In his new book, Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man, Timothy Sandefur offers a lively and compelling overview of a complex life.
Nothing infuriates like the truth, especially when it controverts a deeply-held prejudice such as that censorship is bad for great art and even incompatible with its production. Whenever, therefore, I adduce a certain truth that is obvious to the point of truism, namely that the majority of great art in human history has been produced in conditions of censorship, or at least of such severe self-inhibition because of social or political pressure that it amounts to censorship, I find that I am the object of fury, as if I were personally the Chief Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Here is a truth that, even if it is true, ought never to be uttered: that ought, in fact, to be the object of self-censorship.
But that censorship ought to be re-instituted in the interest of great art follows from the evident truth cited above if, and only if, the following are also true: a) the production of great art is the highest human good to which all other goods should be subordinated; and b) that such censorship is a necessary condition of the production of great art. Yet, though neither is true, uttering the evident truth that most great art has been produced under conditions of censorship is almost always taken by interlocutors as a call for censorship.
We can all easily think of great art produced under political (not to say material) conditions that we find repellent and would not wish to reproduce if we could; and equally, we can all think, perhaps a little less easily, of great art produced under conditions of free expression.
Whether the realm of fact and value can ever be wholly separated is a matter for philosophers, though personally I think they can and ought to be; but in any case, I am often surprised by how often people fail even to make the slightest effort to do so, at least when they feel their most cherished beliefs are under attack.
I was once a participant in a radio discussion with an eminent critic – far more eminent than I – about the effect upon society in general, and on children in particular, of portrayals of violence on television and in films. I said that, as far as I understood the evidence, violent crime tended to increase ten years after television was introduced into societies that had it late by comparison with others; and that this suggested that violence on television did not affect those with a more-or-less formed social mentality, but a proportion of children (and a proportion only) who grew up with it, as a concomitant of their coming into adult consciousness, as it were.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the eminent critic said, ‘So you want censorship, do you?’
Of course, a proponent of censorship would not hesitate to make use of the evidence I adduced, but would hardly rest his case upon it. He might also say that scenes of violence are not expressions of opinion, but mere titillation, and that therefore to censor them is not to inhibit the free play of opinion which is the main utilitarian objection to censorship. But those who oppose censorship would reply that the distinction between propositional language and that intended only to arouse certain emotions (or scenes in dramas that have an intellectual point and those that have none) is one that is impossible to draw. Even when censorship is genuinely intended merely to limit violence or sexual licentiousness, there is a risk that in so doing, or by a process inelegantly called mission creep, it will end up suppressing opinion. A good (or bad) case in point was the banning of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the grounds of its obscenity. It is indeed a crude and in several ways an unpleasant book, but that it was intended to express a philosophical point of view, however silly or unsatisfactory, and not merely to titillate, can hardly be doubted. It is not possible to disentangle the crudity of expression and the point of view expressed.
In my experience, at any rate, many opponents of censorship feel constrained to deny what they themselves believe, for fear of conceding too much. In the radio discussion referred to, the critic was dismissive, virtually a priori, of any conceivable evidence that television might be damaging to morals; but he then somewhat undermined his own position by admitting that he would not let his own children watch anything. Complete license was strictly for the children of the kind of people whom he would never meet.
Where great literature and censorship are concerned, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the two are not incompatible. Shakespeare wrote under restraints that we should now find intolerable, and he didn’t do so badly, I think it will be agreed. The example of Russian literature in the Nineteenth Century is also instructive: had Tsarist censorship not existed, it is unlikely that the great Russian writers who have seldom been equaled would have found the Aesopian means to examine so marvelously the human condition; they would have written tracts instead. One has only to read a few of Tolstoy’s essays to realize what a loss that would have been.
The Tsarist censorship of the epoch was inconsistent, capricious and incompetent, yet it seems to have stumbled upon precisely the degree of limitation and freedom propitious to the production of great literature. It no longer pretended to act upon Count Benckendorff’s totalitarian dictum that the point of view from which Russia must be written about was that its past was magnificent, its present superb and its future beyond imagination (the last, at least, was true). It decreed only what could not be said, not what must be said, and this was an important difference.
The world, then, or that part of it that likes to read, has much to thank the Tsarist censorship for. Whether Russia has much to thank it for is another question entirely: societies that produce great art and good societies are by no means coterminous.
As for us moderns, we have no such blindly enlightened censorship to guide us to prodigies of profundity. We have to rely on our own sense of limits and boundaries: and part of our problem is that many of us, at least, have no such sense.