Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Censorship: Plato versus Socrates
by Louis B. Shalako
It was Margaret Atwood, Canada’s best-known author, who said in an interview with TVO’s Allen Gregg; “Most letters to the editor are written by retarded people, because they don’t have to worry about losing their jobs.”
This was broadcast and repeated earlier this year.
Over the last year there have been one or two columns in the local daily paper where the writers stated, “We have the right to offend one another.”
In Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the basic premise of the story is that the government was burning books. All books. Bradbury’s brilliant twist on an old plot was that the government wasn’t totalitarian. The people themselves had demanded it, because they didn’t like reading stuff that upset them.
Now, very few of us are willing to die simply for the right of offending someone. Socrates preferred to die rather than live in a world where his teachings were censored, and his beliefs punished. Socrates was put on trial by the Aeropagus, a court of elders, for the crime of worship of strange gods and the corruption of youth. But his real crime was to openly speculate about the nature of the cosmos.
To inquire into truth was considered a mockery of the gods—and they were perhaps righter than they knew. While some may believe that a disregard for tradition is a sign of a disordered mind, simple criticism is utterly vital in a free and democratic society. Without criticism, simple and honest, any government quickly becomes tyrannical and oppressive. If you wrote a letter to the editor or the government, openly criticizing some aspect of our society, would you worry
about being fired from your job? Harassed by the cops or your neighbors?
There are times when the right to free speech, the right to freedom of personal expression, seems to be under assault by all kinds of forces, from secretive governments eluding accountability, to extremist religious fundamentalists, to bigots and intolerant individuals.
Not all the Greeks were as enlightened as Socrates, and in my own mind, I think he was punishing the Areopagus. He forced them to live with their consciences, in the realization that his execution was an exposure of their tyranny, violence, and ignorance. His death exposed them for what they were. For those skeptics who choose to live with freedom rather than oppression, a kind of secular Messiah. He was the first known to have codified a formula for intellectual, religious and artistic freedom. As a writer, an artist, I can tell you they are all one and the same thing.
In the 5th century BC, Anaxagoras was punished for impiety. Protagoras was charged with blasphemy and his books were burned. These were not violent individuals, or thieves, or pirates. They were punished for using their brains; or the very minds that ‘the gods’ had given them, if you like.
Plato thought art should be subservient to morality, and that art that could not be used to inculcate moral values should be burnt. In ‘The Republic,’ censors would prevent mothers from telling stories to their own children if the stories were considered bad or evil. In his ‘Laws,’ Plato said wrong beliefs about God or the hereafter should be treated as crimes and proposed formal machinery to suppress heresy.
Originally, the cynics believed that only by pursuing virtue could true happiness be achieved. The word cynic has since come to mean something else.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed the notion that true virtue lay in the middle, between two opposing extremes. Most Canadians would accept this argument with little comment, and quite thoughtlessly. As a skeptic, I like to ask, 'an extremely lot of questions.'
While the internet can be a kind of ‘wild west in cyberspace’ at times, it can also be the great equalizer. Anyone can do the research, and compete with the big media firms, and the blogosphere is open to all comers.
I don’t believe in official censorship, although it is probably here to stay. I do believe in a kind of self-censorship. If we write to serve others, rather than just to impress them, then their needs come first. As a professional writer, I need to serve the marketplace, or I am essentially useless. While in some forms of fiction, violence, language, sexual conduct, or religious controversy undoubtedly have a place, and I would not want to put too many restrictions on that; by being a little more mainstream, the works appeal to a much larger audience.
To me, that just seems more practical than anything. And the successful person understands that sometimes it’s not so much what you say, as how you say it. Now, as disabled people, if we are in a unique position to say things which other people are a little afraid to get into, we definitely should take advantage of that opportunity. In the U.S., for example, we need look no farther than the recent public healthcare debate, where the contribution of the disabled would have been extremely relevant. It is true that we are unable to do some things that others take for granted. These might include riding buses and subways, climbing stairs, entering buildings, voting or using simple kitchen appliances.
But perhaps the most significant challenge we face is the traditional image society has pasted upon us, the image of a breed apart, to be pitied, to be ignored, or placed out of sight in institutions. The simple recognition that, apart from our disabilities, we have the same abilities, needs and interests, is quite rare. Nevertheless, employers are reluctant to hire or employ the disabled and landlords have refused to rent to us. Courts have deprived us of basic rights including the right to have custody of our own children. Criminals prey upon us, and it is often seen as our own fault, as the result of ‘poor lifestyle choices.’
That’s not to say we should be cussing and swearing at the politicians. It is only by expressing our concerns with calm, cool reason that we will be listened to. And if no one will listen, then we won’t get any action. We are already all too easy to ignore.
We the disabled, in attempting to access or exercise our natural, God-given rights, have established several important principles. We consider these truths to be self-evident.
We should be evaluated on personal merit alone, not on stereotyped assumptions regarding disabilities. Another important principle is that society must make certain changes to enable us to participate more actively in ‘normal’ society. The third principle is that, to the extent that it is appropriate for each individual, the disabled should be integrated with other people who are not handicapped.
Here in Ontario, the rather cynical Liberal government of Mr. Dalton McGuinty has passed the “Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.” All the municipalities in Ontario are objecting to and challenging the expected costs; which will no doubt be considerable, yet a number of municipalities are repealing bylaws regulating group homes as these were found to be discriminatory.
The movement for the rights of the disabled has often incurred opposition in the past. These objections are usually based upon the ‘prohibitive’ cost of the changes sought. There have been quite a number of letters to the editor on this very subject locally in Sarnia, Ontario, where this writer lives. I see it as simple bigotry, a kind of ignorance. The key is education. We must educate them, and that’s going to take all of us, working together as a team.
Advocates for the disabled insist that the increased expenditures are completely justified, because they would allow the disabled to lead fuller, more rewarding, and more productive lives.
Louis Bertrand Shalako lives in Canada. He studied Radio, Television, and Journalism Arts at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology in Sarnia, Ontario. He enjoys cycling and swimming, and is a lover of good books. He lives with his elderly father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, in a small war-time bungalow filled with books, cats, and model airplanes. Louis feels extremely fortunate to have retired early, and to have the opportunity to write full-time. He still has his self-respect, and that’s the main thing, according to Louis.