Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Fear Behind Censorship: Mob Mentality

"He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition: for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself." -- Thomas Paine

The American Library Association defines censorship as "the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons--individuals, groups or government officials--find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, 'don't let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it.' "
They go further on to say that, "censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view on what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else." Censorship limits our 'intellectual freedom' the ALA says; intellectual freedom, being the right of every individual in a democratic system to seek, receive and share information from all points of view without restriction.

To follow a train of thought from my last post (on banning of books and book burning), I am pressed with the question of what lies at the root of censorship: the difference between simple disapproval and active disallowing. I firmly believe that censorship occurs when one submits to fear and insecurity: the bully being bullied and ruled by his own fear. Okay, we all fear; that's only natural. We're animals and fear is a survival instinct we all need and use. But, we don't live in caves and hunt sloth anymore; that fear can be tempered by a civilized educated culture. Without the benefit of a nurturing faith and belief in the goodness of humankind, fear will lead to prejudice, racism and a general isolationist paranoia.

Winston Churchill said: "You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken--unspeakable--fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse--a little tiny mouse! -of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest ponentates are thrown into panic."

The danger comes when an organized group subscribes to a common fear. It is often driven by a charismatic leader, who has somehow captured that fear, harnessed its raging force then propelled it like a projectile. One's anonymity and shared (and supposedly diluted) responsibility within the "mob" may compell the individual to commit irrational acts of atrocity he/she would never otherwise contemplate on his/her own. How many of us have been caught up in the mass enthusiasm of a sports match? We've all felt it; the power of the mob, its energy crackling in the air around our pounding hearts and cries. To yield to a mob-mentality is to subscribe to a condoned insanity, within which the 'mob' takes on its own irrational personality that is more than the sum of its parts...to become a kind of autopoietic entity that swiftly and ruthlessly dispenses its own perverse form of justice. For this reason I find any organized and zealous rally disquieting, if not disturbing, for what it channels, may become, and what it may foster.

Let us not forget what those Nazi book burnings eventually led to...Santavana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it."

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

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