Beijing Coma – Ma Jian
In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, when China was on a global charm offensive, Ma Jian’s book Beijing Coma was published. Through the central character Dai Wei, a protester who was shot in Tiananmen Square and fell into a deep coma, Ma presented the other side of the country, an insecure nation afraid of its past and struggling with its present. Ma stated that he wrote the book “to reclaim history from a totalitarian government whose role is to erase it”. I raced through it, went to several book talks he gave and, given the epic proportions of the novel, even enquired about buying the film rights. They were available but I was told that was because few studios would dare take on a work so confronting. To this day the book remains banned in China and no film of it has yet to be made. We are the worse off for that. Jemimah Steinfeld
Are you there God? It’s me Margaret – Judy Blume
As the only child of an amazing single parent, books were a core feature of my childhood. A trip to the library was a joy and visits to the bookshop were a special treat. Getting lost in the pages of a book every night was my happy place and my favourite author as a teenager was Judy Blume. Blume writes beautifully and takes the reader on a journey of exploration of a teenage mind – helping you realise you aren’t alone in being challenged by new experiences and feelings. While from an Index perspective I should say that my favourite book was the one most banned – Forever (which I loved), my absolute favourite was actually Are you there God? It’s me Margaret. As the only Jewish kid at my school I related to Margaret’s internal conflict and her personal relationship with G-d. Blume remains a personal heroine and every effort to ban her books confirms why the work of Index on Censorship is so important. Ruth Anderson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence
I had to read DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover at school. I hated it. But I did enjoy the ironies that the attempted prosecution of it for “obscenity” totally undermined the state of the obscenity laws at the time and the court case reaffirmed art’s freedom to say pretty much anything it liked, as long as it was judged to be of literary merit (whatever that means). Those who tried to suppress the book only succeeded in fanning the flames of public interest exponentially, beyond who might otherwise have read it without all the hoo-ha and salacious interest whipped up around it. Public interest was the other marker of whether the book should be permitted, so in bringing the prosecution it rather ensured the inevitable failure of the case. The trial has also been highlighted as the start of societal values changing and ushering in the more permissive 1960s. None of this impacted on DH Lawrence, since he’d been dead for 30 years. Publishers had self-censored by holding off publication until Penguin Books took the plunge and British society was probably never the same again. Now, if only a book could have such a societal impact in the 21st century… David Sewell
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which called for the assassination of its author, Salman Rushdie. The novel is Rushdie’s masterpiece: a comic take on the life of Muhammad that also wraps in the British Indian immigrant experience, Bollywood, Sikh separatism and Hinduism. Its ambition is vast and it deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Its legacy will live well beyond the regime which forced its author into hiding. Martin Bright
Spycatcher – Peter Wright
I was at university in London when Peter Wright’s Spycatcher was first published and Margaret Thatcher’s government banned it. Wright was a former assistant director of MI5, who was annoyed about the security service’s pension arrangements and decided to blow the whistle over its shadier activities in order to recoup some money for his retirement in Australia. In the 1980s, the workings of the security services were shrouded in secrecy and the book caused huge ripples with its stories of Soviet moles and the then advanced technologies that were being used to spy on Britain’s ‘enemies’. I still remember reading the first chapter and finding out that a nondescript building around the corner from my university department I passed every day was used by MI5 for its covert operations. As the book was not banned in Australia or Scotland, its contents gradually leaked and Thatcher’s government was forced to admit defeat and the book ban was dropped. Mark Stimpson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Look on the shelves of certain school districts in Texas, Michigan and Florida and you’ll find an empty space where The Handmaid’s Tale used to be, after book challenges led to its removal. Atwood’s most famous book might have been published in 1985, but it still has the power to scare self-appointed censors today. The graphic novel, too, is just as excellent and just as hated by censors. In the dystopian Gilead patriarchal structures are taken to the absolute extreme. A woman’s body is not her own – she is judged by her capacity for baby-making. Even her vocabulary is closely monitored. But the way this society was created is even more concerning, with events in the novel inspired by real-world happenings. It’s a book worth reading again and again – it hit home differently when I was a wide-eyed student to how it does now that I’m a mother, and still sends the same chill in a 2023 context. Katie Dancey-Downs
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores complex themes of race, justice, and humanity, bringing a degree of warmth to heavy subject matter by using the perspective of child protagonist Scout Finch to invoke a sense of innocence, even while tackling difficult topics. Although the book is considered a modern classic, it has been subject to bans and challenges due to its use of profanity, racial slurs, and adult themes. The language and subject matter may make it an uncomfortable read for some, but the overriding message of tolerance and morality is both important and necessary. Daisy Ruddock
Animal Farm – George Orwell
There’s always a book you read that, when you reflect back on, has made an impression on your whole life. For me it was Animal Farm by George Orwell. I first read the book as a teenager and it made me think about the meaning behind the role of governments and the issues of right and wrong, greed and the corruption of power. When I watched the world news and saw the power and restrictions that states placed on their citizens, a book published in 1945 showed me how the world turns and how little change there can be without true democracy. Cathy Parry
