… rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet.
“… days of uncommon joy when people can feel whatever they want and say whatever they feel.”
Tacitus Historiae I.1.v
To have been an artist under the reign of the brooding and suspicious Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) cannot have been much real fun, even if it must be confessed that his rank paranoia was not entirely misplaced (his wife eventually engineered his murder). Still, these were years during which, if one valued one’s head, one was wise not to test the limits of the permissible in print or speech.
As the historian Tacitus (c. 55 – c. 117 CE), in my view one of the most psychologically penetrating authors from any literature from any period, suggests in this lapidary epigraph from his Historiae, once Domitian died, a liberatig breeze swept across the Roman cultural and intellectual landscape. (It occurs to me cautiously to draw a very contemporary parallel: will the small seeds of ‘lightening up’ in today’s North Korea under Kim-Jong-un after that strait-jacketed country’s peculiar rule under Kim Jong-il, his father, bear similar fruit?) Authors again felt free to say and write, without fear of persecution, what they thought.
The habit of proscribing speech and writing which deals with topics that may wound the sensitivities of some or just prove unpopular to the sensibilities of others is, of course, not unique to ancient Rome — America today tries to hide forms of the phenomenon under the Orwellian rubric of “hate speech”. Our versions of this odious practice remove certain topics from public light and thus drive them into an underground Stygian gloom where they may fester in private darknesses. A legally enforced fiat that some things simply cannot be talked about or even broached in public venues with impunity attempts – fruitlessly, I fear – to usurp rôles of social comity and communal graciousness in our dealings with each other. What’s wrong with just disagreeing politely and in reasoned fashion with the next offensiveness?
And – more ominously – what really is “hate speech”, and what filter will exist against a creeping extension of its designation?
That is, the difficulty is perhaps not so much with the proscription of any one topic that for the moment appears to be out of favor and so truly heinous that exceptions must be made regarding its publishability, but rather with the lubricious penchant of such solutions to expand the definitions of what is to constitute inclusion of the truly heinous.
Someone can no doubt always find something said that is objectionable.
Thus — since most serious writing or speech with any claim to seriousness is likely to offend the sensibility of at least some individual or group — in the interest of absolute fairness it would probably then be necessary to proscribe all serious communication. Is this what is wanted? Is it not preferable to let everybody have a say, no matter how objectionable — even offensive — that say maybe to some?
Censorship, as Tacitus recognized so well, wants to coerce our innermost feelings and thoughts, of which our words are but the expressions. Censorship wants to lay on us all the tacit presumption of a deep deficit in mental incapacity as a community to make decent and informed decisions based on the publication of available opinion and knowledge. Censorship fetishizes and censorship infantilizes.
Tacitus and his contemporaries had the looming presence of a paranoid Domitian to contend with before deciding what they might publish and what they might not. Whom or what (presumably) government agency do we desire to invest with such power as to create our own Domitian – or Domitians?
[I address this general issue in a more immediately contemporary context here!]