Even in its most benign form, the practice of censorship is an undeniable violation of a human being’s inherent right to express his or herself, and any policy which allows for censorship is detrimental to the foundation of a progressive society. Generally, censorship has been utilized by organizations (be they political, religious, commercial, or social in origin) as a way to suppress unpopular ideas, opinions, or viewpoints, particularly if they suggest a dissenting perspective. While many people may associate censorship with foreign dictatorships or the corporate media, the issue is far more expansive and pervasive. Indeed, censorship has prevented the exchange of information for many, many centuries and its history is arguably as old as our own.
At its core, censorship is a way to restrict people from self-expression and limit their exposure to ideas. By controlling the public’s awareness of and access to certain information outlets that may be deemed controversial or subversive, authoritarian powers are able to place a stranglehold on the collective perception of a community. Often the application of censorship is accompanied by the use of propaganda, disinformation, or materials with which opinions can be swayed in favor of one party or against another. While these techniques are nothing new, the methods of enforcing them have greatly evolved over the centuries as technological advancement has occurred.
In today’s world, censorship is so common (as is the use of propaganda and disinformation) that the average citizen of most highly populated countries is likely to be affected by it in some manner on an almost daily basis. As such, paranoia regarding the media has also become common. While questioning the validity and integrity of information and its source is necessary in the world’s modern sociopolitical arena, mistaking editorialization with censorship has become an increasingly frequent problem that tends to exacerbate hostilities between people of opposing viewpoints. To prevent unnecessary debate and conflict, it is then necessary to create crystalline definitions that lay down the extent to which free speech can be limited, altered, or discouraged altogether. Below are definitions of censorship, editorialization, propaganda, and disinformation taken from the dictionary.
cen•sor•ship (sen´sər ship) n.
1. the act of censoring
2. the work of or position of a censor
3. the examination and prohibition of materials deemed to be objectionable
ed•i•to•ri•al•ize (ed´ə tô ré əl ĭzā´shən) n.
1. to express editorial opinions on a given topic
2. to place editorial information into a written article
3. to present what is considered by an editor to be relevant content while omitting any content considered irrelevant or inappropriate
prop•a•gan•da (präp é gan´da) n.
1. any system of which is used to promote or disseminate certain ideas, doctrines, practices, or people
2. any material used for the sole purpose of proselytizing an individual and/or group of individuals in a concerted effort of converting them to a specific viewpoint or to adopt a particular set of beliefs
dis•in•for•ma•tion (dis in´fər mā´shən) n.
erroneous or inaccurate information intentionally and often covertly spread in an attempt to divert or distract people from the truth
What’s interesting about these definitions is how purposefully vague they are. It’s clear that on a person-to-person basis, the way that censorship, editorialization, propaganda, and disinformation are perceived will vary from one person to the next, thus causing these words to be defined as much by our own perspectives as by their very nature. Failing to establish a definitive, universal set of guidelines as to what constitutes these acts may at first appear unhelpful, but in their subtle ambiguity we can also find the very freedom that these acts negate. To truly understand these concepts, one must look not to their definitions (as these metamorphose and evolve over time), but rather seek out their meanings through the history of their existence. In the following essay, I shall attempt to illuminate said history and provide readers with the information needed to form their own philosophical stance on the matter.
Early Forms Of Censorship
It’s difficult, if not virtually impossible, to determine when and where the first acts of censorship took place. The reason being that the whole history of censoring is so filled with gaps due to the proficiency of its practitioners. While it’s more than likely that we’ve had censorship in some form or another for as long as we’ve had verbal communication and since before the invention of the written word, these first instances are long lost to us. However, it’s not difficult to imagine how such a thing might have occurred. Whether it was an early coupling of man and woman when a husband first silenced his wife at the mention of his infidelities or whether it was a jealous huntsman scratching out a rival huntsman’s etchings on a cave wall depicting his triumphant kill, no one can be sure.
What is probable is that censorship began as a mere desire for secrecy motivated by insecurity, fear, jealousy, or any other of the common frailties that exist within the human condition. Censorship is the defense mechanism of a fragile ego that does not want its vulnerabilities made known. Yet censoring would not remain such a benign act, for the suppression of communication would grow and mutate in its insidiousness. As civilizations sprung up from our earliest tribal gatherings, censorship would also be cultivated and evolve from the personal defense mechanism of a fragile psyche into a weapon for those who refused to accept or tolerate the existence of contrary beliefs. Censorship would become the hammer by which the intolerant and the tyrannical could chisel society into the shape that he desired.
