The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats has an exquisite lyric, “The Road at My Door”, in his sequence Meditations in Time of Civil War (1922). At the end of the short poem, he notes a moor-hen attending to her chicks and then, observing them more closely, summons a vivid and delightful visual image of the little birds, writing: “I count those feathered balls of soot / The moor-hen guides upon the stream”. About to teach the poem the other day, and not having Yeats’s Collected Poems to hand, I went online to check that I was remembering all its details correctly, and on the first site that turned up, I encountered this:
I count those feathered ***** of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
For a moment, I thought a scholar must have identified a hitherto unknown corruption in the text and was alerting readers to it in this rather clumsy way, but then it dawned on me that the corruption was of an entirely different kind: a censor had been at work. She or he, reading “balls”, had leapt to a testicular conclusion that nobody, in the century-long history of the reading of this poem, or anybody not possessed of a seriously disordered or putrefied mind, would have so much as thought of, let alone have the colossal hide to set about deleting. The “offensive” word had been replaced with asterisks, and—in the process—the reading and appreciation of the lovely poem had been destroyed for anyone, including students, who came across it on the site.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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This example, as trivial as it is revolting, nonetheless neatly reveals one of the several characteristic elements of the censorious mentality, surprisingly thriving anew in our day: the beady-eyed discovery of slime or offence where it never existed, nor was ever intended.
The contemporary revival of the curse of censorship is far more wide-ranging in its subjects than its typical expression in the past, when its all-but-exclusive focus was on sexual matters. Now you only need to quote selected passages from the Bible (of all books), as Israel Folau can tell you, and the shrill cries of the censorious will ring out to the ends of the earth.
The history of censorship in literature is littered with numerous examples of texts that were banned because of words and scenes deemed obscene by the standards of particular societies and times. Routinely, the result has been that interest in those works that the censors would have bowdlerised, or even obliterated, has surged spectacularly, to make them much more sought-after than would otherwise have been the case, had they not been the subject of the inevitable publicity that attends offence and outrage. Examples of this phenomenon are two well-known novels from the early twentieth century: James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, both banned for decades. Because of the prohibition, people couldn’t wait to get their hands on them. But having done so, particularly in the case of the dense Modernist prose of Ulysses, any aphrodisiacal expectation was quickly quelled as readers found themselves ploughing through the impenetrable prose in the futile pursuit of a few forbidden delights.
We recently had an amusing local example of this kind of counterproductive outcome of the censor’s dismal procedure. Labor’s Senator Kristina Keneally shrilly alerted Australia to the visit of the British activist Raheem Kassam to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney in August, and she insisted that he should be banned from speaking. Before Keneally’s outbursts, most of us had never so much as heard of Mr Kassam, let alone his allegedly offensive remarks about women, which, moreover, Keneally proceeded to refer to repeatedly. You could have been excused for thinking that the senator was Mr Kassam’s agent, given the extensive free publicity and promotion of his visit and views that she garnered for him and the Conservative Political Action Conference. As an editorial in the Australian wryly observed, Mr Kassam “can be grateful to Senator Keneally for boosting his profile”. The brouhaha this scold had generated even went international, with Donald Trump Jnr buying into the controversy on Mr Kassam’s behalf. As the mentality of the censor, like that of the thought police generally, is utterly devoid of a sense of humour and irony, it is unlikely that Ms Keneally discerned the ludicrous result of the nationwide outrage she had attempted (and failed) to confect. Mr Kassam duly spoke at the conference and, it was reported, “received the greatest applause”.
Censorship today is not merely a matter of banning supposedly obscene books or lewd films, or publicly shaming speakers of “incorrect” words or ideas. The censorious are not content merely with silencing the politically incorrect; they are hell-bent on destroying their careers, and—if they can manage it—their very lives, even on the basis of an incorrectly-interpreted aside or anecdote. Probably the most notorious example, in recent times, of this phenomenon was the case of Professor Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, of University College, London, who made a mildly humorous, self-depreciating reference to women in laboratories at a luncheon address to female scientists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea in 2015:
It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.
