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Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News

By Eric Berkowitz

What you’ll learn

Censorship is a temptation as old as speech itself, and it has proven the preferred option over tolerance and open discussions throughout our history. Journalist and human rights lawyer Eric Berkowitz walks us through the tension between speech and suppression in Western history, highlighting events that have shaped the movement toward free speech and the temptations to curtail it.

Read on for key insights from Dangerous Ideas.

1. Censorship is an implicit recognition of the power of words and images.

Language is powerful, and the impulse to silence it affirms that power. Speech inspires, dissuades, persuades, catalyzes action for building or rebelling.

Censorship is difficult to define. Many definitions and understandings seem to conflict. Facebook, for example, at the current moment, censors one million pieces of information on a daily basis while posturing as a bastion of free speech. Etymology is a good place to start in understanding this phenomenon. The word censor is derived from the Latin word meaning “to evaluate or judge.”

What the West often forgets or takes for granted with the relatively new traditions of free speech and tolerance is that it requires embracing the tradeoff of messiness. Tolerance means being indulgent toward dissenting voices and the angst and dissonance that it can foment. As history bears out, it is the road less travelled. Suppression is the much more common knee jerk reaction to stopping the perceived threat of potentially harmful speech.

Governments and religious orders have been quick to censor because they understand the power of language. In numerous origin stories, language was the instrument by which spiritual beings bring the cosmos into existence. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, God spoke the universe into existence. The creation lore of the indigenous Uitoto tribe in Peru and Colombia states, “In the beginning, the word gave origin to the Father.” Anyone familiar with the Christian tradition will hear similarities to the famous opening in the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” The Israelites would not utter or even spell out Yahweh in their script.         

Specific combinations of words were believed to procure blessings of fertility and military victory or unleash curses on rivals. Words had a magical quality to them. This power and magic of language led to elaborate codes of taboos and laws determining what could not be uttered.

For most ancient civilizations, images also contained mystical significance. It is no surprise that the ancient Israelites, whose law prohibited the creation of graven images, were constantly drawn into the idol worship of neighboring nations. Like words, images and symbols have frequently been subjected to religious and political restrictions.

Censorship in its earliest forms involved curtailing the use of words and images that could unleash catastrophes upon a city or town. In the ancient world, burning dangerous or evil texts was a form of appeasing divine beings in much the same way animal sacrifices did. It was an aroma of devotion and commitment to purity. Awareness of the power images contain is with us millennia later. Take the feminist writer and law professor Catherine MacKinnon as an example, who has been arguing for decades that pornography is violent to the core—an act of rape and torture.

Whether the fear is of the gods obliterating a city or a malaise enervating society, the belief that words and pictures can be used for destructive ends (and that censorship can preempt those ends) is as old as humanity and persists to this day.

2. In ancient Greece, controversial ideas were tolerated in peacetime, but mobs and courts quashed them in times of turmoil.

In ancient Greece, and especially in Athens, there were two notions that together formed a precursor to the tradition of free speech that would become better-codified two millennia later in Europe and America: isegoria and parrhesia.

Isegoria referred to the freedom to participate in publicly held discussions. Any male citizen of Athens, rich or poor, elite or plebeian, could say his piece. Isegoria provided an equal-opportunity structure of speech; parrhesia made allowances for the content of speech. It afforded citizens a lot of latitude in what they could say. Men who spoke in the agora could be, and often were, critical of their politicians and the gods.

These two principles of isegoria and parrhesia provided a general framework for discourse, but it was a principle vulnerable to the passions of crowds. It was not uncommon for speakers at the agora to get booed off the platform. Plato’s brother was forcibly pulled off the stage on a number of occasions. Whatever freedom there was, the language of “inalienable rights to free speech” would have been foreign to ancient Athenians. Open discussions were possible, but there were severe limits, especially during times of political crisis.

During and following Athens’ war with Sparta in the fifth century BC, there were a number of prominent intellectuals who had previously spoken freely but the mood turned against them and punished them for their critiques of the gods. In crises, parrhesia was put on hold and tolerance evaporated.

Discussions of religion also became riskier in times of upheaval because religion was the bedrock of cultural homogeneity in ancient Greece. The wellbeing of the society depended on keeping the gods happy through careful observance of rituals.

Questioning the gods and the efficacy of rites would have been an annoyance in times of stability and prosperity, but offensive and treasonous in times of turmoil.

The philosopher Anaxagoras was charged and found guilty of impiety soon after the Spartan War in 430 BC and sentenced to death. Protagoras was another intellectual charged with impiety. Like Anaxagoras, he had taught freely for decades, but a change in cultural climate made the masses more hostile to his thoughts. Anaxagoras eventually got off easy with an exile. Protagoras had his writings gathered and burned—tantamount to being burned in effigy. If those accounts are true, then Protagoras’ writings mark the first book burning in Western civilization.

