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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Consider the Nun

There exists a T-shirt. And it will offend you. I am about to describe it to you, and it is likely that simply seeing it represented in words will cause distress. It is a T-shirt for an extreme British metal band named Cradle of Filth, and on it is a depiction of a nun of the Roman Catholic persuasion. Nuns, as we all know, are chaste, and pretty good at it. But not this one. Surrounded by satanic iconography, she is knelt upon the ground, naked (apart from a habit), and is pleasuring herself. On the back, written large and clear, is the phrase: “Jesus is a cunt”.

Jesus Christ.

It’s nearly absurd, but it isn’t. If there exists a nerve, this T-shirt touches it. It is misogynistic, blasphemous and pretty much inflammatory in every way that you can imagine. In the words of the President of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS), John Mills, the item is “grossly objectionable” and “completely vilifies the central figure of Christianity”.

But you don’t need to rely only on your social conscience to stop you from accidentally wearing this coarse piece of cloth down to your local parish on a Sunday morning. This is because the T-shirt is banned. Possessing, dealing or pretty much having anything to do with it is illegal, and doing any of the above will land you with a hefty fine.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is called censorship.

The number of publications banned in New Zealand is greater than you might think. There are 1319 books, seven video games,* and a range of films, including recent addition The Human Centipede 2. Some of these banned items, such as the T-shirt, are sexual in nature. Others, such as the video game Manhunt, feature gratuitous violence. And others are depictions of actual illegal acts—we’re talking snuff films and child pornography here.

The person responsible for all of this is a man named Dr Andrew Jack. He has five university degrees, reads hieroglyphics and does his own upholstery. Most pertinent to us, he is also New Zealand’s Chief Censor. Heading the unexciting but accurately titled Office of Film and Literature Classification (or OFLC, for short), Dr Jack—in conjunction with the work of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, which monitors the radio and television waves—is the man responsible for deciding what you can and can’t be exposed to.

When Dr Jack’s predecessor Bill Hastings** banned the Cradle of Filth T-shirt in 2008, he did so on the basis that the item was “injurious to the public good”. Enshrined in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act of 1993, these five little words are the cornerstone of censorship in this country. Where these words are satisfied as a result of sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence, the material will be deemed objectionable, and therefore banned. Those five words represent the line that the state has decided to draw between freedom of expression and the protection of the public from that which is deemed nasty.

But while these five words are important, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t vague. After all, what is the “public good”? And how can it be injured?

Consider the masturbating nun. You may have a few questions. What’s the big deal? I mean, you’ve probably seen worse online. In any case, does it really matter whether you, the nunnery, or anyone else finds it offensive? Is this “public good” really just about the preservation of the arbitrary moral codes of one group in society at the expense of the rest? Shouldn’t people just have the right to wear whatever they damn well choose? And won’t the government just get their filthy paws off me?

If these are questions which yank your chain, you’re not the only one.

But for every person who believes that the idea of censorship is inherently problematic, there are equally as many who believe that censorship standards have, like the rest of society, gone to the dogs.*** Citing the “levels of ‘toxic’ moral waste […] that are penetrating our culture and infecting the lives of so many in a debilitating way”, the SPCS (who, coincidentally, were founded by a nun) are one group who hold such a view.

“The escalation of sexual violence and other forms of criminal violence in NZ could be seen as the ‘canary in the mine’ alert,” they told Salient. The public good is being injured, and it is a sign of bad things to come.

While the SPCS claim that the problem is not the law itself, but the censor’s application of it, the glaring discrepancy between their expectations of censorship and the actual practice of the OFLC is surely a sign that those five words—“injurious to the public good”—are far from straightforward. As is often necessary in times of trouble, it is to history that we must look. Then perhaps we might begin to understand how the nun got into this conundrum.

***

Back in The Day, the Public Good was bound up intimately with notions of decency and public order. Unsurprisingly then, that which was saucy tended to be placed straight in the objectionable box. As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, it was imported erotic literature from Europe which provided the sauce. But with the emergence of new technological menaces, like cinema, censors took heavier steps to “[eliminate] the noxious elements which are tending to destroy the moral sense of so many young persons”, as one parliamentarian put it in 1920. Among these “noxious elements” was, quaintly, any information about the prevention of conception and “any infirmity arising from or relating to sexual intercourse”.

Censors also found the mere mention of certain words a source of offence—especially if those words were uttered while in the presence of lady-folk. This is precisely what occurred with the release of the film adaptation of James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses in 1967, which featured the word ‘fuck’—once. Eager not to trample on a work of such artistic acclaim, but still appalled by the solitary deployment of the f-bomb, censors adopted a hybrid option: the film was permitted to screen, but only on the basis that males and females were segregated on different sides of the cinema. Thank God.

At times, the Public Good has meant something strictly political. During the Waterfront Strike of 1951, when workers nationwide went on strike to protest the working conditions of waterfront workers, Prime Minister Sidney Holland declared a state of emergency and proceeded to outlaw possession of any material considered seditious—that’s anything which criticises the government. That’s some Orwellian shit right there.

All of these situations have one thing in common: they are deemed objectionable because of the simple presence of certain things—whether they be cuss words, sex, or subversive political ideas. The harm, it was thought, was the mere exposure to them.

***

In 1976, Internal Affairs Minister Allan Highet declared that new legislation before Parliament would move New Zealand toward “the maturity of attitude whereby the abolition of censorship for adults can eventually become a reality.” This was the change which is the key to our conundrum. References to ‘decency’ were thrown out the door, and in determining what was “injurious to the public good”, censors were required to consider the nature of the publication, the intended audience, and, perhaps most importantly, the effect of the publication as a whole. The change meant that censorship became not about what is shown, but how it is shown, and how that affects us.

Tucked within this approach is the idea that freedom of expression is supreme. Unlike other values, whether they be ‘community standards’ or ‘family values’, freedom of expression is idea-neutral: it does not hold favourites. Censors, the idea goes, should only intervene where it is absolutely necessary to prevent demonstrable harm. The approach is harm-focussed, not moralising, and it is an approach that is retained in the current legislation.

Let us consider, for one last time, the nun. Nudity alone is not objectionable. Nor is offensive language. Nor is blasphemy. But the overall effect, in the words of the then Deputy Chief Censor, was that the T-shirt suggested “that Christians should be vilified for their religious beliefs, and that women, including chaste and celibate women, cannot stop themselves engaging in sexual activity”. And, unlike a film, a book or a video game there was no way in which access to this T-shirt could be restricted.

Some things just cannot be unseen.

 

 

 

 



*These are: Manhunt; Manhunt 2; Postal, Demo; Postal, Share the Pain; RapeLay; Reservoir Dogs; Three Sisters’ Story.

**Prior to being Chief Censor, and now a District Court Judge, Mr. Hastings was a dean down at Vic Law School in the late ‘90s. Whooooh!

***There is zero mathematics behind this calculation.

 

 

 

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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