Induced censorship

February 10, 2019


The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

LIKE induced coma, a wave of induced censorship is sweeping through the country. This form of censorship is not only different from its most original and odious form where the state enforces its standards of morality or suppresses ideas it considers to be competing with the sanctioned ideology of the state. It is also distinct from the self-censorship that flows from the fear that the state instils in the populace, especially opinion makers, ie, writers, journalists, activists or anyone engaged in creative work.

Induced censorship works in a more insidious way as its enforcers are not the stereotypical villains or any type of anti-social elements. They are seemingly harmless mem­­bers of society who are usually too busy trying to make ends meet to think through the effects that their induced reactions may have.

Take the recent fracas over some public art displayed on the grounds of the Lahore Museum. A big statue depicting a man-beast, complete with horns, large canines, fangs and a tail. Nothing pretty, one must confess. But nothing extraordinarily gruesome either. No sci-fi movie is complete these days without such creatures that defy description and either augment or challenge the stereotypes of the mental images we have about appearances and character.

After the brouhaha led by a channel and some do-gooders petitioning the Lahore High Court, the museum management had to first cover the statue before it could be removed from the outraged public view. Did anyone stop for a second to ponder what the artist was trying to relay? Art cannot be restricted to depicting beauty and aesthetics alone. What if the purpose of the artwork in question was to shine a light on the dark side of human nature? For instance, how would the lot with the misplaced outrage have little Zainab’s killer portrayed? How do we think the monsters who perpetrated the Army Public School massacre should be depicted? Yes! They all looked like us but allowed the demons within to get the better of all that is beautiful and sublime, the very essence of being human.

What if the purpose of an artwork is to shine a light on our dark side?

The terminology used for reporting the sad episode could also have played a role in fanning the self-righteous outrage. Label anything ‘shaitani’ (devilish) or demonic and all sorts of fears and repugnance ooze out from the deepest recesses of the subconscious. Instead of directing the anger at the artwork and too often the artist herself, it needs to be channelled towards the characteristics that we find so disturbing, and condemn them rather than fall into this trap of induced censorship.

Unfortunately, these multiple layers of censorship are not confined within any particular state’s boundary, the phenomenon is gaining momentum across the region. Re­­cently, a very famous artist and an art gallery based in Karachi came face to face with the full wrath of such censorship. Thousands of copies of a beautifully designed and produced catalogue for the artist’s upcoming exhibition were burned by the management of the printing press because the employees had threatened to otherwise burn down the entire press as they found the artist’s work objectionable.

While the painter and the gallery were still trying to come to terms with both the emotional shock and the financial loss, another low blow was struck. The partner gallery in uber modern, bordering-on-risqué Dubai unilaterally revoked the legal contract for exhibiting the series in question in the Gulf emirate. Wondering what was causing all the drama? There was some imagery which the artist was willing to remove from the programmed exhibit, but was told that was not the issue. The issue, as it transpired was that part of the exhibit had to do with national flags of countries in the region. Nothing disrespectful, but quite political. For instance the prayer recited before embarking on a journey had been shown alongside a country’s flag that has recently seen the mass exodus of population as a result of civil war and foreign intervention. Flags can be declared sacrosanct and protected from any type of tampering. What about bodies of refugee infants washing up on foreign shores? Anybody for their protection? That is the pain and the agony the artist wanted everyone to feel. To do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies.

The induced censorship and self-righteousness is evident everywhere. It stalks women in bazars where complete strangers harangue them to cover their heads. Universities go about segregating female and male cafeterias and barring girls from wearing jeans. The Karachi police chief had to issue orders restraining cops from harassing couples and asking them for nikahnama. From time to time barbers from hamlets in Balochistan to towns in Fata refuse to give young men what they consider to be a ‘fashionable’ beard trim. All this while five-year-old kids sell combs on busy traffic lights, barefoot and barely clothed. Let us decide what outrages us.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2019