Censorship: Hiding History and Promoting Bias

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Often attributed to Mark Twain, the quote “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it” actually came from Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” published in 1950: “The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.” Image labeled for reuse by pixabay.

My brother and I had a tradition every weekend when we were growing up. Every Saturday and Sunday, we’d get up, rush downstairs to make our waffles and sit in front of the television in the living room, waiting for our favorite cartoons to air. Sometimes, we’d get up early enough that Cartoon Network’s adult swim segment would still be on.

We always had a great love for Looney Tunes. We loved Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Tweety, and all the others.

Looney Tunes has been around for almost a hundred years. The first cartoons aired in 1929, during the Golden Age of cinema and television.

During this time, African Americans were facing segregation, discrimination, and things like Jim Crow and Jim Crow laws. Such racist sentiments were often expressed in entertainment. Unfortunately, even Looney Tunes, cartoons made for kids, echoed these ideas.

Today, the social climate differs drastically, and, naturally, cartoons and other forms of entertainment that express these racist opinions will not be largely accepted. One might expect Warner Brothers to avoid airing the specific episodes that show things that echo Jim Crow, but they still do. Today, these episodes air with a disclaimer:

“The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American Society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

Warner Brothers shows a disclaimer before airing potentially offensive cartoons.

Warner Brothers made a calculated choice. A common issue faced today is how to deal with issues such as race, gender, and sexuality in the media. America has a long history of discrimination. Many people in charge of companies and networks like Warner Brothers have to make a decision on how to approach them.

Writer and philosopher, George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Warner Brothers chose to remember the prejudices of America’s past rather than claim, or even suggest, that they never existed. They didn’t make any excuses for past actions. They directly stated that “these depictions were wrong then and are wrong now.”

Some might argue that simply not airing the cartoons that reflect racist views would be a better option, especially to protect the children who still get up on Saturday mornings to watch them. However, there’s more to it than sheltering young children.

Not airing or editing the cartoons would be considered censorship. Censorship is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “any regime or context in which the content of what is publically expressed, exhibited, published, broadcast, or otherwise distributed is regulated or in which the circulation of information is controlled.”

Censorship has a negative connotation, and for good reason. Sometimes, censorship can be a positive thing, such as protecting children from viewing things that could be harmful to them, but often it is also used to limit free speech and erase the evidence of things like past racism in America or even current social issues.

Air Academy students who took Advanced Placement English Language and Composition will remember Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the conversations about race and censorship around it. The book was written to make a point about racism in America and each word was carefully chosen.

Many people, including publishers and school boards, believe that two words should be removed from the novel: the N-word and “injun”, replaced by “slave” and “Indian” respectively.

The concern is understandable. Twain’s novels have an immense amount of literary and historical value and should be taught in schools. However, the use of racial slurs makes it tricky to teach, especially for younger students.

However, Twain chose his words carefully to support the point he was trying to make. Replacing the N-word with “slave” changes the meaning. The two words are similar, but they do not mean the same thing and claiming they do is naive.

“[The N-word] is absolutely horrible and offensive,” said English teacher Cyndy Morgan. “But Twain is using it to point out the great inhumanity that was perpetrated by America on minorities. I think that the lesson hasn’t been completely understood when you look at the racism that is still occurring towards African Americans, and the recent racism towards Asians around the Coronavirus. I think it is important that we recognize the thought process that leads to racism and discrimination in order to reduce it in our society.”

It’s important for American children to learn about America in its entirety. We, as a nation, have a rich, unique history and there are a lot of good things in our past to praise. However, we cannot pretend the bad things never happened. In addition to industry, science, and technology, America had slavery, Japenese internment camps, and the Trail of Tears, and, as Santayana suggested, if we do not remember the mistakes of our past, we will repeat them.

Often attributed to Twain, the quote “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it” actually came from Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” published in 1950: “The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.”

Regardless of who said it, the principle still applies.

Another form of censorship is done by governments and corporations.

The United States government has attempted to censor works of fiction in the past, in addition to censoring journalists.

One of the most famous examples of censorship is whats known as the “Pentagon Papers”.  The classified documents, officially titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” included evidence that a number of government officials had taken measures to prolong an unpopular and costly war. In 1971, journalists from the New York Times leaked excerpts of the documents, prompting a Supreme Court battle between the times and President Richard Nixon. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the journalists could publish the papers, according to ThoughtCo, and they are available for all to read today.

“As with the first amendment rights to free speech and press, the government should get no say in what the news and media get to say,” said former Air Academy Student and Jetstream Journal editor, Michael Boe. “Government censorship can be a terrible thing.”

While the government must protect the rights given to us under the first amendment, social media companies such as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter don’t necessarily have to follow in their footsteps.

On Thursday, February 20th, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Youtube against Prager University. Some Prager conservatives accused the company of “silenc[ing] right-of-center voices,” according to Politico.

The court explained their ruling, stating that Youtube, as well as other social media platforms, are still private forums, and therefore do not fall under the first amendment.

While the ruling makes sense, it does open up a few questions: How much freedom does this give these companies and will they abuse it?

“So long as the terms are clear, Social Media should have the right to censor some things on their platforms,” said Boe. “[As] long as its justifiable, so no censoring people for their opinions.”

Censorship on Youtube is mostly dedicated to protecting children from potentially harmful content.

“[Social media censorship should be in place] to keep inappropriate things from young viewers,” said Morgan. “However, that material should still be available to consenting adults. How do you do that? I don’t completely know. [And] to stop the spread of bad, misleading information. That seems reasonable, but it’s a slippery slope.”

A great challenge for social media companies today is Fake News. It’s easy for misinformation to spread when so much information is available at the tips of fingers. One way platforms try to combat this is fact-checkers, such as Instagram’s new fact-checking feature.

Posts the site flags as false or misleading will be given a disclaimer over the post, informing any viewers that the information presented isn’t true.

Unfortunately, just as Morgan said, it’s a slippery slope.

Youtube has come under fire for its policies in the past. Many creators rely on Ad revenue from their videos to make their livings. As a result, it’s vital for them to have monetization, meaning ads will show on their videos.

Youtube has a list of banned words; words that will get a video demonetized. Some of these words make sense, like “death”, “abuse”, “crime”, and even “Nazi”. However, “lesbian” and “homosexual” also seem to be on the list of banned words while “straight” and “heterosexual” are not. Youtube has denied accusations of bias within the company, according to the Insider, but it’s difficult to be sure what’s really going on. These words are often flagged by bots, not by actual people, and it may simply be a sign that Youtube needs to take another look at their programming.

Regardless of the reasoning, censorship generally does very little to actually aid people. It gives people in power a platform to lie, keep secrets, and manipulate the public. It gives us as a society a chance to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Most importantly, it leaves us all a much less informed public, and, in these trying times, an informed public is our best hope.