Sanitising the Arts Strips them of their Power
We can't censor our way to a more tolerant society.
In 2008, a student-employee at Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Keith John Sampson, was accused and found to have committed an act of “racial harassment” by university administrators. Sampson had been reported to the university authorities by co-workers who claimed offence and harassment arising from Sampson reading a book. You have not misread that; the university administrators alleged that Sampson's crime was that of:
“...openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”
The title of the book was ‘Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan’, by a Notre Dame alumnus named Todd Tucker. The idea of reading a book related to a “historically and racially abhorrent subject” should sound absurd enough, because one would legitimately wonder how we might learn about almost anything in history, from the Crusades, to the slave trade, to the Holocaust, or Japanese war crimes. History is ugly; and the best historical writing doesn’t shirk from this.
But what put the Sampson affair into the realm of pure farce was the fact that the complaints of “racial harassment” were not about the book; they were about the book’s cover. Here is the cover of the book in question:
You can probably guess what caused the “harassment”. Sampson apparently tried to explain to his offended co-workers that the actual subject matter of the book was how the Ku Klux Klan were confronted in South Bend, Indiana, by students of Notre Dame, a Catholic university in South Bend, which resulted in an open altercation between the two groups. (In the early 1920’s anti-Catholicism was the dominant xenophobia in the Klan, reflecting its largely rural and exclusively White Protestant membership). The book contained nothing celebratory about the Klan. None of this context mattered; the details didn’t matter, nor did the actual subject matter.
When Monty Python released ‘Life of Brian’ in 1979 it was immediately banned in Ireland by film censors due to its allegedly “blasphemous” content. A satire of organised religion was considered far too dangerous for a country which, at the time, constituted a theocracy. The regulation of the arts was part of a deliberately cultivated State apparatus of regulating, and legislating for, public morality. In 1926, the newly independent Irish nation established a “Committee on Evil Literature” under the auspices, tellingly, of the Department of Justice. The committee received submissions from various stakeholders, dominated by religious organisations, which culminated in the establishment of the “Censorship of Publications Board”. Implicit in such a State apparatus was a recognition by the governing theocracy of a timeless reality; that the arts have always been a potent means of speaking truth to power, and laying bare hypocrisy, absurdity, and injustice.
The arts have long served as the social forum for truth, the primary media of reflecting reality. And the arts have served this purpose far beyond what the sciences ever could, or can. The sciences may be able to provide an explanation for the workings of the natural world, but it can never fully communicate that world, not with all the numbers and graphs. This is why the sciences, ultimately, always struggle to assert their authority in the social sphere, because science is all head and no heart. And while this is how it should be - the sciences should be dispassionate - this isn’t how humans are.
So when Goya set out to “perpetuate, by means of the brush...” the massacre of Spanish citizens revolting against the occupation of Spain by Napoleon and the French on the 3rd May 1808, his language was a reflection of his understanding that his brush could communicate the fear and horror of the massacre, and the faceless perpetrators of evil, with an intensity and clarity that no cold numbers or figures could ever hope to achieve. The sciences can’t do this; this is the essential social function of the arts.
The pen of Joseph Roth in ‘On the End of the World’ communicated the evils befalling Europe after the Nazis seized power in Germany with an urgency of alarm and despair that was unmatched in any of the governments of Europe at the time. His fears were realised, in full. And seldom has writing had a more viscerally striking effect for me than in ‘Girlhood’, the collection of essays by Melissa Febos that depict, often with harrowing candour, the material realities of navigating the world as a female; puberty as the harbinger of male entitlement to her body, the constant loom of male violence, the narratives that condition the experience of women in society.
In cinema, think about how the vicious opening 20-minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ altered the cinematic portrayal of war, dragging the genre screaming in a hail of bullets and blood from the derring-do-bravado and bloodless black-and-white heroics of post-war cinema into reality. Much of what was depicted happened; the scene of the GI picking up his arm and running up the beach, or the scene of the GI trying to hold his intestines in while screaming for his mother, were reported from Omaha Beach. The portrayal was so vivid and violent that there were reports of veterans leaving theatres.
Yet we’re now living in a time where the arts are being stripped of their power either through sanitisation or censorship. And while this is occurring with much political finger-pointing, the reality is that the arts are trapped in a pincer movement by both progressives and conservatives, each engaged through various channels in degrees of redacting, censorship, editing, or banning, whether of books and other media. Our current landscape is characterised by a blend of the stupidity of taking offence to a book cover and the folly that underscored the ‘Life of Brian’ ban. This is the culture of “overprotection” that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have been warning against since at least 2015. We’re incubating a fragile culture.
