Protectors, opressors, and double standards

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is unlikely that you  would want a five-year-old for whom you are responsible to watch a violent documentary or listen to sexually charged music.

Preventing young people from accessing mature content helps protect childhood innocence, after all censorship is common in our daily lives. The language we use in the company of our peers or colleagues is markedly different than what we use around our relatives, or authority figures. It is possible to conclude that a certain amount of censorship is useful — perhaps even necessary — for maintaining relationships.

Similarly, censorship could be viewed on a larger scale, as a preventative measure to protect society. While this may seem true in some cases, a more accurate description of censorship would be that it works to sustain certain social norms. This is true in many places across the world. Social norms differ depending on who is in charge, and when they are being implemented.  The material chosen for censorship corresponds to these variables. Despite the prevalence of censorship, when the government of China denied foreign media access to its markets,  the western world exploded with incredulity. The pervasive phenomenon of censorship is troubled by a double-standard; from ubiquitous censorship a discourse of ‘us versus them’ emerges.

“We like to think of censorship as something that happens over there, in the faraway places where men break into houses at night to smash computers, or arrive in classrooms to remove books they don’t like. Not in lovely, calm, respectful Canada,” writes Globe & Mail journalist Elizabeth Renzetti.

Contrary to this perception, censorship happens in Canada too. In May 2013, The Guardian reported that the Canadian government intervened when Canadian diplomats attempted to sponsor an exhibition in Croatia featuring the work of Franke James, an environmental activist and writer from Toronto.

The Ottawa Citizen reported in March, 2015, that the art tour’s funding was revoked by a senior director in the climate change division of the foreign affairs department. The reason cited was that the funding “[ran] counter to Canada’s interests.”

This case highlights the idea that censorship can be enforced quietly and under the guise of protecting national interests. It shows that those in power use censorship to protect their image.

Corals Zheng/The Varsity
Corals Zheng/The Varsity

Canadian examples of censorship include restricting access to certain materials can stop the flow of new ideas in their tracks. Three Wishes, a book by Deborah Ellis about the impact the Israel-Palestine conflict has on children in the region is evidence of this. The book is a record of the children’s thoughts; it details their experiences of the war in their own words. It met fierce opposition from the Canadian Jewish Council following its release on the grounds that “Ellis had provided a flawed historical introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Censorship of Ellis’ work ensued across the country. The Toronto District School Board, for example, only allowed children in grade seven or older to have access to the book and removed it from the shelves at the school library.

These instances of Canadian censorship may seem less consequential compared to the actions of countries that restrict the information that their citizens can consume en masse; yet, it is precisely the fact that Canada’s censorship falls under the radar that makes it concerning. While  accusations of censorship typically focus on foreign, authoritarian governments, people in Canada fail to see that censorship is also a local phenomenon.

Censorship is not bound by geography nor tied to a specific time. What was once considered objectionable may be mainstream today, and what was considered acceptable in the past may receive censure in the present. It is important to consider how trends have evolved over time. In examining these trends, some students point to the arts as an area of interest. “There was particular censorship directed towards popular musical artists that rose to prominence in the 1980s,” notes David Howrath, a second year philosophy specialist.

This trend continued throughout the next decade. Madonna provoked the ire of the Toronto police in the 1990s when they threatened to arrest her if she performed “Like A Virgin” while pretending to masturbate. Censorship of the performing arts has become more lax; although Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking performance at the VMAs provoked the disapproval of some, it was allowed.

Perhaps the reason that censorship frequently targets  the arts  is because they empower individuals to feel and to think. The censorship of Three Wishes exposes the possibility that Canadian institutions are part of regulating ideas.

In February 2016, the Al Jazeera network published a story about the significance of political censorship in Burundi, and interviewed some members of the press there. A cartoonist named Alif expressed the importance of the arts when fighting censorship, saying that, “A cartoon like this can say a truth that we cannot publish in words.”

As members of a society that prides itself on liberal values, we must give some thought to censorship. We must evaluate the reason why certain movements, individuals, or artworks become subject to these practices.

Another critical consideration is the evolution of communications technology and the role it is playing in censorship. Sebastian,* a fourth-year political science & sexual diversity studies student, says, “The Internet has enabled people to circumnavigate censorship because it’s a way of sharing it that can’t be monitored as easily.”

This opens up the possibility that censorship can encourage rather than curb consumption of  content; when something is forbidden, it instantly becomes more attractive. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, professor Umbridge’s banning of a rebellious interview given by Harry inadvertently ensured that every student enrolled at the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry found a way to read it. Analogously, North Koreans are not deterred from acquiring copies of banned foreign TV shows on flash drives and DVDs. As technology improves, the exchange of banned material becomes all the more accessible.

Given this accessibility and the constant encroachment of improving technology, it may be that censorship is on the road to redundancy. In the meantime, censorship is widespread, and its significance should not be ignored.

*Name changed at the individual’s request.