Monday, March 20, 2006

Censorship: Power Struggles and the Limits of Freedom

At first glance, it appears very simple to argue the case against censorship by talking about universal morals and individual human rights. Unfortunately, the issue is somewhat more complicated than it first appears. Although the principal social actors are the state, mass media corporations and interest groups, it is a topic that runs through the entire society, affecting each family and every individual. This is because censorship is but a small part of the ideological struggle for our thoughts and minds. It is part of a struggle between those who want to maintain social relations more or less as they are, and those who challenge the status quo. It is also a question of where the limits to freedom are, and how they in turn depend on power relations. The decision to support or reject censorship is thus neither moral nor ethical. It is instead a question of where one’s interests lie in any particular case where censorship is used.

The principal actors involved on a national scale are the mass media corporations, the state and interest groups. In cases like the Iraq war, the American mass media corporations and the state worked very closely together. Reporters were imbedded with soldiers and received only authorized information. Hand in hand, they censored the reality that would be fed to the world. However, in the age of globalised technology, independent news chains such as Al Jazeera showed another side of the war and forced US television open up slightly. In Venezuela, for example, the relationship is very different. The government of Hugo Chávez has been facing an unending publicity battle with the media corporations. The media refuses to say anything good about their president, and they actively promoted the attempted coup in 2002 (Bartley & O’Brian, 2003). As a response, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl states that the Venezuelan government has passed a law that makes it illegal to say things contrary to national security (2005). In other cases of censorship, the state is not involved at all. After the attacks of September 11th 2001, the largest owner of radio stations in the United States, Clear Channel Communications, sent a list of songs that it suggested be removed from the play lists of the company’s more than a thousand stations. The list consisted of well over a hundred songs, including highly subversive and violent songs such as the following: Alanis Morissette’s "Ironic," The Beatles’ "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Obla Di, Obla Da," Louis Armstrong’s "What A Wonderful World," The Rolling Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday," and of course, "99 Luft Balloons/99 Red Balloons" (Nuzum, 2003). Leaving aside the corporations, NBC reporter Peter Arnett was fired during the offensive against Iraq because of public outcry after he gave an interview stating that he believed the US war plan had failed (Kovacs, 2003). On a smaller scale, white supremacist groups complain of censorship when their Internet hate-sites are shut down. Even within each household, parents choose which TV programs, books and magazines they want their children to be exposed to. In each case, we have different social actors exercising different forms of censorship.

To understand how all these different social actors relate and are involved in censorship of one form or another, we have to understand what censorship is used for. If we use the Gramscian term of hegemony, we have the general acceptance of the dominant class’s vision of the world. This worldview is propagated through social institutions in civil society such as the church, mass media, the family and the education system. Hegemony crosses the barriers of class, race and gender, and it occurs when people believe that the way things are now is the way they have to be. They accept as natural the current social system. However, as it is simply a belief, people can stop believing it too. Groups looking for change try to show the inequalities in the system and to create the belief that another world is possible. In times of economic, social, political and military crisis, it becomes more probable that people start to question the ways things are. The end of the Vietnam War is a good example of the creation of a counter hegemony that rejects the status quo. However, when hegemony is fully accepted, social actors self-censor themselves, as occurred with the song list after 9/11. When hegemony is strong, deviants are socially censored, as in the case of the NBC reporter. When hegemony is weak, or there exists potentially damaging information, censorship is enforced, as occurred in Venezuela and during the Iraq invasion. In each case, there are relations of power between those who benefit from the hegemony and censorship and those who suffer because of them.

The relationships of power bring us to one of the most difficult parts of the debate on censorship: at what point does one’s freedom impinge upon someone else’s? An example is that of the white supremacist groups. Along with racist hate literature, we can also find violent pornography and sexual harassment. The social actors involved in these all claim the right to free expression, yet they are taking away freedom from others.
On the other side, anarchists call out slogans like “Eat the rich!,” and socialists call for an end to private property and capitalist exploitation. Feminists look for an end to patriarchy. These groups also impinge on the freedoms of others. We obviously cannot take an all or nothing view of censorship nor individual rights. Once again, we have to look at the power relations that are occurring. Discrimination is a form of oppression and must be strongly confronted even if censorship is required. At the same time, oppressed groups looking for social change and equality should be defended from the censorship of the ruling class with its twin arms of the coercive state and hegemonic civil society.

Do they have the right to spread hate?

Censorship is about power relations among social actors in a continual struggle between order and change. It is an issue that actively involves everyone, from the state, to the media, to the individual. It is used overtly only where hegemony has failed, although it can also be used to defend against discrimination. Even if we do not notice it, it is part of our daily lives, be it self-censorship, social censorship or information that is never shown to us. We cannot say it is good or bad; rather we must look at the power relationships involved, recognize the worldview being formed through censorship, and decide if we want change to the current social order or maintain it.


Bartley, K. & O’Brian, D. (Directors). (2003). The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [Film]. Caracas, Venezuela: The Irish Film Board.

Dile, J. (2005, March 28). Chavez's Censorship. The Washington Post. p. A17, Retrieved January 28, 2006 from

Kovacs, J. (2003, March 31). NBC's Peter Arnett: War plan has failed. World Net Daily. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31798.

Nuzum, E. (2002). Crash Into Me, Baby: America’s implicit music censorship in the wake of September 11th. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from http://


HV said...

Speech is just a text open to multiple readings, so who is to say whether any one reading is dominant? In these postmodern times, all we can do is create alternative readings that interrogate dominant meanings... OK OK, I'm kidding. Just blowing off steam after cultural studies!

Good paper. 'Power relations' are tangible, material things. The slogan 'No free speech for Nazis' understands that fascist speech is an incitement to racist & homophobic violence. The issue isn't speech, debate or 'free expression', but what one does with it.

Having said that, I fully support bans on Alanis Morissette. Unless she said something like, "It's like rain on your wedding day / it's like a terrorist attack by people you trained / isn't it ironic, don't you think?" But that'd point out the limits of the state tolerance for free expression very quickly, I think...

Frank Partisan said...

I found this interesting blog surfing.

In the USA, youth are less aware, of the meaning of free speech, than ever before. Most youth are unsure, what the Bill of Rights is. I'm really talking about more than historical documents. I'm talking about ignorance of the history of strugle; labor, civil rights, antiwar etc. Education is becoming more vocational or career oriented. A worthless concept, with ever changing technology.

Fighting censorship is a political act, needing political leadership, to succeed.


Anonymous said...

I am not going to be original this time, so all I am going to say that your blog rocks, sad that I don't have suck a writing skills