Forgotten Culture: The Consequences of Censorship
In April 2018, Nick Squires wrote an article that would remind the world the threat censorship poses to our culture. In his article, “Covering Up of Half-Naked Warrior Statue for Islamic Conference in Italy Criticized As Cultural Censorship,” he reports on an incident back in Cairo Montenotte, Italy, where during a conference on Islam, the marble statue of a half-naked Greek warrior was covered up to “spare the sensibilities of Muslim delegates.” This “thoughtful act,” however, has sparked an outcry over cultural censorship, one that is worth reading. “Am I the only one who thinks this is madness? […] We should be proud of our cultural heritage. Censoring is unacceptable.”
Despite this gesture of goodwill, he is right: censorship is absolutely unacceptable.
Disney's Censorship: The Little Mermaid
It’s easy to write off censorship as a vain attempt to “protect our children from the evils of sex and violence.” And why wouldn’t we want to shield their innocent eyes? Children are too young to experience the true carnality of the world. The Walt Disney Company, a massive multinational entertainment conglomerate, has demonstrated this over and over with their child-friendly reinventions of classic fairy-tales, such as Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, and many, many others. While these films have cemented themselves into the foundation of our collective childhood, adored by young and old alike, they remain to this day a prominent example of censorship in our society and a threat to human culture as a whole. When we’re spoon-fed these saccharine happy endings, we’re allowing censorship to spread far and wide, accepting these violated keystones of culture as “truth” when they’re dripping with lies and deceit, all for the sake of capitalism and control over the simple-minded masses.
One prime example of this sugar-coated censorship is Walt Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a story we’re all familiar with: a young mermaid, enchanted by the world above, falls in love with a human prince. As an act of love (or teenage recklessness,) she makes a deal with a sea witch and trades her voice for a pair of human legs. Though unable to speak, she finds her prince and the two, after overcoming many obstacles, become husband and wife. End scene; roll credits.
In the original fairy-tale, written by Hans Christian Andersen, the mermaid has her tongue cut out by the Sea Witch in exchange for human legs that will “feel as if she were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow.” When the prince falls in love with someone else in the end, instead of killing him to return to the sea with her loving sisters, she becomes foam on the water and dies.
This is not the happy ending Disney has time and again indoctrinated us with, but it is the original ending, intended by the author. It is the truth. To censor anything is to lie. Through censorship, the masses are unwittingly drawn into a sweet lie and denied the bitter truth they need to learn and to grow in this twisted world of ours.
Ironically, even the popular animated adaptation of The Little Mermaid couldn’t escape the clutches of suppression. In an article by Rod Nordland, titled “Book Banning on the Rise, from Disney to Orwell,” he addresses a problem this family-friendly film poses for the censors enforced by the Government of Kuwait. According to Nordland, “No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of The Little Mermaid.’ David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.”
Additionally, Shamayel al-Sharikh, from the same article, was quoted saying, “There are no hijab-wearing mermaids […] The powers that be thought her dress was promiscuous.” This article brings to light the most disturbing realization about censorship: what power it grants a government body over its people and their “freedom” to think and feel for themselves.
Censorship is a powerful weapon in anyone’s hands, but the fictional iron-hand government from George Orwell’s 1984 borders a little too close to “real” when such control is in their grasp. If one were to control what another reads and sees, they come that much closer to manipulating their thoughts and feelings. They come that much closer to the complete and total subjugation of their citizens. Of people. By choosing for us what to think and feel, we’re robbed of our freedom to choose. We’re robbed of our agency, by those who are meant to protect it.
Censorship allows one to rob another of their ability to think without restriction. To feel without guilt. By censoring art, they cripple their culture and reduce their society to a clan of mindless drones, without thought or feeling. They are unable to accept those who think and feel differently because their differing views were “censored.” While the censorship of art might not seem like a concern, paintings and portraits, performance and modern art, movies and film, are not all that have succumbed to the fires of censorship.
The Suppression of Thought
Famed science-fiction author Ray Bradbury once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” I’ve pointed out time and again the danger suppression of art has on society. But what about books? Generally, books are rarely included when one is discussing art censorship, but they are victims regardless. Whether the book is a product of the imagination or a lecture on history, they are still an expression of thought and emotion. The laws of censorship still apply to them, regardless of the truths they reveal.
As disheartening as it is to believe, the censorship of books is proof that not only is artistic expression a victim of suppression but also thoughts and ideas. The “truth,” as it were. Often when censorship is applied, it is to suppress the truth. The censorship of books—“book banning,” as it is more widely known—is believed to have started during the reign of Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti, who not only buried alive four-hundred-and-sixty Confucian scholars in an attempt to “control history,” but he also condemned every book in his kingdom to execution by fire, save for those preserved in the Royal Library. This was done so that history would begin with him.
