Friday, October 22, 2010

On Censors and Censorship

In the Roman Republic, a censor was a public official who had duties concerning the census, and was also a kind of guardian of public morality.  One of the more famous censors we know of was M. Porcius Cato, commonly known as Cato the Elder for purposes of distinguishing him from M. Porcius Cato the Younger, who as one might guess was a descendant of the elder Cato.  Neither the elder nor the younger Cato were particularly jolly fellows, from what we know of them.  Cato the Elder famously "censored" Scipio Africanus, the great Roman general who defeated Hannibal at Zama, for being depraved and wearing "Greek dress"--in short, for being insufficiently Roman.  Since Hannibal had rampaged through Italy and defeated the legions in every prior engagement, in Scipio's place I would have been inclined to remark that if he was not a good Roman, being "un-Roman" proved to be very useful to Rome in at least one case.

Of course, our word "censorship" derives from the title of the dour busybodies who as censors made life miserable for the ancient Romans in so many ways.  It seems to me appropriate, therefore, that the word "censorship" carries with it a hint of self-righteousness employed in the regulation of free expression.

Currently, there is much ado about National Public Radio's firing of commentator Juan Williams for making some remarks to the effect that when he boards a plane and sees passengers wearing what is believed to be traditional Muslim garb, he becomes nervous.  I have not yet heard of anyone claiming his First Amendment rights were violated, despite the fact that NPR receives some government funding, and am grateful for this; which is not to say it hasn't been claimed by someone, or will not be claimed, as the claim is probably inevitable.  But, there are calls for the cessation of government funding being made by those people one would expect would make such calls, and NPR is being defended by those people one would expect would defend it in these circumstances.  Such is the predictable nature of our politics here in the United States, Rome's rather unlikely successor in today's world.

This latest circus is another indication of how very difficult and sometimes perilous it has become for any person, but especially public figures of any kind, to engage in discourse.  One of the reasons for this is obviously the fact that anything of a vaguely controversial nature which is recorded will be transmitted almost instantly all over the world, and have all sorts of ramifications.  Another reason, I'm afraid, is the fact that everyone has become a censor or potential censor.  Self-righteousness--the most despicable human characteristic, I think--has descended upon us in an almost pentecostal manner, and having received its fiery directive we are spreading out to note and condemn those with whom we disagree at every opportunity.

It is likely, whether we like it or not, that the nervousness referred to by Williams is shared by many others.  That's human nature, I think.  It shouldn't make anyone proud, and it's unquestionably regrettable, and even unjust.  But fear makes us irrational, and that irrationality is not limited to Williams.  His error, if error it was, was to admit he had such feelings on a popular TV show.

Self-righteousness played its part in his termination--there appears to have been nothing in the nature of a "there but for the grace of God" hesitance on  the part of the higher powers at NPR.  It seems that NPR was looking to part ways with him, and that may have played a part as well.  Self-righteousness is now playing a part in the condemnation of NPR, as are other things, most notably the desire to reap a political benefit. 

One wonders if there were different ways in which this incident could have been handled, and it's clear there were, and that it's likely that if there had been a little thought prior to action then we would not have to endure this latest irritating uproar.  But one also must wonder if we've reached a point where the honest airing of thoughts and feelings or reasonable resolution of disputes is even possible, now that words can be taken, in or out of context, and displayed for the world at large in an appeal for outrage to people all too disposed to outrage.

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