To Offend or Not to Offend

If ideas and debate are enabled by free artistic expression, then censorship of the arts essentially puts a lid on them.

A Google search for the word ‘censorship’ returns this clear-eyed definition from the website of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

“The suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive’’, happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others.”

“Censorship by the government”, the site goes on to say “is unconstitutional”.

At the heart of the issue, however, is the propensity to offend. But it is not always clear who stands to be offended and where the censoring agency draws its authority from.

In an issue from last year, The Economist tackled this point in an eloquent defense of free speech:

…the idea has spread that people and groups have a right not to be offended. This may sound innocuous. Politeness is a virtue, after all. But if I have a right not to be offended, that means someone must police what you say about me, or about the things I hold dear, such as my ethnic group, religion, or even political beliefs. Since offence is subjective, the power to police it is both vast and arbitrary. (Under Attack; The Economist; June 4, 2016)

Historically, art has often been at the at the receiving end of censorship. Some of the works targeted are well known; others may have gained notoriety after being singled out for special treatment. Current visitors to the Sistine Chapel may find nothing scandalous about the fresco that covers its altar wall. It looks like an impressive piece of Renaissance art in the signature style of its creator, Michelangelo, who also painted the chapel’s renowned ceiling. But in 1541 when the work was completed, its depiction of largely nude figures ascending or descending to their afterlife fates was too much to digest for the pope who commissioned Michelangelo’s assistant to photoshop the piece with a few strategically painted pieces of cloth.

As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope presumably had the moral authority to censor the work. And in the 1500s, it is unlikely that anyone in his devout congregation would have had a problem with it. But self-styled defenders of societal values – such as the Indian movie censor board under its previous chief – are on shakier ground. The board’s clumsy attempts to shield us from material that could morally corrupt us have been widely lampooned through Sanskaari James Bond jokes and other internet memes.

Authoritarian regimes are adept at muzzling writers, thinkers, journalists and others who question their actions. One of the most chilling displays of state supported censorship took place in 1933 when a German student group launched a book burning campaign to purge the country of  its ‘un-German’ spirit – essentially code for Jewish and communist writings and other ideologies. The tomecide destroyed upwards of 25,000 books and featured fiery speeches by Nazi leaders, including one in Berlin by the party’s propaganda machine, Josef Goebbels. In the speech, he exhorted the crowd to say: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” and “Yes to decency and morality in family and state!” Today, a memorial at the same site in Berlin reminds visitors of an event that kicked off a period of ruthless censorship. It includes these words that were actually written by a 19th century Jewish poet but proved to be darkly prophetic for Nazi Germany: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people”.

Sometimes, a work may be censored after a more careful consideration of the impact it may have. This happened, for example, when a NY art gallery director decided to whitewash a mural that he had commissioned an Italian street artist to complete. The mural depicted the coffins of war casualties draped with dollar bills, instead of flags. The director decided that, though the work was intended to be a broader critique of conflict around the world, it could be construed as being disrespectful to war veterans. And this was not a position he felt the gallery could endorse.

On the face of it, this seems reasonable. But free speech advocates can argue that he suppressed a viewpoint that could have enriched public discourse. As a post by Art Media Agency, an art-focused news site, says: “The work [was] covered before debate, or critique, could begin.”

The question that is becoming increasingly relevant for the age we live in is this: Is it more important to protect the right of a person to not be offended over the right of another to express their point of view? What’s clear is that as long as artists, writers and other creative individuals continue to push the boundaries of artistic expression, there will always be people ready to tell them why they cannot do it. But we need these truth tellers who hold a mirror up to our world – now more than ever.

Sangita Srinivasa
is a Bangalore-based writer and the editor of Viewpoint.