Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 7, 2010

A Few Words in Defense of Censorship


By N.S. Palmer

Censorship can be mis-used or overdone. Everyone understands that. But it can also be done correctly, even if it often isn’t.

Popular entertainment shapes popular morality, and our popular entertainment is sometimes pretty vile. A little censorship wouldn’t be a bad thing.

There are good arguments on both sides of the issue. The problem, I think, is that most people hold few if any explicit moral principles. Instead, their sense of right and wrong tends to be guided by what they see on television and in movies. And what they see these days is unwholesome.

It’s true that that scene-by-scene censorship is prone to abuse. So is censorship of ideas, though I would argue that even censorship of ideas is not always a bad thing. Televised fantasy-dramas such as the Fox Network’s “24” did more to legitimize torture, brutality, and lawlessness than would any number of wonkish policy studies from The Heritage Foundation or neocon preachments in The Weekly Standard.

I’d like a set of broad principles about the kinds of moral values that entertainment should and should not promote. I’ll give you an example from a movie I recently watched: “The Browning Version,” which won an Academy Award as the Best Picture of 1951. It got a “restricted” rating, meaning that only adults could see it.

Why? Because although it contained no nudity, no sex acts, no foul language, and no violence, two characters were involved in an adulterous relationship. The restricted rating, and the way that the movie handled the situation, conveyed the clear message that such relationships are wrong.

One can argue that moral education should be more widespread. However, in modern secular society, that is probably impossible. The most we can get are politically-correct nostrums about avoiding racism and sexism. That leaves us with popular entertainment. It can be a benign or a malignant influence.

It’s also important to note that we already have a good deal of censorship in popular entertainment and in public discourse. Movies and television shows now show sex acts that, 30 years ago, would have caused everyone involved to be arrested. However, they must now get special permission to show characters smoking cigarettes.

People can safely express support for popular ideas, but even to express doubt about some officially-mandated beliefs is to invite ostracism, unemployment, or imprisonment.

The question, therefore, is not whether we will have censorship or complete freedom of expression. We will have censorship. The question is which ideas and practices will be censored, with which legal or social sanctions, and how aggressively those sanctions will be enforced.

The usual tendency of corporate capitalism is to seek the lowest, the meanest, and the stupidest common denominator it can find. Carefully designed censorship could tip the scales in a more positive direction.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Nobody ever went broke appealing to the lowest common denominator. Prime example: the online porn industry.

    • Very true, Jim!

      I think it comes down to the fact that businesses want to exclude as few potential buyers as possible. As Fred Reed remarked, smart people will watch stupid television programs, but stupid people will never watch intelligent television programs. Same principle.

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