Of course, such attempts were futile. But he did go down in history as the first to begin the practice of book burning, the most radical form of censorship. Communist regimes and the campaign of Adolf Hitler and WWII, among many others, resorted to burning funeral pyres for books in order to suppress the truths and information they wished to deny and oppress. While Ray Bradbury claimed book-burning wasn’t the only way to ruin a culture, extremists feared the power of truth, of others’ thoughts and ideas. They had to destroy books to prevent rebellion. They had to destroy art to prevent an uprising. Thankfully, these, too, were useless, despite the information lost to the flames of power and ignorance.
Book-Banning and Erasing History
Speaking of ignorance, book banning doesn’t always apply to books newly born into the world. In her article, “Little House Should Not Be Abandoned,” Caroline Fraser discusses a concerning issue regarding the censorship of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series, Little House on the Prairie. Fraser writes,
“Since 1954, the American Library Association has awarded a medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature in the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. […] In February, the ALA announced that it was reconsidering the name of the Wilder Award. Alluding to the depiction of American Indians and African Americans in Wilder’s work, the ALA declared that her legacy put the group in the uncomfortable position of serving children while being unable to model values of ‘inclusiveness, integrity and respect.’ Wilder’s books, it went on, ‘reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.’”
This is what we would call “presentism.” The 1930s were a different time; such matters did not warrant censorship. “Over the past 20 years, Wilder's most famous novel, Little House on the Prairie (1935), has inspired almost as much disapproval as devotion. The novel has racist elements, and its portrayal of Indians has consequences when read uncritically and approvingly in schools.
In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation of southwestern Minnesota—only miles from the storied town of Walnut Grove, immortalized in the 1970s-era Little House TV show—came home in tears after listening to her third-grade teacher reading the novel and a character's repetition of the infamous slur, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ Indians appear alternately as thieves or screaming warmongers, and the overall portrait is not tempered by Laura's childish fascination or her father's remark about a peaceable Indian, whom he describes as ‘no common trash.’ While these racial slurs and anti-Native content weren’t considered “offensive” back in the 1930s and 1950s, by the laws and morals of modern-day America, these only serve to promote racism and ignorance. Their reasoning for degrading the books isn’t without good reason, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is another attempt at censorship. This is another attempt at suppression.
Of course, this is not the only children’s classic to come under fire: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been a source of controversy for years due to its dated terminology, once acceptable, now “offensive” and “disgusting” by our modern-day standards. However, according to Fraser,
“Changing the name of the Wilder Award is not an act of censorship, but no book, including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.’ Mark Twain - whose Huckleberry Finn often appears on the list - himself mocked the idea that children's books should never cause outrage. ‘The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,’ he once sighed sarcastically.”
The issue with the censorship of classics such as the Little House books and Huckleberry Finn is that by denying that modern-day Americans didn’t share the same morals and values as those in the past, we’re eradicating part of our history. It may be shameful to some—disgusting and horrifying—but to censor history is to promote the censorship of truth. It is yet another attempt to “manipulate history,” as Emperor Shih Huang Ti attempted millennia ago, before the death of Christ. In this day and age, this suppression of history is quickly spreading like wildfire, under the guise of something commonly known as “fake news.”
As recently as 2016, we’ve heard the phrase thrown around time and time again because so many are willing to disgrace their integrity because they “disagree” with the events of the world. They’re willing to censor information—the “truth” they wish to deny—because they disagree with the truth. Censorship and the suppression of information has become so widespread that none can be trusted to deliver to us what is the truth. Differentiating lie from fact has become nigh-impossible thanks to the fragile state of the media and political division. Our world is a mess, with culture and history quickly slipping between the cracks of memory, pushed aside by the backhand of censorship. Culture, history, and the truth we need to grow with the world around us.
In conclusion, censorship is a cancer to culture and society.
The suppression of thought, the banning of books, the manipulation of art from its true form to something other because it could be “offensive” to someone, somewhere, is a quickly-growing problem that many give little thought to. Despite the convincing arguments made for its continued use, many fail to recognize the debilitating consequences of such drastic measures. Art can offend, but so can thoughts and feelings. But to censor what we see, what we think, what we feel, goes against our laws as humans. It robs us of our freedom.
And eventually, it’ll rob us of our humanity.
Squires, Nick. "Covering Up of Half-Naked Warrior Statue for Islamic Conference.." Telegraph.co.uk., 17 Apr. 2018. SIRS Issues Researcher, https://sks-sirs-com.byui.idm.oclc.org.
The Little Mermaid. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2019, from http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html
Nordland, Rod. "Book Banning on the Rise, from Disney to Orwell." New York Times, 01 Oct. 2018, pp. A.4. SIRS Issues Researcher,https://sks-sirs-com.byui.idm.oclc.org.
Bannings and Burnings in History. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.freedomtoread.ca/links-and-resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history/
Fraser, Caroline. "Little House should Not be Abandoned." Washington Post, 14 Mar. 2018, pp. C.1. SIRS Issues Researcher, https://sks-sirs-com.byui.idm.oclc.org.
Questions & Answers
When and by whom was the first book burning in history?
It was by Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti, between 259 and 210 A.D.
© 2019 Gabriele Rhodes