Friday, February 29, 2008

the subtleties of censorship

I hope everyone is still reading shocking, outrageous texts during Freedom to Read Week (and every week for that matter).

FTRW is one of the more satisfying files I work on over the course of a year in the cultural trenches -- and I really hardly do anything for it at all, even in my role as Chair of the Book and Periodical Council. I sign some cheques; I administer some board motions. That's about it. Others, like Anne McClelland, Emily Sinkins, Ron Brown and Franklin Carter put in way more time and effort. For them, free expression is an all day, every day sort of (voluntary) task, and I salute them for their remarkable work.

There is nothing easy about resisting censorship in all its various forms and subtle disguises. As anyone who reads this blog's comment section will recognize, what one man calls censorship, another might think of as simply every free citizen's right to rip pages out of books. I despise that opinion, but it's important to me that I didn't block or erase it from my comment section.

Today I read in the Globe and Mail about Conservative MP Dave Batters calling on federal funding agencies to only fund films "for mainstream Canadian society - films that Canadians can sit down and watch with their families in living rooms across this great country." Much of what Mr. Batters has to say on this subject offends me deeply. Here's some more from the Globe article:

Mr. Batters said yesterday he does not support censorship, but offensive films should be made with private money.

However anyone might feel about arts funding in general, the call to base funding decisions on a work's relative inoffensiveness should be extremely offensive. Note that I did not hide the quote suggesting this idea. There it is, right up there above this paragraph for anyone to agree or disagree with. It's not the expression of the idea that bothers me; but the idea itself.

Recently, some book industry colleagues and I engaged in a philosophical consideration of "hate literature" and its place in free expression. That was a long talk. Like I said, this stuff is not easy, and it may often seem like the line we should and shouldn't cross jumps all over the place. So, during this week, I'm doing a lot of contemplating of the lines.

My personal opinion hasn't changed. It boils down to this. Respect the text.

And here I am using the word text in place of expression, because it carries added connotations of completion, intention, substantiality and integrity. Text contains expression in my definition, and I want to make sure both are equally respected. A text can be written, filmed, recorded... whatever. Its medium, or even its physical realization (a single book, a single DVD copy of a film, etc.) is far less important to me than the invisible, magical presence of the text. If this weren’t true, then we would make absolutely no distinction between burning a bundle of paper, and burning a book. It’s about intention, isn’t it? If I burn pages from a novel to keep myself alive while lost in the woods, my intention is to use the paper as fuel. If I burn the same pages to make sure no one else can read them, I’m attacking the text.

If part of a text offends you, be offended. Don't cut that part out so as to avoid the offense. If the entire text offends you so much you don't want to read it, don't read it. If you think others shouldn't read a text because of how offensive it is, respect them enough to allow them to make up their own minds about it (even if you're a public servant charged with serving your culture by funding the arts). If you really can't stand a text, then criticize it. Blog against it. Parody it. Convince others of your opinion (if you can).

Anyway, if you stopped reading that last bit because you thought it sounded sanctimonious and kind of obvious, I agree. Who needs to be lectured on these things? And yet the Challenged Books & Magazines list grows.


Infringer said...

John, that is an interesting definition of "text". Thank you. I guess I have to reevaluate my correlation for book/text to more accurately be copy/(copyright & moral rights)

I have also figured out, with this post, where I think we differ on the concept of censorship. The basic difference is that I see censorship as an offence against the reader while you see censorship as an offence against the writer.

For you changing the writers message is censorship because the writer is no longer getting the message across that he intended. That initial message is the one which should be delivered and to change it for even one reader then is censorship.

It is an interesting notion, but I would say significantly flawed.

I would argue for example that an act that constitutes censorship now would have been censorship 100 years ago, and will be censorship 100 years from now.

If that is true then would not all unauthorized derived works also be censorship? Including that of works in the public domain. Is Disney really a censor because they took liberties with The Little Mermaid? That was certainly not what Hans Christian Andersen intended. And he certainly didn't authorize it.

Or would it only be considered censorship if it is done without the authors consent while the work is still under copyright? This makes very little sense to me though because that means that an act which is censorship one day is not the next. Even though it is exacly the same act. Given that copyright is a state granted monopoly and the term of copyright is therefore arbitrary and up to the state, that would make the definition of censorship also arbitrary, and I think most people would argue against that.

If I am right and have identifed where we really differ on this matter, I would appreaciate a bit of conversation on this to better understand it.

If this is successful perhaps then we can delve into some other areas such as plagiarism, or fair use/dealings. It would take a bit of effort on both our parts though to try to see the others perspective though, But maybe this is a start.

