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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Censorship of Thought

Guest Blogger Dept.: Novelist Robert Keable wrote Simon Called Peter in 1921, telling the story of a priest’s dalliance with a nurse during the First World War. It signalled his rebellion against the Church of England – he’d been a priest – and a shift to the kind of enlightenment that prompted an  invitation to contribute to the collection Nonsenseorship, sections of which have appeared here during the past few years.


Robert Keable Urging the Automaton
Called Citizen to Turn on His Oppressor

Illustration by Ralph Barton
I KNEW A MAN, about a year ago, who published a novel upon which the critics fell with such fury this side of the water at least, that whether in the body or out of the body, such was ultimately his state of bewilderment, he could not tell, and if I am asked to discuss “Prohibitions, Inhibitions and Illegalities” it is natural that the incident should be foremost in my mind. True, it is becoming increasingly the fashion for a parson to preach a sermon without announcing text, but modern preaching, like brief bright brotherly breezy modern services, does not seem to cut much ice. Therefore we will hark back to the manner of our forefathers and take the incident for a text. It affords an admirable example of nonsenseorship.

As is always done in approved sermons (but humbly entreating your forbearance, which is less common) let us consider the context, let us review the circumstances of the case in point. Our author left the lonely heart of Africa for the theatre of war in France. He left a solitude, a freedom, a beauty, of which he had become enamoured, for that assemblage of all sorts of all nations, in a cock--pit of din and fury, known as the Western Front. He expected this, that, and the other; mainly he found the other, that, and this. Being desirous of serving the God of things as they are, he pondered, he observed, and, his heart burning within him, he wrote. He had no opportunity of writing in France, so he wrote on his return, away up in the Drakensberg mountains, alone, with the clean veld wind blowing about him and the nearest town an hour's ride away, and that but three houses when he reached it. He had seen vivid things and it chanced he was able to write vividly. There were twenty chapters in his novel and he wrote them in twenty days.

The novel finished, the MS. of it was despatched to nine publishing firms in succession, who silently but swiftly refused it. It only went to the tenth at all because there is luck in a round number, and it found a home because it found a free man. On the eve of its appearance, it was hung up for a month because it was felt that whereas the booksellers might display a book containing a certain passage which referred to a woman’s bosom, they would not do so if it contained a plural synonym.

(I offer abject apologies for these dreadful details.) And when it finally appeared, the main portion of the English Press cried to heaven against it, and a smaller section clamoured for disciplinary action. For a hectic month the author, who had simply and plainly written of things as they were, honestly without conception that anyone existed who would doubt their truth or the obvious necessity for saying them, sat amazed before the storm.

Now that incident, unimportant to the world at large as it is, does afford an admirable example of that censorship which is about us at every turn. True, in this case, the official censor remained silent. Although prepared to read passages from Holy Scripture in the witness-box, and challenge a denial of the facts, the author was not called upon to do so. He had previously given slight hints of the truth about the racial situation in South Africa in another book and had had that volume censored out of existence, but perhaps because this present work merely touched on morals the official censor decided to give him rope with which to hang himself.

He was hung, of course, rightly and convincingly, hung by the neck till he was dead. Thus a clergyman who took the book from a circulating library because of its Scriptural title, and whose daughters wrapped it in The Church Times and read it over the week-end, declined to meet him at dinner. A bishop cut him in the street. Very rightly and properly too. The book honestly, simply, undisguisedly, told the truth. Since then America has been good enough to recognise it.

But this is at least the first consideration of British censorship today: it must suppress the truth about most of the important things in life. Take the allied case of the Unknown Warrior. We are told that he was a crusader, that he was glad to die in a noble cause, that his valour deserved the Victoria Cross and his religion Westminster Abbey. In short he was a saint. But, one protests (a bit bewildered because it sounds so good) that was not the man I knew. The man I knew lived next door and was a damned good chap. The man I knew chucked up his business and left his home and risked his life because everybody was doing it, because it seemed there was a real mess-up, because one had to.

