Censorship and Sensibility

【這是何春蕤受邀於2010年6月26日在新加坡舉行的International Communication Association (ICA) 2010 Conference發表的閉幕主題演講】

I would like to thank Barbie Zelizer and Francois Cooren for inviting me to this session of discussion, and Michael Haley for making all necessary arrangements to bring me here.  I am honored to have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

This morning I would like to talk about a developing new social sensibility.  My contention is that this advancing sensibility is helping to create fertile ground for the expansion and hardening of new censorship measures that are directed at much more than the traditionally censored realms of political dissent and sexual explicitness.  In fact, this new, we might call it, the “low-tolerance sensibility” aims to create among the masses a morally-induced responsiveness that entails an escalating anxiety toward anything that may be considered minutely deviant or misbehaving, not to mention a mounting hostility toward the clearly non-normative or the difficult.  No, I am not talking about the general sentiment of the religious right, but a more pervasive sensibility that is being cultivated by the media, which works to make the institution of censorship measures a justified and welcomed action.

As I am allowed only 15-20 minutes to make my main argument, I will only have time to go over a few important points here.

First, the new information and communication technologies and their erosion of civilized sensibility.  Relentlessly straight-forward language that contravenes all decrees of politeness and consideration has been a common stock of the internet world, where anonymity releases the human hostility and aggression that had been suppressed by the civilizing process, as theorized by Norbert Elias.  And, thanks to the expediency of digital cameras, camera phones, and the many image and video sharing websites, images of numerous seemingly routine yet also quite idiosyncratic details in people’s lives and cultures are also readily available for viewing on the internet, offered up voluntarily by netizens who gladly put them on display for show or for share.  Easy access to the internet world has blurred the division between intimate and public spheres, and the split between private and public behavior—as the most private in people’s lives now enter the public world through the broadcast-yourself websites, eager to be viewed by a global audience; and the most public, shared by all on the Internet, are present in one’s most private moments in front of the computer monitor.  As such images are generated from unique desires and distinctive tastes and presented in sometimes highly staged, other times straight-forward, fashions, they easily tap into the immense diversity of experiences, feelings, and values that lie beyond state-approved or socially-sanctioned sources.  Previously behind-the-scene or off-limits or taboo acts are now juxtaposed with a variety of other mundane images and are viewed by a diverse audience coming from a multitude of orientations and concerns in widely different contexts and cultures.  Such encounters have created a myriad of effects and impressions that constantly encroach upon the delicate and reserved sensibility that has been deemed a mark of civilization, a civilized sensibility that had been expected to keep what may be considered offensive or disturbing out of way, as well as keeping impulses and emotions at bay.

In the meantime, new information and communication technologies have also brought on further developments that work to erode the rigid hold of that civilized sensibility.  For the proximity and immediacy of the world being always at the tip of one’s fingers gives rise to a new interdependency, one that thrives upon the informalization and democratization of human relationships, a leveling and intermixing of modes of conduct and lifestyles.  In this new form of interdependency, inhibition and suppression of feelings are considered ineffectual; a new directness, vitality, and spontaneity rose to become the most desirable qualities in the web world, thus inciting ever more candid and upfront presentations that constantly contest existing standards of politeness.  This new intensity of social differentiation and integration is further accelerated by the enumeration of communication platforms and socializing networks such as MySpace or Facebook that range far beyond existing networks of relationships organized by the workplace, the school, the church, or other traditionally-based social contacts, meshing and expanding, gyrating into an ever-broadening circle of connectedness and interaction.  The juxtaposition of such abundance and variety of information and images constantly titillates our sense of propriety and thresholds of embarrassment and shame, resulting in a complex mixture of sense of awkwardness or embarrassment or even moral offence, and simultaneously, pleasure, excitement, desire, and fantasy.  Sensitivity to the varieties and subtleties of modes of conduct increases, as awareness of the unexpected and surprising heightens.  All these are conducive to the formation of a convoluted structure of feelings that eats away at the original, civilized sensibility.

Significantly, the vibrant new internet culture also attracted forces that pulled in the opposite direction.  And this is the second point I would like to make, which has to do with the construction of what I would term “sensationality,” especially when it involves content on the internet.  This construction of sensationality functions to create a sense of alert that would help consolidate or even rigidify the original civilized sensibility.  Now as a conservative response to the advancing impact of new means of communication brought on by the information and communication technologies, constrictions on freedom of speech and information regarding sex-related issues have already been raging.  Those of you who are interested in what I have to say about developments in the sexual realm may consult my papers in GLQ and Positions .  What distinguishes this new trend of constriction from the previous forms of political censorship is that it often uses the media to ignite irrational fears and panics which could then easily mutate into a staunch moralism benefiting none other than political profiteers, moral crusaders, or moral police agents.  The media may have often been faulted for choosing to report only stories with shock value or attention-grabbing names or events, and always using an exaggerated language, on the other hand, the low-tolerance sensibility that I am talking about this morning on the other hand directs our attention not necessarily to the inherently sensational, but more importantly to the increasing media construction of sensationality out of the ordinary.

