Joseph Conrad, the writer, was astonished to learn early in the 20th century that Britain, his adopted country, had a "Censor of Plays." In a 1907 essay* he wrote about the character of an individual who would assume the power and harbor the hubris as the supreme arbiter of what appeared on the British stage. Needless to say, he does not "appreciate" the existence of a censor:
"…I have come to the conclusion in the security of my heart and the peace of my conscience that he must be either an extreme megalomaniac or an utterly unconscious being.
"He must be unconscious. It is one of the qualifications for his magistracy. Other qualifications are equally easy. He must have done nothing, expressed nothing, imagined nothing. He must be obscure, insignificant and mediocre – in thought, act, speech and sympathy. He must know nothing of art, of life – and of himself. For if he did he would not dare to be what he is."
While the Church had been censoring written and spoken speech for centuries, government censorship of plays in Britain began in earnest with the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, to protect then Prime Minister Robert Walpole from criticism by satire and mockery on the stage, and ended with the Theatres Act of 1968. But other forms of censorship subsequently were enacted in Britain, many conforming to the legislative censorship of the European Union, rendering freedom of speech in Britain contingent on those laws, which amounts to a byzantine maze of "negatives."
Article Ten of the European Convention reads:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Given the woozy state of any definition of freedom of speech today, or even its practice, in virtually any country, Article Ten not so much guarantees freedom of speech, but wraps it in a Rubik's Cube-like conceptual straightjacket which only a puzzle-master or a consummate politically correct judge would be able to grasp. It is burdened with so many qualifications and exceptions it may as well decree: "We will let you know when you are 'free' to say anything. Until then, be quiet, or it's a fine and the lockup for you."
For example, a Swedish man has been charged with "intentionally disrupting a religious or spiritual ceremony," in this instance, the Friday call to prayers outside a Stockholm mosque, by honking his car horn. This is an example of Sweden's fatal dhimmitude and deference to its growing Muslim population. But, I am betting that no one has ever been charged with the same offense for honking a horn outside a church while its bells were ringing.
Of course, the local Swedish law must conform to the European Convention one, or at least not conflict with it. But, how does one categorize "horn honking" as unprotected speech? Does it encourage "disorder or crime"? Does it violate "the rights of others"? Is it a dereliction of one's alleged "duty and responsibility"? How does one reconcile the "right" not to hear a honking horn and the "right," if you are not a Muslim, not to hear some talentless muezzin screeching and wailing for between three to five minutes every Friday afternoon?
Well, you don’t reconcile them, because these are not "rights." On the one hand, the government frowns on literal horn honking if it bothers Muslims. On the other, it protects the equivalent of malicious horn honking, that is, the loud call to prayers. The call to prayers is "spiritual"; horn honking is not. So says fiat, non-objective jurisprudence.
While the Swedish man denies he deliberately honked his horn to disturb the congregated Muslims – we cannot know the contents of his mind, that is, what he intended – it would not have mattered had he confessed that this was his intention. He is still liable under the city's municipal code. He disturbed the "peace" of the faithful. Period.
In Austria, a man was charged with "ridiculing" or "disparaging" Muslim beliefs by yodeling and mowing his lawn at the same time while his Muslim neighbors were trying to lift their arses and bang their heads on the floor of their home in prayer. Again, local Austrian law must conform to EU law, or not contradict it, and doubtless a European Union judge would concur with the Austrian court's decision to fine the man. His neighbors claimed that his yodeling was a satirical attempt to copy the wails of a muezzin. (Personally, I find both a call to prayers and yodeling esthetically abominable. I would be a harsh judge if a muezzin and a yodeler ever appeared on "Austria's Got Talent.")
In Rennes, France, a butcher was driven out of business because local Muslims, objecting to his selling of pork, repeatedly threatened him and vandalized his shop. Did Article Ten protect the butcher? No. Because some freedom of speech is "more equal" than others, particularly if it is a Muslim's freedom of speech. The Muslims spoke; the butcher left the building.
In this country, singer Miley Cyrus ignited a controversy with her super-vulgar performance during a Brooklyn concert. Conservatives were up in arms. Breitbart News sort of condemned her cacophonous gyrations:
The former teen star's sexualized romp might have made Madonna blush--with envy.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a "sexualized romp." It can be vulgar, or it can be tastefully stimulating. There is a difference between a sexualized romp and the simulated pornography exhibited by Cyrus. Sexualized romps have been around at least as long as the live stage. But, I dare anyone to compare Cyrus's performance, or Lady Gaga's, or Madonna's, with, say, Rita Hayworth's performance of "The Heat is On," and claim they are all on the same level. They are not. Aside from the fact that neither Cyrus, nor Gaga, nor Madonna ever had a thimbleful of Hayworth's talent, Hayworth is esthetically appealing, as well.
Rita Hayworth sizzles. Miley Cyrus? Yawn.
Someone might object: But how can such outrageous performances as Miley Cyrus's be protected as "freedom of speech" or "freedom of expression"? Easily. Don't watch them. Don’t patronize the likes of Cyrus. That's their protection. "Entertainers" such as Miley Cyrus can degrade themselves as much as they wish, but one has the choice of not rewarding them for it. One has the freedom to avert one's eyes and stuff one's ears when Rita Hayworth is performing, as well. One may even wish to criticize such behavior, but one hasn't the right to stop it, unless one wishes to resort to force. Resorting to force as a means of surcease in the realm of speech has always been a government's tyrannical prerogative.
A more fundamental objection would focus, instead, on the state of a culture that would generate and encourage such crude performances as Cyrus's as entertainment values, entertainment which appeals to the mindless, prurient hedonism and tasteless interests of countless esthetic illiterates. Artists with nothing to say usually resort to gross behavior and call it "novel" or "ground-breaking." In the musical, literary, and visual realms, they are the avant-garde of nihilism. Miley Cyrus has joined a populous club that includes such notables as James Joyce and Jackson Pollack.
Contrary of Conrad's justifiably innocent presumption (he lived in the twilight of reason and sanity), there are many individuals in government who do know themselves and dare to impose their mediocre, mean little souls on the rest of us. They are the "soul-brethren" of Miley Cyrus. Of far more danger is the choice of self-censorship. Fear of retaliation in the way of direct or indirect government force can cause an individual to not speak out when it is important that he speak, or even to commit self-perjury.
While we now know that the government can and will monitor our phone calls and emails, and has selectively targeted particular and prominent individuals at the behest of presidents and other powers that are satellites of the Oval Office to discredit political opponents or neutralize or silence opposition of any kind (e.g., General David Petraeus), censorship needn't be overt. A more effective means of silencing ideas and truths is to instill fear of retaliation in individuals. The National Security Agency (NSA) is completing a multi-billion dollar facility in Utah that will store every phone call and email of Americans and others.
For what purpose? To "fight terrorism"? You "fight terrorism" by eliminating states that sponsor it, not by snooping into the privacy of citizens which your agency is chartered to protect from state-sponsored terrorism, and collecting data that can be used to silence citizens via blackmail or threatened coercion lest they oppose government policies or speak truths.
In short, you don’t fight state-sponsored terrorism by instituting state-sponsored terrorism.
That, in short, is the mind-numbing character of censorship by fear. And its advocates know it. After all, if one remains silent for fear of retaliation or retribution, one can't claim that one is being "censored," can one? Where's the gun pointed at one's head?
The person holding the gun…is you.
*Joseph Conrad, "A Censor of Plays: An Appreciation," in The Oxford Book of Essays, Ed. and Introduction by John Gross. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press (1991), 2002, pp. 326-329.