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Politics: The third rail of dating?
See Article History Censorship, the changing or the suppression or prohibition of speech or writing that is deemed subversive of the common good. It occurs in all manifestations of authority to some degree, but in modern times it has been of special importance in its relation to government and the rule of law. That officer, who conducted the census, regulated the morals of the citizens counted and classified. But, however honourable the origins of its name, censorship itself is today generally regarded as a relic of an unenlightened and much more oppressive age. Illustrative of this change in opinion is how a community responds to such a sentiment as that with which Protagoras c. About the gods I am not able to know either that they are, or that they are not, or what they are like in shape, the things preventing knowledge being many, such as the obscurity of the subject and that the life of man is short. Such statements would no doubt have been received with hostility, and probably with social if not even criminal sanctions, throughout the ancient world. In most places in the modern world, on the other hand, such a statement could be made without the prospect of having to endure a pained and painful community response. This change reflects, among other things, a profound shift in opinion as to what is and is not a legitimate concern of government. Whereas it could once be maintained that the law forbids whatever it does not permit, it is now generally accepted—at least wherever Western liberalism is in the ascendancy—that one may do whatever is not forbidden by law. Furthermore, it is now believed that what may be properly forbidden by law is quite limited. Much is made of permitting people to do with their lives including their opinions as they please, so long as they do no immediate and evident usually physical harm to others. This respect for individuality has its roots both in Christian doctrines and in the not unrelated sovereignty of the self reflected in state-of-nature theories about the foundations of social organization. Vital to this approach is the general opinion about the nature and sanctity of the human soul. This can be put in terms of liberty—the liberty to become and to do what one pleases. The old, or traditional, argument against censorship was much less individualistic and much more political in its orientation, making more of another sense of liberty. According to that sense, if a people is to be self-governing, it must have access to all information and arguments that may be relevant to its ability to discuss public affairs fully and to assess in a competent manner the conduct of the officials it chooses. In the circumstances of a people actually governing itself, it is obvious that there is no substitute for freedom of speech and of the press , particularly as that freedom permits an informed access to information and opinions about political matters. Whether anyone who thus rules unjustly, or otherwise improperly, can be regarded as truly understanding and hence truly controlling his situation is a question not limited to these circumstances. Restraints upon speaking and publishing , and indeed upon action generally, are fewer now than at most times in the history of the country. This absence of restraints is reflected as well in the very terms in which these rights and privileges are described. It may even be to assume that the self has, intrinsic to it or somehow available to it independent of any social guidance, intimations of what it is and what it wants. Thus, liberation may be seen in the desire of most people to be free to pursue their own goals and life plans—which may involve a reliance upon standards and objectives that are solely their own. It is tempting, in such circumstances, to adopt a radical subjectivism that tends to result in a thoroughgoing relativism with respect to moral and political judgments. One consequence of this approach is to identify an ever-expanding array of forms and media of expression that are entitled to immunity from government regulation—including not only broadcast and print media books and newspapers but also text messaging and Internet media such as blogs , social networking sites, and e-commerce sites. This means, among other things, that a people must be prepared and equipped to make effective use of its considerable political power. Even those rulers who act without the authority of the people must take care to shape their people in accordance with the needs and circumstances of their regime. This kind of effort need not be altogether selfish on the part of such rulers, since all regimes do have an interest in law and order, in common decency, and in a routine reliability or loyalty. It should be evident that a people entrusted with the power of self-government must be able to exercise a disciplined judgment: What is particularly difficult to argue for, and to maintain, is an arrangement that, while it leaves a people clearly free politically to discuss fully all matters of public interest with a view toward governing itself, routinely prepares that same people for an effective exercise of its considerable freedom. In such circumstances, there are some who would take the case for, and the rhetoric of, liberty one step farther, insisting that no one should try to tell anyone else what kind of person he should be. There are others, however, who maintain that a person is truly free only if he knows what he is doing and chooses to do what is right. Anyone else, in their view, is a prisoner of illusions and appetites, however much he may believe that he is freely expressing himself. There