The Theory of Censorship

"The present paper aims not at making a novel contribution but at extricating from the confusion the accepted truths, in the hope that the remaining points of difference may be seen more clearly and perhaps brought nearer to reconciliation."

When we turn from the protection of adolescents to the problem of the adult, a quite different point of view is imposed, though certain prohibitions still seem to be justifiable. The adult has a right to be protected against the display of offensive print or pictures where he cannot avoid them. The covers of books and magazines, and still more posters, are a fair subject of police control, since it is practically impossible not to have them thrust upon one's notice. Nor is the risk poor judgment in selecting those to be suppressed an important one. One cannot honestly pretend that even a mistakenly rigorous policy in such matters would deprive the world either truth or beauty to a noticeable degree. The principle embodied in the pure-food law might also be invoked with regard to 'blurbs' and other advertising matter intended to mislead the purchaser of books or theatre tickets. The worst of such tend sometimes to exaggerate, sometimes to hide, the wickedness of the volume or the play or picture; but in any case the law which already seeks to enforce honesty in advertising might well be carried farther into the field.

The opposition to the activity of the censor, however, has not been roused by attempts to save the sensibilities of the public from the outrages of the poster or the jacket. It has been due to the feeling that some branch of the government — post office, customs official, police, or mayor — has sought to save us without our consent from what it considered a demoralizing book or play. The resentment is due to what seems to many an officious intrusion, an interference with the responsibility of the adult individual for his own moral welfare.

The ease of the opposition has been strengthened by a number of considerations which, while not of the essence of the question, have made the censorship fatuous as well as annoying. Most detached observers would think it self-evident that the various agencies chosen by the law for the exercise of a difficult and delicate function could hardly have been more unfortunately selected. They would suppose that it is the business of the post office to carry mail, and that officials chosen for this purpose have no inherent fitness as judges of art or morals; that it is the business of the customs officer to collect revenue and prevent smuggling, not to pass on the value of Voltaire or Rabelais; that a policeman's duty makes demands on his courage, judgment, and loyalty, but ought not to be enlarged to include literary or dramatic criticism. In these suppositions most people would agree, and it is hardly worth while to insist on them.

Again the effect of attempted suppression has not been such as to raise the prestige of the censors. It is now manifest that no advertisement is so effective in giving a book a nation-wide sale as its prohibition in a large city. Thus, though it may be argued that, since any such prohibition ought to be a reflection of a dominant public opinion, censorship ought to be in the hands of local governments, exercise of it by a local government stimulates its sale outside and does not prevent surreptitious importation on a large scale.

The statutes of Massachusetts, where the question under discussion is being most violently debated at the moment, contribute another argument to the opposition's case, since they make legal the condemnation of a book on the basis of detached passages. Time was when the Commonwealth was proud of its reputation of leadership in scholarship; but there is no greater sin in the decalogue of scholarship than that of the ignoring of the context. Yet, when a modest attempt was made to amend the statute, the legislature voted to continue a practice in the highest degree unscholarly, unjust, and dishonest.

The absurdities of the customs censorship have been most effectively exposed by Senator Cutting of New Mexico in a recent debate, and he succeeded in inducing the Senate to relieve our revenue officers from an impossible duty as far as concerned the morality of literary works. He was less successful in connection with works supposed seditious, and apparently it will still be possible for the question whether professors of government and economics can obtain copies of the works of Karl Marx or of Lenin for examination in their classrooms to be settled on the wharves of New York.

These absurdities in the administration of censorship serve only to strengthen the independent thinker's resentment against the essence of the practice. The saving of a man's soul, which one must presume is the object of the censorship, is after all a man's own affair, and is not to be achieved by external compulsion or guardianship. It is of a man's free will that he buys a ticket for a play or borrows a book from the library. If he wants to pander to the lower side of his nature, no censor will prevent him.

Such arguments sometimes lead defenders of the censorship to abandon the strictly moral issue and seek a basis for suppression on aesthetic grounds. But it is clear that these give no firmer footing. The whole question of standards in art is dragged in, and it becomes evident that the result of decisions on the ground of good or bad art could only be the legalizing of the timid and conventional, and the blocking of all progress by the suppression of innovation and experiment. The fact that my personal taste is offended does not give me the right to interfere with my neighbor's choice of reading or of plays, unless he insists on reading aloud in my presence or forcing me to the theatre.

A variant of the aesthetic argument is that which advocates prohibition of a production because it deals with disease. The pathological, we are told, is no fit subject for art. But no one really believes in a principle that would prohibit Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth because all three interest us in madness.


There are doubtless other principles involved in this difficult matter, and I shall be glad if this attempt to draw out those most obvious provokes a more capable analyst to complete the task. In doing so he must find the ground for depriving the adult citizen of the privilege of choosing his own books and his own plays and pictures, he must find a method of selecting censors wise enough to suppress only what is really demoralizing without stifling progress and experiment, and he must hit upon a device which will prevent banning a book or play from advertising it. And, lest he think that it is safer to err on the side of suppression than on the side of freedom, let him remember that it is through freedom and not through compulsion that the human spirit gains in power and reach.

'Under what precise set of conditions,' writes Sir Walter Raleigh of the novels of Fielding, 'and exactly by what persons, he is to be read is a question that need trouble no one long. Books are written to be read by those who can understand them; their possible effect on those who cannot is a matter of medical rather than of literary interest. Some literary critics, it is true, with a taste for subdued tones in art, have found some of Fielding's loudest notes too strident for enfeebled ears, but not to the great musician can the whole range of the orchestra, not to the great paint can the strongest contrast of colours, profitably be denied.'

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