In 399 B.C., the great Athenian philosopher Socrates was put on trial for his philosophical views. Socrates’ Athenian accusers argued that he was corrupting youths as well as “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.” Corrupting youths meant, of course, that he was corrupting their minds, not their bodies (though perhaps there was a homosexual angle, but the Greeks loved their gay sex). As far as failing to acknowledge gods, well, he was ahead of his time perhaps. And if he was in fact “introducing new deities,” then he was engaged in a very long human tradition of creating fictional deities.
At any rate, Socrates’ philosophical method of upending preconceived notions didn’t sit well with the Athenian city-state, and like any frightened power structure it sought to silence Socrates—with death. We can thus say with some certainty that censorship is as much a human tendency as creating gods to explain the universe and quell the fears of death.
In a recent New Yorker Page-Turner op-ed, author Salman Rushdie—himself no stranger to Socrates’ censorship-by-death tactic (the Muslim Fatwa arising out of “The Satanic Verses”)—writes on censorship.
“No writer ever really wants to talk about censorship,” observes Rushdie. “Writers want to talk about creation, and censorship is anti-creation, negative energy, uncreation, the bringing into being of non-being, or, to use Tom Stoppard’s description of death, ‘the absence of presence.’”
Rushdie’s elegant prose here obscures the fact that those practicing censorship care little about matters of creation and anti-creation. Theirs is a political, social, economic or religious imperative, amongst other various concerns. It is a question of civilization’s structure. Sure, censorship is anti-creation but it’s more precisely an attempt to control reality. As William S. Burroughs suggested in his Nova Trilogy, there is a “Reality Studio” that needs to be stormed.
“The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals,” wrote Burroughs. “In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. [...] With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.” For Burroughs, language and the “virus” of writing are the methods by which we break “control.” Those who censor writers, speakers and artists (or musicians), recognize that writing and free speech are part of a virus and censorship is the supreme form of reality vaccination.
Rushdie’s most moving and salient point might be the following: “And at night, as we fall asleep, we assume we will be free tomorrow, because we were free today.”
We take our “imperfect” freedom for granted. We should be awake, so to speak, to the possibility that a slow erosion of free speech (writing, in this case) is just as dangerous as sudden censorship. This method is more innocuous. It happened in Nazi Germany by degrees, not over night.
Everything happens by degrees, especially in imperfect democracies. We must guard against the slow vaccination of speech and creation.