Who decides what you should know?


Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

Caution, the content of these books could expand your mind!

The well respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn reports that yesterday the blogging platform WordPress was blocked (23rd March 2015), and those who wished to either publish their own words, or to read those of others posted on blogs, were thwarted in their efforts. The same newspaper has previously commented (February 8th 2015), on the fact that the media channel YouTube remains inaccessible within the country. A spokesman for the Pakistani government has suggested that there is content on the media channel that may be seen as either blasphemous or in other ways offensive, and that the people of Pakistan need protection from such material. I am aware from friends and students that similar restrictions exist in China and in several other parts of the world, and that this is a particular source of frustration to those who have spent time in the west, and have found such media to be a useful source of debate and information.

It is probably true to say that the use of media channels such as YouTube requires a certain amount of discrimination on the part of the user. There is (in my opinion) an awful lot of material available on these outlets that is insignificant, trivial and in some instances offensive, but should this necessarily be made unavailable. I suspect that my interpretation of triviality may be someone else’s notion of high culture, and why should my opinion be any more valid than theirs?

As is often the case with newspaper items, some of the comments posted in response to an article are almost as interesting as the original (no disrespect intended to the unnamed journalist who posted this particular piece in Dawn). In response to the article on WordPress censorship, one correspondent replied:-

By blocking WordPress and YouTube the govt. has deprived its citizens of knowledge, of education, of a basic right the constitution of Pakistan gives us.

This commentator makes a valid point. When used appropriately both WordPress (which is incidentally the platform upon which this blog is based) and YouTube can act as useful educational tools. I have on several occasions used film from YouTube for teaching purposes both here in the UK, and when teaching in other parts of the world. Similarly, I have posted items on this blog with the specific intent of enabling students to continue debating issues discussed in class, and know that others have used it for the same purpose. Does this therefore mean that there should be no censorship of materials posted on the internet?

This is far from a straightforward matter. Censorship when appropriately applied is designed to protect those who are potentially vulnerable or suggestible from potentially harmful influences. The British Board of Film Classification was established in 1912 as an independent body to classify films and give them a rating of suitability to a broad range of audiences. There is a general consensus that this organisation does a good job in ensuring that materials that are unsuitable for children, are classified in such a way that parents are aware, and cinemas restrict access to young viewers. Similarly, most computer systems have safety mechanisms whereby parents and schools can inhibit access to programmes and materials that may be deemed unstable for children. The notion of protecting the young and vulnerable is certainly one with which I have no problem.

The blanket censoring of WordPress and YouTube is a different matter. Those who have made decisions to restrict the availability of these media outlets have not been discriminating in terms of protecting the young and vulnerable, but have rather made a decision that nobody should have access. This surely conveys a message that the censors do not feel that the general populous has either the ability or the right to make up their own minds. Adults are being treated as children, and regarded as incapable of making informed decisions.

I have no difficulty with control that is designed to protect the individual. It is a good idea to enforce laws that mean for example, that in England everybody must drive on the left hand side of the road, or to ensure that alcohol is not sold to children. These are laws with good intent and a deal of common sense. However, I am unsure about who the censorship of media outlets is designed to protect. It seems to me that most adults are quite capable of policing the media for themselves. If an item comes on to the television that I dislike I can change channels or switch off the set. If I disagree with the sentiments or political association of a newspaper or magazine, I choose not to purchase them.

The students with whom I work are intelligent and discriminating individuals. In my experience they make good use of media such as WordPress and YouTube as yet another source of information to be used alongside the other, more traditional sources such as books and academic journals. But maybe here is the nub of the issue. Censorship is not about the platform upon which information is conveyed, but about the power of the messages that may be contained within. After all, throughout history that wonderful, though relatively low tech product the book, has been subjected to censorship or outright banning in many countries, including my own.

I do hope that my friends in Pakistan may have an opportunity to share these thoughts today.