Infringer said...

The other objection to this definition of censorship I forgot to mention, is that it creates a conflict when another writer wants to communicate a variation of the same message.

In this case you could be protecting the freedom of expression of the fist writer at the expense of the freedom of expression of the second writer.

An excellent example of this would be documentaries. For example "Eyes on the Prize" Are we really promoting freedom of expression by telling these documentary film makers that they can no longer distribute their film? Or the TV show WKRP. Similarly is Freedom of expression served by telling these show producers that they can no longer distribute their show as originally produced?

I think these would be difficult arguments to make.

Anonymous said...

The local public library has wonderful t-shirts saying, if I recall, "my library has something to offend everyone".

Your definition of text is curious, however: "it carries added connotations of completion, intention, substantiality and integrity." Infringer's comment about whether censorship offends the reader or the writer perfectly summarizes my reaction. Culture studies isn't my expertise, but I doubt many scholars would subscribe do your definition. A text is not complete in itself: it is something to be interpreted. The intent of the author is only one factor to consider when analyzing the meaning and effect of a text. So are its ideology, the context in which it is produced and consumed, the uses to which it is put by the audience, etc. The idea of integrity is then a bid at enforcing a particular meaning or interpretation on the audience. It is a tactic of power.

Russell McOrmond said...

I've added my contribution to this debate as an IT world Canada BLOG article.

Summary: John and I are different on this issue in that I see protection from censorship as protection of the rights of audiences, where he sees it as protecting the rights of authors. Given this very different perspective, we are going to identify different things as being censorship, even though there will be some things in common.

Reading the comments to this article (only after posting), it seems that on this important point Darryl Moore, Geoffrey Glass and I agree.

Anonymous said...

It has to be said that "freedom of expression" does sound like a right that belongs to a writer rather than to a reader, and surely that's what's violated by censorship ?

Infringer said...

Chris, it's great to see your input to this debate. It is even great to see that one who's usual vantage point is closer to my own is now arguing for John.

Now let me challenge you.

First. Can you argue against any of the points brought up by Russell, Geof or myself? I would like to hear them.

Second. I think your argument that censorship is a violation of freedom of expression is faulty. Censorship can exist where there is no expression what so ever. How about news out of Iraq? Censorship there is strictly about facts. Really there is no limit to how plain the facts can be, and hence lack expression, opinion, or thought. Yes, while you can censor authors, the intent of censorship is always to influence, (or prevent influence upon) the reader. It is most definitely an offence upon the reader alone. Action may be taken against writers, but the ultimate target is ALWAYS the reader.

There is a reason it's called "Freedom to Read Week" Right John?

Anonymous said...

I think you guys making comments here (Hi Russell!) are missing John’s point. As I read, I get the sense you are setting up hierarchies of censorship, suggesting that some kinds of censorship is more heinous than other brands. More precisely, that censorship has a more devastating effect on some people (or some activities) than others.

Censorship, particularly state censorship like the current government is aiming to practice with greater and greater precision, does not differentiate between the author and the audience. The act is about controlling communication between the two, (perhaps even preventing it entirely by shutting down certain artists. Think Paul Robeson.) So it goes way beyond merely telling artists what to say, or gently curbing free speech/expression as libel law does. It’s about controlling the content of cultural dialogue. (And it is truly astonishing the degree to which this government has avoided even talking to its cultural constituency.) I am left with the queasy sense you guys think it’s OK for the state to censor because the general public wants to be able to do the same thing with equal impunity. Use and change other people’s texts. Pursuing this, a reasonable person might infer that you consider authors are claiming unwarranted special treatment by objecting. That they/we are being altogether too uptight about our precious texts.

Well, I don’t believe you can separate the act of creation and the act of cultural assimilation as you do. The process of creating and experiencing culture are not discrete undertakings in life. They leak into each other all the time. At some point we all become creators, but do so with wildly different expectations and purposes. My readers are creators as much as I am a reader. Not just because their brains are imaginative active when they read the text, meeting it half way, because they make texts themselves, or images, or sing songs. I think you are setting up false opposites.

Personally, I have no problem with people mucking about with my texts, so long as they don’t put words in my mouth, or fail to identify the origins of the material, or try to pass off their work (or ideas) as mine. But I do mind if Stephen Harper and his band of naughtbars start giving themselves the power to dictate the content of my original text. This is the point you are missing. The moment that happens to me as an author, it happens to you as an author as well. The state won’t differentiate between the text I write and the one you write.