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman made its way to me through my grandmother. This was how I often got the books that have stuck with me nearly two decades later. I wonder whether she knew what she did would be so frowned upon by those in the US states who took offence to its apparent “anti-Christian” message? His Dark Materials is glorious collection of young adult books, which snuck in complex messages without patronising the readers. In fact, it challenges and provokes the readers in a manner that sent my teenage brain racing. Also how can you not love a polar bear wearing armour? Nik Williams
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Ireland that I was born into was a cold house for women. There was no access to abortion, no divorce and marital rape had only recently been outlawed. Since then, public opinion has been reshaped and laws have been liberalised, largely as a result of ordinary women speaking out about their personal experiences. That’s why The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is important. It’s a rare example of a canonical work about the life of a young woman as told in her own words. The semi-autobiographical novel, which was previously banned in Ireland and remains banned in some US states, is a coming-of-age story following a young woman at odds with 1950s US society. It challenges the conventional roles of women and explores the difficult, and still tabooed, subject of mental illness. Jessica Ní Mhainín
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”88714″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Time was when the political right and social conservatives were enthusiasts for censorship – for “no-platforming” drama, film and books deemed obscene, disrespectful of authority or unpatriotic. The left, and liberals, were the supporters of freedom – calling for the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960; supporting the editors of Oz Magazine in the 1970 prosecution for obscenity; and opposing the charge of gross indecency in the staging of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain in 1982.
In every one of these cases, the liberals won, mocking those who were active in the prosecution. The victories effectively ruled out any further action to stop publication or staging.
It is different now. Significant parts of the left now wish to rule out speech they deem offensive.
In the USA, especially on college campuses, the view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one’s own beliefs is now frequently opposed by another view, often militantly expressed.
This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because they will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web or in print.
In the UK, several universities have been drawn into the struggle around the allegations of “hurt” and efforts to deny hearings for speakers accused of spreading hurtful speech.
Those university authorities tend to be more robust than their US equivalents in insisting that, once invited, a speaker be heard – though not invariably.
Freedom of speech and publication is passing, on the left, from being necessary to being suspect. One strong voice is that of Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, who believes that “freedom of speech is no longer a value”, writing that: “It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the ‘defend to the death your right to say it’ folk.”
The notion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias is, she believes, a “delusion”. Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, takes the same approach. She believes that “it is the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life that has emboldened identitarian and neo-Nazi activists, who are experts at manipulating naive liberal arguments about freedom of speech”.
These themes, if less strongly put, now appear in official discourse. A government white paper – usually a prelude to legislation – on Online Harms, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, defines harms as “behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally”.
Thus free speech shifts from being something essential to a democratic society (even when offensive) to an issue dependent on a vague definition of emotional harm – which, by its nature, must attract myriad charges from those who claim criticism has damaged them emotionally, and thus must be censored.
Index on Censorship’s robust recognition, in an August 2018 statement, that “we, as users, will have to tolerate the fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” if speech is to be free now faces an existential challenge.
In a BBC Breakfast discussion in August last year, the former chief crown prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, suggested that prosecuting someone for hate speech could stop his or her later development into a major criminal. Jodie Ginsberg, Index’s chief executive, countered that, saying: “The idea that we can prevent future crimes by policing expression is a dangerous road to go down.”
Yet it is an indication of how official thinking now develops.
Earlier this month, an essay – Designating Hate – was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It was an unusually clear argument for censorship – in this case of organisations “which demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality”.
The proposal would task the Home Office with the duty of drawing up a list of those organisations which habitually use speech designed to prompt hatred, and to limit them “from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions”.
They would be given a chance to reform: reviews would determine whether or not the organisation had changed its behaviour and, if so, it could be admitted to the media or engage with public institutions once more.
The good intentions of such legislation and proposed legislation are obvious. The framers of these policies wish to dam the flood of hate and threat which now pulses through social media, and to protect vulnerable people from their effects. But it’s questionable if they do protect – suppression of speech tends merely to re-route it, making it more alluring to those it attracts. And what is less in question is that they will in future promote a new kind of censorship, as algorithms pick up on key words to shut down blogs and messages which quote hate speech in order to oppose it; or which remove the output of far right or far left groups which, though repellent to liberals, have a right to be published.
The deletion of speech judged harmful opens up an endless trajectory, in which one excision begets another. “The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” have always been with us, and though social media and the web amplify their reach, we still must tolerate them if we wish to preserve a robust civil society.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1568819478334-b34b0086-8688-0″][/vc_column][/vc_row]