Reflections 09/16/00
Robert Kern Curtis

The Ultimate Arrogance

This article was first published as a "Letter to the Editor" requested by the editor of The Voice for January, 1991 (Vol. 57 no. 2)

The ultimate arrogance is one person's determining what his or her peer may say or hear, show or see. This is the role of the censor. Seeing the censor's role as the ultimate arrogance is not to deny that what one hears or sees often has a very deep and persuading influence. Plato recognized this in The Republic when he advocated very far reaching prohibitions against music and poerty which he saw as damaging to the people and particularly to the youth.

But after two-thousand five-hundred years of censorship's dark history, a history of barbaric persecution, of self-serving obfuscation of the truth, of a tool keenly used by tyrants to maintain power, and of petty attempts to rid the masses of vulgarity or to impose puritanical customs, we realize with John Stewart Mill in his Essay on Liberty that while it is necessary to guard against a mischievous person crying "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, in the long run the harm to the public will be greater if ideas are suppressed than if some allegedly harmful or "immoral" ones are tolerated.

Censorship is too often the act of those of one generation looking to the younger generation in dismay and looking back to what are perceived to be better mores and therefore censoring the new. Horace said it: Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti! Se puero, castigator,censorque minorum. Thus we find that some scatological language is particularly offensive without rhyme or reason: "S---" is forbidden but "poppycock" is allowed; "down the tubes" has become asscepted but "F---" is still very bad is spite of the fact that in many contexts it has lost all of its sexual meaning and allusion. And we still find dress codes that insist on "covered shoulders" and specify a precise point on the thigh to which the torso and legs must be covered.

In the recent confrontation between public mores and freedom of expression, a Florida jury has aquitted members of The 2 Live Crew. In Ohio, another jury has acquitted an art gallery and recognized its right to show photographs of homosexual acts. Let us shout a hoorah! Not because vulgarity and the sexually explicit make ours a better society, but because the censorship of the same makes ours a much worse society. With a debt to Voltaire, I dare to say: "I disapprove of what you say and how you say it, but I will defend to the death your right to say it however you like."

Author's note: the Voice editor censored "Shit" to "S---" and "Fuck" to "F---".

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