Several of my classes this semester are focused on ethical issues and learning how to best tackle these issues.
My senior literature class opened with the discussion of a censored version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. A new version of this classic work of literature has recently been released eliminating the frequent use of the “n” word and replacing it with slave. You can imagine the outrage of the senior English majors. A discussion ensued both for and against the replacement of this controversial word. Very few believed this to be a good idea claiming this “changed the entire social critique of the novel,” and the fact that the word slave does not have the same connotation of the word it is replacing.
Communication Ethics recently held a mock debate concerning whether it was ethical or not to release photos from Abu Ghraib. For those who do not remember, these pictures display US soldiers torturing, abusing, and humiliating soldiers in an Iraqi prison. My class was divided into four groups, each group playing a role in the debate. One group represented President Obama’s aides. Another posed as ethical scholars using past ethical studies to support their decision. Yet another group played the Associated Press and the final group represented the military. Each group was to reach a decision in an attempt to persuade the president either to release these photos or not. I was surprised to find in this mock debate that I was in the only group that supported the release of these pictures. The ethical scholars were the only ones willing to release the photos.
Regardless of personal opinions about each of these scenarios with which I was recently confronted, ultimately what this boils down to is an issue of censorship. I have always felt strongly against censorship, and this week was no exception. In my communication class someone mentioned, “these pictures should not be shown because they make me uncomfortable.” What kind of reason is that? This idea of avoidance because of discomfort appalled me. How much are we willing to compromise to not hurt someone or to not feel uncomfortable? As a communication major, isn’t it my job to remain unbiased and report the truth? As a free nation is it not our duty to decrease ignorance and to not blindly follow those which we have put into power? I for one do not wish to be ignorant. We worry so much about hurting others and being uncomfortable, but what are we losing because of this fear? We lose so much because we are afraid someone will be mad.
Someone will always be offended and discomfort can be found in any situation. Does this mean that information should be censored? Censorship is never a good idea. It limits creativity, decreases our ability to be knowledgeable, and at the most extreme creates a society of sheep ready to be lead to slaughter.
Through the example of Mark Twain, we can see that censorship is taking away from our understanding of our history. Slavery and the Civil War were not bright moments in our history’s past, yet the replacement of the word with slave diminishes the pain that slaves went through. Readers cannot grasp the full understanding of the prejudice on which Mark Twain was commenting if we pretend that the word that represents more than hatred and prejudice just disappears. If people take out pieces of history that are hurtful or less than flattering, history becomes distorted and can be ultimately lost.
Censorship, in the situations mentioned above and in any case, represents a slippery slope. Where will it end? If people are willing to let their literature and their news be censored what prevents anything and everything else from being censored?
I am reminded of such books as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984. These books show an extreme that can come out of censorship. Readers see a society blindly following orders, never knowing their full potential nor having a full understanding of what their government is doing.
The characters in these books have, through generations, been subdued and have allowed others to censor all that they consume under the guise of reducing discomfort and helping society. Because of this, society has lost all freedoms and is controlled by others. Individualism is non-existent; there are no thoughts except those controlled by those in power. One has to realize that, yes, this is an extreme, but little by little censorship could bring us to that kind of extreme.
Author Ray Bradbury once said, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”
Ask yourself how much you are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain an ignorant bliss. Just because you do not know about something does not make it disappear. Do not allow yourself to be a lemming just walking off a cliff. Ask yourself this: What would be left if we took out everything from the news, television, radio, or the internet that offended someone? I am willing to bet there would be little left to discuss.