Why do we censor films? Intuitively we all know the answer to this question – because there are some things we don’t want to see on the screen. In this episode we examine film censorship, focusing primarily on the treatment of cinematic violence by the MPAA and BBFC. Using Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence as a foundation I discuss how societies are attempts to rationalise violence and determine what are legitimate and illegitimate uses of force. We then look at how censorship does not do much to limit the scale or type of violence shown on screen, but instead prevents the depiction of the consequences of violence, the suffering and pain, before talking about how this kind of censorship influences our views of real-world violence, especially that committed by the state.
That was actor David Harbour of Stranger Things giving a very drunken, rabble-rousing acceptance speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards recently, promising to punch people in the face, to rapturous applause. Which is ironic for a hundred different reasons, not least the usual hypocrisy of a supposedly liberal Hollywood star speaking in such reactionary terms. We will return to this later.
Today we’re going to talk about three things – sex, violence and censorship – three of my favourite things, in fact. In the last few episodes we have explored a lot of the history of Hollywood censorship and how the MPAA, the censorship organisation that pretends it isn’t a censorship organisation, is deeply politicised. But I thought it would be useful if we expanded this outwards and look at a political philosophy of censorship, i.e. why this exists.
As I have said before, pretty much everyone believes in some form of censorship. Unless you think people should be able to distribute child porn and snuff films then you believe in censorship, you believe in some kind of law. Just as with other things, pretty much everyone believes there need to be some kind of rules and limits in order for a society to exist. Even anarchists believe this, they just don’t believe in government as the mechanism to enforce those limits. As such, no one believes in ‘freedom of speech’ taken literally. No one believes in individual freedom, taken literally. Societies are, inherently, some kind of attempt to rationalise and enforce some kind of limits, otherwise you have a free for all like with wild animals. Then again, even wild animals often form packs, gangs, and designate a territory as their own which they defend with violence.
The two fundamental forces in all living things are sex and violence. Without sex we cannot procreate and thus maintain and perpetuate our societies. Without violence we cannot protect ourselves and define the geographical limits of our societies. This goes back to the era of the city state, which was usually surrounded by a wall or a moat or a natural boundary of some kind which defines the limits of the city, the territory of the state. This was a necessary protection against the barbarians and gangsters who looted and pillaged. In short, the existence of psychopaths – people who do not recognise the need for any kind of rules or limits – necessitates the politics of fear and therefore security. Perhaps the very best cinematic representation of this is Seven Samurai, the Akira Kurosawa movie. If there’s a more profound illustration and exploration of this fundamental aspect to establishing and protecting a society then I have not seen it.
So, we need sex and violence to survive, but within both or at least within the desires that motivate both there is the potential for the destruction of society. If one group within a city state or a nation state decides to try to seize power by force this can lead to such a destructive process that by the time they gain power the society has broken itself. Likewise if there were no enforcement of laws of any kind then the sociopaths – those most adept at pursuing solely their own interests – would easily become the most powerful element in a state. Sex is a little more complicated, because while I would argue that monogamous heterosexuality is vital for the perpetuation of the species I do recognise that children can be brought up outside of a nuclear family. Nonetheless if everyone just screws everyone and no one has any idea whose children are whose then this is pretty damaging. It leads to a lot of jealousy and resentment and distrust, none of which are healthy for the perpetuation of a society. That being said, a lot of people don’t want kids and therefore probably shouldn’t have them and if they don’t then their sex lives aren’t really a social concern.
This is, of course, the essence of conservatism, as a political philosophy. In order to conserve our society certain things must be protected and preserved. Conservatives are not wrong about this. Likewise the politics of nostalgia – make America great again – are some kind of attempt to recreate conditions of the past (always idealised and romanticised, and therefore not conditions that ever actually existed). The idea that by progressing in certain ways – economic, cultural, legal, political – that we have lost some good things along the way, or at least lost sight of them, is quite true. I would just disagree with almost all conservatives over the precise details of what we’ve lost that would be valuable to try to recreate or restore.
So, whether it’s ‘family values’ or the Great Wall of Trump (that Obama and other presidents have already built 1/3 of) this is how politics has been for a long time. It manifests in thousands of different ways in different times and places but the notion of a society being a space in which we do things like this and that needs defining both internally and externally, and those boundaries need protecting, is ubiquitous as far as I can see.
A Critique of Violence
Today I was to focus in on violence because sex is, to be honest, more complicated. Laws are an attempt to rationalise violence. They are not an attempt to rid society of violence. One essay I absolutely recommend to everyone is Critique of Violence by Walter Benjamin, which is one of my all time favourite philosophical essays. It isn’t the easiest to read, because it was written in German and translated into English and there are certain concepts that exist in German that don’t exist in English. Nonetheless it is, in my view, the very best philosophical discussion of violence that I’ve read. I will also recommend an article from the critical legal thinking blog which will help you understand what Benjamin is saying.
