Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How Do We Define Obscenity?

As I've mentioned before, I got into learning about banned books during my Lit of Censorship class. We used to get into some debates there, and I was struck by one discussion we had in the middle of the semester over the meaning of "obscenity."

Many of the books I have read and researched have been written off by parents and advocacy groups as being "obscene," but how do we even come close to explaining that? Obscenity is an opinion at most; everyone has a different perception of what strikes them as "offensive to morality or decency; depraved; indecent; abominable; disgusting and repulsive" (combined definition courtesy of Dictionary.com). Take the issue of pornography, for instance. Some find it "obscene"because of some sexual acts depicted; some think it objectifies women (myself included); others believe it is a symbol of artistic expression and therefore should not be censored.

The same is true for literature. A book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou chronicles the author's life, which was rife with abuse and other unspeakable things. However, this book has been censored on charges of obscenity. So life is obscene? The fact that a woman had to live through this kind of horror is very offensive to morality, yes, but not the writing itself. And furthermore, how can you even censor a person's thoughts and try to persecute them? That would be akin to the Thought Police of George Orwell's 1984 punishing someone for thinking against the system. It's against everything this country stands for, and everything put into the Constitution. At the same time, you don't want to horrify people and expose young children to some themes before they're ready; still, this is why we have regulations to restrict certain media to certain age groups. Why is there a need to censor further?

So you see, the idea of obscenity is a hard one to really streamline. But people want to create court cases and charge authors and artists for it, and that is what I am against. If you don't like something, don't read or look at it; however, don't seek to punish those who have created it. If the rumors are true, it is a free country, after all.

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