For this flippant interlude, which a female journalist in the audience promptly reported to the media, concentrating only on the first half of it to denounce a vile misogynist, Hunt was subjected to a global execration as “sexist” on a scale and intensity that would have been surprising had he been a convicted child molester or serial murderer. He had, in fact, broken no law and had harmed nobody. Within forty-eight hours, he was forced to resign from his professorial appointment and from the Royal Society (of which, of course, as a world-renowned scientist, he was a Fellow). The most shocking aspect of this lynching frenzy was that Hunt received no support from his university (which told him that he must resign or be sacked) or his cowed and cowardly colleagues there, who either remained silent or joined the baying crowd of his accusers, putting the boot in.
That censorship has invaded universities is the most sinister manifestation of its repellent reappearance in our day. One of the astonishing ironies of social and intellectual history of the last half-century is that the university, once the stalwart and outspoken defender of unfettered freedom of thought and expression, has now become the principal persecutor of those freedoms.
Going up to the university myself in the wake of the student riots of 1968 and the larger counter-cultural movement of the Sixties, what I found most striking about campus life then, coming from a comparatively sheltered background, was the absolute freedom which students and academics enjoyed to say whatever they thought about whatever they liked, and that this was deemed to be an essential characteristic of university life in those heady times. Scarcely a day went by when I was not affronted or offended by an article in a student rag, by some graffito scrawled on a wall or by the expression of an opinion in a student meeting and even, sometimes, in a lecture. Had I gone weeping and wailing to the vice-chancellor or dean of the time (which would have been unthinkable then, and would never have crossed my mind or anybody else’s) with my deeply hurt and offended feelings or that I felt “unsafe” because I had heard a visiting speaker express opinions with which I disagreed, I would have been dismissively—and perfectly correctly—sent off with the imperative to grow up and remember that I was enrolled at a university, not a creche. I would have been told that the very reason for coming to a university was to have your mind seriously stirred up and your preconceptions vigorously challenged and, moreover, that any university which was failing to do that was failing in its essential purpose and ought to be closed down. He might well have quoted that quintessential university man George Steiner to me: “A true university rebukes censorship and correctness of any kind … And it should honour anarchic provocation.”
It is a sign of how disgracefully degraded the university culture has become in our day (aspects of which are detailed in the recently-published collection Campus Meltdown: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities, edited by William Coleman) that sanctimonious nanny vice-chancellors have not only turned their institutions into “safe places”, where nobody’s feelings might be hurt by merely a word or a phrase, but also regard this scandalous traducing of the very idea of a university as a badge of honour, as significant progress, no less, towards some high ideal where everybody at a university thinks and speaks exactly the same as if they were in an Institute for Social Engineering on the plains of Siberia. As Professor Richard Dawkins has tartly observed, “a university is not a ‘safe space’. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy and suck your thumb until ready for university.”
Spurious selectivity is another of the repugnant elements of the contemporary manifestations of this curse of censorship redivivus. Just a word of criticism (however legitimate and supported by evidence) that might be uttered about various groups, identifiable by race and gender, will be shouted down and silenced by the thought police; while denunciation (of even the crudest and vilest kind) of approved targets flourishes unimpeded, uncensored. You can say whatever you like today in ridicule of white males, of the Christian God, Jesus Christ and Christians themselves and, astonishingly—in the resurgent anti-Semitism of the far Left—about Jews, but utter a negative word about (for example) Muslims or Aborigines and their beliefs and cultural practices and you are the Devil’s child and must be hounded out of your job and silenced.
