Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Word of the Day: Censorship

Somebody from Canada spends time every night looking for the word 'censorship' in this blog. I have no idea why. This post is for you, whoever you are.

Modern ideas about censorship are pretty odd. For a start, the word has been prostituted for so long that it now admits to any kind of activity. What you don't do is a form of tacit censorship; what you don't say is some sort of self-censorship; there is nothing you can do that isn't not-something-else, and so you are always a censor.

But if you are always a censor, then what's the point of the word?

A Roman censor was an official who was in charge of conducting a census. He would obtain, tabulate and announce the results. In later times, this took on the sense of 'pronouncing judgement'. 'Censorship', therefore, ought to mean nothing more that 'having the state of being a censor, or of holding that office.'

A careful look will see that a censor is defined by what he does, and not by what he doesn't do. We've known for a long time that proving a negative is difficult, if not impossible. To say that acts of decision which are not specifically acts of public judgement (that is, you choose without attempting to impose your choice on others in public or in the public sphere) are also acts of censorship is a bit silly. To include random acts, on the principle that they aren't other acts, is worse.

If I make a random blog post, it isn't a form of censorship just because it means I didn't post something else. You'd have to say what exactly I was actively suppressing, and show that it would have had import in the public sphere. That act of suppressing a specific thing which would have had import (impact, or significance) in the public sphere is true censorship — not that wimpy vague postmodern idea of it.

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