why we should not censor ourselves

index on censorship, 18 december 2009

Index on Censorship has in recent years chronicled many instances of what we’ve called ‘pre-emptive censorship’: the willingness to censor material because of fear either of causing offence or of unleashing violence. From the Deutsche Oper cancelling a production of Idomeneo to Random House dropping The Jewel of Medina to Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the cartoons in Jytte Klausen’s book, the list is depressingly long. It is a development that, writing in the magazine last year, I described as ‘the internalization of the fatwa’.

It is both disturbing and distressing to find Index on Censorship itself now on that list. I profoundly disagree not just with the decision to censor the cartoons but also with the reasons for doing so: that publication may have endangered staff and was ‘unnecessary’ and, indeed, would have been ‘gratuitous’.

The safety of Index’s staff is, of course, hugely important. But where was the threat? Index certainly received none because no one knew that we were going to publish. Nor is there any reason to believe that there would have been danger had the cartoons not been pre-emptively censored.  Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, describing Yale’s original decision as ‘idiotic’, pointed out that he has ‘written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction.’ And, as Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, observed in an essay in the Guardian earlier this year critical of Random House, pre-emptive censorship often creates a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. In assuming that an ‘offensive’ work will invite violence one both entrenches the idea that the work is offensive and helps create a culture that makes violence more likely.

The question that now arises is this: what should Index do when the next Jewel of Medina comes along? After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons. So, does Index now believe that it was right for Deutsche Oper, Random House, Yale University Press (and myriad others) to censor?

As for the suggestion that publication would have been ‘unnecessary’ or ‘gratuitous’, I cannot see what could be less unnecessary or gratuitous than using cartoons to illustrate an interview with the author of a book that was censored by a refusal to publish those very cartoons. Almost every case of pre-emptive censorship, including that of Yale University Press, has been rationalised on the grounds that the censored material was not necessary anyway. Once we accept that it is legitimate to censor that which is ‘unnecessary’ or ‘gratuitous’, then we have effectively lost the argument for free speech.

Index on Censorship is involved in many important campaigns, from libel reform to the defence of threatened journalists. Its authority in these campaigns rests largely upon its moral integrity. As a long-standing board member, I am deeply committed both to the cause of free speech and to the success of Index in pursuing that cause. What I fear is that in refusing to publish the cartoons, Index is not only helping strengthen the culture of censorship, it is also weakening its authority to challenge that culture.