The ideas behind the books

Censorship, morality and the law

Was the book you've just finished reading censored, do you think?

In England we do not have censorship of the written word, but any publication can be challenged in the courts 'after the event'. You would have to use the common law on obscenity or blasphemy or defamation, or more recent statutory law such as incitement to various hatreds like racial hatred. If you wanted to argue that a book was obscene you would have to show that it tended to 'deprave or corrupt' the reader. It follows, I think, that what might not be an obscene book for an adult to read could quite easily be held to be obscene if published for children.

So, authors and publishers take a great deal of care when they are preparing material for publication, not to transgress the present public moral code, whatever they perceive that to be. If the material is particularly contentious it might be found to be obscene, but even less contentious material presenting a minority moral viewpoint might offend a majority of people, to a greater or lesser extent. That's why authors and publishers take a great deal of care. That's a kind of self-censorship, isn't it?

What I call the public moral code isn't written down anywhere, of course, not completely anyway. It was easier when it was written down, like the Ten Commandments. When morality is dictated by religious law, Christian, Jewish or Moslem or any other religion, every individual simply obeys the teachings of his religion.

But in present-day England, we are a disparate society and every individual has his own idea of morality, not necessarily based upon religious guidelines. Furthermore, every individual expects his own morality to be respected by everyone else. There are inevitably going to be some areas where individual moralities grate against each other. It's like the tectonic plates crashing together. Apparently, there is no reason why either individual should give way and submit to the morality of the other person, so the very best we can hope to achieve is tolerance of each other where there is a difference of opinion.

It makes morality an almost impossible subject to teach at school, or anywhere else. Clearly, a teacher must teach within the 'lowest common denominator' of generally accepted morality, without reference to his or her own moral code. We need to grasp firmly the fundamental difference between tolerance and moral judgment, and to help teachers distinguish between real majority morality and strident minority voices, whether they are shouting about animal rights, racial bigotry or minority sexual orientations etc.

How do we know what the 'lowest common denominator' of morality is? We have to look at the law as it stands at the time, because when I say the public moral code isn't written down anywhere, we do, of course, have plenty of laws which deal with moral issues. 'Thou shalt not kill' is among the best remembered of the commandments, but it is also part of English law. In many areas of morality, we may not agree with the law as it stands at any given moment, but it is the only guide that any of us has as to how any other individual in society may respond to any given question of morality. At least we can expect that everyone will obey the law. 

Since morality is such a fluid thing in contemporary society, if we want to change a law we simply begin a public debate, and perhaps form a pressure group to lobby parliament. It is important for everyone in society to join in these debates. It does not follow that if you shrug your shoulders and withdraw from the debate you are marvellously liberal and beyond reproach. It could be regarded as irresponsible. Pressure groups for change necessarily start from the position that they reflect a minority view since they are hoping to change the accepted law of the land.

If a minority pressure group becomes very radical and acquires a voice louder than it proportionately deserves it may well succeed in getting the law changed on a moral issue. How do the silent majority feel then, when they wake up one day and find that they are required to submit to the morality of a minority which they feel uncomfortable with? Isn't this what happened with the anti-blood sport campaign in England? Fox hunting was practically illegal before a huge number of people who were directly concerned with this issue woke up and realised that they simply had to make their views known. Arguably, they left it too late. When does the silent majority know that it is time to stand up and speak? All the time, I say, but that is a personal moral assessment.

Unfortunately, the body of law does not encompass all those knotty moral problems which we are likely to encounter as we go through life. If you are not a religious person it can be difficult to decide on your own moral rules. Some are obvious perhaps, like not stealing, but others are less obvious. Of course, we all learn morality from our parents and the immediate group that we mix with. I'm not a religious person myself because I don't believe in the existence of God, but I cannot easily dismiss Christian morality, or any other religious morality, because I cannot easily offer any replacement. There are times when we all need clear guidance, but who can we turn to if we dismiss the great religions? Do we have any purely secular philosophers who will guide us out of our darkness? Where might we look?

Perhaps one must look to people like Lord Winston who has done so much in the UK to popularise the moral problems relating to the creation of 'designer babies'. Or perhaps some of our historians are willing to highlight lessons that we might learn from the past?  In his enlightening book The Nazi Holocaust, Ronnie S Landau refers to the moral lessons of the Holocaust as summed up by the historian, Yehuda Bauer in a three-point prohibition:

Do not be a perpetrator.
Do not be a victim.
Do not be a bystander.

Actually, I don't know if Yehuda Bauer is a rabbi as well as a historian, but as pure moral guidelines I value his thoughts and leadership.

However, it is a time-consuming exercise to trawl through learned arguments on each side of every contentious issue, in order to form one's own personal view, and perhaps none of us are as thorough as we ought to be.

In the trilogy His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman explores the idea of founding a society without God and the Church. Philip Pullman puts forward the idea that he would like to see a 'republic of heaven' where people just do what they perceive to be the right thing in any given situation. This sounds tempting, but it seems to me to be the beginning of the debate, rather than the end. I foresee a problem when two characters might both think they are doing the right thing, and yet they take opposing paths.

So, if you think the children's book that you have just been reading smacks of censorship and lags some way behind the cutting edge of public morality, those are my thoughts on why that might be.