Sunday, July 22, 2007

Examining a dirty word -- Censorship

Back in May, a book review by Richard Schickel was featured in the Los Angeles Times about book Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture by Raymond J. Haberski Jr. on the era just after the movie censoring of the ‘50’s. I’ll admit I haven’t read the book. However, as with most book reviews that use the book topic as a springboard for the book reviewer’s opining, I don’t need to have read the book confront Schickel’s point of view. Here is the link to Schickel’s book review below.

Read the article

Now that you’ve had a chance to read it, here is a statement that he made that I want to unpack in the context of other thing that he says in his article.

…The real issue was the widespread belief that movies, as a mass art, required closer censorship than other arts. The censors argued, ludicrously, that they were protecting a completely mythical creature, the innocent child who might someday wander into a theater and, in effect, see Mommy and Daddy doing it. Might have, I suppose. But so what? Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't…

Now my goal is not necessarily to defend the movie censors, their methods or their rhetoric. That is a topic for another post. I will say in regard to this book review that I have a bias: I sympathize with the essential idea that there is an innocence that children possess that adults have an obligation to protect by setting boundaries.

Countering this idea is Schickel who is in the same ilk as Bill Maher when Maher says, “children aren't innocent” (Maher also says that Jesus wasn’t Republican, which is true, but that’s another issue). Here’s what at stake in denying the existence of innocence in children. If there is any idea that there may be a special innocence to the lives of children then it opens the door to arguing that some sort of boundary somewhere is appropriate is appropriate and that some censorship of some kind must take place to enforce the boundary.

While often claiming that parents should confine their jurisdiction of values to the “home”, Schickel and those who share his belief, use a rhetorical sword that thoroughly dismisses the ontological possibility that children have any special innocence. It is this sword that, taken to its logical conclusion, cuts into the very jurisdiction of the home. If the innocent child is a completely “mythical creature” and therefore is as non-existent as the tooth fairy, why should any parent ever raise a finger, a voice or an eyebrow to ever demarcate boundaries to protect a child’s innocence.

Likewise, there is the equal and opposite rhetorical sword; the one that says that there is a special innocence to children. It is a sword that is wielded by those who favor the imposition of boundaries that cuts into a realm beyond the jurisdiction of home and cuts into society at large, and even into the realm of the movies. In response to this threat, Schickel and those who share his belief are willing to use an opposing rhetorical sword that is able to cut into more than they are willing to admit.

What is happening in the paragraph cited above is Schickel in the process of A) creating the rhetorical sword to cut at the idea of children’s innocence, and then B) trying to hold back the sword from cutting along the full arc that his blade is designed to cut. He does this by first declaring that the innocent child who might wander into a theater is a purely “mythical creature” but then admits that "Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't…".

It is almost an offhand remark, "Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't". There is more importance and meaning in that statement than Schickel lets on, or is even able to admit to himself, which is why I want to camp out on it. Who is “we’? If we assume for the sake of convenience that “we” is adult society, is this adult society completely and utterly wrongheaded in its preference? Is the preference completely and utterly baseless and devoid of any claim to truth or reality? Here is the problem. The preference that “we” have would need to be completely and utterly baseless in order for the innocent child to be a “completely mythical creature”. “Completely” doesn’t leave a lot of room for ambiguity or nuance.

Perhaps Schickel would try to explain his position by saying, as many would, that A) the reality of kids seeing adult content and B) the desire that we would have for a child to not see it is the difference between what is "real" and an "ideal" in the world. Here, our “preference” is that which is ideal, while the reality of kids being exposed to adult content is that which is “real”. If Schickel took this line of thinking, he would be saying that the “ideal” is something that is purely mythic, and that what is “ideal” in human affairs does not have nearly the claim to being real when compared to that which actually occurs in day-to-day human affairs.

This is a common belief but inaccurate belief. In truth, that which tangibly occurs in the realm human affairs is merely an existential realm of reality. An ideal is not completely mythic in the sense that Schickel intends the word "mythic" to mean, as something as fanciful as the tooth fairy and that can be totally dismissed from serious discussion. Ideals are an intangible part of reality that are as real as our existential and tangible reality, even as our existential and tangible reality falls short of the ideals most of the time. Nevertheless, ideals shape, and should shape, our existential reality profoundly. Human affairs exist in the tension between what is ideal and what is real, and we would quickly think our way into savage behavior if we completely abandoned ideals.

As an example of this, we all know what junk food is even though we eat it. If a Martian were sent to Earth to conduct a superficial survey of what it is that people, in fact, eat, the Martian would discover that lots of people eat a lot of junk food. The practice of eating a purely nutritious diet is “mythic” in the sense that it is an Olympian task that the vast majority of people fail at. However, the need that people have for nutrition is not mythic at all. It may be impractical to prevent people from eating junk food. It may even be that people in a free society need to be free to have junk food. Whatever the case may be, there is an intellectual canyon that is crossed by telling ourselves that it isn't, in fact, junk food or by saying something tantamount to it, i.e. that junk food is completely harmless.

