“Since there was so much terror, self-censorship was enough.”
— Ismail Kadare
There is a passage in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Joke, in which a young man sends a card to his girlfriend, and adds a funny comment about the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. The authorities intercept the letter, search for the sender and put him behind the bar. The author uses this fictitious incident to denote how the state with its all seriousness cannot take a joke.
Jokes are subversive in essence because they challenge the established order of things. Regardless of motive, occasion or audience, jokes disrupt the normal setting of a society. Even though momentarily, these utterances threaten all that is believed to be sacred and settled.
Somehow, in the realm of literature, performing arts and public life, humour and its practitioners are regarded as mere entertainers. Satire in literature, cartoons in pictorial arts and comedy in cinema and theatre are considered lower forms.
Along with this plebeian perception of humour, it is also considered dangerous because of its capacity to offend and so is often amended according to situations. This act of self-censorship, required to maintain a sense of politeness, is felt in other statements and exchanges too. Hence no swear words in public conversation, no rude utterances in family gatherings and no display of boredom or abhorrence in the presence of one’s boss.
Generally, the business of censorship does not pose a problem since a majority is ready to conform and those who don’t are called eccentric, dangerous and mad. But it has transformed with time and place. For instance, what is said and practiced today in a domestic setting was impossible and indecent during the Victorian period when uncovered legs of table and bed were viewed as obscene.
One cannot determine the precise moment when the parameters of good behaviour and standards of ethics change, but one can imagine the difficulties during that transitional stage. In this age of ‘political correctness’ one cannot make funny remarks about race, gender, religious beliefs and economic disparity. These would be considered to be in bad taste, immoral and offensive. Interestingly, this pressure is not from the power of state but from one’s peers, media and different sections of society.
Admittedly, it is necessary for harmony and happiness in a society. But these yardsticks operate in a different way when it comes to creativity. Artists, writers, actors and singers, not unlike individuals with a great sense of humour, offer an extraordinary version of the usual. Most of the time their works are perceived as disturbing in relation to a society’s accepted norms. Alongside, their personal lives and behaviour have also been viewed as odd, bizarre and weird. Obsession with sex, drinks, drugs and self are a few common traits among several makers of art and literature.
In this context, the question arises: where to draw the line between good behaviour and eccentricity? A hard choice since the location of that line constantly keeps shifting. It is imposed by the state in the form of censorship law or defined by the society or, in most cases, it is the inner inquisitor who decides it. All of this forces creative people to amend their expressions. Thus, they anticipate the reaction of audience.
Responding to this situation, British writer Kazuo Ishiguro states: “I’m against the imagination police telling me what I can and can’t do in my writing.” But the artistes have at the back of their mind the government policy, the response from religious groups/sects as well as from liberals speaking for under-privileged groups of society. But they may choose to accept, ridicule or reject them.
I recall meeting Ahmed Zoay in his studio and being shocked by his extreme comments about fellow painters, his family, respected leaders of nation and even about sacred personalities. While one suspects a deranged mind uttering this, one is amused by the courage to question everything that is sacred in the society. In his own manner, he was the embodiment of creative freedom and artistic license.
For each creative person, there exist some rules and norms that may relate to his craft, ideas, opinions and prejudices. Even if they venture into challenging the general order of things, they still hold something sacred within themselves that cannot be investigated or subverted. Probably the greatest dilemma in this situation is the conflict of the personal and societal censorships. A creative person anticipates comments and commands from outside and decides whether to bow or to stand firm. Writers like Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib and many more have been persecuted. Artists too have faced this censorship when Ijaz ul Hassan’s canvas from a group show at the Lahore Museum and Iqbal Hussain’s works from Alhamra were forcibly removed. Likewise, books and performances have been banned in different periods of dictatorships.
The real problem begins when censorship from outside penetrates inside and the creative person starts to edit his or her own ideas on the basis of religious, political and social pressures. It is not surprising that state censorship is not all too visible because it now exists within each one of us, narrowing and reducing our sense of freedom.
In a piece of fiction again, the Argentine author Luisa Valenzuela observes the level of self-censorship in her short story The Censors. A young man writes a letter to his wife but after posting it suspects that the contents could cause problem for him. In order to avoid punishment, he gets himself recruited in the censor department, so that he could pick his own letter and hide it before anyone sees it. The censor department is huge and loaded with work. His letter’s turn comes after several months. By a stroke of fate, it arrives on his desk for scrutiny. He opens the letter, reads the content and notes down that it consists offensive text, so the scriber must be sent to prison!