A few years ago, in the weeks before Christmas, on the popular prime-time panel-show The Project, on Channel 10 and chaired by Muslim lawyer Waleed Aly, a carving of the Nativity scene, made entirely out of cheese, was featured. “That would be Baby Cheesus, then?” quipped one of the panellists, at which the studio audience roared with laughter. So, he said it again: “Baby Cheesus!” More gales of uncontrollable mirth. Had the cheese carving been of Mohammad or of one of the spirits of the Aboriginal Dreaming, no one would have dared to make it the butt of a joke—indeed, no one would have dared to craft it in the first place—and, had they done so, the ever-vigilant, virtue-signalling Empire of Outrage would have been radioactive in its condemnation of such “deeply offensive” racism and revolting indulgence of “hate speech”, and the panellist’s scalp would have been called for. But if any Christian had dared to suggest that they found this nonsense offensive, they would have been smartly ticked off about their lack of a sense of humour and their censorious attack on free speech.
Then, this September, Griffith University in Queensland displayed Chilean-Australian artist Juan Davila’s Holy Family painting, a crude pornographic parody of Michelangelo’s famous Pieta, where the Virgin Mary cradles the dead body of Christ. In Davila’s work, Mary, with legs wide apart, is holding an enormous tumescent penis, with enlarged scrotum. When challenged about this, the university authorities said they were “pushing barriers”. Would they be similarly committed to pushing barriers if the image were not of Christian provenance, as in this case, but portrayed, let us say, Mohammad fellating a penis, or an Aboriginal aunty doing the same? Not on your life! Suddenly, the “pushing of barriers” would come to a grinding halt, as the iron-fisted campus censorship, with its outraged cries of “racism”, “sexism” and so on bellowed forth and the administrators spewed out their customary maledictions and denunciations of such deeply “offensive” material, contrary to the university’s profound commitment to diversity, inclusiveness, multiculturalism and so on—from all of which considerations and shibboleths, curiously, Christians are excluded.
A dozen of the staff of Charlie Hebdo paid the ultimate price, in 2015, for their pushing of barriers, at the hands of Islamic censors determined to silence them for good. Yet instead of this massacre providing a wake-up call to the West, the number of verboten topics, even for satire (the life of which depends upon freedom from censorship), has multiplied in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, to the point—dearly cherished by the totalitarian mindset—where people are frightened to express merely an opinion about controversial matters for fear that it may offend somebody. Germaine Greer, for example, learnt that lesson a couple of years ago when she dared to suggest in an interview that post-operative male-to-female persons were not “real women”. Cambridge University promptly withdrew the offer of an honorary degree that was to be conferred upon this distinguished alumna, and Cardiff University warned her that if she attended to deliver a lecture that was scheduled there, it could not guarantee her physical safety. This is the anti-intellectual, liberty-denying environment, on steroids, to which we have been reduced by the current curse of censorship.
No one who has not been asleep for a generation would be remotely surprised by the depths to which the fatally-corrupted universities have sunk, but it is indeed both remarkable and disturbing that the people at large, in democratic societies such as Australia, are apparently willing to submit, in silence, to be silenced in this way.
Beyond these varieties of suppression of speech and the gagging of incorrect beliefs and the elimination of thought criminals, there has now developed an ever-ramifying form of censorship of the most intrusive kind—that of the exposure for shaming of individuals on the basis of their criminally-accessed private communications and conversations. No assault by the censorious, in human history, has been as insidious and vicious as this and it should concern anybody who values not only personal freedom of thought and speech, but the right to privacy. With most people’s personal communication being carried on, these days, online, in emails and texting, with hackers roaming about, like the Devil in Scripture, seeking whom they might devour, and muck-raking journalists avid for the latest scoop of incorrect thought or expression to denounce and annihilate the perpetrators, people are now realising that even their most private communications with family and friends are public property that could take them to the pillory.
The addle-brained stupidity of this variety of censoriousness was disclosed in the reception of the posthumously-published letters of the English poet Philip Larkin and his friend, the novelist Kingsley Amis. Their private correspondence began during their undergraduate years at Oxford and retained an undergrad naughtiness, becoming deliberately more obscene and politically incorrect as the years went by, in pointed reaction to the public world which, in contrast, was progressively submitting to the censorious constraints of what Peter Hitchens calls the “dictatorship of rage”.