In the age of the internet, it has become common practice for journalists to pick their stories from the internet, not only because sensationality sells but more importantly because it is cost-saving.  Netizens, often acting as the best of journalists, supply reports on slices of life where no regular journalists would think of looking.  Creative netizens proudly put up their own parodies of trendy or topical issues, which make interesting tidbits of novelty news favored by the media.  Yet at the same time, the frequent flame wars that rage on various discussion boards sometimes make their way into the news too.  When the hostile and insulting interactions on the internet are quoted and presented in their blatant form in the vastly different public space of the mass media, the nature of the exchange seems to compel the journalists to frame the report in a moral context where concerns over the lack of civility in today’s web-surfing youths feature prominently.  Meanwhile, many young netizens, out of light-hearted fun in the seemingly unsupervised world of the internet, and unaware of the scavenging searches of the media, also proudly put up images of their daily life’s insignificant misdemeanors on display which end up in the news.  Recent examples in Taiwan include high school girls posing sexily with the top edge of their bras peeping out of their school uniforms, or young soldiers playing sexual pranks during recess pretending to be sodomizing each other fully-clothed, or two girls jokingly vandalizing slogan boards nailed to the railings of a remote bridge, or a young man riding his motorbike through the country road with both hands in the air, and many many many more.

The youths featured in such self-portraits obviously did not think they mattered much; nor would such individualized behavior have attracted much attention or reproof; after all, they are mostly private acts conducted out of innocent impulses for fun.  But now as the film clips of these ordinary events are shown on the media, newsworthiness is constructed through the astonishment and concern in the voice-over of the reporting journalist that is then echoed by bystanders (who knows who they are if there were any?) who are reported as flabbergasted or embarrassed speechless in the presence of such behavior.  And then the report concludes with the perennial question: “What’s happening to young people these days that they would engage in such improper or dangerous behavior?”  The description of the astounded bystanders and the morally-charged open-end question, presented along with the matter-of-fact admission of guilt through the images, call upon the audience to feel similarly outraged and obliged to become vigilant about such acts.  More importantly, it is also a call to action that some punitive measures be taken quickly in order to restore civility and good manners.  Understandably, the consequences were dire not only because of the punishment that followed, but more seriously because of the media exposure and its replays on Youtube.  If the perpetrators’ identities were unknown, over-zealous netizens are more than happy to conduct human-hunts so as to bring the perpetrators under mob scrutiny if not state penalty.  Such a strong investment by the media as well as the netizens, and their common stance of righteous outrage against anything minutely transgressive have resulted in a pervasive tolerance level of the lowest magnitude, where the most innocent and conservative response is constantly summoned so as to set in relief the awe, the surprise, hence the insinuated unacceptability of otherwise commonplace behavior.  This emotional state is what I call low-tolerance sensibility, a sensibility that effectively narrows the span of normativity in the actual world, and, in the internet world in particular, deters the permissiveness promoted by anonymity.

So far, I have presented a sort of a tug of war on the sensibility front, where the advent of new information and communication technologies is creating complicated and conflicting effects.  Yet the insertion of a third element, thanks to the efforts of the Christian Right, successfully articulated the low-tolerance sensibility as both natural and necessary for this age of the internet and thus tilted the game toward justified rigidification and censorship.  This element may be referred to as the rise of the imaginary child as the ultimate “reason to be” for social life.  While Christian NGOs are usually the most severe critics of the tabloid media, they could not have found better allies than the latter in fashioning folk devils and fanning up panics to create a social atmosphere most conducive for conservative legislation.  Anyone happily enjoying their freedom of speech and information afforded by the internet suddenly found themselves interpellated as parents or would-be parents by the new popular discourse, with solemn duties to perform in order to safeguard the well-being of all children, present and future.  Safeguarding means of course towing the low-tolerance sensibility line and keeping everything beyond it out of the way.  As age and generation stratification still constitutes a core belief and institution in Asian societies, constitutional rights to freedom of expression and information proved to be fragile when faced with the higher calling of the protection of the offspring.  Internet language is to be cleaned up, images and words must stay within the confines of propriety, any suspected bad influences must be removed, contact between children and strangers must be prevented.  When the imaginary child, all innocent and tender, is presumed to be a constant presence on the internet and in front of the media, then all information and communication should be proper and safe for the child.  Pushing to turn these moral imperatives into the iron grid of legal codes is none other than Christian groups and other conservatives who are using this cause not only to purify social space but also to strengthen their own power of influence.  The efficacy with which such efforts have been carried out in Taiwan and Hong Kong is spreading the strategy far and wide.  The image of children at risk in the age of internet feeds directly into the low-tolerance sensibility, thus sinking it ever lower.

