These days it seems as if everybody, from the left and right alike, wants
to censor something.
The Mary Whitehouse lobby are no longer the only ones wishing to ban screen
violence. Hollywood stars, too, now want less murder in the movies. Meanwhile,
the Anti-Nazi League demands a ban on the film Romper Stomper, and
Labour-run Glasgow council bans it, presumably because it believes that
pictures of Australian skinheads beating up Vietnamese immigrants will incite
the people of Scotland to do likewise.
A similarly broad consensus in favour of some sort of censorship can be
spotted on many other issues. So Tory heritage secretary Peter Brooke's
efforts to stop the Red Hot Dutch TV channel from broadcasting in Britain
have been applauded by feminists who want pornography outlawed.
After the Warrington bomb, radical Channel 4 cancelled plans to show Ken
Loach's film Hidden Agenda (about a British shoot-to-kill policy in
Northern Ireland) even before the Sun had time to accuse it of giving
succour to terrorism.
And while American reactionaries like Colonel Oliver North and the Los Angeles
Police Department campaign for bans on anti-police rap records, the British
pressure group Outrage demands that the BBC ban anti-gay ragga stars from
Top of the Pops.
At Living Marxism, we stand for a ban on nothing. Nothing at all.
No cutting of pornographic or violent films, no controls on the scandal-mongering
press, no policing of the airwaves. No political censorship, no blasphemy
laws, no bans on 'indecent' or 'offensive' material.
It says a lot about the anally retentive times in which we live that such
a basic anti-censorship attitude should today be considered extreme.
People of a critical, questioning outlook appear to be members of a seriously
endangered species. Instead, individuals and groups from all sides are operating
in an increasingly conservative fashion. Those on the left and the right
might find different things intolerable (although not always), but what they
all seem to have in common is a very low tolerance level, and a high-handed
propensity to censor.
Instead of encouraging the fullest possible exchange of arguments and clash
of ideas, the fashionable thing today is to demand a clampdown on what you
consider unacceptable opinions, to scream 'shut up' and stick your head
back under the duvet. This ban-happy attitude reflects a bad case of narrow-mindedness,
one which assumes that making a problem go away is the same thing as solving
it. It is rather like the outlook of the City of London businessmen who
have got the council to build a steel fence around Lincoln Inn's Field,
as a 'solution' to the problem of homeless people sleeping on the grass
outside their office windows.
The fact that many from the left are now part of the consensus for censorship
indicates just how far things have gone. Not so long ago, they would have
been to the fore in fighting against bans. Now they are often the ones demanding
more. They do not seem to realise that calling for censorship, on whatever
grounds, can only invite further intrusion by the state into our lives,
and hand the authorities the right to dictate what we can do. And who do
you suppose is going to benefit from that?
Interference by the state poses an increasingly serious problem for many
working people. From video surveillance of our streets to the new crackdown
on single parents, the authorities are gradually extending their control
over more and more aspects of our lives. They do not need any excuses to
poke their noses and notebooks into any more corners. Yet they are being
offered invitations to throw their net wider still, thanks to all those
now calling for more censorship. The state will exploit those invitations
to strengthen its political control over society.
Of course, most people who support bans of one sort or another will say
that they do not want political censorship. They are merely asking for controls
on the obscene or the offensive. The question is, however, who decides what
is 'obscene or offensive' in our society? It is the powers that be - the
cabinet ministers, the judges, the police chiefs and the other pillars of
the establishment - and they will define and redefine these terms in whichever
way they see fit.
Take pornography. The authorities might agree with the new puritanism of
anti-porn campaigners, and take steps to ban Red Hot Dutch as obscene. But
they will also extend the definition of obscenity to suit their own purposes.
In which case, the gay rights groups demanding bans on ragga musicians will
find that homosexuals are far more likely victims of any wave of censorship.
And magazines like Living Marxism could be next in line to receive
the official stamp of disapproval as 'obscene and offensive'.
There was a prime example of the dangers involved in asking the state to
ban what we consider offensive in April, when a handful of moronic anti-abortion
crusaders from America came to Britain to make trouble. Some pro-choice
campaigners called upon the government to deport the offensive Americans
as unwanted aliens. But granting the government such moral authority to
deport or exclude people from Britain on political grounds is a big mistake.
It is a safe bet that the typical person deported as an offensive alien
in future will not be a wealthy, white, Christian evangelist campaigning
The risk of inviting state interference is only part of the problem with
the widespread calls for censorship in the nineties. An equally negative
effect is the creation of a pinched and censorious political climate, in
which meaningful criticism and debate is sidelined.
Faced with dangerous ideas such as racism, the tendency today is to try
to shut them up rather than to expose them. That might appear effective.
In fact it is idiotic, since it allows influential, reactionary arguments
to go unchallenged. The Glasgow council ban on Romper Stomper might
have pleased the Anti-Nazi League, but it will have done nothing to undermine
the prejudice against Asian families in Glasgow.
The effect of censoring arguments instead of confronting them is to suppress
any serious critical thinking. That in turn helps to create an atmosphere
of repression and conformity, in which anything that steps outside the increasingly
narrow confines of the mainstream is frowned upon. It means that the questions
which matter - about what the government is doing to the unemployed at home,
or to the Serbs or Iraqis abroad - are rarely even asked, never mind properly
The uncritical climate in Britain is best symbolised by the media, much
of which today is extraordinarily tame even by its own supine standards.
All the talk about the possibility of imposing new controls on the press,
and of barring newspapers from covering public scandals, has had its effect.
It has resulted in an even more blinkered media worldview, and ensured that
important events at home and abroad are discussed only in terms laid down
by the authorities.
Some may have breathed a sigh of relief recently when the government seemed
to draw back from imposing a more extensive system of press censorship.
But with the media operating under such a strict code of self-censorship,
who needs bans and statutory controls?
There has never been a more important time to challenge censorship and encourage
critical thinking on every front. Our motto for today should be 'Question
everything, ban nothing'.
Our aim ought to be to raise a critical voice in every discussion, to breathe
some controversy and life back into the corpse of political debate, and
to say that which the new breed of censors (official and self-appointed alike)
Living Marxism is a magazine for everybody who wants to show them
what they can do with their bans. This year we have taken some important
steps to challenge censorship and break out of the confines of mainstream
debate - most notably, through our sponsorship of the Selective Silence exhibition.
That exhibition of photographs of atrocities committed against Serbs, which
had been banned by the British government under United Nations sanctions,
caused a public furore when it was staged in London in March. It has since
been on a successful tour of other British cities, and is on its way to
Europe. This is the sort of censorship-busting initiative which we hope
to repeat, with your support.
In an age when the censor seems to be king, let us uphold the right to be
offensive, and refuse to bow before their sacred cows. Contrary to what
some people think, civilisation is not at risk from women's magazines which
want to publish pictures of an erect male member. But it is in danger from
flabby Members who want to dictate what we can and cannot watch, hear or
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993