In playing the ugly parts of ourselves, our societies, and our realities, back to us, the arts should be uncomfortable. When tackling and depicting these issues, they are deliberate in their intent to jolt, to jar, to stir, and to unsettle. Purging ‘Huckleberry Finn’ of “the n-word” or banning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for containing it, will never change the reality that people have used, use, and will continue to use, this word with all the venom of racism it conveys. Consider this recent review in the Guardian (of course) of the play ‘Private Lives’, which revolves around a divorced couple’s volatile relationship:
“By foregrounding the domestic violence, the show sometimes finds it hard to navigate the humour. Mangan’s Elyot is a vile man, turning on the charm very selectively, and the easy way Amanda comes back to him – willingly, excitedly – feels gut-wrenchingly wrong. This is an admirable interpretation of a complex relationship, but one that still feels a little uneasy with itself.”
As if domestic violence, the holding pattern of toxic misogyny, or humour masking hostility, are meant to be anything but “gut-wrenchingly wrong” and “uneasy”. The arts are serving their essential social function when they are unveiling these realities. For such subject matter, the point is that it should be dark and uncomfortable.
The problem with this culture of santising the arts is that it undermines the experience of reading or viewing the material. It creates a false impression that someone has read and understood the text, or play, or screenplay, when in fact they’ve been deprived of the opportunity of fully engaging with the subject matter. This criticism applies whether the portrayal of unsavoury topics was created intentionally by the artist, or is present as a byproduct of the artists own repugnant views (e.g., in the case of Roald Dahl). Yet both serve as an opportunity to grapple with the issues present in the art in question, and this is only possible when it is allowed to exist in the form of its creation. In sanitising and censoring, the arts themselves are deprived of their power, while the consumer is fed the bland gruel of our intellectually impoverished times.
The future of TV looks set to be akin to the series ‘Good Trouble’, a cringeworthy collection of gotcha-moments (White-girl-says-something-cue-correction-by-relevant-minority-character) with each scene amounting to little more than an itemised checklist (‘Hispanic' male with transgender sister declares bisexual orientation to conservative parents; Check!”). The irony of it all is that despite every carefully calculated and curated diversity scene and a script packed with the verbiage of ‘social justice’ and CorrectSpeak, it still manages to be such a pathetically infantilised depiction of these issues. ‘Remember the Titans’ had more edge.
And this is the irony; the trend of sanitising and censorship the arts is completely out of step with our current contemporary moment, in which our societies are attempting to grapple with the history and legacy of the past of issues like racism and colonialism , while navigating turbulent social, economic, political, and environmental challenges. Sanitisation and censorship are fundamentally regressive strategies in this context.
Liberals are constantly calling for society to confront and discuss issues ending in “ism” or “ist”, while simultaneously attempting to promote a culture of what Lukianoff and Haidt termed “safetyism”; sanitising, redacting, or banning, materials with potential for disquiet. Conservatives are reacting by denying any such issues exist and resorting to censorship on their own terms, often leveraging legislation to achieve these ends. There is no moral high-ground for either side to claim, because the underlying motivation is the same; to create and control a narrative reflecting their respective social agendas and views.
In ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, Lukianoff and Haidt had a particular theme that underpinned much of the books arguments:
“Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
Yet this current trend of sanitising and censoring the arts strips agency from preparing the child for the road. It has descended into a battle being fought between ideologue adults for control of the road. If the point of the current moment is wider understanding and grappling with the past, with hard issues that reverberate in our societies today, as well as issues like misogyny and domestic violence that have existed in our societies for millennia, sanitising these issues from our arts is one way to guarantee the failure of this grand project. If the reality of the world is not getting any nicer, simpler, or easier, what purpose does it serve society to fixate on sheltering people from that reality?
Of course, it probably is fitting to our contemporary culture that we are engaging in this processes of sanitising literature and the arts. Every part of the process fits the moment: the inquisitorial and unaccountable bureaucracy; “sensitivity readers” whose only apparent qualification is their self-ordained capacity to be offended; a receptive “progressive” public seemingly confused by wanting to make issues like racism visible and thinking the best way to achieve this is sheltering and censorship; a reactionary and hysterical conservative backlash. The moral panic of both liberals and conservatives reflects little more than the ideological monoliths both sides have become, and ideological monoliths will always find books to burn, authors to eviscerate, and icons to smash.
Great essay, Alan. I appreciated your layout of the arts in comparison to the sciences and the social need for how it can communicate in ways science and empiricism never can. In terms of the arts now, I'm curious to how much of a role you think our current culture of consumption and the business of "content"/art plays in this. I wholeheartedly agree with your argument in the role arts play in society. But it seems like were at a time of oversaturation and hyper-consumption of arts, or rather "content". With the main goal of so much contemporary art/content to be profit-seeking, how can it remain in pursuit of truth telling? If revolutionary artists were around today, I can't help but cynically imagine them having an entire PR/marketing team around them to currate their art for maximum consumption/profit. As a result, their art would be sanitzied to amount to becoming essentially meaningless. Discomfort doesn't seem to hold a candle to a comforting echo-chamber in terms of clicks, views, revenue etc. Curious to your thoughts on this component here. Thanks as always for taking the time to share your engaging thoughts.
So true, but the good thing is that the power of art also lies in its subtlety, it's hard to ban everything and every form of it. It will always find its way: especially street art. And sometimes censorship might have a counterproductive effect, drawing even more attention from the wider public.