A speech given by Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg at St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Ireland for the Limerick Civic Trust in association with Banned Books Week.
In 1634, the English lawyer and author William Prynne was sentenced to life imprisonment, fined £5,000 (more than £1 million in today’s money) and had both his ears cut off. His crime? The publication of Histriomastix – a thousand-page Puritanical tome dedicated to showing that plays were unlawful and incentives to immorality. He didn’t have many good things to say about women either.
It is a dreadful irony that this work, which in effect advocates censorship, resulted in some of the most gruesome punishments you can inflict on an author for their writing. Nor did his punishment end there – accused of publishing”seditious libels” again in 1637, Prynne had the letter SL branded on both his cheeks.
I mention the example of Prynne because it is the first cited in an exhibition of book covers currently on display at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where this week my organisation kicked off a series of talks and discussions for Banned Books Week, of which this lecture is the final event.
And I mention it because while it reminds us of how far we in the UK and Ireland have come in the past 350 years, the exhibition was also a powerful reminder of the fact that censorship is still alive and well – albeit in different forms – in our democracies. The exhibition ran along two sides of the library. On one side were the cases from the 1630s to 1800s. The entire other side reflected instances of censorship in the UK just in the past 100 years. This included – in 1946 – the burning of copies of insipid love story Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor – not by the state but by public libraries no less.
Stop to think of that for a moment. In 1946, barely a decade after the perhaps some of the most infamous book brings in history – those of Nazi Germany, public libraries in the UK thought it fit and proper to burn a historical romance that one judge in the States described as “soporific rather than aphrodisiac”.
That was 1946. A bygone era perhaps? Sadly not. Sixty-four years later in 2000, a New York-based Limerick man took out a $800 half-page advertisement in Irish-American newspaper, the Irish Echo, inviting people to bring copies of Angela’s Ashes to a book-burning ceremony to protest this way this city was treated in the novel and the film of the same name.
The Angela’s Ashes incident shows us the urge to censor, to limit the publication or promotion of ideas we find offensive – whether on grounds of obscenity, of religion, or politics, remains strong.
This talk will examine the new sources of censorship – not just in the context of literature – and posit some ways we can resist the urge to silence others.
First, a little about myself and why I care about these issues and about the organisation I run. I am a journalist and have wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would make my friends play ‘the news’ which we then performed to our long-suffering parents and I dreamed of being BBC foreign correspondent Kate Adie. When I finally got to cover a war – civil conflict in Ivory Coast – I discovered I did not after all want to become a war correspondent and ended up as London Bureau Chief for Reuters news agency. Whereupon I found myself in charge of coverage for the UK riots of 2011.
I became a journalist because I wanted to tell stories that were not being heard. I love literature because I believe in the power of the written word to convey and transport us to a world beyond our own imagining and that my own world is enriched as a result.
So it seemed a natural fit when I was asked if I was interested in running Index on Censorship, one of the world’s leading organisations in the defence of free expression. Index on Censorship was founded 45 years ago by the poet Stephen Spender in response to what seemed like a simple request: what could the artists and intellectuals of the West do to support their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain and those under the thumb of oppressive regimes elsewhere? Organisations like Amnesty and PEN already existed, doing then – as now – a formidable job of petitioning and campaigning, particularly on the cases of the imprisoned. What more could be done? The answer – those who established Index decided – was to publish the works of these censored writers and artists and stories about them. Index on Censorship magazine was born and we have continued to produce the magazine – this magazine – on at least a quarterly basis ever since. Writers for the magazine have included the likes of Arthur Miller, Nadine Gordimer, Hilary Mantel, Vaclav Havel – and Samuel Beckett.
One of the t-shirts featured in the Index on Censorship archive reads: “If Samuel Beckett had been born in Czechoslovakia we’d still be waiting for Godot”.
It was part of a campaign that Beckett supported to bring attention to the plight of writers in then Czechoslovakia. Beckett’s play was banned in the east European country at the same time as the communist government was persecuting its own writers. Beckett became drawn to the case of Czech playwright Havel, and committed to bringing world attention to the way writers were being banned.
