Obscenity of censorship
By: Saroop Ijaz
Once the society is told what is acceptable in one sphere, it inevitably extends to everything else. We already have one version of history, one version of religion and now we are on track for one version of morality. This is the cost of not defending Manto and Chughtai; it is about time we fought back
Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, was widely praised on the completion of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Reportedly, in the course of the congratulations, a delegation of respectable middle-aged ladies of the London nobility called upon Dr Johnson and said, “Dr Johnson, we congratulate you for not putting any obscene words in your dictionary.” Dr Johnson replied, “And ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look them up.”
This anecdote tells us all that is to know about the censorial instinct. There are people who are determined to find or at least attempt to find obscenity and something to be offended by in everything and in most cases they succeed.
The most interesting question in the petitions against the rampant “obscenity” and vulgarity on Pakistani media by the former head of a religious party and a retired judge is who their cable operator is; the information might be useful to the public at large. In most cases, appeals to the censor say more about the individual making that appeal than the content being assailed. Notwithstanding the silliness of the petition/s, the background questions are fundamental, namely what is obscenity and who is empowered to define it.
One has to, for the moment, ignore the low quality and sensationalist nature of our television programmes and defend the general principle, which here is the freedom of expression and creativity.
We unfortunately are no strangers to this philistine debate. Saadat Hasan Manto is an unavoidable reference when talking about obscenity and the desire to censor it. The number of times that, perhaps the greatest, short story writer of Urdu language was hauled to court because mediocre bureaucrats and those searching for vulgarity in everything found his work to be “obscene” would have been amusing had it not been so depressing. Manto was in elite company though, as he always should be, alongside Gustav Flaubert, Maupassant and James Joyce amongst others.
Those who find the warrant or temptation for rape in “Khol Do” or necrophilia in “Thanda Ghosht” are the sort of people who are on an active lookout for these perversions and there is nothing you can do to stop them. In a hypothetical sad world of perfect censorship, they would find themselves to be unemployed, alone with their psychosis. Manto’s statement of defense against the charge of obscenity said, “If you would like to be enlightened on our society and the times we live in, then read my work. However, if you are unable to stand to read my work, it means that it is our times and society today that you cannot stand.”
I know the state of our television is not such as to mandate such a muscular and eloquent defense, yet the principle stands.
Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf” represents an even sterner test on the question. It is an exquisite short story about the complex relationship between two women as viewed by an innocent child. To find obscenity in it is impossible for anyone who does not have a yearning for the obscene (It is worth wondering how many of the faithful who find it an outrage to their tender sensibilities know the story of the great “Dancing Dervish” of Lahore, Shah Husain, and the Hindu boy, Madhu Lal, still buried together as one shrine, as a symbol of resistance). The gold standard on the western front is a story involving a twelve year old girl; Nabokov’s, “Lolita”. To be revolted by “Lolita” is a forgivable reaction and perhaps even intended, however to judge it solely on the touchstone of some notion of morality comes close to total ignorance.
I am sure there are other shameful examples, yet the point hopefully is made.
To judge art and literature on the sermonizing low (or is it high?) standard of morality of a non-artist is ridiculous and backward. Here we have to admit, even if grudgingly, that television media of Pakistan, whatever its quality, is art.
It is impossible to overestimate the damage done by Ziaul Haq. The single most damaging blow to our society was making the State the arbiter of art. Another major consequence of that regime of repression was inculcating the censorship of the worst kind in our hearts and minds; self-censorship. The writer and the film-maker do not need to be told what to do now; they obediently comply with a vague standard of social morality and are very keen not to offend. The desire to please is nowhere more obvious than in our television media. The burden of making the judgment in advance of what might ‘offend’ someone destroys or, at the very least, severely limits creativity and breeds intellectual dishonesty.
The oft-repeated argument against censorship is a convincing one — that if an all-powerful censor existed, who had to go through all the vulgarity and filth in society and make a decision of what is fit to be passed, then the censor will eventually become the most corrupt and debauched because of the exposure to all the vulgarity.
This should also remind us of the ‘heroic’ task undertaken by a fifteen year old boy in compiling a list of a few hundred thousand pornographic sites so that the PTA can block them. Let us hope the young warrior is in good mental and physical health after this presumably exhausting service to the nation.
To define obscenity for us all is quite a large claim for anyone to make. Even if the task of deciding what is vulgar for all of us is possible, we will never know who exactly to delegate this task to. In any event, it is too important a task to be left to rightwing old men.
The mindset of the censor is incapable of multiple interpretations. Returning to the trope of short story writers, Ghulam Abbas’s “Hotel Mohenjodaro” has frightening prescience. It begins with a mullah proclaiming that landing on the moon was a violation of divine law, results in a theocracy coming to power and banning all technology, art forms and non-religious knowledge and ends in total ruin. Once the society is told what is acceptable in one sphere, it inevitably extends to everything else. We already have one version of history, one version of religion and now we are on track for one version of morality.
This is the cost of not defending Manto and Chuhgtai; well, it is about time we fought back. We have already tried censorship in its most extreme form and know for a fact that it is destructive. The Court/State is now asking for the right to do the thinking on our behalf. Hence, implying that we do not possess the fortitude, moral and rational to live adequately and make choices for ourselves. We should find this condescending attitude obscene enough.