In essence Benjamin sought in this essay to find a basis for distinguishing between rational and irrational violence, or legitimate and illegitimate violence. He notes that according to the theory of natural law all violence enacted towards natural ends is legitimate, and it is only violence used for unjust ends that is wrong or illegitimate. By contrast positive law theory considers violence as a contingent means to an end, itself a consequence of history. It is only under certain historically-rooted conditions that violence is considered legitimate, for example rebellious or revolutionary violence against an oppressive state. Benjamin notes, ‘Natural law attempts, by the justness of the ends, to “justify” the means, positive law to “guarantee” the justness of the ends through the justification of the means.’
Benjamin then sets about critiquing both of these, using examples such as workers striking in order to extort better conditions or pay from their employers as a means of violence considered legitimate by the state even though it is at odds with the state. He argues the state does this to ward off the threat of greater violence that might upset the state as a whole. It really is a fascinating piece of political logic that, inasmuch as I understand it, I agree with it almost wholeheartedly. But for our discussion today I want to focus on one paragraph which I will read to you:
It can be formulated as a general maxim of present-day European legislation that all the natural ends of individuals must collide with legal ends if pursued with a greater or lesser degree of violence. (The contradiction between this and the right of self-defense will be resolved in what follows.) From this maxim it follows that law sees violence in the hands of individuals as a danger undermining the legal system. As a danger nullifying legal ends and the legal executive? Certainly not; for then violence as such would not be condemned, but only that directed to illegal ends.
It will be argued that a system of legal ends cannot be maintained if natural ends are anywhere still pursued violently. In the first place, however, this is a mere dogma. To counter it one might perhaps consider the surprising possibility that the law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law. The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public.
Benjamin is arguing that, at least at the time he was writing this in the early 20th century, European law saw violence in the hands of individual citizens not as simply a violation of of the law but a threat to the existence of the law itself. Hence, the violence of the law is motivated by self-preservation and not of preservation of the society more generally. It isn’t about simply punishing people for using violence to for illegal ends but about preserving the authority of the law as such. He calls this the ‘law-preserving function’ of violence, distinct from the ‘law-making function’. A practical distinction would be between the wall you build around your village – law-making – and the violence visited upon those who attempt to climb the wall with weapons to invade your village – law-preserving. The distinction between defining a societal limit and enforcing that limit.
But what does all this have to do with culture? After all, we’re talking about physical violence here. One connection is in the last line of that paragraph I just read – that the public is often thrilled by master criminals not because of the horrible consequences of their actions but because they are a rogue, outside the system. Master criminals are often met with the most destructive violence by the state precisely because they are seen not just as someone doing things with terrible consequences for other people, but as a threat to the state itself.
Think about how in the early years of the post-9/11 War on Terror Al Qaeda was described as an existential threat to Western civilisation. A gross and fantastical exaggeration to be sure, but quite a lot of people within the system believed it. While the actual violence of 9/11 was relatively small in nation-wide or global terms it was the idea that the system could be punctured and permeated so effectively that resulted in this myth of an existential threat. People didn’t believe something like this could happen, their belief in the system was somewhat broken.
Again, this is what Benjamin refers to as the law-making function of violence. He uses the example of a war where the winning side redefines a national boundary, claiming some territory for itself. In the case of 9/11 it resulted in the redefining of internal boundaries, the laws that make up our society. We became more accepting of mass surveillance, more physical security, more invasions of privacy at airports and so on, as well as accepting the invasion of Afghanistan. Because the state depends on violence to define itself in the first place and then preserve itself, violence can be a means of redefining a state that already exists, not just creating a new one. What Benjamin did not explicitly consider was the possibility of people within the state using violence to reform it, only those from the outside.
For some the revolutionary violence of 9/11 turned Osama Bin Laden, the supposed master criminal behind the attacks, into a celebrity. For some this was explicit – you can still buy Bin Laden t-shirts in markets in Peshawar. For others it was implicit – people spoke of America getting what was coming to it, or more subtly that this was blowback for US imperialism. Bin Laden became either a hero, or at least a villain that people admired for living outside of the law, literally an outlaw. Some of you may remember President Bush II talking about posters in the wild west ‘wanted dead or alive’ and so on. And look at the response – has any Al Qaeda member ever been put on trial for 9/11? No. It isn’t about making them be punished for committing a crime and violating the law. The state responded with huge scale violence, to reassert itself and reaffirm its power. Benjamin’s model of violence is very much applicable to the modern day War on Terror.
