‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The reception in South Africa of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace provided an interesting case study of a work of fiction being treated as if it were a political statement and commentators creating a climate in which the novel was condemned for its depiction of post-apartheid South Africa, and could possibly have lead to some forms of indirect (or even direct) censorship. The book includes black South Africans raping a white South African woman living in a rural area that some commentators read as a straightforward bleak commentary of the state of the country and as an episode that would fuel racist perceptions of black crime, though others saw it as a work combining realism and allegory. Claims about Coetzee’s alleged contribution to racial stereotyping were made in an ANC presentation to the 2000 Human Rights Commission hearings on Racism in the Media. These are also discussed here.There is also a very interesting interview with Coetzee that touches on issues of interpretation of this book, and a discussion that outlines the ANC’s conerns.
Gillian questioned whether politicians should discuss works of fiction as if the events described were real events, and drew attention to the brilliance of Coetzee’s writing and the complexity of the book that defied the simple interpretations that it received from some members of the ANC. Freedom of expression for novelists must mean freedom to explore novelistic experience without a requirement to take a moral lead or an obligation to investigate issues that others might find distasteful.
Most curbs on free expression for writers occur in the areas of sex and of religion. We discussed the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. This turned on the question of whether Lawrence’s book was pornography or art. The law allowed that even if a book had a tendency to ‘deprave and corrupt’ there could still be a defence of its publication on literary grounds. In discussion some of the group argued that the question of whether or not a work had literary merit should not be the critical feature when deciding about censorship.
With staged plays (and to some extent, with movies), protests by minority groups can effectively enact the ‘hecklers’ veto’. With the case of Behtzia play that included discussion of sexual abuse in a Sikh temple, a group of protestors made it impossible for it to be performed in without serious risk of violence. Here one of the issues was an alleged defilement of a sacrosanct sacred space. There is no obvious solution that can both respect rights of free expression and protect those who believe that some objects, people and places are sacred and want to control how they are represented in the arts. The issue of who should speak for a community when freedom of expression is perceived as a threat by a minority is very relevant here.
The consensus of the group was clearly that freedom to explore themes that challenge potential audiences in ways that make them feel uncomfortable or annoyed is extremely valuable. The right to tell people what they don’t want to hear is a right worth preserving, particularly in relation to the arts.
The main part of this session focussed on some 19th Century cases of prosecution for Blasphemy. We examined materials relating to these cases from the Bishopsgate Institute Library archives. The library holds a fascinating collection of pamphlets, newspaper cuttings and other material relating to freethinkers and secularists.
Richard Carlile was tried in 1819 for reprinting Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, a book which expressed a deist outlook and criticised the Church of England. Deists believed that God's presence was revealed in the natural world, rather than in holy writings or organized religion. Carlile was prosecuted for blasphemous libel and sedition and sentenced to three years imprisonment, but refused to pay a substantial fine, and so ended up in prison for 6 years (during which he continued to edit freethinking journals).
George Holyoake, gave a lecture in Cheltenham in 1842 at which he made some comments about God deserving to be put on half-pay. The result was imprisonment for blasphemy for 6 months (during his imprisonment his young daughter died). The Bishopsgate Library has an extensive archive relating to Holyoake.
Art and Censorship
In the second part of the session we focussed on the question of whether the arts should be censored and in particular on the most famous argument for such censorhip, Plato's in Book X of his Republic.
Plato on Imitation (Republic Book X)
'the art of imitation is the inferior mistress of an inferior friend, and the parent of inferior progeny'
Plato was perhaps the most anti-aesthetic philosopher of all time (in senses 1 and 3 above, at least). He gave much higher priority to truth acquired through reason than to the evidence of the senses. He also wanted to exclude art that involved representation ('mimesis') from his ideal state as described in his famous dialogue The Republic. [for a critical summary of the main themes of The Republic, including his views on art, listen to an audio file of me reading from my book Philosophy: The Classics'Plato The Republic'- approximately 26 mins]
The Forms Plato believed that we are most of us misled into believing that we understand the world we live in: we are dwelling in the world of phenomena, of appearances, but reality consists of the Forms or Ideas. To get a sense of what he meant, think of an equilateral triangle. Your idea of the triangle is perfect in the sense that each angle is exactly sixty degrees, the sides are perfectly straight, and exactly the same length. If you try to draw an equilateral triangle or make one out of wood, it will always be slightly imperfect: it will never achieve the perfection of your idea of the triangle. In Plato's terms, the imaginary perfect triangle is the Form. But such Forms don't just exist for triangles and other geometrical shapes, they also exist for such things as a couch. The couch you see is an imperfect rendition of the Idea or Form of a couch as interpreted by a craftsperson. If someone then paints a picture of the couch, this will be even less perfect (and require even less knowledge of the Form of the couch than required by the craftsperson): the painting will be at two removes from reality (where reality is the Form). [for more on this see the extract from Plato'sRepublic in the set book]
One of the ways he explained this idea that reality lies beyond appearances was through the famous analogy of The Cave. Prisoners chained to the floor, look at flickering shadows which they take to be reality, but is in fact produced by light cast from a fire behind them in front of which people carrying cut-out shapes walk making shadows on the wall. When one of the prisoners escapes into the real world and turns even to face the sun, none of his fellow prisoners believe him when he returns to the cave. They still dwell in the world of mere appearances and are ignorant of reality. In Plato's view, it is philosophers who have the capacity, through reason, to understand the real world. Consequently he set them at the head of his ideal society, making them philosopher-kings.
Plato argued that representational art should be excluded from his ideal republic because it was fundamentally misleading about reality. Those who ruled needed to keep focused on the Forms and in particular on the Form of the Good. He was particularly worried about the corrupting effects of poetry, which often misrepresented the nature of the gods, and also the kind of first person poetic expression that encouraged a reader to identify with an evil person's viewpoint. So poets and painters would be politely turned away from the borders of his ideal society and those who attempted to practice these deceptive and corrupting arts within would be prevented from doing so. As Karl Popper pointed out in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, this is an aspect of his totalitarian tendencies.
One of the best essays on Plato's views on art and censorship is Myles Burnyeat's in London Review of Books, 1998, reprinted in Nigel Warburton ed. Philosophy: Basic Readings 2nd ed., reading 53 'Art and Mimesis in Plato's Republic'