During the formation and growth of early civilizations, before written languages were commonplace, it was very easy and simple to institute censorship; all one had to do to silence controversial speech was to silence the speaker. This could be done in a number of ways including bribery, blackmail, threats, violence, and even murder. In early tribal communities, when someone spoke “evil” words, that person might be forced to do penance in any number of ways from performing extra physical labor to going without food. Sometimes the person might even be exiled from the community and told never to return. But as the written language began to spread, its influence was felt in many cultures around the world, and censorship became a much more complex matter.
In ancient times, censorship was often employed by one society as a political and military tactic to defeat rival societies. Typically, when an army invaded a city, state, or country, one of the first things to be done was to burn and destroy their enemy’s temples of worship and their libraries. Throughout history and right up to the present, the practice of destroying literature, known as libricide, has been used as a way to deconstruct one set of societal values in order to replace them with another set of societal values. In the long history of conquest and genocide, this was done in an attempt to ensure that the culture under attack would not rise up from their ruins and reestablish themselves, but it was also a way to prevent others from learning about and sympathizing with the conquered culture. Once these people were seen as foreign and mysterious, it became easier to vilify and dehumanize them with propaganda. Examples of this can be seen during the Graeco-Persian Wars, during the Medieval Crusades, during the Holocaust, and in most countries where European colonialism took place, particularly Africa and India. If a race, religion, culture, or political group was perceived as inferior or less than human, then the desire to dominate that group and justify its destruction became almost inevitable.
Ancient Greece, Rome, & Egypt
The foundation of official government censorship was first laid down by the Romans in 443 B.C.. The Comitia Centuriata (or Century Assembly) was a democratic assemblage of Roman soldiers who helped to determine the direction of the Roman government via the electoral process and the assignment of magistrates. One of the magistrates was the Censor, whose duty it was to oversee the census, select financial matters, and of course to ensure, by force if necessary, that Roman citizens conducted themselves in a moral manner that was suitable for the Roman Republic. Today, it is this position and practice which is the basis for the word censorship and its application in society.
What’s fascinating is how similar these early Censors were to our modern day ones. Though the Censors had very little in the way of actual political power, their influence was widespread as their responsibilities effected virtually all of Rome. Because the Censors were also used to moderate the behaviors of the Roman populace, a duty known as Regimen morum, they were given the nickname of Castigatores or chastizers.
Despite being divided into various city-states, which often warred with one another, ancient Greece was a very progressive place. The most progressive city-state was Athens, which served as something of a cultural center of Greece and would later become the country’s capital. Athens was home to many of the great artists, poets, philosophers, politicians, and military leaders that helped to form what we now consider Western Civilization. They were an extremely liberal society that was openly tolerant of homosexuality, different political and philosophical beliefs, and they founded the concept of democracy. Athenians believed in free thought and free speech. Theirs was one of the first major societies to adopt a system of government in which the populace as a whole (with the exception of women, children, and slaves who were not permitted to vote) decided upon the policies of the times. In this climate of intellectual progress, many great thinkers including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, spoke out on a wide range of topics from politics to sexuality to metaphysics.
For Athenian philosopher Socrates, Athens was progressive in comparison to other city-states and other countries, but it was not progressive enough for him. Socrates criticized some of the popular democratic beliefs held in Athens and he even at times praised the practices of the rival Spartans. However, this form of criticism wasn’t uncommon and free speech was ardently encouraged in Athens, so for the most part Socrates‘ statements weren’t seen as a real threat to Athenians or their security, though they were taken with a grain of salt. But over time, Socrates developed the reputation of a “social gadfly” and there were some Athenians who felt that his criticisms were unpatriotic and counterproductive. For Socrates, this was not the case, as he understood that society could not improve upon itself unless it possessed a sharp self-awareness and an ability to learn from its mistakes. With this in mind, he continued to question the laws, the moral and social standards, and the logic of the Athenian democratic system.
Socrates began to look down upon the citizenry of Athens as ignorant, pompous, and over-confident while also intellectually stunted. Meanwhile, he continued to praise rival city-states such as Sparta and certain controversial militant organizations. This lead to a decline in his reputation and he was eventually viewed by many as a public nuisance especially to the prideful Athenian elite. Rather than tone down his criticisms of Athens and its people, Socrates defended his words believing that the city-state would not continue to progress and improve if it wasn’t without its detractors and critics. This refusal to impede his own speech would result in a trial, organized by the Athenians in an effort to silence Socrates‘ constant complaints, during which Socrates suggested that he would be better off dead than to live in a place where a dissenting opinion wasn’t valued or, even worse, was threatened with censorship. Ultimately, Socrates was found guilty of “corrupting the minds of Athenian youths” and not believing in the gods of the state. He was sentenced to death by drinking a poison made from hemlock. While in prison, Socrates was given opportunities to escape, but he refused to do so because he was a philosopher and it was thought that philosophers should have no fear of death, as well as because he knew that it would be improbable that his criticisms would be received any better elsewhere, and he had to accept the laws of Athens under which he had chosen to live even if they resulted in his own execution.
