Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

More on censorship

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For good reasons, yet another post on censorship:

Firstly, I recently encountered one of the funniest jokes I have ever seen (courtesy of the German poet Heinrich Heine):

The German Censors  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——    idiots    ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——  ——
——  ——  ——  ——  ——

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almansorw)

While at the first glance not being remarkable (funny and clever, yes; remarkable, no), this joke continued to grow the more I thought about, another aspect revealing it self before I had finished laughing about the previous aspect—keeping me going for five to ten minutes.

For those who do not see the deeper jokes (or have finished laughing), consider e.g. how the remaining message (whether deliberate or accidental) is simultaneously revealed and proved by the act of censorship, how it can be possible to circumvent some types of censorship through a form of stenography relying on the uncensored parts of a message containing the right information, or how the censors blot out almost an entire message yet fail to suppress unwanted communication.

An interesting question is how a censor should handle a situation like this (given that he does censor at all, which I consider unethical): The author of the original message (presumably) never says that the German censors are idiots, which implies that the censor is unlikely to have a legitimate reason to censor the remaining words—after all, the configuration is accidental, the words are disconnected and obviously do not belong together, and there is nothing worthy of censoring in each of the fragments alone. (Assuming that there is no suspicion of a deliberate trick on behalf of the original author and assuming that there are no specific rules against e.g. messages discussing censorship or using potentially insulting terms.) On the other hand, the result is disastrous (from a censoring point of view) and the censors might become a laughing stock, should a wider publication follow.

Secondly, I have recently been reading Salman Rushdie’s auto-biographical “Joseph Anton”. (Half of it to be specific: I have too much to do at the moment, but hope to be able to finish the rest during the week-end.) My advice to anyone who considers censorship justified, be it with regard to literature, news reporting, or the comments on a blog: Read this book! Chances are that you will change your mind. If nothing else, please take away the realisation that your opinion on what is justifiable censorship (resp. what is to be censored because it is sacrilege, an affront to the good sense, obviously wrong, sexist, …) is just your opinion—and that thousands upon thousands of people have been even more convinced that censoring this book would be a far lesser crime than writing it. Indeed, some have been so convinced that people have been killed over the issue of its publication and distribution. How little worth, then, is there in your conviction.

A specific interesting point is Rushdie’s actions and reasoning around the film “International Gorillay”: He explicitly addressed the British Board of Film Classification to change their minds and let (!) the film receive its certification, despite the story consisting of the hunt for and execution of a caricature of Rushdie. The film got more than its fair chance—and it failed disastrously and well-deservedly.

Here we see another possible take on censorship: Either a work has a value and we should not censor; or it does not and we might be better of letting it fail on its own (lack of) merit.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 9, 2013 at 12:41 am

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