid). The latter is by far the worse, and more difficult to evade. It deadens art in a way that the mere avoidance of certain subjects cannot.

It is also perfectly possible to forbid certain forms of expression without seriously restricting freedom of opinion. The censorship of hard-core pornography would hardly reduce freedom of intellectual discussion very much. This is not to say that it should be censored, merely to point out that such censorship would be compatible with a much more important freedom. It would be a limitation of our freedom, but only to look at pornography.

Even if it could be shown, as I think it probably can, that art flourishes best under conditions of censorship, it would not follow that there should be censorship: for a society has goals other than the production of artistic masterpieces. I should guess that more people would rather go without the B minor Mass than without flush lavatories: though whether popular opinion in such matters should always be attended to is itself a matter of opinion.

I have no formula to offer regarding censorship: that there should never be any whatever, or that it should be imposed in many circumstances. Censorship is often absurd and can be very oppressive. But when Voltaire said that he was willing to defend to the death a man's right to an opinion with which he, Voltaire, disagreed, I am not entirely sure that I should have believed him: he liked life too much. Besides, I doubt that he had child pornography in mind, for example. In any case, such pornography is not an opinion, it is an activity, and no one suggests that activities should be free.

Just as most penological liberals have at least one crime that they would punish very heavily (usually rape), so people who are against censorship in all its forms consider that there are several opinions whose expression should not be permitted in public.

In general, discussions of censorship are generally crude and lacking in distinctions. Those who oppose censorship of any kind, at least in theory, often deny that any form or content of free expression can do either individual or social harm, while at the same time they are careful to protect their children from representations of crudity and violence, suggesting that they do not believe their own denials. The argument against censorship does not require, however, that free expression does no harm: only that free expression is a good in itself, or that the harm censorship does is greater than the harm it would prevent. Rarely, however, does one meet someone who admits that a diet of violence is bad for children, but ought nevertheless to be allowed because censorship would be worse.

I think the only solution to the dilemmas of censorship is to make me chief censor.

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.

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The comment of "honest uncensored expression" was mine. I realize that Anthony Daniels was using this as a springboard for a wider examination of the issues, but I would like to point out that what I said should be taken in the context in which it was printed. He has the space for a small essay on the subject. I had three words to make a point. In the press it is often necessary to speak in rather simplified concepts, as I'm sure your readers understand.

However, there are far deeper implications in "honest" that cover some of the valid points which Mr Daniels makes, and implies are not inherent in my own statement. My interpretation of the word "honest" does cover this ground.

I do not think a racist is being "honest" in expressing racist comments, because a racist position is not "honest" to begin with. "Honest" uncensored expression can only come from an "honest" place. I do not take it to mean the expression of whatever you happen to feel like saying whenever you feel like saying it.

The Stuckist "philosophy" requires an unflinching examination of self, emotion and experience to arrive at this "honesty" before there can then be the "uncensored expression" of it.

I hope this makes things a bit clearer. See, particularly the manifestos.

Charles Thomson
Co-founder, The Stuckists

Posted by: Charles Thomson at October 4, 2004 06:34 PM

Well Anthony Daniels piece was very interesting, I think. I can only say one thing in response; "Giss a job".

Posted by: jane kelly at October 5, 2004 11:23 AM

The discussion conflates censorship by the state with free choice by the individual.

The Daily Mail exercised its free choice in expression. Free expression means not saying what you don't want to say just as much as it means saying what you do want to say. As noted, the artist is not prevented from expressing her opinions (by the medium of her painting) in any way - the Daily Mail is simply exercising its equal right to free expression also - the right to not support expression with which it does not agree. Nothing wrong there.

Censorship - the suppression of free expression by the state, with the force of law - is something else again. It essentially subjects the expression of individual opinions to a popularity contest, and for that reason should be regarded with a very jaundiced eye indeed.

Unfortunately, there is scarcely a state which can resist the urge to censor the opinions of its people - probably because so many people cannot resist the urge to pass judgement on the opinions of others, and then agitate to have their beliefs supported and the beliefs they consider unworthy suppressed. We may see the beginnings of this urge in the words of Charles Thomson, who assigns himself the duty of deciding whether or not the opinions of others come from 'an honest place' - 'honest' being, of course, his own personal definition. Such decisions are, of course, perfectly fine when they are applied to a personal decision about which opinions one should hold and which one should discount. But the ability to make that personal decision about expression should be ceded to the state only sparingly, and grudgingly at that. Once you allow the state to decide which opinions have merit, and are therefore allowed, and which do not, and are therefore banned, you subject your own freedom to think and speak as you like to a popularity contest - which it should never be. Most dangerous of all is when these decisions are ceded to the state on the basis of a utilitarian argument, as, for example, when it is suggested that violent TV shows should be banned because they may breed violence in children. That this may be true is beside the point - when you give the state the power to make those decisions, on that basis, then you give the state the power to take away any of your freedoms on the basis of a utilitarian argument. Ban violent TV shows today, because they may cause violence, and tomorrow, you can ban a public demonstration because it may lead to violence. Argument's the same.



Posted by: llamas at October 5, 2004 07:26 PM

Daniels is wrong on one point.

In India just recently, "intellectuals" actively protested the death sentence of a man who raped and murdered a 12 year old girl.

Posted by: Dev at October 6, 2004 03:12 AM

The "COMMENT NOTICE" that follows the article cast more lights on the topic than the article itself. I suggest Mr Daniels be nominated as the Chief - or at least the assistant-in-chief- of the Social Affairs Unit previous to his nomination as the Chief censor. After all some training is always required for such an important post.
José Manuel Blanco

Posted by: manuel blanco at October 7, 2004 05:42 PM
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