Classical views of censorship and freedom of expression

The following informal observation by Dr. Jeffrey Bond briefly states a classical view of censorship and the evaluation of speech and self-expression:

The reactive nature of the right continues to amaze me.  In order to hold the line against “cancel culture,” the right now feels the need to defend artistically worthless cartoon characters such as Pepe Le Pew.  How did it come to this?

The right does not understand that it belongs to culture by nature to cancel.  The question is NOT whether culture should cancel.  The question is always what should be cancelled.  But to address forthrightly the question of what should be cancelled requires an argument about what is good and evil, beautiful and ugly, true and false.  The right, however, consistent with its defense of liberty as an end in itself, has adopted the anti-cultural position that it is simply bad to cancel things. Hence, the right will continue to react spasmodically to the initiatives of the left because the right shares the left’s relativism without even realizing it.

Bond presumes that a liberal approach to censorship rests on the general liberalism of the regime as a whole.  In America the regime is what Bond elsewhere calls a ‘liberal duopoly’ in which both of the politically powerful parties share a basic belief.  That belief is that instrumental goods, notably liberty and property, are to be treated as ends in themselves and pursued as if they were true ends and ultimate goods.  There may be more ultimate ends, but those more ultimate ends, if they exist, are treated as private, not political.  While the right-wing and the left-wing liberal parties rank instrumental goods such as liberty, equality, and wealth differently, they agree in bracketing or privatizing ultimate questions about the true, the beautiful, and the good.

In the first section of this two-part post –

I presented different reasons for the liberal position on expression, speech, and censorship.  In that presentation I argued that the elevation of an instrumental end such as liberty into an end in itself may rest on a more or less thorough-going skepticism concerning the knowability, or even concerning the very existence, of more ultimate ends.  Alternatively, such elevation may flow from a prudential calculation concerning social peace.  Or again, such elevation of instrumental ends may flow from a belief that the achievement of more ultimate goods and ends is not aided by their public, political pursuit. 

We may label as a ‘principled liberal’ someone who believes that the highest, and perhaps even many higher, human ends are unknowable or extremely hard to know.  We may label as a ‘prudential liberal’ someone who believes that under existing conditions tolerable agreement and social peace in his society can only be achieved by limiting political activity to pursuit of the instrumental ends of liberty and wealth.  Likewise, we may label as ‘practical liberals’ others who believe that ultimate ends are most likely to be achieve if pursued privately, with public liberalism helping to preserve the possibility of such private pursuit.  The kind of society principled, prudential, or practical liberals favor may be similar in many cases, but the differing motives behind their liberalism also may be important. 

In the previous section on liberal views concerning liberty of expression and censorship, I also noted qualifications and limitations on that liberty even within the horizon of the liberal regime.  Nonetheless, I also argued that despite such limits the American regime has generally favored such liberty.  America is organized to assist the pursuit of secondary, instrumental goods.  But increasingly intense debates about the limits of the tolerable suggest that right-wing and left-wing liberals are also more and more unwilling to live together.  In other posts on this blog I argue that the decline of religion in liberal society undermines the liberal regime in several ways.  In particular, the founders of the American regime correctly believed that religion was necessary for the inculcation of private virtues necessary for the regime’s survival.  The American founders, however, both privatized religion and also established a commercial republic that tends over time to undermine private religious faith and that, therefore, also tends over time to undermine the necessary preconditions for the regime’s own survival. 

However one explains the problem, the ‘liberal duopoly’ seems increasingly strained, as the two chief liberal parties find each other increasingly intolerable.  This problem brings the regime under a fundamental threat.  The rise of liberalism in the 17th century was fueled by exhaustion from religious controversies and wars in Germany, France, and England in particular.  By claiming to privatize religion, the liberal regime sought to limit the public damage that religion could do.  This claimed privatization of religion was misleading, because regimes always in fact have a teaching about religion and have regime principles that form and shape private religious beliefs.   Be that as it may, if public disputes within the liberal regime are increasingly sharp and increasingly concerned with fundamental and ultimate matters, then the practical benefits claimed by liberals from the banishment of religion to the private sphere at the dawn of the modern era seem under threat.  The liberal duopoly is increasingly riven by fundamental disputes concerning fundamental matters, such as:  who is entitled to a right to life?  what is a human being?  what is a boy or a girl?  who may marry, and what is the purpose of marriage?  Such questions go well beyond the old political disputes about the best level of government expenditure or of government regulation of the economy. 

If the political differences in our liberal regime look increasingly like fundamental religious disputes that are impatient of compromise, then it may be useful, even necessary, to reconsider alternatives.  Prudential and practical, as opposed to principled, liberals are situationally liberal:  that is, they calculate that under prevailing circumstances, in a given situation, liberalism will tend to produce the best outcomes actually available.  But if liberalism stops working well or seems to lead to outcomes that are practically harmful on balance and that are inferior to the likely outcomes of alternative options, then merely prudential and practical liberals will no longer have cause to support the liberal regime in general or its liberal position on free expression and speech in particular.

