There is a new censorship kafuffle in town.
It’s Bill C-10, which will restrict tax credits to film and television productions deemed offensive by the Ministry of Heritage. The arts community is rightly up in arms, condemning the bill as government censorship. But the government, along with more than a few supporters, insists that this isn’t censorship. Artists are free to make art, they say, just not on the government’s tab.
So, just what is censorship, exactly?
The Miriam Webster dictionary defines censoring as the act of examining material “in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable”. It is often, but not always, done by governments.
Okay, so let’s focus on government censorship. When does a government act become the suppression or deletion of objectionable information?
Some kinds of censorship are pretty easy to identify. Like when you write something and end up in jail because of it. Laws that make certain kinds of speech a crime are obviously censorship. And we have had our fair share of those laws. Like obscenity laws used to censor works of literature, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Then, there are the laws that stop short of putting people in jail, but stop books, magazines, and other expressive material from entering the country. We have an illustrious history of censorship at our borders, where customs officers have for decades decided what kind of material is just too racy for Canadians. And over the decades, there have been some pretty interesting books on that list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover of course, but also books by Norman Mailer, Balzac, Guy de Maupassant and Henry Miller. The list goes on.
And needless to say, there was a lot of gay and lesbian stuff on that list. Like Radlyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness banned in 1949, lesbian pulp novels in the 1950s and 1960s, The Joy of Gay Sex into the 1980s, and gazillions (okay, maybe thousands) of titles en route to Little Sister’s book store in Vancouver.
The well-documented excesses of Canada Customs demonstrate just what’s wrong with censorship. Low-level bureaucrats — the very same folks who are also responsible for ensuring that drugs and illegal firearms are not allowed into the country and that legal goods are appropriately taxed — are also responsible for determining whether a particular publication is obscene. They look at a couple of passages in a book, see some sex that is icky to them, and boom: it’s censored.
Then, there were the film review boards — another hot bed of Canadian censorship.
In 1932, Scarface was deemed a gangster film and banned from most provinces for nearly five years. Scores of films were censored. But fast forward to slightly more modern times, and there is no absence of censorship. In 1968, Ontario bans I am Curious Yellow. In 1978, it bans Pretty Baby. In 1980, it orders cuts to the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum. The director refuses, and the film does not play in Ontario.
My personal favorite was always Not a Love Story. The documentary was a denunciation of the porn industry’s exploitation of women. It was banned in Ontario because it was, well, pornographic.
And lest you think it’s a thing of the quaint past, in 2001, it banned Fat Girl. (The power to ban films was mostly removed from the Ontario Film Review Board in 2005).
So, what about funding decisions? The government does not have to fund the arts. It doesn’t have to fund the production of television or films, nor books and magazines. But, once it chooses to do so, is it then free to decide what kinds of material it will fund?
Well, it’s important to consider why government programs fund the arts. It is generally to promote the Canadian industry. Sure, there is an artistic and cultural heritage dimension. But, there is also a business dimension: it is about supporting Canadian jobs and business.
Is it about funding material that is consistent with the government’s “public policy” of the day? At a certain level, sure. Promoting Canadian culture and Canadian jobs are an important part of government public policy. But, what about policing the standards of decency?
And let’s return to Bill C-10 itself. It’s about the Income Tax Act. It’s called An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act. Not a “promotion of the arts” bill. Not a “lets clean up Canadian culture’ bill. It is hidden deep in the fine print of reforms to the Income Tax Act.
And the tax credits in the Income Tax Act are intended to promote a vibrant television, film and video sector.
It’s not supposed to be about promoting decency in Canadian culture.
And it gets worse. When you give officials the open-ended power to censor, guess what they do? They censor. Broadly. And often badly. Look at the history of customs censorship and film censorship. Promoting decency becomes a way to censor stuff that is just icky in the minds of the official.
And art is often icky. It is subversive, unsettling, challenging. Good films often upset us. They very well might just be icky. I found Eastern Promises, David Cronenburg’s critically acclaimed, but very violent film to be, well, very violent. It was upsetting. It was icky. It could, accordingly, be censored.
Now, the Heritage Minister is insisting that films like Eastern Promises and Juno would NEVER be censored. That’s easy to say, now that those films are out in the public sphere and incredibly successful. But, it’s possible that they might never have seen the light of day if an official decided that they were too icky.
Using tax credits to cherry pick films that promote public policy — that fits most of the definitions of censorship. It is, effectively, suppressing material that is deemed objectionable. Because without federal funding, Canadian films and television shows just don’t get made.
The “it’s not censorship, it’s just about not using my tax dollars to fund that smut” argument really doesn’t hold up. (There are lots of things I’d rather not have my tax dollars funding, like the Alberta tar sands ? tax credits galore!). Bill C-10’s cherry picking approach to funding film and television shows needs to be called what it really is — government censoring what it just doesn’t like.
And guess what? There’s lots of stuff these guys don’t like. They are social conservatives. They don’t like us. They won’t like our films or television shows either.