If You Meet a Censor, Ask Them This One Question

by on May 10, 2012 · 9 comments

Via Twitter, Andrew Grossman brought to my attention this terrifically interesting interview with a Kuwaiti censor that appeared in the Kuwait Times (“Read No Evil – Senior Censor Defends Work, Denies Playing Big Brother“). In the interview, the censor, Dalal Al-Mutairi, head of the Foreign Books Department at the Ministry of Information, speaks in a remarkably candid fashion and casual tone about the job she and other Kuwaiti censors do every day. My favorite line comes when Dalal tells the reporter how working as a censor is so very interesting and enlightening: “I like this work. It gives us experience, information and we always learn something new.”  I bet!  But what a shame that others in her society will be denied the same pleasure of always learning something new. Of course, like all censors, Dalal probably believes that she is doing a great public service by screening all culture and content to make sure the masses do not consume offensive, objectionable, or harmful content.

But here’s where the reporter missed a golden opportunity to ask Dalal the one question that you must always ask a censor if you get to meet one: If the content you are censoring is so destructive to the human soul or psyche, how then is it that you are such a well-adjusted person?  And Dalal certainly seems like a well-adjusted person. Although the reporter doesn’t tell us much about her personal life or circumstances, Dalal volunteers this much about herself and her fellow censors: “Many people consider the censor to be a fanatic and uneducated person, but this isn’t true. We are the most literate people as we have read much, almost every day. We receive a lot of information from different fields. We read books for children, religious books, political, philosophical, scientific ones and many others.” Well of course you do… because you are lucky enough to have access to all that content! But you are also taking steps to make sure the rest of your society doesn’t consume it on the theory that it would harm them or harm public morals in some fashion.  But, again, how is it that you have not been utterly corrupted by it all, Ms. Dalal? After all, you get to consume all that impure, sacrilegious, and salacious stuff! Shouldn’t you be some kind of monster by now?

How can this inconsistency be explained? The answer to this riddle can be found in the “Third-Person Effect Hypothesis.” First formulated by psychologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, “this hypothesis predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves.” While originally formulated as an explanation for how people convinced themselves “media bias” existed where none was present, the third-person-effect hypothesis has provided an explanation for other phenomenon and forms of regulation, especially content censorship. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects about censorship efforts historically is that it is apparent that many censorship advocates desire regulation to protect others, not themselves, from what they perceive to be persuasive or harmful content. That is, many people imagine themselves immune from the supposedly ill effects of “objectionable” material, or even just persuasive communications or viewpoints they do not agree with, but they claim it will have a corrupting influence on others.

In his brilliant paper, Davison tells this wonderful story of one of the last censor boards in America (and think about that Kuwati censor as you read this):

The phenomenon of censorship offers what is perhaps the most interesting field for speculation about the role of the third-person effect. Insofar as faith and morals are concerned, at least, it is difficult to find a censor who will admit to having been adversely affected by the information whose dissemination is to be prohibited. Even the censor’s friends are usually safe from pollution. It is the general public that must be protected. Or else, it is youthful members of the general public, or those with impressionable minds. When Maryland’s State Board of  Censors, which had been filtering smut from motion pictures since 1916, was finally allowed to die in June 1981, some of its members issued dire forecasts about the future morals of Maryland and the nation (New York Times, June  29, 1981). Yet the censors themselves had apparently emerged unscathed. One of them stated that over the course of 21 years she had “looked at more naked bodies than 50,000 doctors,” but the effect of this experience was apparently more on her diet than on her morals. “I had to stop eating a lot of food because of what they do with it in these movies,” she is quoted as having told the Maryland Legislature.

I just love that story because it gets to the heart of what is so horribly elitist and ironic about censorship: No one every thought to test how corrupted the censors themselves had become because they consumed all the same stuff they were censoring!  If there was anything to the “monkey see, monkey do” theory of media effects theory (i.e., if you read, see, or hear bad things, then you will do bad things), then these censors should all be dope-smoking, axe-wielding, sex addicts. But I bet most of them weren’t. Like Ms. Dalal, they were probably generally well-adjusted members of society. They probably learned how to properly process all that content, even as they had zero faith in the ability of their fellow citizens to do the same.

So, if you ever get a chance to meet an actual censor, make sure to ask them about all the fun stuff they’ve been consuming lately and why it hasn’t turn them into total freaks or madmen!

  • Andrew Pam

    Note that the pro-censorship lobby in Australia call for the members of the Australian Classification Board (formerly the Office of Film and Literature Classification) to be replaced with new people regularly on the basis that board members will get acclimatised to shocking material and not rate it harshly enough.  They also prefer the board to be drawn from “ordinary members of the community” rather than academics or people with a background in the arts, because those people might also have too much prior exposure to offensive material and thus not be sufficiently offended when deciding on ratings.

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  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    That’s very interesting, Andrew.  I did not know that.  But does the Classification Board undertake any sort of effort to determine how those censors are personally affected by the viewing of the supposedly shocking material while they are serving in that capacity? I understand that this is not an exact science, but it would nonetheless be terrifically interesting to see if any government has conducted psychological evaluations of censors after they have done a stint on the job to see if the exposure to that material has had an adverse impact on them.  What I am suggesting above is that it is highly unlikely the material has much of an impact on either the censors or society. I believe humans develop coping mechanisms to assimilate even the most vile and shocking content. In some cases, there’s even a cathartic effect, as with the viewing of violent dramas and video games. I wrote more about that here:


    and here:


  • anon

    An answer to the question is that the censor can fully steel themselves, prepare themselves, and so engage with the potentially offensive material in a way that doesn’t upset their morality.

    Whereas a regular citizen may inadvertently consume the material without realising its potentially outrageous moral position and, by not using an appropriate level of scepticism or caution, then regard the material as acceptable without mentally challenging it.

    It is comparable to subliminal advertising.  A censor might remove one thousand references to brands of fizzy-drinks from television programmes and at the end of the day have her choice of cola remain unaffected despite all those adverts she had to look at.  But the effect of just one of those subliminal adverts on an unwitting member of the public, and they may be unknowingly affected.

  • http://theultrasoundtechnicianguide.com/ Adeline Doty

    They probably learned how to properly process all that content, even as
    they had zero faith in the ability of their fellow citizens to do the

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  • Cameron

    That seems to be more an argument for educating people (particularly children) how to process information they are presented with.

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