Do we want a censor?

The question of censorship has recently been raised here and in Ireland. Discussion in the newspapers has been interesting chiefly as an indication of the confused thought of most of the “advanced” writers. The first case concerns a book — “The Well of Loneliness,” written by a woman novelist, Miss Radclyffe Hall. It deals with homosexuality.

Following an attack in the “Daily Express” and “Sunday Express,” the publishers offered a curious double defence. One that the book is a very proper book, and two, that they had published it at a high price in order to limit its circulation. They rashly then invited the Home Secretary to pass a “personal” opinion on the book, and promised to abide by his opinion. Sir William Joynson Hicks promptly replied that the book should be withdrawn from circulation, and it was.

One incidental result was a big jump in the price of copies already issued. A Gossip Writer in the “Daily Express” then related how a friend of his had made a few pounds by supplying the increased demand for what his paper denounced as obscene literature.

The book has subsequently been published abroad, and the publishers are contesting the action of the customs authorities in seizing imported copies.

Journalists of many schools of thought have protested, but none of the protests seen by the present writer has shown any clear understanding of the situation. Most of them have treated it as a dangerous, unnecessary, and narrow-minded abuse of his powers by the Home Secretary. They all proclaim their belief in what they call the “Freedom of the Press,” but none of them questions the necessity for a system of suppression.

They all say, in effect, “Yes, we think indecent, pornographic literature should be suppressed, but this book is not indecent. We think it proper for the police to prosecute the publishers of indecent books, but we object to a backstairs censorship by the officials acting under the orders of the Home Secretary.” The simple fact is that the case that can be made for the unfettered expression of opinion, is a case for the unfettered expression of “indecent” opinions, the publication of “pornographic” literature and the discussion of any and every subject under the sun. The extension of knowledge has been the result of controversy, of the clash of opinions and interests, both of individuals and classes. But it is not always the desire nor the interest of a ruling class to permit the extension or dissemination of certain knowledge.

Sir William Joynson-Hicks says (“Daily Herald,” 16th October) that:—

“there must be some limit to the freedom of what a man may write or speak in this great country of ours. That freedom, in my view, must be determined by the question as to whether what is written or spoken makes ‘one of the least of these little ones to offend’.”

Here we have Joynson-Hicks lining himself up with all his critics. They also accept the view that certain opinions must not be expressed or discussed. The only difference is that they do not see eye to eye with Joynson-Hicks as to where and how the limit should be fixed.

In Ireland a Censorship Bill is being introduced which will make it illegal to advocate birth control, and which, in addition, will set up a board to deal with any publication which is “against public morality.” The board is to consist of five censors nominated by the Government to hear complaints of any kind from recognised associations. If four out of five censors agree to condemn any publication, on any subject whatever, its suppression will follow. In effect this will place the censorship of literature largely in the the Catholic Truth Society, which has been instrumental in working up public opinion to induce an unwilling Government to introduce the Bill.

The Catholic Truth Society objects to the “Daily Herald,” the “Spectator,” and several English Sunday Newspapers which circulate in Ireland (“Daily News,” 10th September). The Catholic Truth Society is now demanding that the Board shall have many more members than five, in order to give full representation to the opinion of the country (“Manchester Guardian,” 17th Octiber). This holds out really amusing prospects of the Irish authorities suppressing as obscene the journal which denounced Miss Radcliffe Hall’s book. If Joynson-Hicks is a bigot, the average Irish Catholic is far more bigotted.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is unique in keeping open platform for the expression of the point of view of opponents.

We oppose all forms of suppression, not in response to some abstract principle, but because we recognise that Socialist Society demands for its operation, as for its achievement, a responsible, intelligent population, used to drawing its own conclusions from the observation of facts and the weighing up of the arguments of opposing schools of thought. We only know our position to be correct because it survives continuous criticism. We do not deny that suppression may be immediately useful to the British or the Irish governing class. We do deny that it can serve the purpose of the Socialist movement.

On broader grounds we challenge the usefulness of suppressing such books as that of Radclyffe Hall. Inability to vitalize any problem except in its relation to their own class interests and class prejudices is the failing of ruling classes in general. They “solve” the problem of street games by punishing the youthful offenders (or their parents), instead of providing playing fields. They jail starving men who beg or steal, instead of providing them with food. They impose severe penalties for the drinking of alcohol, or the selling of it within certain hours, instead of finding out the causes (over-fatigue, malnutrition, etc.), which induce people to seek stimulants. They try to stop sexual perversions by prohibiting the discussion of the numerous accurate and inaccurate ideas on the subject instead of encouraging the search for specific causes. Their combination of class and religious prejudice prevents them from even examining the question from the rational standpoints which suggest that it is a problem of physical ill-health, or sex-starvation, or both.

The censorship of books like the “Well of Loneliness” is no more a remedy than the prohibition of unemployed demonstrations would be a solution of the problem of unemployment.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard¸ November 1928)

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