Censorship of violence
How does this fit in with censorship? It does so in multiple ways. After all, violence on the screen is somehow related to violence in real life. Those who deny there is any connection saying that everyone knows the difference clearly haven’t been paying attention to what’s happened in the last 40 or 50 years. It is related in several ways. The original form of the production code in the US did not forbid portraying violence. After all, there’s quite a lot of violence and death in all those 1940s and 50s war movies and even before that in 1930s gangster movies. Westerns, one of the most enduring genres in Hollywood cinema, always had shoot outs. Can’t make a Western without some gun-slinging.
However, criminal violence was essentially forbidden. You could show a man beating his wife or a cop shooting a bank robber or a soldier shooting a Japanese soldier or a cowboy shooting an Indian but you couldn’t show a bank robber blowing up a safe. They didn’t want people to know how to do that or feel inspired to do that. But people like cinematic violence, it’s exciting while being completely safe. So the code was gradually relaxed and eventually abandoned in favour of the ratings system.
Here in the UK the BBFC were originally the British Board of Film Censorship. That was their name. This lasted until the 1980s when they became the British Board of Film Classification, though they had used a classification system since their inception in 1912. Originally this was a simple distinction between U – Universal – and A – Adult. In the 1930s this became U, A and H – Horrific. Then X replaced H and it has kept changing and growing and now we have 8 classifications of film. Before WW2 they had an explicitly political role but during the war this authority was passed to the government’s Ministry of Information. In the post-war period the BBFC did continue to censor politically troublesome material but became more focused on sex and violence.
I wrote an article a few months ago about the BBFC explaining how when it came to fantasy violence they were more relaxed than violence set in the real world. I used the example of their censorship of the 1960 thriller Peeping Tom, all about a serial killer who rapes and murders women. There was a lot of back and forth about the use of a camera tripod spike as a murder weapon, with the BBFC insisting that there was less focus on this, fewer shots, less screen time. If you watch the film the violence is horrible but not graphic at all. Compare this to the 1958 Hammer Horror Dracula where in one scene a young women is violently staked through the heart and the BBFC did not have a problem with this. So, more violence – and more graphic violence – was tolerated in a fantasy film than in a real world film.
So, does this have more of a law-making function or a law-preserving function, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms? I think it’s primarily a law-preserving one – these standards had to be rethought somewhat because cinema is a different art form to literature, but they are essentially the same sorts of standards that already existed. This censorship is motivated by upholding those standards within cinema, and thus trying to prevent cinema becoming a threat to the state. The new aspect to this is that it’s more pre-emptive than policing or militarism, because they are usually reactive whereas censorship takes place before the public sees the film, at least usually. The consequences of them seeing the censored material are largely in the imaginations of the censors. They predict terrible consequences and thus censor accordingly.
However, the other dimension to this is in how the BBFC and MPAA conceives of violence here and now. Because you can portray a lot of violence, at least in terms of scale, and not necessarily have to be limited by an adult rating. The film 2012 depicts entire cities being destroyed and breaking off and falling into the ocean but it was only rated PG-13. In reading the BBFC’s 2015 annual report I found that people especially complained about scenes in Spectre, Kingsman and Minions. In particular Kingsman was only given a 15 rating when it contains one scene of prolonged, vicious, gory violence – the massacre in the church. Reading from the BBFC’s report:
One of the issues raised by the public with regards to Kingsman: The Secret Service was the level of violence at 15, particularly in regards to a fight scene in a church.
The BBFC saw a version of the film before it was complete and offered advice as to how the film distributor’s desired 15 rating could be achieved. Otherwise, the film would have been classified 18. The distributor chose to make changes before formally submitting the film for classification. While there are some strong moments of violence in the film, they are relatively brief and do not ‘dwell on the infliction of pain or injury’ to the extent they require an 18 classification. The BBFC therefore classified the film 15.
As such you can murder 100 people on screen, one after another, for several minutes, in a variety of ways but as long as you don’t ‘dwell on the infliction of pain and injury’ you can get your 15 rating, which in practice means 12-13 year olds can watch your movie. Now, I’m not getting all ‘won’t someone PLEASE think of the kiddiewinks!’ about this, because there’s something more important going on. It is that you can depict as much horrible violence as you like as long as you don’t portray people suffering. As long as the real-life real-world genuinely horrifying consequences of violence are not portrayed, you can be as violent on screen as you want.
This is what has the effect of desensitising people to violence – not the inclusion of violence in itself, but the fact we’re shielded from the consequences of violence. In truth there’s always been an element of this – at one time it was the physical consequences. So you see the FBI guy shooting at the bank robber, you see the bank robber fall and hit the dirt but you don’t see any blood. Now you can show the blood but the people have to die quickly, you can’t show them in pain, suffering.
