Thursday, October 14, 2004

Censorship: the Debate continues (Eng. 300)

Censorship is a Cultural Device
by Tristan Vick

I was reading my pier Brian Johnsrud’s opinion on Censorship, and it got me to thinking.

Brian’s site:

Censorship is a cultural device, and only functions within the cultural and historical frame of that culture. Each culture then utilizes censorship in ways which they believe that it best benefits their society. The problem I have with censorship in our country is that we try to censor things that rightly should not be, often times because they are from foreign cultures, and this uneducated fear causes us to censor the world around us instead of helping us to understand it. Basically, we are as a Nation, desensitizing ourselves to the rest of the world around us. This one-mindedness doesn’t benefit our multi-cultural understanding, but hinders true enlightenment and secludes us as a Nation from the rest of the world.

Brian has a link to a Christian society that burns books, because the contents of the books are taken in a context that would define them as anti-Christian. However, this biased slant is only the perspective of a group cowering from things they don’t understand, nor comprehend. Instead of reaching a fulfilling enlightenment, they try and brush it under the table, or rather, burn it. I will not affiliate my Christianity with such fools as these, because they do little good in the world. Their contradiction is so great that it becomes harmful, because they preach that they believe the “word” of the Bible, yet they burn words. Neglecting to see that words regardless of the text hold truths and stories teach morals, and parables bring understanding –this organization tries to destroy the very language which they themselves preach to be truth.

Brian states, “We simply cannot ban entire groups of things, such as porn, just because some of it might be disturbing or disruptive . . . Plato. In doing so we would have to take away numerous pieces of art and culture, because the only way we could label porn as disruptive would be to say it “displays nudity and sexuality in a lude way.”

Even though I think Brian has a good point, I believe his misconception is with the definition of “censorship”, and he is angry at the consequences that censorship entail. He is concerned with the act of banning and what it brings or doesn’t bring (especially under critical light) to society. Yet how do we define censorship?

I would like to refer back to Brian’s statement of censoring porn. Yet in order to do this we must define what porn is.

The Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary (2001) defines pornography as:

Pornography: obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, esp. those having little or no artistic merit.

Brian’s discussion of the painting of the nude “Madonna” by Edward Munch then exposes an anomaly. If porn has ‘no artistic merit’ then how can this classical painting be considered porn? It can’t, and Brian’s point is well taken. However, the issues at hand are with the definition of pornography or porn and what qualifies those who practice censorship as a defining means. As I’m sure Brian would argue, “Huckleberry Fin” by Mark Twain is one of the greatest pieces of American written art, and it is also considered the great American novel by many, including Professor Michael Beehler. Brian’s issues with censorship lie purely in its irresponsible use of censorship and those who censor so brazenly. The answer may be as simple as ‘careless censorship by naïve people with strong opinions’.

Coming back to Brian’s above comment on censorship that…

- In doing so we would have to take away numerous pieces of art and culture, because the only way we could label porn as disruptive would be to say it “displays nudity and sexuality in a lude way.”

Yet what we are working with is not a definition of censorship, but instead, the definition of pornography, and more over, how you qualify something to the act of censorship. In order to make light of this occurance we must better define censorship.

Censorship is a cultural device because our ideas of censorship never lend themselves outside our borders of the cultural mind of society. However, anything entering our national consciousness and perseptive state from external sources, may be censored. This is why I define it as a cultural device, and perhaps, even a cultural device of catagorization. An example will require a multi-cultural perspective, which I will devulge from my own experiences and life in Japan.

The Japanese idea of censorship is not our own. This is where we can better separate the issues of censorship and its core design. First we must come back to the question of what is “pornography”.

In the sense that it is explicit sex graphically depicted with real life images, if that is one defenition we would classify it under, then what would be our thoughts if I were to explain that these sex films in Japan don’t show any nudity?

Pornography in Japan always contains black “censor” bars, or mosaeic blurs to cover and erase the graphic nudity, only leaving the occasional breast shot. Sometimes the mosaeic is so big that you will not be able to view the sex, nor even the actors. If we can’t see the sex is it still ponogrpahy? American PG-13 movies show full frontal nudity and often contain many sexual themes, does this mean they are pornographic in comparison to the Japanese porn videos which show even less nudity?

Pornography is then defined by cultural context, and so too must censorship be defined, but not limited to.

Japanese add the moseaic to their porn NOT because they want to “censor” it, but because it makes it more artistic and imaginative. This censorship issue also has come up with another Japanese construct, Manga. Manga is the term for ‘Comic Book’ in Japan. Paul Gravett’s book: “Manga –Sixty Years of Japanese Comics,” also confronts this issue.