To this day, Socrates is remembered as the founder of Western philosophy and also as something of a martyr. Just as he criticized his contemporary Athenians, he too has been the subject of criticism and scholarly debate up until the present. Still, many people are in agreement that the trial and death of Socrates in 399 B.C. is one of the first major examples of such harsh censorship by a form of government. One of Socrates‘ own pupils, Plato, was a proponent for government censorship. He said, “The poet shall compose nothing contrary to the ideas of the lawful, or just, or beautiful, or good, which are allowed in the state; nor shall he be permitted to show his compositions to any private individual until he shall have shown them to the appointed censors and guardians of the law, and they are satisfied with them.”
One of the greatest examples of the intentional erasure of historical documents is the destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria, a massive storehouse of knowledge, which contained within it thousands of priceless scrolls. The Library of Alexandria, which was built in Alexandria, Egypt during the 3rd Century B.C., housed the writings of some of the greatest scholars of the ancient world and was perhaps the most vaunted treasure of the Grecian intellectual elite. The library was the center of progressive thinking for centuries, but its gradual destruction (over time and by a number of unrelated incidents) was one of the world’s most tragic losses and was likely the result of libricide at the hands of invading armies.
Ancient China, The Mongol Empire, & The Middle East
During the early 3rd century B.C., China was ruled by the oppressive Qin Dynasty. In 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huang rose to power, and unified China under his imperial authority, which lasted for fifteen years until 206 B.C.. The Qin Dynasty was very concerned with attaining power and wiping out the remnants of prior dynasties and different philosophical viewpoints. While the Qin Dynasty was very successful in some of their reforms such as improving China’s commerce and fortifying the strength of the Imperial Army, they also used methods that became controversial, including censorship and libricide. Everything from poetry to history and political philosophy was treated as potentially hostile to the success of the newfound nation. It was decided by Chancellor Li Si that in order for China to move forward and adopt new governmental standards and religious ideologies, that the old standards and ideologies needed to be permanently removed from China’s cultural history, so the Qin Dynasty oversaw the burning and destruction of thousands of documents and literary works between the years 213 and 206 B.C.. Works on technology, agriculture, and medicine were largely spared due to their useful application in the empire.
Among those thousands of documents destroyed were writings by and about Taoism, Confucianism, and Mohism. While Taoism was largely concerned with energy forces, the natural state of things, acquiring longevity, and achieving a distance from materialism and possessiveness, Confucianism was more focused on collectivism, the greater good, prolonging the family and ancestor veneration, and carrying on with rigid discipline and traditions. Mohism, named after Mozi (Mo Tzu), was a very different philosophy that was both individualist and collectivist, both spiritual and scientific, pacifistic, and venerated all life while questioning its purpose. Mohism was all but eradicated and only fragments of its philosophy remained to be absorbed and assimilated into the state-held philosopy of Legalism. It was felt that any doctrines or philosophical traditions which might cause people to question authority, to distance themselves from wealth and worldly possessions, or place the family before the dynastic government of China would be at odds with the new Legalistic rule.
In a widespread effort to oust any competitive ideologies, Emperor Qin suppressed teachings and literature collectively known as “The Hundred Schools of Thought” through libricide and by assassinating political scholars and influential thinkers who might disagree with his doctrines. If that weren’t bad enough, the Qin Dynasty went even further by killing four-hundred and sixty Confucian scholars who were “buried“. While this was for many years thought to mean that they were literally buried alive, and some scholars still feel this literal interpretation to be true, many have suggested through careful examination of historical documents that the phrase “burying of scholars” was euphemistically employed to indicate that they were executed (the reasoning behind this being that they could not provide Qin with an elixir for immortality). The horrific irony is that much of this was done in vain as the Han Dynasty which succeeded the Qin Dynasty would revive many of the practices and beliefs that the Qin Dynasty wanted forgotten.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang would die in 210 B.C. while questing for a potion that would make him immortal, something with which he had become obsessed with after three assassination attempts, and Chancellor Li Si would keep his death secret until he could place Qin’s incompetent son, Qin Er Shi, on the throne. Emperor Qin’s elder son, Fusu, was next in line for the throne, but he was ordered to commit suicide by the scheming Chancellor and a eunuch named Zhao Gao. Once Zhao’s influence over the new emperor was secured, he had the Chancellor charged with treason, tortured him until he confessed, and then executed him by means of cutting him in half at the waist.
