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Tabula Rasa

The C Word

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

Actually, we don't really want to talk about censorship at all.

We want to talk about the films, books, comics, etc. We want to discuss them, watch and read them, learn from them and enjoy them, in the manifold ways you 'get something' out of a text. Maybe we also want to write and produce, and send our own texts out into the world where ideas collide, wrestle, are interchanged and utilised; and not just the nice ones. Not all ideas are nice.

We don't want to talk about censorship because the whole idea of restricting ideas seems below debate. Without ideas, there is no debate. But a metaphor comes to mind, and you know we can't resist.

In Alfred Bester's wonderful 1956 novel Tiger, Tiger (sometimes boringly known as The Stars My Destination) mankind learns how to teleport by the individual will, and most of the population learns the trick over three generations. The immediate result? The slums were abandoned, revolutions fermented and all the old infectious diseases, including leprosy itself, found new horizons.

Of course, society coped and amid the chaos new and wonderful things were happening, and individuals were pretty much the same as they'd always been.

Something like that is happening now. After all, if human rights organisations can broadcast footage from Tiananmen Square into large areas of China, and past official's frantic efforts to curtail the practise, the new technology is having repercussions beyond the latest computer game. Which is why the computer networks and satellite broadcasts are the new and most important battlefield for the Censorship discussion. As people realise they are getting the chance to bring incredible amounts of information into their home, many are realising, just like they always have in similar circumstances, that this includes more than sitcom re-runs.

Some people are scared of this because ignorance decreases their control. Most of the censorship debate is not over violent or intense sexual depiction, it is over the right to portray dissenting opinions to authority -- in the States they fight over whether Bart Simpson's philosophy should be allowed to be broadcast!

Ideas are powerful, they can change things. Without discussion of sexuality the gays and lesbians would be isolated and miserable. Without discussing violence wife-basing would continue undetected. But even displayed violence and sex are only ideas, to be acted upon or not.

Maybe there is some objective standard to tell the disease from the vaccine. Maybe. But if so, why have the targets of censorship always seemed so arbitrary, so ridiculous to outsiders? Who do you trust to be objective, the ones with the power that have the most to lose?

We don't have answers, and what follows is simply more material for debate. More ideas.

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