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Censorship & Rebellion
A recent international philosophy conference in Istanbul was unusual in being entirely for high school students. Four British students report on a cross-cultural meeting of young minds debating very topical matters.
St Dunstan’s College is a co-educational independent school in Catford, south-east London, offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma to Sixth Formers. The Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is a compulsory subject forming the core of a student’s IB Diploma. It encourages students to critically examine different ways of knowing, and the role of knowledge in their own culture and in the cultures of others, in line with the international nature of the course. Last October seventeen IB Diploma students from St Dunstan’s had the opportunity to travel to Istanbul to attend an International Conference on Knowledge and Culture. As well as the students from London, schools from Turkey, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Jordan and Poland were represented at the conference. It was held at the Ey üboglu School, and the visiting students stayed at the homes of students from the school. Being able to observe and take part in the school, home and social life of a Turkish student, and contrasting this with life in London, was extremely interesting.
The conference started with each school giving a ‘cultural presentation’. St Dunstan’s presentation was entitled ‘The Languages of London’. It focused on some of the most prestigious attributes of London, including music, fashion, art and architecture. For the remainder of the first and for the whole of the second day, students attended seminars given by other students and teachers on such diverse subjects as censorship, rebellion, and whether an international court can ever exist. It was fascinating to hear perspectives from many other cultures, and so be able to assess whether our own opinions and views were based on knowledge, or rather were simply the norms of the culture which we were from. The conference really did put the Theory of Knowledge into a whole new perspective for many students, taking it out of the classroom and putting it into the real world. The wealth of cultures present at the conference, and the critical analysis of such a range of topics, was hugely rewarding for all the St Dunstan’s students, aiding not only their TOK studies, but also their knowledge of different cultures and perceptions.
“As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without cultivation, so the mind without culture can never produce good fruit.” This quotation from Roman philosopher Seneca epitomises the widely-acknowledged thought that culture is the mark of a great mind. Although somewhat aware of the diversity of the world, our attendance at such an international conference enabled us to observe and interact with a culture very different to our own, in a way so different to the normal holiday. By this I mean the way we began to appreciate that the root of all thought is embedded within a specific culture and language, therefore making it unique to that locale.
On the first day of the conference I attended a seminar discussing how the evolution of a language can affect the foundations of thought. Is there any significance in the seemingly sexist nature of the masculine form taking precedence over the feminine in many European languages? Not only is it possible that the way we think is to an extent determined by the nature of our language, it also becomes apparent that much can be lost in translation. As a student currently studying Buddhism, I have become acutely aware that there are some things beyond the realms of language, some things that can only be understood through experience. Thoughts like this can only arise through an inquisitiveness about other cultures.
Istanbul is a wonder of the world as it sits so ostentatiously across two continents, as if they were the two opposing arms of a sofa. Its very location is the marker for where West meets East, and two cultures are fused to form a third. It is strange to walk straight out of the crowded alleys of the Grand Bazaar only to be faced with neon letters spelling out ‘STARBUCKS’ – still with the view of the skyline in the background, pierced by the minarets careering upwards from the many mosques. For me this kind of beautiful juxtaposition has only ever been apparent in the city of Istanbul.
Our group split into two for the seminars, and each half gave a presentation on a different topic. The half to which I belonged chose ‘Censorship’ as the topic of our debate. Rather than launch straight into a discussion, we decided we would first give a few examples of different kinds of censorship, ranging from the bleeping of swear words to the banning of websites such as Google and YouTube, and to give our interpretations of the possible motives behind censorship. However, before this we had to attempt to define censorship. After much thought we decided that censorship is “the act of preventing an individual or group from encountering certain knowledge.”
As soon as we opened the discussion to the floor it became clear that everyone had their own viewpoint on the matter, which led to a great debate covering many different areas. One of the most interesting issues raised was whether the public can possess an informed opinion on a topic when it is censored, for example, child pornography. Some speakers advocated that the public should be allowed to view such images, so that they could see for themselves that such material should not be tolerated, while others believed that it should be apparent that child pornography is bad without having to encounter it in any form.
The discussion also confronted the question, if there is to be censorship, who should have the right to impose it? Governments emerged as an obvious choice; but there was also discussion about lower-level censorship, in the form of parents censoring what their children are exposed to, and whether this should be condoned or condemned. A particularly interesting suggestion was that some teenage pregnancies are due to parents who too heavily censor the amount of information their children receive about sex.
Since returning from Istanbul I have become more aware of the censorship around me, but I have also learnt not to dismiss censorship out of hand. This has led me to watch with interest the unfolding legal battle between M15 and the families of the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London, over whether intelligence information regarding the attack should be heard publicly in court. The seminar has allowed me to better understand the motivations behind each side of the argument, and therefore sympathise with each one to a certain degree.
The rebellion that censorship provokes was the inspiration for the seminar we led, but we soon moved to larger questions about the definition and inevitability of rebellion. The question arose, is it in our nature to rebel? Can humans ever completely accept the status quo, or are we always inclined to rebel in some way? To consider whether we can live without rebellion, we would have to say what we would be living without. We divided rebellions into four categories, choosing a British example for each type: acts of rebellion as defining moments in a nation’s history, such as Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605; rebellions that form part of a larger social movement, such as Emily Davidson throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913 as a suffragette protest; forms of rebellion that have survived through the ages, through several cultural shifts, as in music; and finally, rebellions on an individual scale, against personal situations, such as the rebellious phase we teenagers are going through!
We examined each case by asking three questions: What is the rebellion against? Why is the rebellion in the form that it is? and What has been the effect of this rebellion? Guy Fawkes was reacting to the oppression of Catholics; Emily Davidson to the oppression of women. He failed; and opinion is divided over whether her sacrifice was instrumental in achieving votes for women. Music as a vehicle for rebellion, expressed through such diverse means as the song title, the lyrics or the melody, can be difficult for a state to effectively ban or even legislate against. The audience commented that music is simply a vehicle to express rebellion, and cannot usually be considered rebellion in itself.
The discussion ranged from the history of right-wing rebellions, to examples of injustices and reasons to rebel from different countries. The recent banning of YouTube by the Turkish government for hosting a video clip alleging that Atat ürk, founding father of the modern Turkish state, was gay, was an example of an opportunity for rebellion that every Turk in the the room had taken part in, by continuing to watch YouTube.
Rebellion can entail a personal risk, so individuals often need the solidarity of like-minded people in order to rebel. Teenage rebellion, for instance, is as much about supporting the norms of your friends as it is about rejecting the principles of the previous generation. We concluded that our rebellion as teenagers is as much a part of our biological development as it is of our sociological development. In the context of the Theory of Knowledge, censorship limits our access to knowledge, whereas rebellions can create paradigm shifts and open up access to knowledge.