In the past decade, with the imaginary child in mind, new censorship legislations and directives in the Chinese speaking world increasingly target activities enabled by the Internet, the cell phone, and other new platforms for information exchange.  Though not all of them were as drastic as the failed Chinese project to install the “Green Dam–Youth Escort” screening device in all newly manufactured computers in 2008, most of the new censorship measures carry disproportionately heavy penalties to highlight the sacred mission of protecting children from coming into contact with improper information.  In Taiwan, under child protection legislation, internet messages that hint at sexual exchange, be they joking flirtations, innocent inquiries, or actual transaction propositions, could incur a sentence of up to five years imprisonment plus a hefty fine for the authors of the messages.  ISP providers are required to turn over user registration information upon police request or face criminal charges.  Now, even so-called freedom of press is circumscribed by the National Communications Commission that dictates how news should be reported so that children’s tender feelings will not be affected.  Hong Kong government also began stringent censorship of sexual information and chatting on the Internet in 2009 by characterizing all discussions of sex as pornographic, and representations of homosexuality as “advocacy of homosexuality,” thus harmful for children.  In Mainland China, over 3000 websites and blogs were shut down in 2008 for allegedly containing lewd, pornographic, or licentious information.  Among those closed were quite a few popular websites for lesbian and gay communication.  And in late 2009, even existing channels for proactive/preventive sex education, sexual psychology, sexual ethics, sexual medicine, and sex therapy are no longer accessible to regular netizens in China.  Significantly, Chinese officials seem to have put “upholding the sacred traditions of socialist mother land” on the back burner, so as to give prominent place to the child protection cause, as the deputy chief of the Internet Bureau of PRC openly stated in a 2009 interview.  Obviously the Chinese government is also learning the convenience in activating parental concerns over their precious children to justify state measures of censorship.

Much more is at stake in these shifts in sensibility than the merely psychological or emotional.  After all, political governance could be strengthened by the spread of low tolerance sensibility that proactively represses and inhibits anything that may be considered transgressive for an increasingly narrowly defined normativity.  Liberal or secular states have always chided their enemy states as intolerant, but ironically, they themselves are slipping into societies of low tolerance sensibility under the hyped-up cause of child protection.  And as our time is increasingly constructed as an “unusually dangerous conjuncture for children,” this sensibility has allowed censorship laws to come into place that violate fundamental human rights and freedoms.  Likewise, universal surveillance in the digital world has become justified while resistance to such censorship measures finds it increasingly difficult to recruit supporters who could break away from the hold of the low-tolerance sensibility.  This is the politics of sensibility that we have to contend with at this critical moment.  Thank you.

I had described this low-tolerance sensibility as a morally-induced responsiveness earlier, and it is this responsiveness that mobilized a lot of citizens to join the task of snuffing out the improper and the immoral on the internet.  Where the long arms of the state was not enough to cover the grounds, citizen forces have been more than happy to help the Internet surveillance systems.  Under the rubric of “child protection,” eager volunteers are recruited to help report on improper information in the virtual world.  Taiwan’s Web547 (“no porn”) hotline, organized by ECPAT, has been in existence since 1999 to report on the presence of pornography, sexual exchange and drug deals on the internet.  Beijing’s Internet monitoring volunteer system came into existence in 2006 to watch over “uncivilized, illegal, and undesirable messages” on sites based in Beijing.

As fierce competition in the media rages on, more and more affectively-charged descriptions are now used to animate the news for the audience, fanning up sex phobias that often lead to moral outrage and then new, more rigid regulation.  Populist tendencies consolidate the atmosphere in which the “feelings of the people” are increasingly invoked and characterized as delicate and fragile and must be protected by censorship measures that keep harmful materials away.

The ignited moral hysteria then culminates in the reaffirmation of moral values and social vigilance, embodied in none other than the timely proposal of protective legislations that not only strengthen state power but also improve state legitimacy, not to mention benefiting the conservative NGOs in being awarded franchises in state projects that deal with such issues.