Peter Horn on Censorship, 1989

Peter Horn, 1989, “Censorship: Creating pockets of ignorance”, in South, 22 June 1989, p.18

(South [Weekly] was an independent newspaper generally aligned with the UDF and ANC, edited by Moegsien Williams, 1988-1991.)

Any form of censorship assumes that there is one group – usually a minority – which is wiser, more intelligent, more moral than another, which protects another group which is prone to be seduced, led astray, outraged or insulted by some form of writing, painting, music or other form of self-expression. Any form of censorship therefore denies the full equality of all the members of a society. The censors depict themselves as adult and responsible, and insinuate patronisingly that the rest of humanity, the majority, is in a childlike state of irresponsibility.

As such censorship is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, whether it is exercised by a government, a religious community, a political party, or even by the majority of the people, because it deprives at least some individuals of their democratic right to be informed about all issues, so that they can make up their own minds and come to a decision on the basis of all the available information.

Democracy, decision-making by the people, is impossible without a full and free flow of information to all. As soon as there is a small privileged group which withholds any information and restricts access to it, for whatever reason, all those who are denied access to this information become disadvantaged citizens. As they can not even control what is and what is not withheld from them, the existence of any form of censorship creates pockets of ignorance. Pockets of ignorance create opportunities and privileges for antidemocratic forces.

Traditionally therefore democratic movements opposed the imposition of any kind of censorship, with the understanding that criminal acts like libel could be prosecuted in the courts and individual rights defended adequately in this way. Traditionally also it was churches and the state machinery which wanted to impose some kind of censorship for various reasons. The churches wanted to „protect” their members from any kind of atheism and what they called blasphemy, the states wanted to restrict the flow of ideas which they regarded as „subversive” or „revolutionary”, including disclosures about corruptions, maladministration, nepotism and other malpractices.

However, a number of questions have arisen in the democratic movements concerning censorship, which make it appear difficult to advocate the classical position of democratic movements, stating simply and unequivocally that there shall be no censorship. One can understand that democratic movements would like to restrict their opponents who advocate racism, imperialism, colonialism, sexism, fascism, and other practices seen as detrimental to the democratic ideals. One can also understand the concern of members of the democratic movement when their children are exposed to literature glorifying violence and pornography. And should the state not protect the religious sensibilities of its citizens against attacks which these citizens perceive as slanderous and blasphemous?

While one has sympathy with these views, and while one does obviously not want to hurt the sensibilities of anybody, such a protectionist stance presents many grave problems to a democratic movement, which takes grassroots-participation seriously. A modern state like South Africa does not have a population which agrees to one set of religious and moral norms; it is by its nature widely diversified and pluralistic. But even more problematic is the power of a few people to decide on what is so detrimental to the state (or church) that all others should be forbidden even to contemplate it.

Everybody assumes that his or her norms are the norms of society. But what in the view of some is the slanderous denigration of a popular leader may in fact be a necessary criticism preventing the unchecked growth of undesirable practices. What in the view of some may look like pornography may in the view of others be the enjoyable and justifiable celebration of the beauty of the human body, of eroticism and sexuality, functions which are regarded by them as natural and innocent. What in the view of some may appear blasphemy may in the views of others be an acceptable criticism of bigotry and religious narrow-mindedness.

Neither the leaders nor any current majority of a mass democratic movement have a monopoly on truth. Sober reflection will show that neither Marx nor Lenin, not to speak of lesser lights, were always right in their analysis. The A.N.C. has in the past supported causes and championed ideas which are best forgotten today. A total embargo on criticism would have meant that a better view would never have been able to form, that past mistakes would be current errors. Fortunately for us, popular and socialist movements, while some leaders may have resisted criticism, have always thrived on open debate.

When it comes to the truth, as far as humble human beings can ever get the truth, even majority decisions lose their force. Even if 99 out of 100 people believed that Galilee, Newton, Darwin or modern geology were wrong, and the scriptures of a particular religion were right, the censoring of scientifically well-founded facts due to prejudice would kill any further attempts to find out the truth about nature. If the analyses of a Marx or Freud, the philosophy of Kant or d’Holbach disagree with the received wisdom of a particular society, even if everybody in that society held that view, the censoring of such uncomfortable knowledge would be disastrous for the society concerned.

Weighing up the discomfort and even distress which individuals may be exposed to in a society which rejects all forms of censorship against the fundamental benefits which this policy promises, there can thus be no question that any democracy is severely endangered which entrusts the flow of information in any form to a closed group of censors, be they priests or politicians. In fact I cease to function as a member of a democracy, a thinking part of a collective which decides, as soon as anybody withholds any information from me: my decisions will be misinformed.

What recourse then does a citizen have who feels himself wronged by any form of information which is distributed over any of the media? Even if he cannot invoke the censor, he can invoke censure. His first recourse against false and even against malicious information is obviously to argue against it, and press laws which give the wronged party widely formulated rights to express his disagreement are a necessity to counterbalance the absence of other restrictions. Given the human tendency to find the forbidden more interesting, and given the rational nature of a democracy being based on argument and persuasion rather than on coercion, it seems far more reasonable to expose unsocial behaviour publicly than ban its expression in print. The Hitlers and Terreblanches should be exposed by the pen of the popular writer not kept hidden in a cellar.

Where argument alone does not contain the solution, the courts can. It is possible to appeal to the courts to determine the truth or falsehood of statements in libel actions, to get interdicts against people who damage the good name of another. As the arguments and the writing itself is not banned, the flow of information (even false information, but how do we know that beforehand?) is not hampered, there is therefore no censorship, yet the person who willfully spreads lies can be punished, and that punishment must serve as a deterrent to further such acts. At the same time the person wronged gets the satisfaction that the truth is publicly stated in a court of law.

Beliefs and opinions can, however, and should not be so protected. No court of law can determine that the one or other religion is the true religion, and thus no-one whose views about a religion are painful to any member of any religion can enforce these views in a court of law. Any law to outlaw atheism, irreligiosity or blasphemy could only be founded upon objective criteria. That to me would seem to be an impossible task. But members of religious communities have reason and arguments to defend their views in public, as well as anyone else, and they can make use of these, without attempting to enforce their vision on the rest of humanity.

There are no absolute rights in any society. In the end every society must balance the harm which arises out of a particular freedom against the benefits. There may be reason to protect children against some forms of writing and visual material. There may be good cause to counterbalance the possible bad effects of a society without censorship by special positive efforts to champion the beliefs and ethics of that society. But I believe that any form of censorship spells the end of democracy.

(Thank you to Peter Horn for permission to publish this at Groundwork.)


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