'If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.' George Orwell (from the final paragraph of his proposed preface to Animal Farm):
Orwell's intended Preface is a fascinating essay that connects with many of the themes of the course:
‘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 Behtzi a 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.
Thanks to the Bishopsgate Institute, The Free Word Centre, English PEN and Index on Censorship,and our guest speakers Johathan Heawood, Jo Glanville and Gillian Slovo, for their involvement with this course.