Beckett was so incensed by what was happening to Havel that he wrote the short play Catastrophe, dedicated it to Havel, and allowed Index the exclusive, to publish it first in its pages.
Beckett’s action encapsulates the motivation of those who first established Index. This motivation, as Stephen Spender wrote in the first edition of the magazine, was to act always with concern for those not free, responding to the appeals from Soviet writers to their Western counterparts. “The Russian writers,” Spender wrote, “seem to take it for granted that in spite of the ideological conditioning of the society in which they live, there is nevertheless an international community of scientists, writers and scholars thinking about the same problems and applying to them the same human values. These intellectuals regard certain guarantees of freedom as essential if they are to develop their ideas fruitfully… Freedom, for them, consists primarily of conditions which make exchange of ideas and truthfully recorded experiences possible.”
I will ask in my talk this evening – given the debates about no-platforming in universities, the controversy over kneeling for the US flag, the fact that the BBC’s political correspondent needs a bodyguard to cover a political conference, whether we currently have the ‘conditions which make exchange of ideas possible’.
Why is it important to tackle censorship? Sometimes we forget to ask ourselves this question because we take it for granted that freedom is a good thing. Consider all those who were quick to shout ‘Je Suis Charlie’ following the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – the knee-jerk reaction in Western liberal democracies is often to say you are for free speech, without ever really stopping to consider why you might be for it. Or why free speech is and of itself a good thing.
I would argue this failure to understand the value of free speech lies at the heart of one of the dilemmas we face in modern democracies where free speech is being gradually eroded – where ‘Je Suis Charlie’ quickly became ‘Je Suis Charlie, but…’.
It is vital to understand the value inherent in free expression to understand why some of the current tensions surrounding free speech exist. It is also crucial for understanding ways to tackle the dangerous trade-offs that are increasingly being made in which free expression is seen as a right that must be pitted against safety, security, and privacy.
John Stuart Mill talks of free expression being fundamental to the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” “The particular evil of silencing the expression of an opinion,” he argues in On Liberty, “is that it is robbing the human race… If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
This latter argument is particularly powerful when we consider, for example, the introduction of Holocaust denial laws. Such laws suggest that there are some truths so precious that they have to be protected by laws, rather than having their truth reinforced by repeated “collision with error.” You can imagine authoritarian regimes everywhere looking at such laws and rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of being able to impose a single view of history on the populace, without any kind of challenge.
The free exchange of ideas, opinions, and information is in Mill’s doctrine a kind of positive cacophony from which clear sounds emerge. In this doctrine, it is not just the having of ideas, but the expressing of them that becomes vital.
Which brings us back to the question of whether we have the conditions for the exchange of ideas possible in 2017 across the world. I want to focus on four key areas on which Index campaigns for free expression: the arts, academia, media and online, and look at what I consider to be some of the main sources of censorship, by which I mean the attempt to silence and stifle ideas and debate, in democratic countries and further afield.
Let us begin with the arts. A number of recent cases I think highlight the contemporary censorious impulses in democracies: the first is the case of Exhibit B, a theatrical installation meant to highlight the horrors of so-called human zoos of the 19th century. Created by white artist Brett Bailey, Exhibit B was described by London’s Barbican as a “human installation that charts the colonial histories of various European countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when scientists formulated pseudo-scientific racial theories that continue to warp perceptions with horrific consequences.” Exhibit B involved black actors often chained or in masks, sitting silently while viewers to the installation filed past.
In 2014, Exhibit B – which received five-star reviews elsewhere and was successfully shown just weeks before at the Edinburgh Festival – was pulled from a planned staging at the Barbican on the advice of police following a sustained campaign against the work online and off, including a very vocal protest outside the theatre.
