There’s a good reason why censorship sparks so many squabbles, as developments in both China and the Muslim world this past week have reminded us. It’s a slippery concept. We who favor openness and transparency think we know exactly where we stand on censorship: We think it’s bad. Right? Freedom of speech is a vital pillar of democracy, and all that. And that is true. But it’s not necessarily the only truth.
We are sometimes brought up short by news of real-world situations in which a little censorship — or at least self-censorship — might be a better thing than people saying, showing or printing whatever they want to. There is no single rule. As the wise say, it all depends.
Most of the time the familiar view is the right one. Chinese officials were wrong, for instance, to bar the Hollywood movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” from Chinese cinemas last week. For one thing, the ban will be ineffective. Though officials offered no reason for the move, it followed nationalist demonstrations in Beijing and other cities this month against the movie’s casting of Chinese actresses as Japanese geisha. Organizers claimed this was somehow insulting in the context of Japanese wartime atrocities. But if the government’s idea was to avoid further “negative social response,” as the film company put it, it can forget it: Pirated DVDs of the movie have been available in China for weeks. The Chinese will see it anyway.
Pragmatism aside, the ban is also ill-advised because it sanctions muddle-headedness and feeds demagoguery. It was not based on content or substance but on entirely extraneous tensions. Chinese officials know that “Memoirs of a Geisha” has nothing to do with the war or with Japan’s history in China. They know it is a U.S. film, not a Japanese one. They know that Chinese actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi and the Chinese Malaysian Michelle Yeoh won international acclaim in the lead roles, bringing nothing but honor to China. And yet they let their hand be forced by mob grievances.
Think of it this way: It would make just as much (or as little) sense for Japan to ban the movie because Japanese actresses were overlooked for the main roles or because some Japanese believe it misrepresents geisha culture. But such an intrusion into the cultural marketplace would be unimaginable here. It should be equally unimaginable in China. This was one case where the censor’s intervention seemed obviously inappropriate.
But what about the case of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad? Suddenly, the answer doesn’t seem so clear, as the debate that has engulfed Europe proves.
The controversial cartoons were first published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September but were reprinted in many European newspapers last week in what appeared to be a concerted campaign to buck pressure from Islamic fundamentalist groups. They show the prophet in various terrorist-like poses, including one in which he wears a bomb-shaped turban trailing a lit fuse and another in which he brandishes a sword. Muslims in many Arab countries have reacted with fury to what they see as a blasphemy; in Islam, it is considered blasphemous to make any image of Muhammad, let alone a caricature that portrays him as a suicide bomber.
Unlike in China’s suppression of “Geisha,” the uproar over the cartoons involves a genuine clash of principles. Those reprinting the cartoons cite the right to freedom of speech; those outraged by them say they slander Islam and offend believers. That is not to say pragmatic considerations aren’t part of the mix: A number of Muslim leaders have warned that they may be unable to prevent popular anger from spilling over into violence or stop extremists from capitalizing on it. They are doubtless right. But Chinese officials could say the same thing. What is the difference?
Just this: The sincerity of the Chinese nationalists’ grievances is questionable. Whom did “Memoirs of a Geisha” insult? The movie brought honor to the Chinese actresses who freely took part in it. Muslim objections to the Danish cartoons, by contrast, seem well-founded.
A cartoon is a clumsy tool at the best of times, hostile to nuance, uninterested in distinctions. These drawings use one hugely broad brush to portray a religion in its entirety, in the person of its blameless founder, as a seedbed of terrorism. That is on a par with holding Jews responsible for the death of Christ or conflating Christianity and the Inquisition — the long-discredited arguments of fools and fanatics.
So what is the point of the European publishing campaign? To stir up yet more trouble? It is hard not to think so. Put this down as one of those rare instances in which a little self-censorship would have done nothing but good.
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