Now, there is a debate about to what extent this desensitises people to violence in the real world. I think it doesn’t do much when it comes to actual violence in front of their faces, people seem to still respond in the same ways to that as they always have. But when it comes to real violence on the screen – where again we see the bullets flying and the bombs dropping, but don’t see anyone screaming in agony – people are less sensitive than they used to be. They don’t identify images of violence with the consequences of violence, even when the images are of real events. This is why it is thrilling to watch videos of real life car crashes on youtube. If you saw that in real life chances are your reaction would be different to seeing it on youtube. Having been in one crash where someone died and having had people I know die in car crashes I know my reactions are different.
So, while conventional censorship has a law-preserving function – it upholds the state, the status quo – this kind of censorship has a law-making function. It is redefining our responses to real-world violence, at least when we see it on a screen, which is how we experience most real-world violence. We have new standards for what we find it upsetting to watch – as long as we don’t see people suffering. This was what it was like watching 9/11 on TV – again because we didn’t actually see people suffering, the violence became film-like, gripping in fact. If I actually lived in New York and could see it happening for real, I don’t think I could have watched. And in all honesty over time I’ve become more affected by that footage, it now upsets me in a way it didn’t the first time I saw it.
As Benjamin makes clear, the making and preserving of laws always involves the use of violence. Censorship is a form of violence – it is first violence against property, against a work of art or entertainment. But in making new laws on how tolerant we are to seeing violence on screen this has an affect on how much violence we tolerate in reality – as long as we don’t see it for real. In our postmodern, digital reality, Chris Angel Mindfreak culture this molly-coddling makes us less sensitive to violence by the state, at home or more frequently abroad. Because we’re discouraged from dwelling on the consequences of violence, our super-violent foreign policy and security policy become more tolerable.
The upshot of this form of censorship
Benjamin commented on how the heroisation or anti-heroisation of master criminals for existing outside the law resulted in the state re-affirming its power through violence towards criminals. But what we’re now seeing is something different. Now it is the state who is redefining itself and making itself the violent rogue who is heroised for being apparently outside the system in committing criminal violence on a massive scale. The police, intelligence services and especially the military are above the law, and this kind of censorship helps to normalise that. Now, rogue CIA agents are romanticised in cinema whereas once they were something to fear.
We see the impact of this most significantly among the anti-war Left, who have recently become so enraged at the election of Donald Trump that they have demanded that the CIA overthrow him in a coup. Where once the idea of the CIA staging a coup within the US, or abroad, horrified the anti-war Left it has become something they will at least pay lip-service to as a good idea. This censorship plays a critical role in shielding us from thinking about the consequences of that violence, and thus becoming more prone to accepting or even supporting it. That is not something Benjamin foresaw, because again he did not consider the possibility of people within the state using violence in its law-making function to change the nature of the state. He only considered the threat from outside who come in, overthrow the government and replace it with something else.
So this is how deep politics and movie censorship work together, they have a symbiotic relationship to some extent. I haven’t got any evidence that this is deliberate and it may not be, but that doesn’t make it any less important. As the major threat to the status quo has become not outside barbarians but internal sociopaths and megalomaniacs, Benjamin’s critique only goes so far in explaining this. As they seek to use violence as a means to the end of redefining the state we are detached from the consequences of this and thus become more accepting of it. So censorship has the functions both of the preservation of the state itself and of the efforts to extend the power of the state. This has only resulted in more violence by the state with less opposition to it, which is, ironically, the opposite of the stated aim of censorship.
At the beginning of this episode I played a clip of David Harbour talking about punching people in the face. In the long history of drunken Hollywood awards ceremony speeches I don’t remember seeing one quite like this. Up until he said that I was in agreement with his slightly rambling and confused political message but that part bothered me. I’m sure many of you have seen the clip of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face, and have witnessed how this has been celebrated by many who are opposed to the fascism of Trump’s administration. When I saw an article on Left wing news site The Canary lauding this as a great moment I made a point of telling them how much I disagreed with this. They did take the article down, in part as a result of my comments, so there’s a little self-censorship that I very much appreciate.
Now, Richard Spencer may deserve to be punched in the face but it’s still not a good thing to be doing. Not only is it politically counter-productive, it’s just nasty and stupid. Of course, the clip does not show Spencer in pain, suffering the consequences of this violence. It just shows someone lamping him. Again, this is partly why so many people cheered for this, and why an actor felt he had the right to be showboating about it. We don’t have to face the consequences on screen, so we don’t think about them in reality, making us less sensitive to those real world consequences of violence, and thus making violence more acceptable.