Should our burning desire to communicate be squelched or supported.
Thus spoke the King of Brobdingnag: “A man may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about for cordials." In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Brobdingnag was the Land of the Giants, and its king—a paragon of virtue—was saying that a man may hold any opinion he pleases, but did not have the right to openly express “opinions prejudicial to the public.”
In other words: “Think what you want but keep your mouth shut if your ideas could lead people astray.”
In “Yes Virginia, There is a Devil” (Change magazine, Dec. 2011), I wrote about Leopold and Loeb, cold-blooded killers who conceived of themselves as Nietzschean supermen. One of my online readers, Perspicacity, asked a very perspicacious question: “Did Loeb and Leopold read Crime and Punishment?”
That is, if the two murderers were influenced to commit their crime by reading (and misunderstanding) Nietzsche, would they still have gone on to senselessly kill their young neighbor and relative if they had read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? The novel is about a young man, Raskolnikov, who kills an old woman with an axe. Raskolnikov shared a moral outlook with Leopold and Loeb. Would Dostoyevsky’s morality tale have stopped them?
I do not know whether Leopold and Loeb read Crime and Punishment, but Perspicacity’s question raised others for me:
1. Can a writer’s work influence a reader to commit destructive acts?
2. Does the writer bear some responsibility for what the reader does under the influence of his words?
3. Does society have the right to protect itself by censoring dangerous words and ideas?
Here’s a spoiler alert: I don’t know the answers and will ask readers of this column for help in figuring it all out.
I’ll start with the first and third questions and save the second question for last.
The belief that literature and ideas influence behavior and that dangerous ideas should be banned is long-standing. Plato, in The Republic, argues for strict censorship of drama and poetry. The New Testament, in several passages, such as Titus 1:11 and Acts 19:19, speaks of silencing people and burning books. The Roman Catholic Church, up until 1966, had an Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or List of Prohibited Books. Totalitarian regimes, such as the Communists, not only prohibited books they thought subversive, but controlled the creation of art so as to inculcate their own ideas about the nature of man and the meaning of life into their populace.
Indeed, art and literature have been given pride of place in cultures around the world and throughout the ages because they have the power to inspire, uplift and ennoble. Books and philosophy have the power to instruct and guide. If great art, literature and philosophy can make us better, can’t the wrong art, literature and philosophy make us worse?
In the case of children, society censors what they can see and hear when it comes to movies and television. Some parents even control the music their children are allowed to listen to and the books they may read to keep their children from being corrupted by bad influences.
It is generally accepted that adults are supposed to be different. They are able to judge what they see, hear and read. They are able to resist bad impulses created by anti-social art and understand when ideas are dangerous and should not be followed.
However, we know this is not true. There are many adults who do not have the requisite maturity or mental balance. Hence the existence of cults who do everything from commit mass suicide to commit mass murder. If we are going to be honest, we have to admit that unstable individuals can go on to create harm if they are influenced by the wrong ideas.
Would such actions be prevented if the pernicious beliefs that motivated them were controlled? Should we have censorship?
It is important to note that there are three agents of censorship: the government, society and the self.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. More precisely, it protects speech from restriction by the Federal Government. This was extended to protection from restriction by state governments by the Fourteenth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1925 in Gitlow v. New York. The kinds of speech that are protected from government restriction have also expanded. First Amendment protection, initially concerned with political speech, has been extended by Supreme Court decisions to now include even sexually explicit material. So censorship by the government essentially does not exist anymore.
We pride ourselves today with being completely free and open. The truth is that we, too, have ideas and topics that are taboo. What is forbidden to say and discuss has changed through the years but the category of “the forbidden” has remained. The content has changed, the form remains. And society has a way of punishing those who violate its current strictures, for society can impose its own form of censorship, apart from action taken by the government.
Recently, a well-known conservative columnist and former presidential candidate, Patrick Buchanan, lost his position as a commentator on a cable news network because of a book he wrote called Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? with a chapter titled "The End of White America." A few weeks before that a commentator at another cable news network was suspended for sending joking tweets during the Super Bowl that were deemed offensive to a sexual minority. These kinds of reactions are nothing new. Several years ago, Lawrence Summers, a prominent economist and former Secretary of the Treasury, was forced to undergo public self-criticism and sent to re-education camp. His crime? Wondering aloud, during a speech while president of Harvard, if one of the reasons for the imbalance of men and women in the upper ranks of science and engineering could possibly be innate differences between men and women.
One of the classics of all American literature, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, has been brought out in a bowdlerized edition because of its constant use of a racially offensive term. One of the classic novels of 20th century literature, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958, is about an educated and articulate pedophile. Had it been written 50 years later it would never have seen the light of day and its author might have been hounded from the literary world.
This brings up the issue of self-censorship: An artist or intellectual may censor himself to avoid public opprobrium. This is the most effective form of censorship. The forbidden thought or argument never comes to life; the monster is never allowed to be born.
But there may be a deeper reason for an artist or intellectual to censor himself. What if unbalanced individuals or groups could misinterpret or twist his words? Would he then be morally culpable for what his readers do? If what he wrote inspired contempt, or hatred or violence—even if that was not the intent of his words—would an artist or intellectual want this moral burden? Wouldn’t it be better to remain silent?
Is Nietzsche, because he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, responsible for Leopold and Loeb? For the Nazis?
What about the Bible or Koran? Is whoever wrote them—be it person, persons, or supernatural entity—responsible for the persecutions and rivers of blood shed by the often misguided believers of those holy books?
I do not know the answer. Do you?
I wish I had answers to the questions I raised in this column. I don’t. If you do, or if you have any thoughts of guidance on this subject, please help me and everyone else figure this out by leaving a comment below if you’re reading this online. If you’re reading this in Change magazine’s print version, you are welcome to visit the magazine’s web site, www.ChangeMediaOnline.com and leave a comment.