Not in front of the masses, please

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Go, go, go said the bird: humankind

Cannot bear too much reality

I WAS reminded of T S Eliot's lines as I read Bryan Appleyard's plea last week for more screen censorship. At the heart of his argument lies the belief that humankind - or at any rate certain sections of it - must be protected from itself. It is a deeply pessimistic view of humanity and a profoundly elitist conception of society. Those who would be our moral guardians view the mass of humanity as beings moved solely by instinct and emotion, for whom images of violence trigger an atavistic response to go and cause mayhem. The enlightened few must protect humanity from itself.

For the debate about censorship is not really a debate about violence, but about our view of humanity. The advocates of censorship do not object to violence as such, but to violence that might undermine their moral vision of the world. Violence and moral ambiguity are an integral feature of artistic vision. Not simply some of the greatest films of the 20th century but much of the entire Western canon is extravagantly violent in its attempt to explicate the human condition. If any Hollywood scriptwriter came up with the plot of Oedipus Rex ('Man has child by his mother and then gouges his eyes out with a pin') his script would be binned quicker than you could say Child's Play 3. And what would our moral guardians have made of Titus Andronicus - a play in which children are served up for dinner - had it been penned by Dennis Potter or been shown on Screen One?

But violence in Shakespeare or Greek tragedy is acceptable because the masses do not read such works (or so our moral guardians would like to believe) and hence are unlikely to be affected by them. But Basic Instinct or Child's Play? Now they might give people the wrong idea. Violence and moral ambiguity are fine for enlightened minds, but not in front of the plebs or children, please.

This argument reveals not the irrational and atavistic nature of human behaviour, but the sense of vulnerability felt by many sections of the intelligentsia in their moral and social codes. The James Bulger case has led many to argue that we need to reclaim society from what Mr Appleyard delicately calls 'the ill-educated, culturally deprived, unemployable underclass'. Yet a single murder hardly betokens the existence of an irredeemable underclass. Has Child's Play 3 really created a generation of child monsters?

Politicians and pundits are reacting not to the facts of the case but to the sense that society is out of control. The breakdown of the post-war order has undermined the self-confidence of the political classes. Their fears are projected on to the 'masses' who are portrayed as unthinking. From the 'happy news' brigade to those who want to get 'back to basics', we are urged to batten down the hatches. This is hardly a credible response to society's problems.

It is also acutely anti-democratic. Half a century ago Eliot felt that books and education were too easily available to the working class. 'In our headlong rush to educate everybody,' he wrote, 'we are destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.' Today critics such as Mr Appleyard bemoan the creation of mass culture, ruing the availability of films, videos and satellite dishes. The sentiment is the same: keep the barbarians in their place. The growing tendency to regard the underclass as so inferior and ineducable that it must be denied the fruits of democracy and culture is dangerous for it sets the stage for thinking of social divisions as immutable.