Another startling example of libricide is the destruction of the House of Wisdom, the venerated Islamic library in Baghdad and one of the intellectual cornerstones of the Muslim Golden Age. The library, which was also used as a center for translation, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, medicine, geography, and historical research, had been established sometime in the early half of the 9th Century A.D. and had accumulated countless texts over the course of four centuries. When the Mongolian Empire invaded Baghdad in the 13th Century, they besieged the city and destroyed the House of Wisdom. Though some 400,000 texts were saved prior to the invasion, the majority were forever lost, and this is considered by many the first of a series of incidents which marked the end of the Muslim Golden Age and the end of progressive Arab scholarship during the Middle Ages.
Censorship By Religion & Censorship Of Religion
The suppression of religion, either by other religions, particular governments, or secular groups, has gone on for as long as there has been religion. Whether it was the Egyptians oppressing the Jews, the Roman Empire oppressing the Jews and the early Christians, the Christians then oppressing the pagan religions and other Christian sects, Christians oppressing Muslims, or Muslims oppressing Jews, in essence censorship has been occurring in one form or another for as far back as historians have recorded. Cultural suppression and oppression date back to the beginnings of civilization and this is especially true of differing religious perspectives. The mere omission of records from one date to another, or the absence of documentation on important figures or events, or the lack of preservation of historical artifacts is probable evidence of some manner of censorship. There are so many philosophical and spiritual movements of which we know so little about precisely because their history has been obscured by time or concealed by censorious practices.
During the 14th Century B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten abandoned the established tradition of polytheism and instead adopted worship of Aten, the Sun. Akhenaten is believed to be one of the first rulers, if not the first, to abandon polytheism for monotheism. He was born Amenhotep IV, but around five years into his reign as Egypt’s ruler, he changed his name to Akhenaten. Akhenaten dedicated a great deal of time and exerted a great deal of energy to the creation of new buildings and new arts in Egypt. He had a series of elaborate temples made, collectively known as the Gempaaten, which consisted of temples to the Aten and a palace for his wife, Queen Nefertiti. Other temples were constructed at Karnak. While at first, Akhenaten was tolerant of the older, traditional, polytheistic religions of Egypt, it is likely that he grew increasingly disenchanted with them, as he would have the names of the other gods, especially Amun-Ra, removed from religious texts. By the fifth year of his reign when he changed his name, relations with the older religions had fallen apart, and he disavowed the polytheistic religions, and used their wealth to finance his own cult. Akhenaten had initially presented Aten as a kind of counterpart to the god Amun-Ra, in order to familiarize his lesser known god with the people, but then declared that Aten was the only true god. Over time, there was a more and more concentrated effort to convert the peoples of Egypt to Aten worship. The extent to which this was successful is difficult to determine today.
In many works of religious art, Akhenaten and his family are portrayed in a stylistic manner which was unorthodox and more realistic for Egyptian royals. Unlike previous rulers, who were often shown in more realistic static poses or seemingly immobile, Akhenaten and his family were shown together and individually performing various functions and engaging in activities. Akhenaten was depicted in an androgynous fashion, with large hips, a curvaceous stomach, an elongated face with high cheekbones and wide, narrow almond eyes, and a prominent rounded chin. Some Egyptologists have suggested that this emulation of what were traditionally thought feminine traits was an attempt to emulate Aten, considered both mother and father, and others believe that it may be due to a genetic disorder. Certainly, Nefertiti was given more representation and veneration in artwork than other pharaoh’s wives until that point, and this became truer as time passed during the reign of her husband, and some have even suggested that she succeeded her husband as ruler for a short time after his death. After Akhenaten‘s death, the older gods were gradually returned to their place as the more commonly worshiped and many of Akhenaten‘s temples were destroyed and his own name erased from historical record. Little was known about the pharaoh, whose son Tutenkhaten later became the famous Tutankhamun, until the abandoned capitol city of Akhetaten was discovered. Tutenkhamun had changed his name two years into his rule, probably as an attempt to win back the people whose religious attitudes were reverting, but still later generations would strike his name, the names of his father, mother, and brother from the historical record of pharaohs. The temples built in veneration to Aten were disassembled, their materials reused to build other temples and monuments to the polytheistic gods, and Akhetaten would be forgotten and fall into ruins.
Interestingly, there are many postulates given by scholars about Akhenaten surrounding his death, his appearance, the religion he failed to permanently establish, and the details about the succession of his rule within his family. One theory, suggested by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, is that the monotheism of Atenism is the same monotheism of Moses, that Moses may have practiced Atenism, and then successfully passed monotheism onto the Jews as they left Egypt under exile when the Egyptian rulers returned to polytheistic worship.
