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!

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