On Censorship

The idea of censorship is not a new concept. Its origins date far back to the times of the Ancient Greeks. The idea that music, and other art forms, have ties with morality and have an influence over our passions can be seen to have taken form in the works of Plato, especially in his work on the ideal Republic. For Plato, music and literature, were evocative and capable of shaping our moral compass. It is for this reason that certain aspects and creators of these arts ought to be regulated and, at times, withheld from a certain group of people. For the most part, the group of people that the Ancient Greeks feared would be affected by this the most was the youth, an idea that even today is disputed in our society¹.

With this in mind, what exactly is censorship? And what is the criteria for a piece of music to be deemed worthy of its effects? Or rather, what makes something fall under the radar of the censors that are in place in our society?

These are questions that span across the various topics of our case studies and which have very complex answers to them. To some, the idea of censorship may bring to mind the containment and suppression of offensive material, be it music, poetry, art, or even public figures or movements. In other cases, censorship is merely the removal or alteration of content, be it lyrics to a song, or a live performance. In yet another case, it is possible to think of censorship as being more than just a means of suppression of offensive material. It can be seen as a method of oppression, a force capable of subjugating the minds of the masses. So which instance is correct?

It is a tough question to answer, but it would be fair to say that each general case is associated with censorship to some degree. In some cases, censorship is a very dominating force while in other, softer cases, it is less a force of domination and more a method of moderation, used to water down overtly or extreme instances of vulgar or offensive material. In both cases, however, it seems that censorship’s overarching umbrella deals with that which is offensive, obscene or otherwise vulgar.

This leads me to my next point of inquiry: what makes something obscene or vulgar? Another question worthy of our attention and a question that may help shed some light on the complexity that is censorship. Walter Berns, a 20th century political scientist, tackled this issue in a book entitled Where Do We Draw the Line?,  a book that didn’t necessarily deal with the censorship of music, but with censorship in broader terms. Berns explains in his section of the book that:

“The censors would proscribe that obscene…speech is no part of the speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and may therefore be proscribed without violation of the Constitution. It is not easy to formulate a rule of law that distinguishes the nonobscene from the obscene. Is it the presence of four-letter words? But many a literary masterpiece contains four letter words. Detailed descriptions of sexual acts? James Joyce provides these. Words tending to corrupt those into whose hands they are likely to fall? But who is to say what corrupts, or, for that matter, whether anything corrupts, or, again, what is meant by corruption? Is it an appeal to the ‘prurient interest’ or a work that is patently offensive? If that is what is meant by obscene, many a ‘socially important work’, many a book, many a play, or film with ‘redeeming social value’, would be lost to us.

-Walter Berns, Where Do You Draw the Line, page 26


John Street also raises an issue regarding the criteria for what should be censored in his book Music and Politics. Street claims that:

“Much that might be deemed offensive is not censored; often what seems entirely inoffensive is banned. This suggests that whatever it is that we are dealing with when we talk about censorship, it is not simply a matter of offensive and inoffensive objects. Rather it is about a process in which something comes to be deemed ‘offensive’. The story of censorship is not, for the most part (if ever), the stories of images or words that offended, but of the political interests that articulate and respond to the offence.”

-John Street, Music and Politics, Page 12


Both thinkers go about tackling the issue in slightly different ways. Berns explains that the issue of obscenity is one that is not entirely clear cut as what we may consider obscene is present in many works that we, as a society, deem to have redeeming value. This further emphasizes the idea that obscene content is not enough for something to fall under the radar of a censor. Street explains this idea a bit further by explaining that it is not the content itself that matters, but the process in which something is given the label of obscene. He points out that overtly offensive material passes through the radar of the censor untouched while seemingly inoffensive material becomes subject to the demands of the censors. The idea that material becomes offensive through a process is something that is quite interesting, but also, seems to answer the doubts and questions raised by Berns. If it is about the process and less about the content of the work, then Street is correct in his assertion that materials are deemed offensive through a confrontation in political interests.

It would seem that the next step is to focus in on a real example of censorship at work to attempt to try to see whether or not Berns and Street were accurate in their assumptions. I would like to now turn our attention and focus on to the US and more specifically, the way in which the US went about censoring Rock music. My hopes are that by doing so, we will gain a better understanding of both censorship and the ideas raised by the aforementioned authors.

Censorship on Television

¹”Music and Morality.” The American Spectator. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://spectator.org/articles/40193/music-and-morality>.