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
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
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.
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.
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Kovacs, J. (2003, March 31). NBC's Peter Arnett: War plan has failed. World Net Daily. Retrieved
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