Censorship is dangerous. Giving an individual or an organization control over what can and cannot be experienced is a lot of power that can be corrupted. As Americans we value our freedom of speech but this value is not limited to citizens of the United States. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes freedom of speech as a human right and it is recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that “[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. Freedom of speech and the freedom to express our views are basic human rights. When we censor expression we stifle creativity; it is creativity that holds the answers to the questions we seek and the cure to the ailments from which we suffer. Censorship in fact brings more attention to the subject the censor wishes to eliminate. Adding the allure of secrecy often makes the subject more curious and the draw to the object more intense. In the following paragraphs, I will assert that censorship is not the proper tool to use to protect those we deem vulnerable, we must oppose censorship of sex work, homophobia, pornography and sexism/violence in advertising.
As we recognize the importance of free speech as recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ineffectiveness of censoring information some may deem harmful we must have uncensored sex workers in order to put proper safety measures in place. There is and has always been great controversy surrounding the sex work industry. Prostitution, often referred to as the world’s “oldest profession,” has been both a means for economic empowerment for women as well as a source for social degradation and or embarrassment. In her article, Defending Prostitution Charges Against Ericsson,” Carol Pateman argues, “To be able to purchase a body in the market presupposes the existence of masters. Prostitution is the public recognition of men as sexual masters; it puts submission on sale as a commodity in the market…”1 If Pateman’s claim s true then certainly we as a society should be working towards the end of prostitution specifically, and sex work in general. Consider, though the effectiveness of censorship on eliminating a social ill. We need only travel back in history to the prohibition of alcohol to see that making something illegal or legally inaccessible will not quell the desire to consume that which we censor. Speakeasies ran rampant across America. Homemade stills produced alcoholic beverages affectionately known as moonshine without being regulated or monitored. Moonshine “runners” modified their engines so that they could deliver the product quickly and out run the law if necessary. The government taking matters into their own hands and making the decision for society that the consumption of alcoholic beverages should not be consumed did nothing to cure the social ills the censorship was intended to alleviate; it actually heightened the desire for the banned substance and created more ills than it sought to cure. Harry White views sex work as a profession and not a subjected position; one that might benefit greatly benefit from being “unionized.” It is his view that if the sex work industry is censored it would drive it underground and would expose the women some are motivated to protect to “violence they did suffer from police, pimps and others when pornography was strictly illegal.”2 He likened censoring sex work to closing factories to solve the problems of low pay, insecurity and poor working conditions among factory workers. The simple fix of imposing the you can’t do that anymore rule on society will not eliminate the sex work industry nor will it solve the problems generated by the industry.
Neither can homophobia, though it may be offensive and even detrimental to our society, be successfully thwarted through censorship. Homophobic speech is more common than some may realize. It works it’s way into our everyday vocabulary without us even realizing it. Take for example the term “gay.” My mother would use the term to mean happy. I would use the term to mean homosexual. My teenaged son used the term to mean bad, until I corrected him. In 2002 a student, Rebecca Rice used the term “that’s so gay” at school and was reprimanded receiving a warning and a notation on her file. Her parents sued, and claimed that Rice’s first amendment rights were violated because she used a phrase that “enjoys widespread currency in youth culture.”3 That is disturbing for more than one reason. It’s hurtful to those individuals that you’ve categorized as stupid, silly, or dumb by associating their group with a negative connotation. It’s unnerving if Rice did not realize the harm she was causing with her words. (This could likely be the case as I determined from speaking with my son and his friends.) It’s tragic if Rice understood how hurtful her words were and decided to use them anyway. According to the list compiled by Warren J. Blumenfeld4, among other things, “Homophobia can be used to stigmatize, silence and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as gay, lesbian or bisexual but who are in actuality heterosexual.” We can all agree that this is only one of the terrible consequences of homophobia. As a cure, however, shall we stigmatize, silence and on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as homophobic? Certainly not. And if we did, would that stop people from feeling or thinking hurtful or negative things about homosexuals that may be kindling to incite violence or other hurtful actions towards them. Then, maybe we should start monitoring and censoring thoughts. Ridiculous, I know.