It’s not about telling you what you can or can’t do with a text, it’s about dictating what goes into the first text in the first place.

Like it or not, we are in this together.

John said...

Thanks, Susan -- sorry you had trouble commenting. I promise I was not "editing" your comment off the blog.

And thanks for supporting the idea that this is about neither author nor reader, but text, which was my original point. Not really sure how that didn't stick.

We could all argue reader response theory until the snow flies again (which in Toronto would be a short argument), but my point remains if you disrespect the text, chances are you are censoring it.

Russell McOrmond said...


I think you didn't read the entire thread, which started as comments to other messages. We agree with you that censorship is about impositions in a communication between author and audience, but that this imposition shouldn't be narrowly defined as being directly from governments. Our thesis is that Copyright itself can be abused, including from copyright holders themselves, as a form of censorship. We have also seen how media concentration can impose a form of censorship.

Focusing only on direct government actions, and not harmful government policies (IE: the C-10 issue), misses much of the problem.

John started the confusion by suggesting that disallowing audiences to hire third parties to filter content on their behalf was a form of censorship. It is my belief, unchanged by anything said in any of the comments, that disallowing audiences from doing this is a form of censorship.

It is not censorship for an audience member to decide that they don't want to hear a message, or they want to skip a paragraph while reading in a book or skip a scene in a movie. Forcing someone to be an audience is not different in my mind from disallowing them from being an audience.

Infringer said...

Susan, I agree with you entirely with regard to what the Harper government is doing. I think it is deplorable and should be an offence to readers and writers alike. I do not condone and actively fight against censorship.

Where John and I are getting into disagreement is with regard to this issue in particular.

John is calling this censorship, I think, only because the original has been changed without the producers permission, AND despite the fact the the original is still readily available. Quite likely even in the same video store.

I take issue with this label because no one is actually being prevented from seeing the original work. They are in fact being given a choice. Quite the reverse actually. I view preventing the edited versions from being made available as being a true act of censorship. Sure you can claim all sorts of author rights and quote from copyright law, but it is still censorship!

It was in reading this post by John that I came to the realization that the reason we see this so differently is because John does see censorship as strictly an offence on the writer. (Though he has not confirmed this) If he saw it as an offence to the reader then he would at least also see the prohibiting of the edited versions as a form of censorship as well.

My interpretation from your words: "Personally, I have no problem with people mucking about with my texts, so long as they don’t put words in my mouth, or fail to identify the origins of the material, or try to pass off their work (or ideas) as mine.", that you too would not label this as censorship either. Is that correct? Would you call the opposite censorship? (prohibiting the edited versions from being made available)

Infringer said...

"And thanks for supporting the idea that this is about neither author nor reader, but text, which was my original point. Not really sure how that didn't stick."

John, perhaps I am thick, but I am having a difficult time with the concept of the 'text' being the victim as you seem to imply.

I don't believe the flag can be abused, as Americans might believe. I don't believe the Bible or Koran are anything other then books, and I don't believe books are anything other than inanimate words on a page. You cannot have an offence against words.

The dynamic and animate actions happen when the reader reads and the writer writes. It is the humans who engage in these activities who are the victims.

To bestow rights upon and organized string of words is no better than elevating the the Koran to human status, interpreting the bible literally, or throwing people in jail for burning a flag.

Or have I over stated your position?

John said...

Overstated my position? No, I wouldn't say that.

I would say you have stated a position completely foreign to what I originally proposed, and not particularly surprisingly either, given our past experiences together.

But to respond to something Russell keeps saying -- dude, what are you talking about. Who wants to force you to read sections of a book you don't want to read. Was it this part of my original post that makes you think I want that?:

If part of a text offends you, be offended. Don't cut that part out so as to avoid the offense. If the entire text offends you so much you don't want to read it, don't read it.

Because if so, maybe we are just not sepaking the same language.

I have given up all hope that infringer will understand what I mean by text, but you? What's up with that?

If the good people of Utah do not want to see Kate Winslet's rather glorious bits, I am just fine with them excising them from their personal copies of Titanic (to me that falls under "dumb" not "censorship"), or even using their fast forward buttons with skillfull accuracy. If they want to rent (or offer for rent) a movie called Titanic that actually does not contain the aforementioned beautiful bits, they may just be out of luck, because such a movie, starring Kate Winslet, does not exist.

You make it sound like I would tie a bunch of Mormons to a couch and force them to look at nipples. Don't be silly.

Infringer said...