Also, it was a change. Oddly enough, Adam goes out from a modern office or a modern factory in order to hoe up weeds in the sweat of his brow and in danger of his life with barely a regret for the Paradise he has to leave. Besides, Eve went with him. God, there were Eves in France! Women who knew how to make a man forget, women who didn’t count the cost, women who loved for love’s sake. And for this and other causes, the Unknown Warrior was extraordinarily bored at having to die, except that he came not to care so much so long as he was sure he was only to be asked to die. As for his valour — Well, said he, it’s no use grousing, and if it’s a question of bayonets, it had better be mine in the other chap’s stomach. Besides, we English-speaking peoples don’t shout about our valour. And as for religion — Well, if there’s a God why doesn’t He stop this bloody war, or, anyway, where the blazes is He?

There you are. It’s abominable to write like that. Here it is in print; isn’t it disgraceful? You see, it happens to be true. But if men said that, loud enough and enough of them, there would be no more wars. No more wars? There would be no more Downing Street either, and an American army would march, as like as not, on Washington. Disgraceful! It’s so disgraceful that I am not sure, as I write, that this article will ever be printed.

Now since the War it is noticeable that the spirit of censorship has very visibly increased its activities among us. There is little doubt of that and there is little doubt of the reason for it. The War, by tearing down shams and by stripping men and women to the essentials, forced many to see things as they are. The old lies were no use in that hour, nor the old conventions and beliefs. Men learned to look beyond them, and they learned not to be afraid to look. Partly it was no use being afraid in the War and men got out of the habit, and partly, having looked, they saw something so much better ahead. Or again the trend of modern civilisation was so unarguably revealed in all the stark horror of its inhumanity that men saw suddenly that it was better to be brave and revolt and be killed than be cowardly and submit and live.

A great many of those who saw did not survive to tell the tale, but some did. There are more men and women about today who are not to be put off with humbugs than ever there were before. Such folk make up an element in Society which the censors know to be something more than dangerous. They are men who cannot easily be bribed for they have seen through the worth of the bribe, who cannot be intimidated because they no longer fear, and who cannot be cheated because they have seen true values. Hence your new censorship and its methods. Rebels must be drowned in a babble of words. They must be suppressed by the action of the unthinking masses rolled up upon them. They must be ground to powder lest they should turn the world upside down.

That, then, is the basis of censorship. Fear. You can do most things in England today except tell the truth, or, at any rate, except tell the truth in such a way that people will believe you. At the time of the French Revolution there was a broadsheet in circulation which showed on one side Louis XVI in his coronation robes. He was a fine figure of a man. His flowing wig descended majestically to his broad shoulders and his shapely leg, thrust forth, dominated a world. But on the reverse, a pimply shrunken figure emerged from the bath. Shortly after publication they had a revolution in France.

Now the War circulated such another broadsheet in the world. Here is the official side of it. Marriage is made in heaven. Politicians are earnest, devoted men. One’s own country always fights for Right without Fear and without Reproach. Millionaires are nearly always philanthropists. Capitalism is a just, kindly, and reasonable basis for Society. The General Confession has become the national prayer of Englishmen. Modern Civilisation is thoroughly healthy and every day it gets better and better. It is so. It must be so. What’s that? You have known a politician . . . Your friend is married and . . . Brother, it is impossible. You must not say so anyway: the whole fabric of Society will be shaken. You must not think so for a moment.

You must not think so. That is the creed of the new censorship. And very sensible, too. It is an odd thing that the Middle Ages of the Inquisition were so nonsensical, judged by our standards. Grand inquisitors cared remarkably little how a man thought provided he did not say what he thought too publicly. If he went to church once a year he might be a Jew for all their interference. If he signed the Thirty-nine Articles he might use a rosary in his own home. If Columbus thought the world was round, he was welcome to go and see, but if Galileo said that the Church was wrong for saying the world was flat, there was nothing for it but to shut him up in prison. It was all rather stupid, but it was interesting.

