Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 04/12/05

You Can't Buy. Better?

I've always tried to hold the view that anyone is entitled to hold any opinion whatsoever on whatever subject, and be able to express that opinion peacefully, be it in words, music or images. It doesn't matter whether I agree with the views expressed or not; even at its most venal, it's nothing other than enlightened self-interest. After all, if I tried to stop someone else expressing their views, they would feel justified in trying to do the same back to me, and I'm not bloody well having that.

Similarly with things like banning books, plays, movies, songs, whathaveyou. What is out there must remain out there. Yes, even Mein Kampf. I've read it. Quite, quite barking for the most part. But I credit most of my fellow humans with the intelligence and good sense to see that for themselves. The only people who could possibly be taken in by it are those already highly susceptible to its twisted reasoning.

The other problem with censorship, as I see it, is twofold:

  1. Who do you get to do it?
  2. How do you get them to stop?

1. has usually been dealt with in the UK by handing it over to various groups of that section of our class-bound society known generically as The Great And The Good. This almost invariably comprises people who went to the same schools, the same universities, and into the same sorts of career. That this system has worked just about tolerably well is down to nothing more than a degree of conscientiousness on their part, rather than anything codified in statute or guideline. This means that when they do get it hideously wrong, there's little you can do except write to the papers or to your MP. This sometimes works, but it's a pretty hit-and-miss way of doing it.

In less happy lands, however, 1. is usually seen as the duty (or pleasure) of the State, and is carried out entirely in line with the political exigencies of the day. In such countries, protesting doesn't do much good, unless you have a taste for martyrdom (which would be pointless anyway, because your plight would not be known by the public for precisely the same reason).

2. follows on from 1., in that wedges can have very thin ends indeed, and you have no idea how thick they can get. It can be all very well if a body (or group of bodies) is set up to make sure that, say, hard-core pornography does not become available to minors. It becomes a problem if that same organisation then indulges in what, in the modern trend for discordant language, is called 'function creep', and decides that fully-grown adults shouldn't have access to it either. This is perhaps an extreme example, but the tendency of groups charged with controlling what we may see, read or hear to quietly expand their remit is an observable fact, and the manner of their doing so may be so subtle, so gradual, that by the time they've done it, it is a fait accompli and cannot be stopped, let alone be reversed.

What is more dangerous still is when these bodies come under the effective domination of people with ideological axes to grind, be they political or (in this supposedly post-ideological age) religious. Worse even than that is when such people band together outside of that formal structure and campaign (often with a sound volume way out of proportion to their membership or public support) to censor whatever it is that they are offended by. The sheer fanaticism of such people is difficult to counter effectively except by naked ridicule, and that's not always possible if the corporatised media live in fear of reprisal from these groups (there's a passage in Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land which describes this process).

Which is why I find this story particularly worrying.

I mean, I don't particularly want to buy the DVD anyway (leaving aside the teensy-weensy technical difficulty of not even having a DVD player), but I certainly wouldn't want to stop anyone else from doing so. I certainly don't see why a tiny bunch of bigoted zealots should stop them in any case.

It's bad enough having politicians censoring things without your grocer trying it on as well, so the following has just gone from Mental Towers to Sainsbury's:

"I note with concern a report in the Independent which says that your company has withdrawn the above item from sale under pressure from a small group of religious activists.

"I'd be grateful if you could confirm the following:

"a) that the DVD has been withdrawn from sale or display in your stores,

"b) that this was as a result of complaints from the organisation calling itself 'Christian Voice',

c) That only a handful of complaints was actually received.

"If any of the above are totally or substantially correct, please could you explain why your decision to remove this particular item was taken in the face of so few complaints, and those from such a tiny group of people of known extreme views? Would you give in so quickly to such a small group of activists for any other cause?

"Does your company intend to rescind this decision and return to stocking this DVD, or does it intend to continue to accede to the unreasonable demands of a tiny group which is seemingly dedicated to preventing the vast majority of us from making a free choice?

"I think it only fair to state that if this decision is not reversed, I will find it very difficult to continue shopping at Sainsbury's, as I do not believe in supporting censorship of most sorts, but especially this kind.

Thank you for your attention."

We should always bear in mind that from controlling what we are allowed to read, hear or watch, it is only half a step further on to controlling what we say. From there, it is only half a step further on to controlling what we think...

...and the next step down that line leaves us standing at the gates of the gulag and the gas chamber.

I'll let you know what, if anything, I get back from Sainsbury's. An arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item