Censorship for a Transgressive Age

censorshipAs is by now clear, the Society for the Suppression of Vice was not entirely successful in its endeavours, but attempts to reform the behaviour of mankind nevertheless continue, yet another triumph of Man’s hope over his experience. And since virtue is now thought to consist mainly of the expression of the right opinions and eschewal of the wrong ones, it is hardly surprising that strenuous efforts are now made, by means of speech codes and even by laws, to suppress the latter and make them inexpressible. The hope is that what cannot be said will soon become unthinkable also, and everyone will be nice.

There are occasions when such attempts seem to be motivated by common human decency and are almost justified. In Romania, for example, a law has been proposed to make it illegal to indulge publicly in apologetics for anyone who has been convicted, or was guilty, of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The law will also make it illegal publicly to promote by any means whatever ideas, concepts or doctrines that are deemed to be fascist, racist or xenophobic.

Romania as a country has many charms, but during the twentieth century political virtue was certainly not one of them. During the 1920s and 1930s, its intelligentsia was almost entirely enthralled and enthused by nationalism of the most virulent and xenophobic kind, viciously anti-Semitic, and did not confine its support entirely to words. The careers of two of the Romania’s greatest literary ornaments of the twentieth century, Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran, might be interpreted by the morally rigorous as attempts to cover up (rather than atone for) their fervent support for figures such as Codreanu and Hitler. The Romanian occupation of Odessa and the surrounding territory during the war was brutal even by the standards of the time. Half of the Jews under Romanian jurisdiction during the war were killed (fewer as a proportion than in, say, Holland, but many more in number). After a brief intervening period following the war, the king was deposed and a communist regime installed by the usual means of eliminating enemies, real and supposed, intimidation and suppression of any but its own shifting doctrines.

At Ceausescu’s summary trial during the so-called Romanian Revolution (more a coup with revolutionary consequences), the former dictator and his odious wife were accused of genocide. Having been in Romania just three months before Ceausescu’s downfall, I can honestly claim to be no admirer of or apologist for him and Elena, though my time in the country was precious to me and I am grateful not to have missed the extraordinary experience of Bucharest of the time (the atmosphere beautifully caught in Patrick McGuinness’s novel The Last Hundred Days): but it struck me as ridiculous, as well as unjust, to accuse Ceausescu and his wife of genocide. They were guilty of quite enough as it was without bogus accusations and false comparisons.

Unfortunately, according to Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

This definition, which is used also by the International Criminal Court, is so loose that it would make much if not most of human history coterminous with that of genocide. Ceausescu, who continued and extended policies that led to the all but total emigration of Jews and Saxons from his country (though one of the very few Saxons remaining is now President of the country), would find it difficult to defend himself against the charge as defined above. And yet to claim that Ceausescu’s regime, terrible as it undoubtedly was, could seriously be compared with that of Hitler, or with that which brought about the destruction of the Tutsis in Rwanda, is to fail utterly to make a proper distinction and, by doing so, to reduce the enormity of genocide. Those who trivialise words will soon trivialise things.

The inclusion of “causing mental harm to members of a group” in the definition of genocide, possible only in a psychotherapeutic age, inevitably opens a Pandora’s box of grievance and undermines any sense of perspective. Most of us are members of “national, ethnical, racial or religious groups”—in fact, I don’t know anyone who isn’t—and furthermore some members of such groups are almost always caused distress, that is to say mental harm, by the opinions or actions of others, and all of us are distressed by them some of the time. I have only to open a liberal newspaper to experience distress and therefore harm. Moreover, it is likely that not only are we caused mental distress, but that we inflict it as well. To judge by some of the comments that I receive, I know that I certainly do.

On the definition of the Convention, then, we are all both victims and perpetrators of genocide, and the term loses all meaning.

Unless definitions are made narrow, rigid and clear, it is obvious that any attempt to limit freedom of expression because some opinions are beyond the pale of the tolerable will inevitably lead to censorship for narrowly partisan purposes. Unfortunately, our world is not made for narrow, rigid and clear definitions. For example, is pointing to the undoubted historical fact that Marshal Antonescu “saved”—that is to say, deliberately refrained from killing—the 300,000 Jews who survived the war in Romania, apology for him or not, in so far as it implies that he could have been even worse than he actually was? And is drawing a distinction between Ceausescu and yet worse dictators an apology for him or not?

There is a further problem. Intellectual and artistic heroism in our settled societies consists largely in the breaking of taboos: we look not so much for new fields to conquer, as for new taboos to break. In art criticism, for example, the word transgressive has come to be a term of approbation, irrespective of what is being transgressed—which, indeed, is seldom if ever specified, being as indefinite as Mrs Sparsit’s pain, which she knew was somewhere in the room but could not actually claim it for herself. It certainly is not difficult to find statements that art has a duty to disturb, to outrage, to subvert, to undermine, to contest, with the implication that what does none of those things cannot be art. This, of course, is an obvious outrage to art history—art may do those things or it may not—but it is nonetheless a widely held view, even an orthodoxy in art schools.

To erect taboos, then, is nowadays to invite people, or at least those people who wish to distinguish themselves from the mass, to break them. In these circumstances, a taboo will cause the very thing that the taboo is erected to prevent, especially where the authorities who erect it are themselves suspected of sordid personal or sectional interest. When a French government makes it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide, everyone knows that the French government doesn’t give a hoot about what happened in 1915, but cares quite a lot in a tight political corner about the 400,000 or so votes of French citizens of Armenian descent. In Romania, nothing will stir xenophobic national sentiment like the prohibition of its expression. The prohibition will seem like a confirmation of the very kind of conspiracy upon the allegation of whose existence such xenophobic nationalism thrives.

And yet—oh why in human affairs must there always be the other hand to complicate matters so?—one can well understand why in Romania expressions of such sentiment should cause extreme nervousness. Countries have particular histories, they are not one big generic country. The Romanians have reason to be careful as, say, the Danes do not. Who would want to see people marching through the streets of Bucharest in praise of the Iron Guard? Who would simply say, “Well, it is their constitutional right to do so”?

Happy the land that has no such dilemmas: if, indeed, there is such a land.

One thought on “Censorship for a Transgressive Age

  • lloveday says:

    Quotation marks should enclose the actual words purported to be quoted; to omit even one word, particularly an important qualifier, is disingenuous if it can give a false impression, and omitting the qualifier “serious” from “causing mental harm to members of a group” can do that, particularly when followed by a claim that “to open a liberal newspaper” would come under the ambit of the UN Article.
    “Serious” may be a nebulous term, subject to judicial interpretation, but to imply that opening, eg, The Guardian, can cause the degree of harm necessary to fall under “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” fails the pub test, as would claiming that “serious” only qualifies “bodily” when it clearly refers to both “bodily and mental”.

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