Tuesday, 25 September 2012

We don't need censorship. We need self-restraint.

Did you look up the topless photos of Kate Middleton? Yeah, me too.

It's because we're not allowed to see them. The taking of the photographs was immoral, and the continued distribution of them puts simple greed much higher on the list of media priorities than human rights. (But that's nothing new. I wish people would stop acting surprised. Is the Leveson Inquiry even over yet?)

I have no interest in any part of Kate Middleton's body. I have no opinion of her. (Though she seems nice.) And I have no interest in breasts in general. (Though they seem nice.) So the one and only reason I had for looking up those photos was to do the opposite of what was good and proper. The opposite of what was allowed.

Here in Scotland, a 12-year-old could walk into Waterstones and buy 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and then sit in the café and look up all the explicit sexual imagery. It's allowed. It's legal. And it's the kind of thing 12-year-olds might do.

But they don't. Now, if you slapped an 18 certificate on 'Fifty Shades of Grey', or made it illegal for children to buy erotic literature, you can bet there would be a lot more 12-year-olds trying to get their hands on it.

Similarly, if 'The Innocence of Muslims' had been released online without fuss, it would get a handful of views. But the achingly preventable controversy it's caused has stamped it with the words “not allowed”, and the released extract from the movie currently has almost fourteen million views on YouTube. (Er, and 43,705 likes. Let's hope they're all ironic.)

You can say exactly the same for 'A Serbian Film'. A low budget horror by a first-time director; it would've got a small cult audience at best. But it swiftly became one of the most controversial and banned films in the world, thereby attracting many, many curious viewers.

Censorship has done nothing to prevent people from exposing themselves to the works and information that we're apparently not allowed to see. 12-year-olds watch pornography. Did you know that? Did you know that your 12-year-old watches porn? Because they do. And if you customise your firewall to prevent them from doing so, they're probably twice as likely to be curious. There were kids at my school who used to put porn on the computers at the back of the art classroom. While an art class was going on. Seriously.

If a film is censored, you can watch it uncensored online. If a website is censored in your country, you can use a proxy. Even censored swearing is mentally uncensored by anyone over the age of nine. How is “he got f*cked by a horse” any less shocking than “he got fucked by a horse”?

So censorship doesn't work. Trying to keep 'A Serbian Film' and Kate Middleton's tits from us isn't going to work. Like Ryan Giggs's super injunction, all it can do is double, quadruple, endlessly multiply interested parties.

Furthermore, if censorship is about morality it has nothing whatsoever to do with our own moral compasses. Who is the BBC to decide that I'm not allowed to see photos of Prince Harry's arse but I am allowed to see photos of a bleeding, beaten Gaddafi? I reversed what the BBC decided for me. I looked up those photos of Prince Harry, and I used Firefox's ad-blocker to remove those horrific images of Gaddafi. My own morality allowed me to giggle for half a second at a prince's idiocy and refuse to gawk at photographs of a murdered old man.

We should all be trusted to do this. Even children. 12-year-olds have made up their own mind not to buy 'Fifty Shades of Grey' because they have actually been given that choice. Whereas the teenager who watches porn on the computer in the art classroom probably does so because their parents have set up a firewall or are monitoring their internet history.

So I call upon all and sundry (especially sundry) to prioritise self-restraint over the censorship and codes of governing bodies. Don't avoid 'Grotesque' because it's banned in the UK. Avoid it because its ambition is to expose the viewer to some of the most nauseating imagery imaginable. Don't block a suicide on YouTube because the website keeps trying to remove the video. Block it because you wouldn't want anyone to watch your death, so you refuse to watch someone else's. Don't boycott Tesco because your parents tell you to. Boycott it because you've watched four local shops close in the last year.

And y'know what, bringing current affairs into the subject, don't avoid running off with a 15-year-old pupil because it's against the law. Avoid it because taking advantage of a schoolgirl crush is exploitative and primitive.

I know the topic of “Missing Megan” (jeez, what a nickname) isn't about censorship, but it's certainly about self-restraint. It's clear the teacher who ran off with her has no respect for laws or rules, but what about his own morality? School crushes happen constantly. I'd even go so far as to guess that the vast majority of pupils have had a crush on a teacher at some point. And it'd be naïve to believe that they're all unreciprocated – indeed, it makes perfect sense for a young teacher to find a teenager attractive. But you don't act on it! Forget the law: it'd be just as bad if she was 16. Or even 18 and still at school.

Maybe the teacher did consult his own morality and act accordingly; but no, apparently he has a blog on which he acknowledged that his relationship with his pupil makes him morally uncomfortable. But he ran off with her anyway. That's just a lack of self-restraint.

And, getting back on topic, it's the same with so many people who fall victim to their own lack of discipline. The people who are against capital punishment but who watched Saddam Hussein's execution, for example.

And if that video of Saddam's execution had been blocked and banned and censored, it wouldn't have stopped viewers. It would've encouraged them. As with everything.

So self-restraint is all that can stop us. Censorship couldn't have saved Kate Middleton's dignity, but self-restraint could have. Neither censorship nor self-restraint could have stopped dozens of lives being wasted on account of one unspeakably stupid film-maker, but self-restraint can stop 'The Innocence of Muslims' from getting endless views and publicity and marketing and popularity that only serve to stir protestors (who, in my opinion, are just as unspeakably stupid as the film-maker) into destructive action.

Self-restraint can stop videos of real life death and sexual violence from raking up literally millions of hits. It can stop dangerously misguided pulp erotica from making more money than some of the most struggling but unique literary minds of a generation. It can stop half the western media from hunting you down because you nicked someone's teenager. It can stop you from being exposed to the most needlessly traumatising images in existence. And it can stop you from inadvertently validating and supporting those images, along with the destructive agendas behind them.

But censorship can't.

PS. The subjects I've talked about in this blog post are best illustrated by pictures I don't really want to put here. So (as you may have noticed), I've used pictures of raccoons instead.


  1. 12 year olds wouldn't read a copy of "50 Shades" whatever it's reputation as it would involve picking up a book that's just made up of words. I believe that the royals might be the exception to the ideals of self-restraint as their holidays are funded by tax payers and if anything I would want more for my money (if I paid taxes). So come on Will and Kate get more explicit or at least let me sleep on your sofa when I need somewhere to crash.

  2. A well presented, coherent, and thought-out view. Glad I stumbled on this, as these qualities are generally absent in such subjective and emotive topics. I feel my own opinion would seem somewhat lacking, so I will leave it at keep up the good work!