The issue of censorship and free speech has been centre stage, globally, throughout the month of September with online, social and print media ablaze with conflicting views on the matter.
Only last week the heads of state of Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Yemen stood up at a United Nations summit to call for the curtailment of what many people in the West consider a fundamental right. Amid all the bitter turmoil surrounding this issue, Banned Book Week provides us with an opportunity to take time out from the good fight and celebrate its victories in the literary world.
From a quick glance at the list of historically banned books on the BBW’s website, one can draw one concrete conclusion: the censors always lose eventually. Books that are banned by a dictatorial political system or puritanical religious movements tend to become classics at least partly for that very reason; they represent a moment in time and an eventual victory over it. As South Africans this concept has a special significance for us.
Censorship is a subtly suicidal act, seemingly a reaction to some subliminal awareness of the assured failure of any attempt to hold the intellects of others in bondage. The South African Liberation Struggle, the American Civil Rights Movement, the sexual awakening of the sixties, the rise of secular humanism and the struggles against communism and fascism are, to varying extents, defined and chronicled and even facilitated by the works that the forces of reaction and censorship tried to prevent us reading and, in so doing, helping to dig their eventual graves.
The censorship of certain works can tell you a lot about the censor, particularly those banned for sexual indecency or immorality; it is a widely recognised truism that the prohibition of certain activities often masks the secret desire on the part of the individuals insisting on their prohibition to participate in them. But the more historically significant reason that censorship is inherently self-defeating is that it forces the citizen to confront the inevitable question: to whom would you delegate this role of deciding for you what you can and cannot read, see or hear? The answer to this question is always the same, there is no one who is qualified to fulfill this role and in inadvertently forcing this question on society, the censor reveals their incompetence, not only in this role, but in the ability to make any meaningful decisions on behalf of others.
So if you need your flagging spirits lifted and you have a few minutes to spare, take a moment to peruse the list of great works, many now rightly taught to our children of works, not only of literature, but of history, and be reassured of how many victories have already been won.
As Mr Rushdie put it, “If writing is ‘thing’ then censorship is ‘no-thing’ and as King Lear said to Cordelia, ‘no-thing comes from no-thing.’”