Even if alternatives to liberalism are not in the end preferred or adopted, considering them will at least allow one to look beyond the limited horizon of liberalism.  If the tensions undermining the liberal regime are to be resolved, they must be understood by reexamining the foundations of that regime, its tacit presuppositions, and its classical rivals.  Censorship is an important case that touches many of the basic questions posed by liberal principles and their internal tensions.

Censorship, particularly of books, was widespread in the pre-modern world.  Censorship was common in the Roman Catholic world, in Calvin’s Geneva[i], in Charles I’s England, in Lutheran Scandinavia, and in most of the Christian world.  But the desirability of banishing certain kinds of literature and expression was held long before Christianity.  Socrates, in Book III of The Republic sustains a famous polemic against ‘the poets’ and their lies about the gods.  Later, in Book X of The Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon that

…only so much of poetry as is hymns to gods or celebration of good men should be admitted into a city.  And if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law and that argument which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community.

In their dialogue Socrates and Glaucon appear to agree concerning all but religiously and morally sound poetry that ‘it was fitting for us to send it away from the city on account of its character.’[ii]  

Despite the long pedigree of the argument for some kinds of censorship, the Roman Catholic Church’s position was maintained longer and defended more systematically than other examples, so it is probably the best example for consideration by Christians now.

The general position of the Roman Church included an official and regularly updated Index of Prohibited Books.  The Roman authorities often exhorted local bishops to encourage the faithful, and particularly educated folk, to follow Church teaching regarding publications and reading.  The kinds of expression to be censored included erroneous religious writings (e.g., by atheists and Protestants), works supporting secret or supposedly anti-Catholic organizations (e.g., Freemasons and Marxists), and works deemed indecent or obscene.[iii] 

Several great popes, including notably Leo XIII and Pius X, reinforced and articulated the historical defense of censorship.  The most generally accessible and detailed version of this defense is in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia article on ‘Censorship’.  Much of the Roman teaching on censorship was asserted to be a matter of natural law and not of specifically Catholic, religious, or supernaturally revealed teaching.  A frequently used analogy held that as governments properly regulate high explosives and poisons, which can do grave harm, so governments, the Church, and society at large have an interest in regulating false and poisonous opinions, which can both mislead thinking and also warp character.  Because much of the Church’s pro-censorship teaching was understood to inculcate natural morality and decency, the Roman Church could form coalitions and alliances with non-Roman Catholics about censoring some kinds of publications, movies, and other expressions of opinion, even in places such as the United States, where Roman Catholics were a minority group within the population.   

The Roman Catholic Index was not published after 1966 and the Second Vatican Council.  That fact, however, does not itself necessarily in principle refute or end previous teaching in favor of some kinds of censorship.

In the days before Vatican II one often heard in some Roman Catholic circles the claim that ‘error has no rights’.  That is, there could be no right to do or encourage wrong or to teach falsehood.  The obvious potential fallacy in that assertion is that rights usually are exercised by or inhere in people, often even when those people are in some respects in error, mistaken, or bad.  While error as such may have no rights, a person in error does not lose all rights simply because he is in some respect wrong.  ‘Error has no rights’ is not an adequate guide, because cases involving people in some error are very various.

Nonetheless, the assertion that error has no right returns one to the matter of the differing motives and assumptions of liberal advocates.   Many arguments for the liberal position on censorship, briefly noted above, are prudential and contingent.  For example, I might in a religiously and ideologically diverse society favor great freedom of expression, not because that freedom will produce the simply best possible outcomes, but rather because it is likely to favor my own views as much as is possible given actually prevailing circumstances.  In diverse societies, a prudent Christian might think that freedom will tend to allow the closest likely approach to the true, the beautiful, and the good.  Nonetheless, in societies with a widespread consensus about ultimate matters concerning virtue and the purposes of human existence, the same freedom might have many harmful effects.   If the basic outlines of the truth are available and understandable – and are widely understood in fact – then it is arguable that grasping and teaching and inculcating the truth is better than the instrumental and, in some respects, negative value of liberty of inquiry and speech.  If one of the chief values of liberty of expression is its utility in leading to the true and the good, then that value may be surpassed by the inculcation of knowable and known and teachable truth and goodness. 

One often stated argument for liberalism regarding free expression is the claim that judgements concerning matters such as obscenity, beauty, and truth are inherently subjective, emotional, and arbitrary.  Or to put the argument negatively, often one is told that objective, rationally defensible judgements concerning matters such as obscenity, and so forth, are not possible.  If this argument is sound, then the skeptical roots of some kinds of liberalism may be rather strong. 

Christians are less likely than secularists to accept this skeptical argument, because of traditional understanding of blasphemy.  Blasphemy is a form of evil expression, and much of the definition of blasphemy can be stated objectively and clearly. 