Censorship of sex work and homophobic rhetoric cannot be tolerated neither then can the censorship of pornographic materials. We are afraid. We fear how exposure to what we deem immoral material might effect our most vulnerable in society. We are afraid of what may become of those who study images on paper or screen might do when found in similar real life situations. Wendy McElroy in her article “A Feminist Defense of Pornography,” states her position as a “pro-sex” feminist: Pornography benefits women, both personally and politically.5 In his article, “Why Pornography Should Not Be Censored,” Antony Grey says of censorship, “Censorship – whatever its pretext – is the denial of our freedom to choose what we can read, see, hear and do. It consists of arbitrary interference with free communication and is a distortion of the marketplace of ideas.”6 We want to protect our young and our vulnerable from the unwanted attention and actions of those influenced by pornographic materials but can we reasonably expect to remove the influence of pornography from society by censoring it’s publication or will driving the pornography industry underground and even more mystic to the already taboo trade? For the most part children already know pornography is not accepted in society but that hasn’t stopped little boys from sharing Playboy in their secret clubhouse. Though the society stigma may keep Hustler Magazine off the living room coffee table it certainly hasn’t kept it from under the bed, in the tool box or being delivered on thin the brown kraft paper wrapper. As we have seen in the examples of sex work and homophobia, censorship does not eliminate the dangers society seeks to eradicate. Censoring an industry only moves it away from society’s ability to regulate it; once it goes underground we no longer have the ability to enforce laws that make the industry safe for it’s participants.
As we see the ineffectiveness of censoring sex work, homophobic messages and pornography it is clear that censoring violence/sexism in advertising would not give us the desired effect. Advertising has a purpose: to entice it’s audience to buy. As long as the message is filling that purpose, it will remain unchanged. Social action then, like a boycott of a particular manufacturer that produces violent or sexist advertisement would be of maximum effect to remove this disturbing media. Charlotte Hilton Anderson calls a study that claimed women see these sexist and violent advertisements as high art or as a type of fiction shenanigans.7 She goes on to say, “And if the point of advertising is to sell something then I’d have to see proof that these ads move merch before I’ll believe my fellow sisters really do like it rough.” I agree that a photographed image of a gang rape scene will not move me to purchase Dolce & Gabana however, are the advertisers pushing the envelope of acceptability so that they may be accepted in the high end glamour magazines? And, once accepted in the publication, not to be glazed over with the other 80% advertising content but be dramatic or shocking enough to make the consumer stop the page turning frenzy and focus long enough for the company logo to register? “…we expect censorship to work for social change; in the past it has always worked against it. A government of feminists can be usurped overnight by a government of wowsers, offended by tampon advertising or any hint of sex.”8 States Adele Horin in her article “Why Censorship is Worse than the Sexist Ad.” She states that self-regulation is a different matter from “hauling in the government to set the rules.” Clearly this would be the better solution; asking the industry to come to a reasonable set of guidelines to hold itself accountable to and holding court on itself to ensure that the industry remains an integral part of society rather than having an outside entity determine what it can and cannot produce.
It is the responsibility of society to protect it’s vulnerable but censorship is not the best protection against the ills created by sex work, homophobia, pornography and sexism/violence in advertising. Some might think censorship rids society by removing the message but thoughts, intents and desires cannot be censored. When we act in fear as a defense to things we find offensive our efforts are negated by the allure of the taboo. And if we persist in censorship we run the risk of capping the creativity of society by making it unacceptable to imagine, think or create outside of the accepted norm. Messages can be damaging, especially those directed towards are youth. I submit a better defense against these dangers is education. We must as a society educate our citizens early and thoroughly. As early as primary education, we must implement media awareness education so that we understand the role that media plays. Citizens should know the difference between advertisements and news, opinion and fact, healthy behavior and violent fantasy. It is our responsibility and our duty to educate ourselves. Media awareness education curriculum should be created and implemented in the public school systems across the nation. An informed citizen is not easily beguiled by hate messages, imitator of violent or sexist messages, or a participant in risky behavior that endangers his own health or that of his community. We cannot take away the basic human right of the freedom to express self by censoring the message we must instead arm ourselves with education that we may rightly disseminate what is good for our own self.
1Carol Pateman, Defending Against Prostitution: Charges Against Ericsson 2Harry White, Anatomy of Censorship: Why the Censors Have it Wrong (University Press of America, 1997) 3Gimme Five | the blog of a busy guy, Censorship vs. Hate Speech and the Word Gay, http://www.gimme-five.com/censorship-vs-hate-speech-and-the-word-gay/ 4Warren J Blumenfeld, How Homophobia Hurts Everyone: A Theoretical Foundation 5Wendy McElroy, “A Feminist Defense of Pornography” 6Antony Grey, Why Pornography Should Not Be Censored, http://www2.libertarian.co.uk/sites/default/lanotepdf/polin085.pdf 7Charlotte Hilton Andersen, Dolce & Gabbana Says Women Like It Rough, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charlotte-hilton-andersen/dolce-gabbana-says-women_b_547268.html 8Adele Horin, Why Censorship is Worse Than the Sexist Ad, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6ZxjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=aeQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3251%2C165096