In Judaism, the Second Commandment states, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” which in its way condemns all artistic creations of the time, be they masks, statues, drawings, or paintings, as a kind of idolatry, depicting the mortal world and its inhabitants of the divine world and its inhabitants. The Third Commandment states, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,“, thus restricting any use of the name ‘Jehovah‘ to prayer and the recitation of holy texts. This belief was later passed on to Christianity and Islam and many devout practitioners of all three Abrahamic religions still consider the utterance of God’s sacred name outside of prayer to be a sacrilege. Another commandment, the Ninth Commandment, states, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour,” which was in many ways a precursor to modern laws to prevent slander, libel, and perjury.
“Moses Coming Down from Mount Sinai” by Gustave Doré (1866) depicting Moses delivering the Ten Commandments to his people.
II Samuel 1:20 declares: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.”
Censorship also occurs within religious groups, so that not only are outside religious ideas prevented from spreading within an established religious order, but also used to construct a set of inviolable fundamental religious principles. This is the very essence of dogmatism. Much of religious dogma is passed from one iteration of religious law or ritual on to another, each iteration of the religion splintering off to form different religious schisms, and each of these new religious splinter groups adopting certain laws and credos or in an attempt at reform adapting them into others. When the Jews left Egypt, they banned the idolatrous behavior that they associated with the Egyptians; when they were persecuted in Rome, they vilified the Romans as orgiastic heathens; when Christianity arose from Judaism, the Christians blamed the Jews and the Romans for the death of Jesus – each major event spawned a new form of religion and religious intolerance towards the previous established religion and towards upstart religious sects. To prevent lapsing into the past, and to ensure the survival of the prevailing belief system, religions suppress one another’s lifestyles and even secular lifestyles.
Because idolatry was viewed as such a threat and the tendency of humankind is to create physical or visual representations of abstract concepts, like supernatural entities and other worlds, be they Heaven or Hell, it was deemed necessary to destroy any “false idols”. Man cannot comprehend the divine and so he should not attempt to artistically depict the divine as any such depiction would be of his own making and not of God’s. This lead to iconoclasm, the destruction of icons and idols in whatever form they took, and so many works of art and literature were systematically destroyed. “And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place.”
This was not only censorship, it was religious warfare, and in the eyes of Judeo-Christianity, souls were at stake. This iconoclasm wasn’t restricted to just the internal activities or practices of one religion, but also included the destruction of artifacts from other religions as well. When the Jews left Egypt in their great Exodus, any statues or art that they found or that were created by members of their own religion which depicted the Egyptian gods, or any other pagan deities, were destroyed. In Islam, depictions of the prophet Mohammad are forbidden, not only within the Muslim religion, but this is also something that Muslims sometimes attempt to enforce on infidels. In the 7th Century, when the religion of Islam was only a few decades old, Muslims destroyed the statues of the Arabian gods in the Kaaba of Mecca. Many even attribute the broken and missing nose of the Great Sphinx in Egypt to a Muslim iconoclast.
In Christianity, especially, blasphemous or heretical concepts were subject to suppression by the Church. Christianity went from being an oppressed minority religious upstart in Rome prior to Constantine’s conversion in 312 A.D., after which it became the state religion and the oppressive, dominant religion in Europe over the course of next millennia. Speech, literature, and art which conveyed notions that might portray Biblical figures or members of the Church in an unflattering light were kept away from Christian followers at all costs for it was believed that any immoral temptation was of Satanic influence and might cause them to deviate from the spiritual path of the Christ. Conformity and compliance were seen as virtues that would protect the followers of Christ from damnation.
Matthew 18:9 states, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” Similarly, in Asia, there is the philosophy of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” behind which is the idea of moral probity, suggesting that it is better to not be aware of unpleasant or objectionable images, words, and thoughts or to be involved in activities that may have a corrupting influence on those exposed to them. Another phrase that describes this is attitude is “Ignorance is bliss“, a line taken from a poem by 18th Century poet, Thomas Gray.
During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V, whose iconoclastic rule oversaw the widespread destruction of religious art, literature, statues, and temples, Christians began to fear that their way of life might also be erased and forgotten in time. Constantine had outlawed the creation and veneration of any relics. At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D., it was decided that iconoclasm had cost Christianity too much of its historical documentation and artifacts, and that the history of the Christian peoples must be preserved, so a number of rules and guidelines were adopted in the hopes that future iconoclasms might be prevented. “… we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.” And so, idolatry returned and was welcomed by the Church as a matter of self-preservation.
To be continued…