Unjustified or Inevitable? Two Scholarly Viewpoints on Censorship

Scholarly concern with censorship can generally be categorized into two perspectives: that it is an unjustifiable social act or that it is an inevitable social process. In this section, we will compare two specific examples of these scholarly positions, demonstrating how social context influences them. Contemporary critic Mark Cohen’s argument of censorship as inevitable reflects his emphasis on the production and consumption of literature in society, while George Woodcock, writing in the mid-twentieth century, links his arguments for censorship as unjustifiable to the political context in Canada of the time.

George Woodcock—Censorship as Unjustified

George Woodcock, the first editor of Canadian Literature, noted in a 1972 editorial entitled “Limits of Taste and Tolerance” that “since the beginnings of Canadian Literature we have been concerned about the censorship of books” (3). Woodcock, who also devoted a 1959 editorial of Canadian Literature to British and Canadian obscenity laws, stated that in his opinion, “censorship of any kind is morally unjustified and practically self-defeating. It places a premium on obscurantism and intolerance, it lowers the climate of social relations by encouraging the sneak and the informer, and it places works of literature at the mercy of policemen, customs officers, magistrates and judges whose training does not often include the inculcation of artistic discrimination” (“Areopagitica Re-Written” 4). Here, Woodcock is questioning the types of “agents” who should make judgements about a text, and whether they should have such authority simply based on their relationship to or proximity to the law.

Woodcock’s editorial was published as a deliberate response to the passing of Canada’s obscenity law (Bill C-58). As he reports, the Canadian definition of obscenity was as follows: “For the purposes of this Act, any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one of the following subjects, namely crime, horror, cruelty and violence, shall be deemed to be obscene” (6). He points out that the bill’s definition of obscenity—one that could and did inevitably result in the censorship of texts from 1959 onwards—is inherently problematic, asking: “How are we to identify the dominant characteristic of any work? How are we to decide whether sex is unduly exploited? Such questions test the ingenuity even of professional critics” (6).

Essentially, Woodcock recognizes the existence of a wide range of ideological predispositions (to use Cohen’s definition) that shape and frame the readings of texts within society, including decisions as to whether a particular theme or subject matter is being unduly exploited. Ultimately, Woodcock suggests that the appraisal of literature is far too subjective an endeavor for the narrow categories imposed by the obscenity laws, particularly when the results deem certain works as seemingly good or seemingly bad.

Mark Cohen—Censorship as Inevitable

Writing forty years later, Mark Cohen, in his 2001 Censorship in Canadian Literature, suggests that censorship is an inevitable part of the negotiations between ideological forces that shape the production and distribution of cultural texts in society: “the debate over whether or not censorship is acceptable in democratic, capitalist societies is a red herring. It is inevitable” (119). Where Woodcock’s rejection of censorship was a response to a particular ideological position represented in the Obscenity Laws, Cohen’s assessment of its inevitability is grounded in his mapping of these negotiations between ideological positions.

Research Question to Consider

  1. Censorship has often been perceived as a feature of repressive governments, rather than as a practice that relates to our systems of valuing and reading literature, as Cohen points out. The desire not to read or promote a certain kind of text might be seen as a mere preference, but is limiting the kinds of texts we read also a kind of censorship or exclusion? Under which circumstances? Use your own experiences to help you consider this.

Works Cited

  • Cohen, Mark. Censorship in Canadian Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2001. Print.
  • Woodcock, George. “Areopagitica Re-Written.” Editorial. Canadian Literature 2 (1959): 3-9. Print.
  • —. “Limits of Taste and Tolerance.” Editorial. Canadian Literature 54 (1972): 3-8. Print.