"If the good people of Utah do not want to see Kate Winslet's rather glorious bits, I am just fine with them excising them from their personal copies of Titanic (to me that falls under "dumb" not "censorship"), or even using their fast forward buttons with skillfull accuracy. If they want to rent (or offer for rent) a movie called Titanic that actually does not contain the aforementioned beautiful bits, they may just be out of luck, because such a movie, starring Kate Winslet, does not exist."

So presumably it would not be censorship if they got the producers permission first. Also it would not be censorship if they had waited several generations until the work had entered the public domain. The exact same behaviour with the exact same result (from the readers perspective). Yet in one case you call it censorship, in the other cases it is not.

Is "insert creative/editing action here" censorship? You say "Well, that depends. What are the copyright laws in your country?"

Whereas I see globally prohibiting this AT ANY TIME, as real censorship.

Damn you're right. There is no way we will ever agree on this. I'll state again. It's all the more reason for us poor sods in the baggage car to get a seat around that table of yours so that our perspective is not forgotten as has typically happened in the past.

Russell McOrmond said...


Suggesting that I must either read some arbitrarily defined "text" intact, or not at all, is no different than saying that I have to read every book, blog article, or other text output you write, or none at all. My mind doesn't draw these arbitrary bubbles around communications between the two of us. I read some of your work, but not all, and the choice of what I read is mine just like in that specific interaction the choice of what you write is yours.

If drawing these arbitrary bubbles around part of our communication is what you are thinking of as "respecting the text", then I don't respect any text -- mine, yours, or anyone elses.

You saying strongly that a movie called Titanic without the tits doesn't exist doesn't make it so. It doesn't somehow become "anic" if you remove the Tit.

There are many different cuts of that movie, and not just by the director. That movie has been aired on television without the tits, and nobody (except maybe you ;-) would consider that to not be the movie Titanic. I think we are getting into oddball labeling issues (you refuse to allow people to call a tit-free cut of that movie to be called "Titanic"), and nothing even remotely relating to censorship at all.

Related but separate is something I received in the email just prior to the notice about this posting:

Thursday, March 6 2008
Keith Martin | Limits of Censorship

Smut, speech, and the nation's laws. Plus: one MP's attempt to change the Human Rights Act.

For guest information and background resources, check:

John said...


I guess I’m trying to convince myself you’re not advocating in favour of censorship, and I guess I just need to conclude that, in fact, you are.

Of course a television network showing Titanic without the nudity is an instance of censorship. Until not that long ago, we had things actually called censor boards to do this kind of protecting of our delicate sensibilities – now they’re called something much more sanitized, like review boards. The fact that our society willingly allows and in many instances approves of this censorship, does not change the fact of what it is. If you excise or hide any portion of a “text,” you are engaging in censorship. This does not, in my opinion, apply to the process of editing, because I consider editing to be part of the original production of text and therefore it is done before the text is complete.

And by editing, I’m referring to the agreed upon interaction of editor and original creator, even within the varying and sometimes seemingly unfair power relationships that can exist. There is many a writer who feels s/he has been over-edited, but more often than not that writer would not make a charge of censorship. They would grumble that their editor is on a power trip and they would make their peace with that fact; or they would choose to withdraw from the relationship.

A charge of censorship would apply if the accepted text was substantially changed, after the fact, in order to change the meaning, or somehow alter the position of the writer – the insurgent/terrorist instance a couple of years ago, in which a Canadian Press text was altered, after purchase, to express a not-so-subtly new perspective was a particularly nasty instance of censorship, since it arguably put the life of the writer in danger. This is tricky because not only was the word insurgent edited out, but a new word, terrorist, was inserted in its place. Sort of like someone removing Kate’s nipples and placing fluorescent green stars there instead, though at least Ms. Winslet is presumably not now in danger from some violent group of folk who don’t like those with stars upon thar’s.

Now, if you want to talk director’s cuts to films, there’s a strong argument to say that each separate cut, as approved either by the director, or by her agreement with the studio, is in itself a separate text, and therefore not necessarily censorship. There are probably plenty of instances where directors feel that lily-livered studio bigwigs have censored their vision by forcing cuts of nudity or actions considered by the execs to be obscene. All sorts of tricky lines in there – what was the original understanding of what the film would be when the studio agreed to pay for it? What did the studio want for their money? Did the director agree to deliver that product, and then change the vision on her own, against the agreed upon terms? Or did the studio know what they’d probably get from the director, and then get cold feet after Jerry Falwell threatened a boycott of all their movies?

If you actually try to make the distinctions, you can see that there are all sorts of differences between “editing” and “censorship.”