Those who objected to the artwork – many of whom had not seen it – described it as racist. Now, I am not objecting to people’s right to protest against works or ideas they find offensive. Indeed, that is a fundamental tenet of freedom of expression. But what is salient, I think, about Exhibit B is that it demonstrates a growing belief that the opinions of one set of people should be allowed to infringe the legal rights of others to express themselves. Exhibit B was not closed down by police for hate speech or inciting violence, it was closed down because the police and the venue itself did not believe they could protect the audience or actors from any potential spillover from the protests about the work. In this case, one group of self-appointed spokespeople for a community infringed the rights of others to express themselves. As Stella Odunlami, an actor who took part in the Barbican Exhibit B, wrote in The Guardian: “I chose to take part in Exhibit B because I was inspired by the premise of the work… It forces us to examine the darkest corners of our mind. It is brutal, unforgiving and unapologetic. I decided, as an educated black artist, that it told a story that should be shared with the world, but sadly that will no longer be the case. My freedom of expression was taken the moment the protesters decided to attempt to storm the venue, causing it to be evacuated and deemed unsafe. It was at that moment that the protesters retained their right to free speech and I had mine taken away.”
Offence and hurt are in the eye of the beholder. Once we let a mob decide what can and cannot be expressed, we are in dangerous territory indeed.
We see this mob mentality most often reflected in the hysteria that whips up at speed when an individual or group of individuals takes offence on social media about something and how that fireball of fury can intimidate artists and others to self-censor as result. Irish author Claire Hennessy spoke eloquently about this at an event Index hosted in London last night.
Such campaigns do not just force self-censorship, they can prevent works from getting an audience at all. Consider a young adult novel called The Black Witch about a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. When she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs. The book was subjected to a sustained campaign of online abuse ahead of publication after one blogger wrote that the fantasy novel was “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read.” Its Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.
Nervousness about offence is not restricted to concerns about the reaction it might generate in the online world. Salman Rushdie has said he does not think the Satanic Verses would be published today. And in the wake of the killing of those associated with Charlie Hebdo, the killings at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, the shooting at a free speech event in Copenhagen it is not difficult to see why.
This mob as censor dynamic is something we shall see rearing its head again when we come to talk about media and academia and is one of the pincer movements I identify at being at the heart of modern censorship in democracies.
The second pincer movement is led primarily by governments and relates to a privileging of national security over almost all other values in modern societies. The crackdowns justified in the name of national security are widespread and increasingly misused. Take, for example, the current situation in Turkey. It is not just journalists who face the ire of President Erdogan as he seeks to weed out his enemies. Artists face his wrath too. Cartoonist Musa Kart, for example, has been in detention for the past 10 months and faces 29 years in jail for his cartoons satirising the government.
Jailing is one way to silence your enemies. Another is travel bans. In Malaysia, another cartoonist, Zunar, is currently subject to a travel ban – and faces 43 years in jail for his work satirising the Prime Minister and his wife.
In these democracies, those in power behave increasingly like despots. And one thing autocrats seem to hate more than anything is being laughed at. if you don’t believe me, consider the fact that President Erdogan tried to have the German government prosecute a German comedian for reciting – on German television – a poem that lampooned him. Even worse, German Chancellor Angela Merkel paved the way for his possible prosecution of Jan Böhmermann by leaving it up to prosecutors to decide whether to take the case forward.
If free speech cannot be defended by Germany within its own borders, what hope is there for its global defence?
I want to say something here about the importance of a robust defence of fundamental, universal rights and freedoms within democracies as standard bearers for these rights globally. Autocratic and repressive regimes look to justify their own behaviour by pointing to comparable actions in democracies.
That is why we at Index welcome the fact that Ireland’s blasphemy law will be considered in the upcoming referendum. Ireland is the only country in the western developed world to have introduced a blasphemy law in the 21st century and that has given succour to those countries who wield their own blasphemy laws to punish apostates.
For instance, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – which has 57 member states – cites Ireland’s law as best practice and has even proposed adopting its precise wording to limit human rights on freedom of conscience. It gives strength to the likes of OIC member Pakistan where a woman – Asia Bibi – is currently in jail awaiting execution for having drunk the same water as her Muslim neighbours.
Freedom to express one’s religious belief is on the barometer of the state of free expression.