Teleology and Censorship

One of my many delights in a particular Film Studies class was learning the concept of teleology. Teleology is a philosophical notion that states things have a natural goal or end, and all that came before was leading to that end. In some cases, this approach seems logical: I am the end result of my ancestors and my environment. But this simple and linear approach can be dangerously reductive and shortsighted. My ancestors did not labour simply to bring me into the world, nor did my surroundings worry about me.

Much of what might be considered  wrong in the world is the consequence of people believing that they, their country, their technology, their religion, and so on, is the natural and ultimate conclusion of everything that came before. As such, it must be correct. And there are more amusing examples of this mindset. I once worked at a large technology campus composed of many buildings. At some point in the past, a decision was made to post a plaque at each building, explaining its name and role in the facility. The plaques also stated the order that the buildings had been built: first, second, third, and so on, until a building was identified as the last building. That plaque presumed that the campus was complete, and no further building would ever be added. At least two more buildings have been constructed since the plaques were posted.

So what does this have to with entertainment censorship? Popular coverage and criticism of film censorship views it as something that is destined to end. Depending on your beliefs, this is either a desirable outcome once we have more enlightened leaders, or a feared outcome unless we have more enlightened leaders.  The proof, on both sides, is in the elimination of the American production code and several decades of increasing sex and violence in film. This teleological perspective on film censorship disregards the sometimes complex reasons why particular film elements have or have not been censored. This approach also ignore several areas where censorship has increased over the past several decades.

A broader view of the history of entertainment censorship suggests that while changes are inevitable, the end of censorship is extremely unlikely. It has existed in one form or another since the earliest entertainments. As in other matters, those who take a teleological view of censorship are missing the big picture. Fighting to hasten or prevent the end of censorship is tilting at windmills. 

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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