And my definition of text is not as arbitrary as you make it out to be. There are entire fields of study that deal with this concept of text, how it is defined, how it comes into being, and how one text is demarcated from another. But that is almost neither here nor there, because you again repeat this strange idea that I somehow want to force you to read everything within a text. I think I clearly stated in a previous comment how this is not so. Stop reading, watching or listening any time you wish. Those actions have no impact on the text itself, only on your understanding of it. But if you remove parts of a text so that others don’t even have the opportunity to make the same free choice – when to stop reading, watching or listening -- then you have censored the text, and infringed on someone else's freedom to read.

Maybe the real question is whether I, or you, believe that all instances of censorship are bad? I certainly think that almost all instances are very bad indeed, and that even the somewhat less bad instances are at least unhelpful.

For instance, your example of the film Titanic being aired on television without the nudity. There’s a chance a non-nude cut was made with this original intention, in which case an argument exists to say this is not censorship. I doubt that cut was actually intended originally. Instead, I think the network made a deal with the studio involving tons of money and the rights to make cuts to the film as they saw fit. In that case, I see that as an instance of the studio allowing its film (text) to be censored. And I say shame on the studio, AND the network. When CTV started airing The Sopranos at 11 p.m., without the swearing and nudity, I was offended. Why air or watch that show if you are offended by these things? There is no Sopranos without the swearing and nudity. And shame on HBO for agreeing to the cuts. I hope that answers infringers suggestion that I see permitted censorship as not censorship. I don’t see it that way, in fact. Of course, in the Utah case, the cuts were not even agreed upon, so double shame.

We may live in a society where we grant certain rights to the temporary controllers of texts, but that doesn’t mean they will always make the correct decisions for those texts. Should we still grant those rights? Different question. And my answer is, yes, within the limits we’ve defined under copyright and other laws.

I'm watching the Agenda right now. I wonder what your point is about this show. Thanks for letting me know about it, btw.

Infringer said...

"But if you remove parts of a text so that others don’t even have the opportunity to make the same free choice – when to stop reading, watching or listening -- then you have censored the text,"

By this statement of yours, what the Utah company did was NOT censorship because others DID have the opportunity to make the choice. Some choose to follow the judgement of the rental companies, but that is still a choice about when to stop watching. It is a choice they should be free to make.

"I hope that answers infringers suggestion that I see permitted censorship as not censorship."

I guess, but it still leaves a really big question about what constitutes censorship when a text is under someones control (copyright) vs. not under anyones control (public domain)

I think the only real difference is that when a work does finally pass into the public domain there will be one fewer censor able to exerting control over it. The author who previously held the copyright.

Thank you John. This whole series of conversation threads certainly clarified for me, better than all the examples on my website, the reasons why we should have the absolute minimal copyright necessary. It is the only way we will be able to offer maximum freedom to readers and writers alike.

Russell McOrmond said...


This is slow and painful, but there is movement. At least we will understand where we agree and disagree, which I consider valuable.

The television comment was helpful, and you are right. It is censorship, but forgivable censorship. It is a third party injecting themselves into a conversation between an author and audience without the permission of either. It is forgivable as it is possible (and IMHO quite easy) for an audience member to obtain an unfiltered form of the communication from the author.

We are still, however, stuck on the edited rental issue, which I don't see as the same as the television example. You seem to suggest that the only person that should be allowed any type of editorial control is the author, while Darryl Moore and I believe it is both author and audience that should be recognized as partners in that conversation.

If I turn my own pages and choose to skip page 13, I believe you think that is OK. If I broke my arm and hired someone to turn the pages for me, and I asked them to skip page 13, would that still be OK? What if there were hundreds of people who wanted to skip the same page, is it OK for some company to create a device that would automatically skip page 13? As a practical question, is it really different to offer the service of skipping page 13, and renting legally acquired copies where the company renting is removing page 13?

Where along the path from me turning pages and a company renting versions edited on behalf of audiences do we diverge?

BTW: Just because we have a different concept of censorship shouldn't lead you to mistakenly believe I am advocating censorship. The excessive control by authors is a far more likely source of censorship than allowing control by audiences ever could. I may disagree with what you advocate with respect to the balance between authors, follow-on authors and audiences, but I avoid calling it censorship.

Anonymous said...


I don't see a difference between me closing my eyes at certain points while watching Titanic and paying a third party to remove the bits I don't want to see from my copy of the movie (i.e paying for the convenience of having my copy of the movie to be modified to be the way I like to watch it).

Do you ?