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                                    by A C Grayling

There is instructive irony in the fact that when members of Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi community complained about Monica Ali’s eponymous Booker short listed novel, the United Nations was meeting in Geneva to discuss censorship. Officially the topic of the UN meeting was the internet and communications, but it was about more than what is euphemistically called ‘internet governance’ because it also had the worthy aim of promoting the supply of all forms of communication technology to every community in the world.

But it is precisely this ambition of global access to information that some, in the same spirit as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane critics, oppose; for they feel threatened by views different from their own, and therefore wish to censor them. That is what the phrase ‘internet governance’ masks, for in the aspiration of countries such as China and groups such as Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, it means not just protection against spam, hate speech and obscenity, but silencing of anything opposed to their own point of view.

Censorship is an ancient evil, and liberation from it is the fuel of progress. The word derives from the Censors who conducted ancient Rome’s five-yearly census and watched over its public morals. Famously, Cato the Censor once expelled a citizen from the Senate because he had kissed his wife in public. But this was not censorship in the modern sense. In classical Athens earlier, censorship - at least of the enfranchised parts of the population - was anathema; and its freedom of thought and expression was the very stuff of the intellectual flowering that gave birth to the West.

When Johann Gutenberg introduced printing to Europe in 1450, censorship as we now know it came into its own. So many books flew from the new presses that within decades the Church found it necessary to act against their ‘erroneous and pernicious’ effect. An unofficial index of prohibited books had existed since literacy became more general in medieval times, but an official Index was instituted in 1559, and in its lifetime (it was abolished in 1966) every major work of science, literature and philosophy appeared on it.

The opposite of censorship is freedom of expression. A distinction exists between freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, in the sense that even under the Inquisition or the Taliban one could think what one liked, as long as one did not say it. But the freedom to express views, verbally or in writing, is a late, incomplete and localized right in human history, chiefly a post-Enlightenment privilege of members of Western nations. Even so it remains circumscribed in various ways, either by custom or law, mainly in the interests of social order and cohesion. But governments even of avowedly liberal stamp, such as those in Europe and America, can suffer the general tendency of all polities towards restrictions on civil rights, for example when liberty-curtailing anti-terrorist measures are introduced; and freedom of speech can be compromised along with them in the name of security. When that happens, a victory has been conceded to those who would deprive the free of their liberties altogether.

Freedom of expression means little unless it is conjoined with access to information. As Jesuits and mullahs know (‘Give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ is a Jesuit motto), closing a mind by schooling it thoroughly and early into a particular world-view, and thereafter limiting access to alternative views and inconvenient facts, is an excellent way to impose automatic and permanent censorship over that mind. But human intelligence has a way of opening itself to new ideas, which is why the second component of the censorious strategy -limiting access to information - is so important to ideologues. The internet’s cornucopia of competing ideas, opinions, information, attitudes, propaganda, inducements, seductions and suggestions is no threat to a mind already open; but to the closed mind hitherto tied to a set outlook it can be revolutionary. This is just what that strange assortment of bedfellows which includes China’s Communist Party, America’s Baptists, and traditionalist mullahs, do not like. At the UN they tried to do to the internet what Monica Ali’s critics wished to do to her novel; and they will doubtless keep on trying.

The first champion of free speech is John Milton. His powerful essay against censorship, the ‘Areopagitica’, resulted within decades in abandonment of censorship laws in England, and a century later in the US’s constitutional right to freedom of expression. The modern world owes an enormous debt to both events, and therefore to Milton’s inspiration of them. Whenever the UN meets to discuss internet access, and in places like Brick Lane, Milton’s arguments still apply.                             

                                                            From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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