One may agree that in some cases judgements concerning obscenity, blasphemy, pornography and the like are difficult, but also maintain that often they are fairly clear, and not only to religious believers.  That is, there are arguments for censorship that can be given rational, objective form.  The possibility of a reasonable articulation of arguments for censorship, even on mainly secular grounds, strengthens the traditional Roman Catholic position that natural, as well as religious, law supports limits to free expression. 

Harry M. Clor, in Obscenity and Public Morality:  Censorship in a Liberal Society,[iv] provides, I think, a definition of obscenity which is not merely subjective or arbitrary and which positively can recommend itself as sensible to many secular people.  Clor’s definition concentrates on two main factors.  The first is intrusion upon properly private things.  An example of such intrusion would be thrusting a microphone into the face of a couple whose child has just died and aggressively asking, ‘What do you feel about that?!’  Grief and death deserve to be covered with a veil of privacy and respectful distance.  Likewise, many bodily functions are generally believed to deserve privacy, an averted gaze, a decent discretion.  Most people would agree that as a general rule it is unreasonable and obscene that prying eyes and recording devices should be allowed to intrude upon bathrooms, bedrooms, and the critical care rooms of hospitals.  Mourners often wear veils and seek privacy for the same reason.  The degree and exact nature of appropriate privacy in particular situations may in part be culturally conditioned and variable.  But the social interest in protecting properly private moments and things in general is not purely arbitrary or irrational or merely a matter of opinion.

Clor illustrates the idea of a potentially obscene moment with a scene from Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver is in the land of the giant Brobdingnagians.  The people of Brobdingnag are so enormous, that Gulliver is forced, as it were, into much too close and intimate views of them.  Seeing a Borbdingnagian woman nursing a baby, for example, forces Gulliver to see, not a woman nursing, but a giant with oozing pores and an inhumanly monstrous breast.  Gulliver is, as Clor remarks, ‘too close’ to a scene involving a function that properly is veiled by a measure of distance and discretion. 

The second factor emphasized by Clor in his definition of obscenity concerns the purpose of the intrusion upon the private.  What Clor defines as obscene does not merely intrude, but also is an intrusion that ‘degrades or dehumanizes those things and the persons involved with them.’[v] 

For example, suppose an intrusion upon grief such as, again, a microphone thrust in the face of parents whose child has just died.  Suppose, further, that the person with the microphone is a political opponent or business rival of the parents and that he or she mocks and gloats over the grief of the parents.  Or again, suppose that a person is filmed in a sexual act or while dying in a hospital, and that the film is then used to attack the person in question, perhaps as a hypocrite or as someone getting his just comeuppance.  In these examples there is an objective intrusion into that which is properly and normally private; therefore, all these examples involve a degree of obscenity.  The addition of an apparent intention to humiliate, degrade, or harm someone increases the obscenity of the intrusion.  The combination of excessive closeness or intrusion with degradation, dehumanization, humiliation, or ridicule, makes for a clear case of obscenity.  Such judgements of obscenity do not seem to rest on specifically religious or mainly subjective or irrational factors.  The reasons for the judgement seem generally understandable and available to most thoughtful people.

It is true that many liberal regimes tend to accept some limit to freedom of expression in order to protect the privacy of others.  But Clor’s argument is not just that there is a reasonable right to privacy, but also that some things are objectively obscene and deserve to be publicly suppressed, to the extent possible, as degrading and damaging to the good and the beautiful.

It may well be that liberal societies tend to gain some benefits – for example, economic, technological, and medical – precisely from their liberalism, while also encouraging some great harms – for example, atomization, unhappiness, family breakdown, and a decline in religion.  It remains an open question if the liberal regime will be able to sustain itself as the harms increase and as the moral foundations of the regime itself are undermined by the development of its own internal tendencies.  In any case, if the liberal regime is dissolving and the opinion that sustains it is fading, Christians will do well to reconsider pre-modern, classical and Christian, thought.  The alternative to ‘progressive’ censorship and ‘cancel culture’ need not be right-wing liberalism.  The better alternative is much older. 

[i] Genevan censorship was the topic in debate between Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists, on the one hand, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘a Citizen of Geneva’, on the other.  Rousseau defends Geneva’s censorship, and in particular its rejection of the theatre, in his to letter d’Alembert.  Politics and the Arts:  Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1968 (1960).  Allan Bloom, translator and editor.  Bloom calls Rousseau ‘[o]ne of the last great voices raised in favor of censorship’ (p. xiii).  Rousseau argues that the theatre – and by extension one might say the products of free publication and fine arts in general – are likely to corrupt a virtuous regime and its people, though they might do little harm or even perhaps in some ways might elevate a corrupt people in a corrupt regime. 

[ii] The Republic of Plato.  New York:  Basic Books, 1968.  Translation and essay by Allan Bloom.  Page 290.

[iii] I am told that the young Karl Rahner while a seminarian had to read Kant at night in the dormitory toilets, so much was Kant frowned upon in some Roman Catholic circles well into the 20th century.

[iv] Chicago:  University of Chicago, 1969. 

[v] Ibid., p. 227.

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