are, then, two related sets of concerns evident in any consideration of the forms and uses of censorship. One set of concerns has to do with the everyday governance of the community; the other, with the permanent shaping of the character of the people. The former is more political in its methods, and the latter is more educational. History of censorship It should be instructive to consider how the problem of censorship has been dealt with in the ancient world, in premodern times, and in the modern world. Care must be taken here not to assume that the modern democratic regime, of a self-governing people, is the only legitimate regime. Rather, it is prudent to assume that most of those who have, in other times and places, thought about and acted upon such matters have been at least as humane and as sensible in their circumstances as modern democrats are apt to be in theirs. Ancient Greece and Rome It was taken for granted in the Greek communities of antiquity, as well as in Rome, that citizens would be formed in accordance with the character and needs of the regime. This did not preclude the emergence of strong-minded men and women, as may be seen in the stories of Homer , of Plutarch , of Tacitus , and of the Greek playwrights. But it was evident, for example, that a citizen of Sparta was much more apt to be tough and unreflective and certainly uncommunicative than a citizen of Corinth with its notorious openness to pleasure and luxury. Presiding over religious observances was generally regarded as a privilege of citizenship: A refusal to conform, at least outwardly, to the recognized worship of the community subjected one to hardships. And there could be difficulties, backed up by legal sanctions, for those who spoke improperly about such matters. The force of religious opinions could be seen not only in prosecutions for refusals to acknowledge the gods of the city but perhaps even more in the frequent unwillingness of a city no matter what its obvious political or military interests to conduct public business at a time when the religious calendar, auspices , or other such signs forbade civic activities. Indicative of respect for the proprieties was the secrecy with which the religious mysteries, such as those into which many Greek and Roman men were initiated, were evidently practiced—so much so that there does not seem to be any record from antiquity of precisely what constituted the various mysteries. Respect for the proprieties may be seen as well in the outrage provoked in Sparta by a poem by Archilochus 7th century bce in which he celebrated his lifesaving cowardice. Athens , it can be said, was much more liberal than the typical Greek city. This is not to suggest that the rulers of the other cities did not, among themselves, freely discuss the public business. But in Athens the rulers included much more of the population than in most cities of antiquity—and freedom of speech for political purposes spilled over there into the private lives of citizens. This may be seen, perhaps best of all, in the famous funeral address given by Pericles in bce. Athenians, he pointed out, did not consider public discussion merely something to be put up with; rather, they believed that the best interests of the city could not be served without a full discussion of the issues before the assembly. There may be seen in the plays of an Aristophanes the kind of uninhibited discussions of politics that the Athenians were evidently accustomed to, discussions that could in the license accorded to comedy be couched in licentious terms not permitted in everyday discourse. The limits of Athenian openness may be seen, of course, in the trial, conviction , and execution of Socrates in bce on charges that he corrupted the youth and that he did not acknowledge the gods that the city did but acknowledged other new divinities of his own. One may see as well, in the Republic of Plato , an account of a system of censorship, particularly of the arts, that is comprehensive. Not only are various opinions particularly misconceptions about the gods and about the supposed terrors of death to be discouraged, but various salutary opinions are to be encouraged and protected without having to be demonstrated to be true. Much of what is said in the Republic and elsewhere reflects the belief that the vital opinions of the community could be shaped by law and that men could be penalized for saying things that offended public sensibilities, undermined common morality , or subverted the institutions of the community. Such regimes should be compared with those in the age of the good Roman emperors, the period from Nerva c. Ancient Israel and early Christianity Much of what can be said about ancient Greece and Rome could be applied, with appropriate adaptations , to ancient Israel. The stories of the difficulties encountered by Jesus , and the offenses he came to be accused of, indicate the kinds of restrictions to which the Jews were subjected with respect to religious observances and with respect to what could and could not be said about divine matters. It may be seen as well in the ancient opinion that there is a name for God that must not be uttered. It should be evident that this way of life—directing both opinions and actions and extending down to minute daily routines—could not help but shape a people for centuries, if not for millennia, to come. But it should also be evident that those in the position to know, and with a duty to act, were expected to speak out and were, in effect, licensed to do so, however cautiously they were obliged to proceed on occasion. On an earlier, perhaps even more striking, occasion, the patriarch Abraham dared to question God about the terms on which Sodom