It was during a moment of crisis when Athens was losing wars abroad in Sicily, that Socrates was tried and found guilty of impiety. He had been teaching for years, but the upheaval of the day turned the gadfly into a scapegoat. Silencing Socrates through execution was an attempt to purify society and appease the gods.

3. Constantine and many early church leaders resorted to censorship to solidify power and unify a fractured Roman Empire.

Early Christians took an intolerant stance against pagan texts. The Messiah incarnate had recently graced the world with his presence, his kingdom was in their midst, and his return was imminent: The gravity of what was happening in the moment eclipsed the importance of history and ancient texts, especially pagan ones.

Once Christianity gained political power, ushered in largely through Constantine’s conversion, the Christian posture toward opposing ideas was not leniency. The church embraced some of the same standards of censorship their persecutors had. They got rid of pagan texts and any ideas that conflicted with the church’s authority.

Even in the days of the Apostle Paul, when the Jesus movement was young, magicians and sorcerers demonstrated the sincerity of their conversions to Christianity by burning their scrolls of magic arts.

A very key difference in repressions was that Romans killed individual Christians, while Christians, upon gaining more political power, burned pagan texts. Rome began fighting fire with fire in 303 AD, however. An oracle informed the Emperor Diocletian that Christianity was a serious threat to Rome. When the emperor saw that sacred texts and literature were so central to Christianity, he along with fellow Emperor Galerius, concluded that to quash Christianity involved destroying not just individual Christians but also their scriptures. The two emperors themselves led ceremonial burnings of Christian sacred texts. The Great Persecution, as it came to be called, lasted for eight years. About 3,000 Christians were tortured and killed, and many of their texts were destroyed.

In 312, Emperor Constantine had a dream of a cross of light in the sky the night before a battle with his arch rival. Written on the cross was in hoc signo vinces (“in this sign conquer”). Constantine had Chi Rho (the first Greek characters in Christos) inscribed on his soldiers’ shields and standards. When his armies decisively defeated his enemies, Constantine was convinced the Christian God had made it possible and he now owed him his allegiance. This was the major step toward Christianity becoming the official religion. Christ was edging the Roman pantheon out of the empire’s cosmology.

The victory gave Constantine control of eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. His rival Maxentius was given the censorious damnatio memoriae treatment, an ancient Roman practice that involved the systematic destruction of every artifact that kept alive someone’s memory. Everything from writings to coins bearing his image to statues erected in his honor were destroyed or defaced. Sometimes statues were melted down and recast into less lofty items like chamber pots, just to compound the dishonor.

Constantine hoped that Christianity would unify the fragmented empire and he relied heavily on censorship to promote and spread the religion. His conversion made it possible for Christianity to continue spreading throughout Europe and eventually the world. The severe methods employed by both church and crown to maintain control became the template for curtailing speech that would be repeated for hundreds of years.

4. No sacred text has been burned as profusely and for so long as the Talmud.

During the Middle Ages and into the nascent Renaissance, only one interpretation of religious life was tolerated, and that was the interpretation that the Church provided and protected. The authorities vigorously resisted any contrarian opinions. The dissonance could upset religious and political order. As the powerful often do, the church and crown were preoccupied not just with ruling well but preserving their power. Difference was dangerous.

In a Europe steeped in Christendom, Jews were primary targets of suspicion and suppression. The Jews had killed Christ and continued to deny him as Messiah, so they were top tier blasphemers. Many Jews were displaced, imprisoned, and killed in Europe during that time. Their sacred texts literally and figuratively came under fire, too. The Talmud wins the tragic superlative of text destroyed most consistently and systematically for the longest period of time: For nine centuries, this holy text was burned wherever it was found.

One of the earliest records of the Talmud getting burned was in 13th century France. A former Jew named Nicolas Donin had been cast out of the Jewish community and converted to Catholicism shortly after. In 1236, he went to Pope Gregory IX and let him know that the Talmud was bursting with blasphemies against the Church, the Blessed Virgin, and Jesus.

The pope ordered the Talmud and all related Jewish literature to be seized wherever it was found in France, Portugal, England, and surrounding regions. There was even a kangaroo court in which the books were essentially put on trial and found guilty of blasphemy. Donin led the prosecution, bringing up the most incendiary passages (or at least those passages most vulnerable to misconstrual). He gave four Jewish scholars a chance to vindicate their texts.

The Jewish scholars cleverly argued that the Talmud was essential in helping them better grasp the Bible, but the defense was not enough. Burnings began and did not stop. Not just Jewish texts but Jews themselves came under fire. After a massacre in 1251, just about all the Jews in southern France had been killed.

It was not just Christians or converted Jews coming for Jews, either. Some Jews at that same time were coming after for their own. One text that stirred up all kinds of controversy was The Guide for the Perplexed, written by the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides in 1190. Originally written in Arabic and then translated into Hebrew, it was an attempt to reconcile Jewish faith with Aristotelian logic and science and became a controversial text. Maimonides had hoped it would resource Jewish scholars, but some of those scholars railed against it and began searching homes, ready to burn it and punish anyone who owned a copy.

