Ask somebody whether they think censorship is ever justifiable, and you’ll probably be told (in no uncertain terms) that censorship as a concept is fundamentally flawed – that it encourages a paternalistic society, dilutes individual responsibility, encourages an attitude of detached and mindless compliance… it even calls into question whether governing bodies really speak for us, and without a government that truly represents us, how can we be authentic citizens? The population would be reduced to subjugation.
We may not have a direct democracy, but that doesn’t make our voices any less important – in fact they need to be even stronger for the simple fact that it is our freedom of speech which allows us to exert indirect influence. Living in a representational democracy, it’s through our speech (and money) that we get messages across to our representatives, voting for people we think will represent us in the best way possible and encouraging others to echo the chorus and make our views harder to ignore.
Censorship flies in the face of that intrinsic democratic right to speak and be heard, whether the medium is artistic or not. If we are to function with dignity under governance, it is of critical importance that we should be able to influence the direction of policy, and in the process protect our interests. In Malta, a conflict between this need for expression and attempts to maintain the status quo became apparent when two cultural products in particular, one literary and the other theatrical, came under fire for ostensibly expressing views that were “incompatible with Maltese civilization”, according to the Civil Court’s ban on the play ‘Stitching’ in 2010 (what it meant by “Maltese civilization” is up for debate).
It wasn’t even a question of artistic license – the late Fr Peter Serracino Inglott said, of the former obscenity laws in relation to the play, “I think there should be a review – and in fact a parliamentary committee was set up to do this – of what counts as public morality… According to press reports, the judge ruled that because swearing in public is against the law, it should be banned from the stage. But this is absurd. What happens on stage is at the level of fiction. To give an example: just because there is a law against being nude in the street, it doesn’t follow that you can’t have nudity in paintings. The same goes for the stage.”
Alex Vella Gera’s short story “Li Tkisser Sewwi” published in the University and Junior College-distributed magazine Ir-Realta’, saw the author prosecuted in a move that directly led to open confrontation over Maltese censorship laws. Last month, the government edged ever closer towards a definitive introduction of a new system of self-regulation. Is this a satisfying conclusion to the whole debacle? Well, yes and no. It has definitely made it possible for artists to present ever more challenging work to an audience that seems eager to receive them.
While this may appear to herald some kind of apocalyptic “thin end of the wedge” scenario for some, a world where morals will be trampled and filth paraded before all and sundry, the reality is a lot less alarmist. By reinforcing our right to individually choose, to decide, and to do so in a mature and self-conscious way, we are taken into the heart of what makes choice worthwhile.
Culture Minister Mario de Marco has spearheaded the current overhaul, opening Malta to a larger spectrum of artistic freedom under the proviso of outlawing particularly malignant offerings. Beyond the legal ramifications, what this means is that Maltese artists in all spheres of cultural activity will be able to engage us in complex relationships with new works of art – the viewer of a painting, an audience member at the theatre, a reader, is always called to colloquy with the work. Should that simply involve a remote view, through an artificial process of mental abstraction or psychological disinterestedness? Certainly not.
Ultimately our interior lives cannot be scrutinized in this way, and that is why human nature is a constant source of abundant artistic exploration. We are the subject made in the “image and likeness”, and we are observed (and called to observe) not from a distance, but from the very centre of reality. It is in taking this opportunity to hear new stories and see new perspectives that we each come away stronger, more resolved that the freedom of others to express their convictions in no way undermines our own – indeed, it safeguards us, in a hostile world, and secures the promise of engaging encounters and fruitful future dialogue.