Censorship in ‘open’ societies

Threats to free expression come in many forms, from the battle over government funding of the arts to the ways artists and writers willingly censor themselves. Today censorship is just as likely to be led by economics and market forces as by repressive regimes. Among industrialised nations, the United States ranks with the least generous in public arts funding per capita (Australia spends more than four times as much per capita). This creates a greater dependence on support from private sources, including corporations, which may or may not come with restrictive conditions.

Increasing Homogenisation

Dee Dee Halleck, the co-founder of the first grass-roots television network in the US, identifies the consolidation of corporations into ‘multi-nationals’ as a serious threat to free expression, because viewpoints are increasingly homogenised to suit the global context. The areas in which this is seen most strikingly are in the mass media and book publishing industries. In places like the US and Australia, ownership of the traditional communications industries—broadcast, radio, publishing, and entertainment—is essentially monopolistic. Indeed, most large publishing companies are now part of corporate communications empires, guaranteeing publication to those authors with a proven track record and to those that conform to expectations, but exiling the voices of the less experienced and those of unpopular or socially marginalised groups.

Creative Commons: An Answer?

In the non-traditional communications industries, dominated by the Internet, different circumstances exist. Lawrence Lessig, a law Professor and founder of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, believes the internet is a world in which “the economy of ideas” reigns. He argues “against interpretations of copyright that could stifle innovation and discourse online” and encourages cultural production that moves quickly to an intellectual commons. In his view, extensive governmental regulations are unnecessary and the extreme protection of property is counter-productive.

Cultural Intolerance

Increasing awareness of cultural diversity exerts its own restrictions on free expression. We live in an age where a film director may be killed for creating a work about violence against women in Islamic societies, where a lecturer may be assaulted by assailants opposed to his reading the Qur’an during a lecture, and where world-wide riots are sparked by a series of outrageous, deliberately challenging cartoons. Artists, writers, and even translators are refusing to participate in anything that the Muslim world might find offensive. But these are extreme examples, in which the artists have been intentionally provocative. In fact, some have called Theo van Gogh, the assassinated Dutch filmmaker, a willing martyr for freedom of expression, not all that different from those willing to die for religious beliefs.

Political Correctness

As awful as these events are, more insidious is the slow, constant, camouflaged erosion of free expression through the exercise of ‘political correctness’. In less politicised situations, writers, artists, curators, producers and government organisations make decisions everyday to restrain and repress free expression out of a desire not to offend particular social groups. This is counter-productive. Excluding subjects and perspectives from cultural discourse does nothing to extend causes. On the contrary, stifling debate only enhances stereotypes and creates deeper misunderstandings.

An Exile of Silence

Crucially, artists and writers remain aware of these dangers. While no one in the developed world is being forced to labour camps, artists face other kinds of exile: that of not being exhibited, performed, read, viewed, or heard from. In other words, they face an exile of silence.

Consider the experience of Bill Henson a few years ago. This exquisite photographer, one of Australia’s foremost artists, was forced to shut down his show on the day it was meant to open. Photographs were seized and impounded by police, who threatened to charge him as a child pornographer. Throughout the subsequent media furore, everyone weighed in: even Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister at the time, had something to say, calling Henson’s photographs “absolutely revolting”.

The fallout has been damaging to creative freedom in Australia. The Australia Council has issued new, more restrictive guidelines relating to the depiction of children in works of art. Also, I worry that the ordeal might have caused such distress for Henson that he may work with more caution in the future, limiting his vision, denying the world his astonishing photographs.

And what of other younger, less established artists who may never be given the opportunity to flourish in a climate where creativity is scrutinised, legislated, reviled and punished? It’s easy to imagine many not having the heart for the fight, redirecting their energy into more mainstream and socially acceptable work.

Indeed, the South African Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee posits an internalised figure of the censor and remarks that it is the dream of censorship that “the law and its constraints will be so deeply engraved on the citizenry that individuals will police themselves.” Judy Blume, the best-selling author of books for teens, has been widely censored for her frank portrayals of sensitive teen issues. She mourns “the loss of books that will never be written…the voices that will be silenced…all because of fear.”

The internet offers what seems to be expressive freedom; however, this may be an illusion and, thus, even more insidious. Artists and citizens alike must remain aware of the wide-ranging threats to free expression in the world today, examining in depth the subtle and not so subtle ways in which our rights are at risk—even in open societies where such freedoms are explicitly protected.

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