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Censorship -- the control of the information and ideas circulated within a society -- has been a hallmark of dictatorships throughout history. In the 20th Century, censorship was achieved through the examination of books, plays, films, television and radio programs, news reports, and other forms of communication for the purpose of altering or suppressing ideas found to be objectionable or offensive.
The rationales for censorship have varied, with some censors targeting material deemed to be indecent or obscene; heretical or blasphemous; or seditious or treasonous.
Thus, ideas have been suppressed under the guise of protecting three basic social institutions: Not all censorship is equal, nor does all arise from government or external force. People self-censor all the time; such restraint can be part of the price of rational dialogue.
The artist Ben Shahn's poster illustration reads: To understand censorship, and the impulse to censor, it is Illustration in an essay means to strip away the shock epithet value that is attached to the word at first utterance.
One must recognize that censorship and the ideology supporting it go back to ancient times, and that every society has had customs, taboos, or laws by which speech, dress, religious observance, and sexual expression were regulated. In Athens, where democracy first emerged, censorship was well known as a means of enforcing the prevailing orthodoxy.
Indeed, Plato was the first recorded thinker to formulate a rationale for intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship. In his ideal state outlined in The Republic, official censors would prohibit mothers and nurses from relating tales deemed bad or evil.
Plato also proposed that unorthodox notions about God or the hereafter be treated as crimes and that formal procedures be established to suppress heresy. Freedom of speech in Ancient Rome was reserved for those in positions of authority. The poets Ovid and Juvenal were both banished, and authors of seditious writings were punished severely.
The emperor Nero deported his critics and burned their books. The organized church soon joined the state as an active censor. The Biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain" is clearly an early attempt to set limits on what would be acceptable theological discourse.
Likewise, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" is an attempt to set limits on how the Divine may or may not be represented. And no one, in any land, should think this is anachronistic. Across the world today, appeals to divinity are common reasons for banning the dissemination of a broad range of materials.
Censorship is no more acceptable for being practiced in the name of religion than for national security which is certainly an acceptable secular substitute for religious rationales in the 20th Century. It only indicates that confronting censorship must always involve confronting some part of ourselves and our common history that is both painful and deep-seated.
Unique historical considerations can also spawn censorship. It is illegal, under German law, to depict any kind of glorification of the Nazis or even to display the emblem of the swastika. The law is enforced to the point where even historical battle simulations may not use the actual emblems that were used during World War II by the Waffen SS, for instance.
Significantly, almost all of Germany's close neighbors and allies have similar laws. The questions in Germany and elsewhere in the European Union EU form a particularly hard case because of the historical background and because the situation in the EU is fast-moving. That is why this series of snapshots of conditions in various countries and regions will first deal with other areas and levels of censorship and access problems, and then return to the situation in the EU.
In a global context, governments have used a powerful array of techniques and arguments to marshal support for their censorship efforts. One of the earliest, as noted, is the religious argument.
Certain things are deemed to be offensive in the eyes of the Deity. These things vary from country to country, religion to religion, even sect to sect. They are mostly, though not always, sexual in nature. The commentaries on the nature of the impulse to be censorious towards sexual expression are too numerous even for a wide ranging project like this.
The curious reader is urged to read far and wide in the classic texts to see that the problem of governments and citizens reacting in this way is not a new one. What is new are the potential global consequences.
National security and defense runs a very close second to the religious impulse as a rationale for suppression. While nowhere near as old as the religious impulse to censor, in its more modern form it has been even more pervasive.Censorship -- the control of the information and ideas circulated within a society -- has been a hallmark of dictatorships throughout history.
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