and Gomorrah might be saved from destruction Genesis But such presumptuousness on the part of mere mortals is possible, and likely to bear fruit, only in communities that have been trained to share and to respect certain moral principles grounded in thoughtfulness. The thoughtfulness to which the Old Testament aspires is suggested by the following counsel by Moses to the people of Israel Deuteronomy 4: Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. It should be remembered that to say everything one thought or believed was regarded by pre-Christian writers as potentially irresponsible or licentious: Christian writers, however, called for just such saying of everything as the indispensable witness of faith: Thus, we see an encouragement of the private—of an individuality that turned eventually against organized religion itself and legitimated a radical self-indulgence. Ancient China Perhaps no people has ever been so thoroughly trained, on such a large scale and for so long, as the Chinese. Critical to that training was a system of education that culminated in a rigorous selection, by examination, of candidates for administrative posts. Particularly influential was the thought of Confucius — bce , with its considerable emphasis upon deference to authority and to family elders and upon respect for ritual observances and propriety. Cautiousness in speech was encouraged; licentious expressions were discouraged; and long-established teachings were relied upon for shaping character. It has been suggested that such sentiments have operated to prevent the spread in China of opinions supportive of political liberty. Blatant oppressiveness, and an attempt to stamp out the influence of Confucius and of other sages, could be seen in the wholesale destruction of books in China in bce. But the Confucian mode was revived thereafter, to become the dominant influence for almost two millennia. Its pervasiveness may well be judged oppressive by contemporary Western standards, since so much depended, it seems, on mastering the orthodox texts and discipline. Whether or not the typical Chinese government was indeed oppressive, effective control of information was lodged in the authorities, since access to the evidently vital public archives of earlier administrations was limited to a relative few. In addition, decisive control of what was thought, and how, depended in large part on a determination of what the authoritative texts were—something that has been critical in the West, as well, in the establishment of useful canons, both sacred and secular. It may also be based on scholarship and the use of critical methods in the interest of advancing a taste for literature, art, learning, and science. Perhaps the most dramatic form of censorship in Christendom was that displayed in the development by the Roman Catholic Church of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum , a list of proscribed books, the origins of which go back in a primitive form to the 5th century ce and which continued to have official sanction well into the 20th century. The most spectacular instance of the silencing of a thinker of note may well have been the restrictions placed upon Galileo in Galileo, oil painting by Justus Sustermans, c. This must have appeared even more acute a problem when means became available, especially after the invention of printing , to produce and distribute books in large quantities. The establishment of a fairly precise orthodoxy led to a perhaps unprecedented recourse to creeds. Thus, for example, the Nicene Creed was promulgated in ce. It was devised to fend off a heretical threat to Christian doctrine—and it led, partly because of a unilateral change in wording made by the Western church, to a schism that has continued since between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Thus, it very much mattered which doctrines people were taught and what came to be believed—and this was largely determined, as it usually is, by the action of some authority, ecclesiastical or temporal. Similar developments can be seen in the Islamic world to this day. It is difficult to distinguish religious and nonreligious elements in some of the more celebrated controversies of the medieval Christian world, just as it is today among Islamic peoples. The persecutions of witches—which ranged across much of Europe from the 14th to the 18th century and cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives—can be understood as due to various political, social, and psychic disturbances as well as to strictly religious differences. The trials of Joan of Arc in France and of Thomas More in England are notorious illustrations of the difficulty in distinguishing religious from political differences. Indeed, it has been common, because of the experiences of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance , to see the cause of political liberty as intimately related to the cause of religious liberty and especially the liberty to do without religion. The Enlightenment , beginning in the 17th century, attempted to purge Europe of the censorship that found political despotism allied with religious traditionalism. Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished to find in the United States, in the s, that it was possible for ordinary men who stood for political freedom to be, and to remain, religiously devout. This was not the typical combination in the Europe of his day. Even so, it should be recognized that the rigorous medieval theological-political regime against which Moderns have rebelled did have at its core a principle that subjected the exercise of will or sovereignty to the test of wisdom.
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