A scholar named Solomon ben Abraham spearheaded an inquisition dedicated to eradicating The Guide for the Perplexed in 1232. Thousands of copies were burned, and enforcing the ban became not just the church’s job, but also the crowd's. ben Abraham even consulted with Dominican friars, whom he considered the resident experts at getting rid of heretics. Thus, in its own twisted way, the censorious agenda transcended religious divides.

Sometimes Christians did not escape either. The medieval Christian philosopher Peter Abelard had to burn his own books for attempting a similar integration of faith and reason.

The translation of Bible into vernacular was another heresy the church and state together tried to quash at all costs. As so often happens, those in power become more preoccupied with maintaining power than ruling well, and guarding access to religious texts became an effective way to keep the masses muzzled. This was the context that led to the Protestant Reformation, which sought to get the Bible into the hands of the common people in a language they understood. 

5. Mao not only suppressed the voices of the people, he suffocated the voices of history.

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao Zedong got rid of the so-called Four Olds:

-Old Ideas

-Old Culture

-Old Habits

-Old Customs

One of the main cultural overhauls involved obliterating signs of and devotion to ancient religions. Confucianism and Tibetan Buddhism were under fierce assault. Statues of Confucius were torn down. Buddhists were forced to use pages of their sacred tomes as toilet paper. One of the most revered temples was turned into a slaughterhouse where pigs were butchered. Even secular schools were shut down. Mao’s armies invaded homes, destroyed family photos, and mandated each family hang a photo of their fearless leader in a prominent place in their home.

Mao destroyed his people’s ties to the past as comprehensively as he could, but he also thought of himself as a modern iteration of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang who ruled from 246-210 BC. Chairman Mao and Emperor Qin did hold things in common, like violent repression and book burning.

Qin saw burning books as a way to hold power, but, as in so many other eras in history, his decision to burn books and scrolls and parchments did not convince people of knowledge’s irrelevance or impotency. Quite the opposite: It reified the power of knowledge, underscored it.

And like most rulers who try to control not just the state but the content of people’s minds, Qin died a lot like the seditionists he had been trying to weed out: on the run, hiding in caves, sword in hand, wondering how many more times he could cheat death. The nation of China derives its name from the Qin dynasty. The name survives but the dynasty fizzled out along with Qin’s delusions of grandeur.

More than two millennia later, Mao’s past-destroying efforts brought to life George Orwell’s observations about how totalitarians handle history when he wrote that "history is to be created rather than learned." When a citizenry is compelled to accept its government rather than doing so willingly, the government must pay scrupulous attention to and maintain strict control of the nation’s origin story.

Mao’s brutally censorious cultural pivot was history’s most comprehensive attempt—and also the bloodiest. 

6. Some forms of censorship become censorious in their attempts to prevent the reemergence of repressive regimes.

Some forms of censorship begin less as attempts to maintain power and more as attempts to preempt the resurgence of recent abuses of power. It is a censorship that is concerned with preserving the truth about the past, but ends up becoming censorious itself in the process. The laws in many Western countries, for example, punish Holocaust denialism. These laws might be well meaning, but they are ineffective in practice and unethical in principle.

In 1985, a Canadian man named Ernst Zündel was prosecuted for publishing a pamphlet that questioned whether 6 million Jews had really died in the Holocaust. He argued that he was free to do so, that his speech was protected. Moreover the attempt to quell and punish someone for denying the Holocaust gave the idea an even wider audience as the media got wind of the coming courtroom drama. He was tried again in 1988 but the Canadian Supreme Court tossed out the case because it was curtailing his rights to free speech.

Maybe the best way to remember regimes marked by book burning, suppression of free inquiry, and an insistence on official state-approved versions of history is not to fall into the same pitfalls. However noble the intentions of some of these laws, they suppress free inquiry so vital to a free society. A crystallized state-approved rendition of events insulated from challenge is exactly what the Nazis promoted—the very society we are trying so hard not to replicate.

From the ancients to modern day, the power of language is a force that we do not know what to do with. Maintaining a tradition of free speech and brutally repressing it are both recognitions of that power. If our words did not matter, people would not have fought so hard to ground free speech as a human right, and dictators would not care if people criticized their regimes. Speech remains a fact of existence that we will continue to wrestle with and navigate. Unfettered free expression—even of ideas that strike at the heart of the free society—without considering the outcomes of that free expression, would be careless. But if we police those dangerous ideas too severely, we run into another kind of evil: the state’s snuffing out the free society.

The biggest takeaway from a historical survey of censorship is that, however dangerous an idea might seem, trying to get rid of the idea by getting rid of speech not only fails in the short term, it can create even bigger long term issues.

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