Much of a Japanese person’s home, school and work life is goverened by strict notions of respect and hierarchy. The solitary activity of reading manga allows him or her to leave behind daily formalities and experience, if only vicariously, for the more liberated realms of the mind and the senses. In many societies where repression rules, extraordinary and provocative creativity results. For all their regulated angles of bowing and terms of address, the Japanese are inclinded towards a pragmatic and tolerant approach to religion and morality. This makes quite a sharp contrast to the ‘liberate’ West. Compared to Europeans and Americans, the Japanese generally have far more relaxed attitudes about representations of sex and bodily functions. No wonder earlier generations of Westerners professed outrage at the explicitness of Japanese erotic prints, forerunners of some of manga’s wilder moments (p.12).

Gravett goes on to explain several instances where Manga has been banned. In 1991 the largest Japanese cultural festival held in Britain, hosted a manga exhibit sponsored by the Oxford Museum of Modern Art. However, this exhibit according to Gravette never saw the day of light due to a conflict in how each country defined “censorship” according to their culture. In this case it was a clash of cultural differences of the artistic expressionism and definition of art. Later an independent London art gallery, Pomeroy Purdy, instated a showing of avant-garde manga and images immediately creating a one-sided bias. The Daily Telegraph, a local news paper, condemned the art exhibit as ‘Japanese laughing matter.’ Ten years later controversy arose again in Britain when the second Japan Festival (2001) showed a manga exhibit alongside traditional aspects of Japan such as tea ceremony and Kabuki Theater. The show which had been shown in Paris and Rotterdam (successfully) was removed from the British forum, “presumably because it was deemed unsuitable for the British palate,” according to Gravette.

Again Gravette points out the differences in cultural opinion, and how it defines censorship. Gravette attributes this un-accepting attitude towards Manga as an appeal to ‘cultural snobbery.’ He continues on to mention another example of prejudice against Manga, this time by the New York Times on January 10, 2002. The article accused Manga (and the tired specter of comics) as contributing to illiteracy. The paper was forced to print a retraction, acknowledging that Japan had a very high literacy rate, far ahead of America’s (p.9). The Japanese utilize three separate alphabets simultaneously, including the Chinese Kanji symbols which total over 500,000 in number. This silly comment by the New York Times only proved their naive and extremely uninformed attitudes, and that literacy had nothing to do with Japanese reading comics.

Is this truly censorship for the sake of benefiting American society? Or like Gravette, are we trying to back step the issues of prejudice by labeling it as simply a form of “censorship”?

The issue of one culture finding something acceptable over another isn’t a new debate. Different countries will of course have different concepts of what qualifies as "enriching" to their own cultural and social doctrine, and also that which does not benefit it. As time progresses, the issues tend to fluctuate along with the cultural trends, such as the example of Japanese Manga receiving harsh criticism in the early 90’s and again now. Due to Manga's originality as an art form and its different cultural views, often give a cause for controversy. You can break down the two opposing view points: two sets of people, those who either embrace it lovingly as an imported taste of a foreign culture, or those who ban it according to their differing ideologies.

Historical context also plays a significant part in understanding censorship, such as the instance in 1944 when Grimm’s Fairy tails were banned because they were of German origin. Donald Haase talks about this more in his essay "Your’s, Mine, Ours?" He attributes this Nationalistic view of fairy tales as the reason they got banned for some period of time. That these Nationalistic views existed within the texts, and so they sponsored foreign ideas that our culture deemed degenerative during the 1940’s. Haase continues to critique Sainte-Beuve who categorizes fairy tales as naïve, simplistic, and that have universal appeal. Haase reiterates that,

“Such a view draws on another interpretation of the folk that does not rely on national or ethnic identity and consequently proposes an alternative ownership of the fairy tale. This view of the folk is informed by a universalizing tendency that completely disregards social, historical, and cultural factors.” (The Classic Fairy Tales, Norton, p.358).

I believe Haase was also, unknowingly, grappling with deciphering the occurrence of censorship. His points also remind us that censorship isn’t as simple as like and dislike, but needs to take into consideration the social, historical, and cultural levels. All which are aspects that help us determine what is being sensitized, and more importantly, why.

Censorship then is tricky to define. On the one hand we have a censorship that allows a cultural prejudice towards foreign elements. Elements that enter into our own culture which were not traditionally there in the first place. The mother culture then adopts the foreign elements, but in order to accept these alien elements, it censors them to better fit within its own cultural views and ideologies. The other form of censorship, then, is a method of categorization. It separates the issue of censorship by placing it into two opposing categories. One may be considered bad, so the other is good. It may define which is of our culture, or which is not of our culture too, but the end result is the same. This separation and categorization then falls under the broader cultural collective.

Brian’s original issues with censorship deal with the (often irrational) actions and consequences of censorship. I have set down the definition of censorship as, in the final analysis, a way we categorize things according to social, historical, and cultural context; and if we are not careful in our execution of censorship, it may act as a form of prejudice as well.

Understanding what censorship is then, allows us to look inward at the censorship debate within our own society. With this broader definition, we can critique our own censorship agendas, its importance (or lack there of), and better study the consequences of the actions of censorship.

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