So, I’ve been reading Plato. Not much of it, to be sure, but some and to a specific purpose. I’ve been pretty much argument mining from the Republic, and have come out with some useful stuff. One thing I’ve come out with, more than any number of other things, is how very annoying it is to read Plato. Reading Plato is like hearing a conversation between your grumpy moralising professor and a robot that has been programmed specifically to agree with everything he says.
Aside from this revelation of stylistic narcissism I have been reading Republic as a guide to these Socratic and Plato..istic… Platoean… Platoesque… Platonic? notions of the poetic image. On the way to these ideas however I came across Plato’s arguments about censorship. He doesn’t call it censorship, of course, but it amounts to much the same thing. What he’s doing is exploring moral arguments in relation to the ideal city that he is hypothetically proposing, so when he argues for what shall be allowed into the Republic, he is also discussing what should be excluded, and why.
It’s interesting because of just how little Plato’s argument differs, in its fundamentals, from the current arguments in favour of censorship. Plato’s argument is that certain forms of poetry (Epic, Tragedy, etc.) should be excluded from the republic because they are misleading about the nature of the gods, and represent (or imitate, produce mimesis) of behaviour that the ideal Platonic man should not emulate in the Republic, and that they encourage emulation of that behaviour. Who is likely to emulate this behaviour. Certainly not a man like Plato, or his mouthpiece Socrates, but the impressionably minded children of the Republic. The specific line of reasoning, involving the nature of the gods, is of course specific to the time and place.
However, this is much the same argument as is put forward today by those who argue in favour of censorship. In the 1959 Obscene Publications Act in Britain the argument was that a published artefact should be censored/deemed obscene if it had a tendency to corrupt those who were like to come into contact with it. Again, the question is that certain materials have a tendency to corrode a public moral. In Plato’s Republic it was religious thought and public behaviour, in the case of the 1959 Act’s test case Lady Chatterley’s Lover it was sexual morals and promiscuity.
Both Plato and the writers of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 (OPA-1959) assume that certain ideas/thoughts are corruptive, and there is some sub-population that is likely to be corrupted by them if exposed. Plato argued that the young were likely to be encouraged to emulate the ideas of Homer and the epics. OPA-1959 argued that the young and the working class would have their fragile conceptions of right and wrong corroded by the novel.
This revelation surprised me at the time, but in retrospect I realised that it ought not have. The reason being that there is, to my mind, only one reasonably line of argument in favour of censorship. A society, ideally, starts from the state of complete openness, and that a society needs a reason to ban something. The opposite of this is the idea that everything is banned until a reason to un-ban it is produced. So, starting with the idea that we need a reason to ban something, the person making the argument for censorship must make a case in favour of banning. To plausible make a case to ban something, one needs to argue that there is something inherently harmful in having it be permitted. In arguing this the person must ask: who is it likely to be harmed? In such a case, the person making the argument is unlikely to think of themself as likely to be corrupted by it, as they are the one who initially recognised its detriments, so they must identify some other person or group who will be harmed / corrupted. In most cases, it seems, the children, the poor, poor defenceless children are the ones to spring up like corruptible weeds from the pavement, with the possible inclusion of the working class.
Oh GOD! Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!! It really does come down to the defence of families and public morals by someone who considers themselves to have moral authority.
There are, of course, various subtleties to the arguments, but the general principle remains the same. What is also interesting is that the more progressive arguments against censorship have not remained stagnant, but developed with the culture that produces the supposedly offensive materials. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write more about these arguments in the future.