Larkin’s private letters (Peter Craven has observed),
particularly his letters to Kingsley Amis, were full of erotic smut about young girls and they also came with plenty of stuff that was racist and anti ordinary, working people … But the best of the poetry is marvellous … People who knew him said he was an extremely companionable man, kind and sensitive.
So, in just a few sentences, Craven has identified no less than three Larkins (two of them, the first and the third, sharply contradictory): the “offensive” one in the private context with an old friend, the distinguished poet and the kind man in public. If we wanted to add a fourth, there was the accomplished professional who, as Librarian of the University of Hull, worked successfully and happily with many young women and “ordinary” people, and with students and academic colleagues from a variety of racial backgrounds for thirty years. The censorious, determined to find material by which to defame the deceased Larkin, and driven, no doubt, by a zeal to condemn anyone of conservative political views, precipitately passed judgment on him, on the evidence not only of these private letters but on a literal-minded and wilful determination to exclude any consideration of that very private context to which they belonged or the word-play that they plainly exhibit. They were determined to reveal (and to revel in that revelation, while affecting to be deeply shocked) what Tom Paulin described as “the sewer under the national monument Larkin became”. But as a colleague of Larkin at Hull, James Booth, argued: the racist flare-ups in Larkin’s letters—“black scum”, “kick out the niggers”—were merely “performative riffs, requiring inverted commas”. Booth emphasises Larkin’s admiration for many black jazz musicians and argues that
the verbal comprehensiveness at which Larkin aims in his writing meant that he would inevitably find a place for every conceivable word. He could thus speak of “the paki next door” in a letter to a friend without the slightest implication that he lacked respect for his neighbour.
Private correspondence is, as often as not, written to satisfy what the writer imagines the recipient wants to hear; and, in the context of friendship, especially and inevitably amongst literary people, reveals the linguistic disposition of the intimacy of a relationship that is nobody’s business but its participants’. The British journalist Michael Deacon had the intelligence to recognise this:
Read [Larkin’s] letters: in every correspondence, he reflects the recipient’s personality back at them. Writing to Kingsley Amis, he was cruelly funny and robustly philistine. Writing to J B Sutton, an artist friend from his youth, he was an earnest aesthete. To genial Barbara Pym, the novelist, he was genial; to neurotic Monica [Jones], he was neurotic; and to his dull mother, he was dull. The pattern is so pronounced, you almost suspect that if he’d become pen pals with Nelson Mandela, he’d have turned (for the duration of each letter) into a black rights activist.
And another crucial element in this domain of epistolary art is that of writing for the sheer amusement of one’s intimates, which can include bawdry and other elements construed as offensive, if made public. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged, for years, in their private correspondence, an ever-enlarging obscene poem about “King Bolo and his Big Black Bassturd Kween”.
None of the verbal excesses of these epistolary exercises is surprising to anyone who has undertaken any study of private correspondence and the particular contexts (personal, historical, socio-cultural and, most importantly, literary and linguistic) of the compositions that need to be very carefully taken into account as we read and evaluate them as—precisely—a form of distinctively private expression, and certainly before we set out on a holier-than-thou campaign of character assassination, of presuming to condemn the moral character of the writers on the basis of a few examples of their verbal inventiveness in private. One can hardly expect the ill-educated and poorly-read journalists of today to be alert and alive to such textual subtleties and nuances, but when people in universities, no less, are similarly (even wilfully) ignorant of these contextual complexities, we have indeed succumbed to Alexander Pope’s imagined Empire of Dunces.
The all-too-quiet Australians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the citizenry of the so-called free world, are as much to blame for the flourishing anew of the contemporary curse of censorship, as the illiberal liberal elites who have fostered it and imposed it on us. Where censorship triumphs, freedom dies and the rest is silence.
Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and is the Literary Editor of Quadrant. A festschrift in his honour, The Free Mind, edited by Catherine Runcie, was published in 2016.