Rationale vs Execution of Censorship


[this is the second article of three: part 1, part 3]

American Philosopher James Fieser cites a number of factors that inform censorship decisions. Those against censorship include:

  • The impact on Democratic Government,
  • The impact on the Search for Truth,
  • The impact on Personal Autonomy

The arguments in support of censorship include:

  • Protecting our Children
  • Protecting Society
  • [Reducing] Offence to Others

Reading Fieser’s ethics-based arguments I couldn’t help but think of Yossarian’s approach to censoring letters to home from enlisted men during the Second War:

“All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but *a, an* and *the*. That erected more dynamic intralinear tensions, he felt, and in just about every case left a message far more universal. Soon he was proscribing parts of salutations and signatures and leaving the text untouched. One time he blacked out all but the salutation ‘Dear Mary’ from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, ‘I yearn for you tragically. R. O. Shipman, Chaplain, U.S. Army.’ R.O. Shipman was the group chaplain’s name.

“When he had exhausted all possibilities in the letters, he began attacking the names and addresses on the envelopes, obliterating whole homes and streets, annihilating entire metropolises with careless flicks of his wrist as though he were God. Catch-22 required that each censored letter bear the censoring officer’s name. Most letters he didn’t read at all. On those he didn’t read at all he wrote his own name. On those he did read he wrote, ‘Washington Irving.’ When that grew monotonous he wrote, ‘Irving Washington.’ Censoring the envelopes had serious repercussions, produced a ripple of anxiety on some ethereal military echelon that floated a C.I.D. man back into the ward posing as a patient. They all knew he was a C.I.D. man because he kept inquiring about an officer named Irving or Washington and because after his first day there he wouldn’t censor letters. He found them too monotonous.”

— Joseph Heller, Catch 22, p.5

What caught my attention was the arbitrariness of the execution in contrast to the logic of its purpose.


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