For above all things, the limits of censorhip were well defined. Censorship was based on hypotheses. It was conceived that Almighty God had established St. Peter as a censor of public faith and morals, but it was not maintained that he was established as the censor of art and literature and life. There was thus originality in all these affairs. In a mediaeval town every house was different, in a mediaeval cathedral no two pillars were alike, and in the dress of a mediaeval crowd was captured the colours of the rainbow. With an odd result. Men laughed at the devil in the freedom of their souls. They tweaked his tail on carven misericords, and in the mystery play he was invariably cast for the clown.

Further, and in close accord with this, a pleasant feature of the old Inquisition was that it tried and burnt you for the good of your own soul, and despite all calumnies and mis-representations on the part of later writers, that remained to the end the main motive of the rack and of the stake. Personally I find it hard to suppose that some such consideration in any way lightened the last hours of the victim, but at least it enlightens our judgment of the inquisitor. Heresy was to him, quite honestly, a form of lunacy. Public opinion agreed with him. It was a species of moral and mental hydrophobia, and the mass of men no more desired to be converted to heresy than we desire to be bitten by mad dogs. ln their simple souls they abhorred and feared the thing. They attended an auto-da-fé as an act of faith, piety, and rejoicing. They might have been a Paris crowd watching the last hours of such a social pest and terror as Landru, except that it probably occurred to few of the Parisian sightseers to pray for that murderer’s soul.

But the modern Inquisition, the neo-censorship, is out, not to save my soul, but the souls of my contemporaries. It does not imagine that I am preaching a hideous thing from which all men will revolt; it imagines that I am offering them something which they will gladly and readily accept. It does not judge me and my sayings and doings from the standpoint of an accredited representative of society, but from the standpoint of a non-accredited governor of society. It silences me for fear that I may be followed, not lest I should be damned. It does not censor me for speaking or acting against an established order in which everyone believes, but for speaking or acting against an order in which practically everyone has ceased to believe. “Burn him,” cried Torquemada; “he has spoken what no one thinks.” “Bury him,” cries your modern censor; “he has thought what no one speaks.”

Thus, today, the point is that you may not think. All the energies of the censorship are bent towards the prohibition of thought. For one penny, every morning, even if you are an Englishman in Paris, a daily newspaper will tell you what to think and castigate you if you think otherwise. No, it is three halfpence in Paris. But that is the idea. That is the great conspiracy. Certain news-items are regaled to me, certain news-items are suppressed, in order that I may not think amiss. Certain books are refused me, certain plays must not be produced, certain fashions are taboo, certain things may not be done, lest, by any chance, I should form the habit of thinking, lest I should step out of the throng and be myself. Lest I should make a venture of personal opinion, and be right.

The odd thing is that the average man lends himself to the deception and even plays his part in the great game. Of course he is not altogether to blame. The psychology of the method is so truly conceived. It is dinned into him so repeatedly that things are so, that black is white and white is black, that if you see it in Bottomley’s John Bull it is so, that he honestly comes to believe the bunkum. For he, too, fears at his heart. He is a conservative animal. Men used to burn a heretic because they believed in God; now they censor him out of existence because if they did not believe in the Northcliffe press they would have nothing whatever in which to believe. Men used to believe in the Ten Commandments; now they accept Prohibition because if they did not accept some authority they would have to govern themselves. Men used to believe the Bible; now they believe the daily papers because if they did not they would be compelled to lift up their eyes and look on life.

But Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the whole truth and nothing but the truth a while ago. “If you teach a man to keep his eyes upon what others think of him, unthinkingly to lead the life and hold the principles of the majority of his contemporaries you must discredit in his eyes the authoritative voice of his own soul. He may be a docile citizen; he will never be a man.” And Bernard Shaw was not far out when, in the Introduction to Man and Super-Man, he pointed out what amiable honest gentlemen the free-booters who built the Rhine castles were compared with your modern millionaires, newspaper-owners, and political bosses. The robber-baron risked his neck. The robber-baron played a game. The robber-baron mostly warred on his own mates who were also playing the game. But the robber-baron of today would enslave the souls of men because he has forgotten how else to enjoy himself.

