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The Blue Pencil

Meera Visvanathan

By Julian Petley
Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2007, pp. 128, price not stated.

By Edward Lucie-Smith
Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2007, pp. 100, price not stated.


The debates on freedom of expression involve such a range of political and philosophical issues that it is difficult for any one volume to do justice to them. ‘Censoring the Body’ and ‘Censoring the Word’ are two small texts which form part of a series brought out by Seagull Books and the Index on Censorship. Labelled as ‘Manifestoes for the 21st Century’, they aim to address ‘the issue of censorship in a complex and fragile world’.   Both books offer short, detailed statements on particular themes and can be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting, pencil in hand. They are brought out beautifully, even if I found the cover illustrations difficult to understand. There is no uniformity, ideological or otherwise, in the perspectives offered, but positions are articulated with great clarity and the points of disjuncture are interesting.   What is brought out clearly is that censorship has a history, and it is a long and tortuous one. Often one can see patterns, chains of events repeating themselves. We live in an era where it is commonly believed that the state is the main agent of censorship. These two books are important because they shift the terrain of debate, showing how there exist, at the present juncture, as many forms of censorship as there are censors. These forms can be brutal [murder, arson, muzzling free speech] or subtle [prosecution for blasphemy, pricing out troublesome publications, market competition as censorship]. The point is that censorship is an expression of power. Battles over freedom of expression often become battles between competing truths, competing conceptions of power. It is also true that known crusaders of the freedom of expression, once in power, think rather differently about the subject. As Lucie-Smith puts it, ‘The irony is that those who think of themselves as libertarians will frequently be tempted to cross over to the other side’.   Quite clearly, freedom of expression is not a simple issue. The lines of differentiation cannot be simply drawn. To reiterate a timeworn question: Can Freedom of Expression be completely free?’ which is to say, ‘Can it be free from all forms of restriction and dilution? Petley provides us a discussion of the classic definitions of freedom of expression given in the works of Milton, Mill, Hume or Paine. But he is also clear that these texts espousing high ideals were written to serve a particular ideology in a particular context. Today, ...

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