Of course, the nutritional value of junk food can be verified in a laboratory. The innocence of children can’t. The epistemology of tangible scientific empiricism is not always suited to the realm of grasping at ideals any more than it is suited to explaining the mystery of beauty and art. As with many issues, one person’s studies with one agenda can be pitted against another person’s studies and statistics with another agenda.

But maybe, just maybe, the innocence of children exists in some plane of reality, where it is a real thing, and kids are, in some way, better and healthier for having a sense of innocence protected. If this is true, then violations of their innocence are a spiritual and emotional junk food of a different kind. It is my assertion that it is this ephemeral reality that the antennae of collective adult preference is pointing us to, and our intuition, though not provable with scientific precision, may not be completely wrong.

I think that Schickel knows this on some level, which is why he includes his reference to our “preference" in stating his opinion, even as he has crafted his opinion as a “take no prisoners” rhetorical sword. He doesn't want to be too dismissive of the remote possibility that kids have an innocence that needs to be protected and nurtured. However, Schickel doesn't want the faint possibility of this to in any way get in the way of the way that movies are presented to the world.

Schickel criticizes the idea that the “mass art” required some “closer censorship” by brushing aside any concern about the possibility that a few kids made it into the theaters. So Schickel doesn't seem to be bothered by a few kids going in. But that is an easy target of his blasé. The real question is whether he bothered by a vast swath of them going in? It would be more intellectually honest for Schickel to say flat out that he wouldn’t mind in the least if most, if not all, children made it in to see movies with adult content. But then again, his “preference” would get in the way of making such a bold statement.

In regard to movie boundaries, more and more allow more and more sex and gore has been allowed in movies under the R and PG-13 rating over the years. In relation to what was censored in the ‘50’s, more and more kids have been "brought in" to the theatre to more sex and gore. For all intents and purposes, the 1950's boundary that Schickel dismissed has now been significantly breached. Now what?

Later in his book review, Schickel bemoans that "American film is almost universally pitched to teenage dimwits and the nation's addiction to pornography is chronic and more alarming… ”. So what does this have to do with adult content in movies? Movies are part of the larger media infrastructure that has increasingly brought raunch, and gore into the mainstream. And movies for “dimwits” and “porn” are both appeals to our base nature and the lowest common denominator for and easy buck.

What Schickel is actually bemoaning is the taste for raunch and gore and has run amok, that has become so dominant in our society that it imposes its own unique form of tyranny. As our society demands some form of “closer censorship” in the form of a ratings system, so too does our present society demand raunchy spectacle in movies, and it is this demand that has financial clout and with it, the creative clout to crowd out better movies. While certain aspects of some movies may be “self censoring”, the market is not.

Schickel plainly loves the "heady days" of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and hates prissiness and dismay of the guardians of moral purity and the contempt of the high culture that came before and the drivel and raunch that has come after. Here is a scary possibility for Schickel. It is possible that there was a value to the force of censorship, even as the rhetoric of it was grating. The force of ‘50’s era censorship probably kept a lot of dimwit stuff and raunch in check by making movies work harder on different levels to be appealing without having easy access to sex and gore.

It is also possible that the first generation to be free from '50's censorship had the creative spark that was extruded though their being part of a culture that still had a more of a value for the sacred. I think that this enabled the first generation of movie makers who were free from censorship to be able to deal with sex in more aesthetically sophisticated ways than was accomplished in either their past or in their future because it was suppressed for decades in our culture. Their creative ability came out through the pressure of the culture like the force soda after it has been shaken, only to become warm, sticky suds on the ground later. It is possible that sex for lowest common denominator of raunch and gore has become the sticky “suds” of American cinema and media oozing out of spent creative and intellectual fire of the past.

Schickel knows, on some level, that the proliferation of raunchy garbage and the associated costs to our society is the price that he is willing to pay for the artistic freedom that he wants, the price for having enjoyed the “heady” days of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. The problem is that in the cognitive dissonance of completely denying the existence of the innocence of children, but not completely, he has not risen completely to the task of admitting the true extent of the cost of the artistic freedom he wants.

In regard to children's innocence, for Schickel to say that children's innocence is there and is violated would be honest. For him to say that we have allowed it to be violated and that we've all become cynical and blasé to sex and violence would be honest. For him to say that our society values the freedom of movie art and movie economics more than the innocence of children would be honest. For him to say that he and many others are willing to accept the trade-off of allowing raunchy and dimwitted movies to proliferate and help dumb many people down and injure the innocence of many kids in order to allow for greater artistic freedom would be honest.

However, for him to say that the innocence of children is not there to begin with; that it is simply a fairy tale myth with not claim to reality, is not honest. It is simply less painful to his conscience than admitting that the possibility that innocence of children has been injured.

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