What shocked the censors! (1933)

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two terms are presumed to be psychological consequences which may be fore- cast, behavior which is likely to follow in case the public is allowed to witness performances in which obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, or sacrilegious dialogue or scenes are heard or seen. We have now arrived at the critical question involved in all censorship; in reality there are three questions which constitute the essential problem, namely: 1. Is it possible to arrive at explicit standards with respect to obscenity, indecency, immorality, inhumanity, or sacrilegion? 2. Is it psychologically sound to believe that contact with the reality of that which is presumed to be obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, or sacrilegious is likely to corrupt morals or incite to crime? 3. When either public or private agencies assume to formulate and enforce rules of this sort is it not likely that they invariably supply a cure which is worse than the disease? A fourth query should, of course, be added: Assuming that there are individuals or groups with the insight and capacity to determine what is or is not harmful to the public, is it likely that taste might be improved by granting them coercive powers? And, underneath all of these questions lies the still more significant one expressed in the statement by Professor Dunlap at the opening of this introduction: Will not those who arrogate to themselves or receive legal grants of power to censor ultimately become the guardians of privilege and the barriers to progress? Are Explicit Standards Reliable? Although the standards pronounced by the censors appear to be forthright and explicit, the actuality is quite otherwise. Their statements of criteria always sound as though they were self-validating. Obviously, no normal person wants obscenity, indecency, et cetera. And, certainly, the weaker members of society, particularly children, should be protected from contact with these evil aspects of life. It is this naivete which enlists censorship support on the part of the so-called "good" people of the community. But, it is precisely because censors do not, and cannot, set forth an explicit standard in any of these spheres that their work becomes doubtful and harmful. "It is just because a censor does not bind himself to decide according to explicit rules that censor- ship has such a paralyzing effect," writes Professor Ross.* Rules of this sort are impracticable and for two convincing reasons: (a) diversities concerning what is or what is not obscene, indecent, et cetera, among individuals, and (b) constant revisions of such standards in response to other cultural changes. In short, what is decent to one person is indecent to another, and what is considered to Be indecent at this particular period of history may be considered wholly decent at another. The chief defect of the censor's conception, however, lies in its negative quality. Assuming that an agreed standard existed, would it be publicly advisable to require censors to scrutinize, let us say, motion pictures with the * Professor Edward Allsworth Ross, The Principles of Sociology, p. 644.