These were my opening remarks at a debate on censorship in the theatre, held at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 20 September 2018. Other speakers included Shereener Browne, Agnieszka Kolek and Anders Lustgarten.
One of the problems in discussing censorship is that we often don’t recognize censorship for what it is. There is no longer the Lord Chamberlain marking scripts and cutting out the unacceptable. Instead, we, in effect, ourselves mark them. And that, ironically, makes censorship not more, but less, visible.
In all my years campaigning for free speech, I’ve rarely heard anyone say ‘I’m for censorship’. Rather what many say is ‘I’m for free speech. But…’ I’m for free speech… but speech must be used responsibly. I’m for free speech… but speech should not offend. I’m for free speech… but don’t appropriate from other cultures. And so on. What was once recognized as straightforward censorship has now become a combination of moral obligation and social etiquette.
Even those who openly call for censorship often dress it up in moral terms. Thirty years ago, back in the midst of the Rushdie affair, Shabbir Akhtar, spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques, insisted that the real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’. Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offnsove talk, from those who shut down Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti to those who would have shut down Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.
But who makes that judgment call? Who decides what is legitimate criticism and what is obscenity and slander? Half a century ago, the answer was: the Lord Chamberlain. Today, the answer is each of us. ‘In many creative spheres’, as the Canadian writer Jonathan Kay, former editor of the Walrus, who resigned after a controversy over his support for cultural appropriation, recently observed, ‘censorship has been crowdsourced’.
This process has made the debate about censorship neither more rational nor more democratic. To the contrary, as Kay observed, ‘the very writers, publishers, poets, musicians, comedians, media producers and artists who once worried about being muzzled by the government are now self-organizing on social media… to censor each other.’
It’s in fact worse than that. Because, having taken the power of censorship away from the Lord Chamberlain, we have given it, instead, to self-appointed gatekeepers who have become arbiters of what is and is not acceptable.
Take the debate over Exhibit B. It was, as you may remember, a show that used the 19th-century freakshow or ‘human zoo’ as the starting point for an exploration of slavery, colonialism and racism. Designed by South African Brett Bailey, the show featured 12 ‘tableaux’ in which motionless performers are exhibited as artefacts. It was to have been staged by the Barbican Centre in 2014 but was closed down because of protests from those who deemed it racist.
In the wake of the controversy, there was a debate between Stella Odunlame, one of the artists taking part in the show, and the sociologist Kehinde Andrews, a critic. The show, Odunlame wrote, ‘forces us to examine the darkest corners of our mind. It is brutal, unforgiving and unapologetic. I decided, as an educated black artist, that it told a story that should be shared with the world, but sadly that will no longer be the case.’ To which Andrews replied that, even though he had not actually seen the show, he knew it was racist, and that ‘black artists do not have the authority to define what is and is not acceptable’.
Just think of the logic of that argument. Black artists do not have the authority to define ‘what is and is not acceptable’. But black sociologists apparently do. What Andrews is really saying is ‘You don’t have the right to define what is and is not acceptable because I have defined myself as the person who makes that decision.’
Put like that, few would accept the moral logic of the claim. Yet, that is essentially the moral logic underlying crowdsourced censorship.
Over the past thirty years the belief has become entrenched within the liberal mainstream that, in a plural society, it is both moral wrong and politically problematic to offend other cultures or faiths or communities. But what is often called offence to a community is actually a debate within that community (as well as outside of it).
Neither Odunlame nor Andrews spoke for the black community (nor is there any such thing as the black community for which to speak). They were taking part in a debate about racism and how to challenge it. In closing down Exhibit B, the Barbican also closed down the debate, effectively siding with those calling for censorship. That’s also been the case in many other controversies whether over plays such as Behzti, sculptures such as Sam Durant’s The Scaffold, or paintings such as Diane Schutz’s Open Casket.
Because it’s come to be widely accepted that in plural societies we must be careful about giving offence to other, especially minority, cultures, so the voices that are heard are primarily those who claim offence. Those who oppose censorship are seen as having in some sense less valid voices or being less authentic, precisely because they don’t feel offended or support censorship.
The fact is, Exhibit B, Behzhti, Seven Jewish Children, English People, Very Nice, Homegrown… all will offend some people. Others will find them vitally important. That’s the nature of conversation in a plural society. Rather than closing down such conversations, we should encourage them to flourish. As Bonnie Greer put it in response to the shutting down of Exhibit B, ‘I don’t want to be stopped from seeing a work because, in their opinion, it’s ‘inappropriate’, ‘incorrect’ or ‘racist’ – words which are, at best, moveable feasts. I want to think for myself.’