Censorship in today's Britain.
Tom Stoppard's last stage play, Rock 'n' Roll, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in June 2006, alerted the public to a serious threat to democracy. The play deals with dissent against Soviet tyranny in Czechoslovakia. But the menace identified by Stoppard is not connected to Communism in Eastern Europe but to democracy at home. 'This place has lost its nerve', one of the characters says of England. 'It's a democracy of obedience. They're frightened to use their minds in case their minds tell them heresy. They apologise for history. They apologise for good manners. They apologise for difference. It's a contest of apology'. The references are to what has come to be called 'political correctness', a state-sponsored attempt throughout the Western world to criminalize speech or writing that might cause offence on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation, among other things. Many critics see this 'P.C.' as an authoritarian move towards thought control along the lines of 1984's Big Brother, whose author, George Orwell, characterised all such expressions of political self-righteousness as 'smelly little orthodoxies'.
The trend had been identified by the American writer David Mamet as early as 1992 in his play, Oleanna, which divided audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly with its violent denouement: 'You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?' Alarm at this latest expression of censorship has also persuaded Donald Thomas, poet, novelist, and biographer, to return to a subject he first dealt with forty years ago in his A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England, only with the emphasis now firmly on politics rather than morality.
Freedom's Frontier offers a history of British censorship going back to the nineteenth century, taking in the Official Secrets Act of 1911, the Defence of the Realm Acts, which curtailed the press during the World Wars, and the long battles over pornography and obscenity pre-inter-and-post-war. Throughout, a recurring Thomas theme is the good sense of the British people in accepting necessary and rejecting unnecessary censorship. The Public Order Act of 1986, however, with its emphasis on outlawing the causing of offence by curbing free expression, introduced what Thomas sees as a sinister new phase of censorship. This is the Act, he contends, that has led so many British people over recent years to confide to one another, 'You've got to be careful what you say'. The Act, moreover, came into force shortly before the publication of the British author, Salman Rushdie's, novel, The Satanic Verses, which caused outrageous offence to some Muslims in Britain, as did a number of similar events. 'Free Speech Go to Hell' proclaimed demonstrators' banners, along with 'Behead those who insult Islam'. The confrontation between free speech and 'offence' was then brought into even sharper relief by the Islamic fundamentalist attacks on New York and London of 2001 and 2005. It was the bomb attacks in London by British-born Muslims, in fact, which led the press to attack the Criminal Prosecution Service for failing to act against Islamists in this country for fear of being branded 'racist'. The adage at the time was that debunking Islam was 'racism', but debunking Christianity was free speech.
Rarely can censorship have taken centre stage in such a dramatic way. This is hardly surprising once 'political correctness' is seen for what it is. For, as Thomas points out, freedom of speech has always been inseparable from the right to insult and offend. The freedom to offend had always, in fact, been upheld in almost every judicial ruling since it would otherwise hand the powers of censorship to anyone claiming to be 'offended'. What's more, it is precisely the cut and thrust of political debate in the Western democracies that strengthens what freedoms do exist and provides the only hope that they will continue. In this light, the point of the Satanic Verses furore was that it shifted the ground from Britons' hard-won and centuries-old civil right of free speech to the new so-called 'human right' of minorities not to be offended, with disastrous consequences.
As if the battle between free speech and 'offence' were not already contentious enough, it has been stoked into a cauldron of boiling emotions by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in favour of the latter. This is hardly surprising, since free speech is profoundly familiar to the British people, its roots lying deep in its history, while 'human rights' are bound to appear alien since they have no roots in society, being entirely arbitrary, the whims of distant 'judges'. As if this isn't bad enough, 'human rights' are also very difficult for most Britons to understand. Again, this is hardly surprising since they are entirely illusory, belonging exclusively to the sphere of wishful thinking. 'Human rights' don't actually exist in nature, in whose name their existence is claimed. The so-called basic right to human life, for instance, is recognised neither by hurricanes, tsunamis, nor terrorists, for that matter. Civil rights, on the other hand, do exist, not in nature, certainly, but in democratic societies, since they are the very foundation of the covenant between state and citizen that defines democracy. Since free expression is the most basic civil right, removing it on the grounds of avoiding offence actually amounts to a fundamental attack on democracy.
Perhaps the battle between free speech and 'offence' can best be seen for what it reveals by imagining British society without the outrageous satire of Monty Python's Flying Circus or the hilarious bigotry of Alf Garnett in the BBC's long-running and highly popular sit-com Till Death Us Do Part, subsequently replicated in the US; or, again, without John Stuart Mills' ringing endorsement of free speech in On Liberty, quoted by Donald Thomas: 'If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind'.
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|Title Annotation:||Freedom's Frontier: Censorship in Modern Britain|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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