The net result then is that we are fast abandoning any attempt to think for ourselves. Not merely is any attempt at original thought or action cleverly stifled with pillows much as the princes were smothered in the Tower, but the censors of our freedom shout so loudly and supply us with mental goods so cheaply that in the end we have no real mental power of choice left. A million advertisements tell me that all decent people shave with Apple-Blossom soap, and with Apple-Blossom soap I shave. A score of papers tell me Germany is undertaxed and can pay Reparations, and I sit quiet while France occupies the Ruhr. Or vice-versa, as the case or another may be. Every child goes to school and every school is under Government control and every Government teaches that it is good for you to be governed and for the world that it should govern. A few years ago we were told that we had to be organised and schooled and managed because the nation was at war, but the thing is fast becoming a habit, and we have now to be managed and schooled and organised because the nation is at peace.

It is indeed just here that censorship has gone mad. It must have been horribly unpleasant to bum at the stake, but at least you had the satisfaction of knowing that the man who lit the faggots had some shadow of reason behind him. He had at least an hypothesis. He acted reasonably in its application. He believed something; he believed it with some horse-sense; and he acted as the saviour of Society. But today our censors have nothing behind them. No one supposes them to be more moral, more charitable, more instructed than other men; stiill less does anyone suppose them to be more inspired or dowered with divine right. They do not defend a faith for which they, too, would die; they merely bolster up a position because in so doing they find bread and butter. They do not object to innovators because what they innovate is bad; they object to innovators because they innovate. They do not object to us because they believe that we tell lies; they object because they know that we tell the truth.

This, then, is all very well, but what is the end to be? The theologians have always said that Almighty God left man free to sin because He did not want automatons. It is exactly here, however, that your modern censors improve on the Deity. They do want automatons. Only automatons will face liquid fire and poison gas. Only automatons will live in a jerry-built cottage in a modern town and pay heavily for the privilege. Only automatons will vote correctly at elections and keep the political business going and allow everything to run on smoothly for the next war. Only automatons will agree to the lengthening of skirts from the knee to the ankle. And only automatons will acquiesce in a system of morality which is not built on divine revelation or even on social necessity, but on exploded superstitions and sex domination and the conventions of the propertied classes.

Thus the devil is coming surely but steadily into his own. We have already half-accepted an inverted order, allowing that all the good tunes are his and attributing to him things which he knows well enough he has no right to call his own. In a few years we shall neither use tobacco nor the grape, gifts of the good God, nor dance nor choose our own clothes nor laugh nor think. We shall scurry hither and thither before the flick of the devil’s tail and be ready for the burning. We shall have sold our birthright of daring for an insipid mess of pottage: sold our right to choose and to spare, to slay and to leave alive, to be glad and to be sorry, to be martyrs if we would be, to explore, to risk, to win. We shall be docile and respectable, and the standard of our docility and respectability will have been set by men no better and no worse than we are. We shall be sober by act of Parliament, and moral — if it be morality — because we have lost the notion of being anything else. We shall be of no use whatever to God, and precious small beer for the devil.

And is there no way of escape? There truly is. Let any man ask the first censor that he sees by what authority he is censoring and who gave him that authority. Let him ask by what standards he is judging and in whose interests, and let him tell him what he thinks of his standards and interests. Let him say BOO and see how foolish the goose can look. Laugh, for Neo-Puritanism cannot stand laughter. Much else it can stand, but not that. Don’t argue; the old enemy is mighty good at words. Don’t hit; there are few of you strong enough. But laugh, laugh honestly, and go on laughing, for it is the only invincible weapon in the world. There is no more merry music either, and it is the melody for — Men.

–  Robert Keable, from Nonsensorship, G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1922.

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