Ulysses  by James Joyce, published in France in 1922, banned in UK and USA until 1930s

Doctor Zhivago  by Boris Pasternak, banned in Russia until 1988

The Diary of Anne Frank  by Anne Frank, remains banned in Lebanon

Lolita  by Vladimir Nabikov, published in 1955 then banned in UK until 1959

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, remains banned in China

Every Burned Book Enlightens the World – Ralph Waldo Emerson



I was discussing the piece I posted on yesterday’s blog about Hikari Ōe the musician with one of my PhD students this morning. During the conversation we briefly discussed the use of the blog as a means of increasing awareness about inclusive education and wider issues related to schools, and the ways in which we might involve others in a debate around a range of ideas. Whilst we reached no real conclusions we generally agreed that at times there had been interesting responses posted and that these had helped to shape my thinking and that of others in respect of some complex matters.

It has always seemed to me that simply posting words is probably not the best way to go about reaching an audience that has become used to a much more visual way of accessing information. Hence the use of photographs, video and music wherever available to illustrate points related to the day’s theme. My student agreed that this was helpful but then made a statement that has left me wondering about this approach on a number of levels.

“It’s a great pity,” she announced, “that my family would have been unable to listen to the music composed by Hikari Ōe because in ******* the use of You Tube is banned.”

Apparently her family is able to read anything written on the blog but cannot access the video recordings that I have posted. It seems that someone at government level in the country where my student’s family lives has deemed that access to freely available video materials is against the national interest. This revelation has been at the back of my mind all day until now, when I have a moment to sit down and reflect properly on what I was told.

Two questions in particular come to mind. The first is a practical one, if censorship is such that a particular form of media is made inaccessible to a proportion of the population, should I give more thought to how I communicate the themes with which I hope readers of this blog might engage? In one sense I suppose, if I know that there are some individuals who would like to access this material and do nothing to meet their needs, I am hardly being inclusive. It could be interpreted that such action excludes certain individuals from participating in this forum,  and one might therefore argue I am behaving in a manner contrary to the principles I have been advocating. However, I suppose I might contend that it is not me that is behaving in this exclusionary manner; it is those who have imposed a ban upon the particular media in question. I am more than happy to invite anyone to participate and have not denied access to anyone who wishes to express an opinion. Should I therefore modify my practice?

Having given this some thought I am not sure that I have fully come to a conclusion. As with most aspects of life I suspect that I need to find a compromise. I certainly have no intention of stopping my use of video materials if I think they are of interest and help to put across a point that I wish to make. However, I may well make a renewed effort to ensure that my use of words is in itself sufficient in stating an argument or making a case, so that those unable to access these materials are not significantly disadvantaged.

My second thought on this issue of censorship is much more general. I wonder what the individuals who make decisions about what access others can have to materials, such as those posted on this blog, would understand by the term inclusion? The history of education in many countries demonstrates that the exclusion of individuals from learning opportunities and the marginalisation of people who might appear too demanding, has often been founded upon fear and ignorance. If we allow such people access to learning won’t this only increase the demands they make upon us in the future? If we encourage the inclusion of individuals with disabilities, then who will be the next to seek an education? Will the Gypsy Roma start to demand their rights? Or the women? Or those from lower castes? If we allow the masses access to You Tube what will they expect next? A free press? democracy?

So, if you have been following this blog but have been frustrated by the fact that others have denied you access to some of the content, then I apologise. However, I hope that you will understand why I have no intention of ceasing to post materials that I hope will be of interest and accessible to the majority. But I will consider the ways in which I express my thoughts in an attempt to ensure that the message of inclusion is not over dependent upon the use of additional media.

It is highly unlikely that anyone who would wish to inhibit access to democratic discussion would ever  join in with these discussions of inclusion and social justice. But if you are one such individual, you are most welcome to this blog and if you choose to post a comment I will be pleased to share it with others.

As George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”