Giving Offense


The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2003 was awarded to the South African writer John Maxwell Coetzee.





An excerpt from
Giving Offense
Essays on Censorship
by J. M. Coetzee


Writing does not flourish under censorship. This does not mean that the censor's edict, or the internalized figure of the censor, is the sole or even the principal pressure on the writer: there are forms of repression, inherited, acquired, or self-imposed, that can be more grievously felt. There may even be cases where external censorship challenges the writer in interesting ways or spurs creativity. But the Aesopian ruses that censorship provokes are usually no more than ingenious; while the obstacles that writers are capable of visiting upon themselves are surely sufficient in number and variety for them not to invite more.

Nevertheless, for the common good, for the good of the state, apparatuses of regulation and control are from time to time set up, which grow and entrench themselves, as is the wont of bureaucracies. It is hard for any writer to contemplate the scale of such apparatuses without a disbelieving smile. If representations, mere shadows, are indeed so dangerous, one reflects, then surely the appropriate countermeasures are other representations, counterrepresentations. If mockery corrodes respect for the state, if blasphemy insults God, if pornography demeans the passions, surely it will suffice if stronger and more convincing countervoices are raised defending the authority of the state, praising God, exalting chaste love.

This response is wholly in accord with the teleology of liberalism, which believes in throwing open the marketplace to contending forces because in the long run the market tends to the good, that is to say, to progress, which liberalism understands in a historical and even metaphysical light. It is wholly at odds with the outlook of the more austere branches of Islam, Judaism, and Protestant Christianity, which, detecting a seductive and devilish force at the root of the power of representation, and thus having no reason to expect that, in a war of representations, a war without rules, good representations will triumph, prefer to ban graven images.

We have here reached the entry-point into a debate about the rights of the individual as against the rights of the collectivity which is familiar enough not to need extended rehearsal and to which I have nothing to contribute except perhaps a caution against the kind of moral vigilance that defines vulnerable classes of people and sets about protecting them from harms whose nature they must be kept blind to because (the argument goes) merely to know the harm is to suffer it. I refer here primarily to children, though the same argument has been made in respect of so-called simple believers. We are concerned to protect children, in good part to protect them from the consequences of their limitless curiosity about sexual matters. But we should not forget that children experience control of their explorations—control which by its own premises cannot spell out exactly what it is that is forbidden—not as protection but as frustration. From the measures adults take to deny the satisfaction of children's curiosity, may children not legitimately infer that their curiosity is censurable; and from the explanations with which they are provided for being constrained—explanations riddled with holes—may they not infer that they are not respected as moral agents? May the ethical wrong done to the child in the process not be more durable than any harm it may suffer from following wherever curiosity leads?

This is neither an argument for keeping sexually explicit materials away from children nor an argument against it. It is a reflection on how harms weigh up against each other, on balancing imponderables, choosing between evils. In making such choices we might include in our reckoning the consideration that to a small child the things that adults do with or to each other's bodies are not only intriguing and disturbing but ugly and funny too, even silly; the consideration, too, that whether or not the child succeeds in blocking the thought that what the people do in the picture its parents may do too, it is hard for the parent not to project this thought upon the child, and, reexperiencing it through the child, to be embarrassed, ashamed, and even angry. Nor should we forget who is most embarrassed when to the candid gaze of a child spectacles of gross adult nakedness are exposed. The moment is a complex one; but included in our desire to keep such sights from the child may there not be a wish not to descend, by association, in the child's esteem, not to become the object of the child's disgust or amusement? Max Scheler distinguishes between the nakedness of an Aphrodite sculpted with such awe that she seems to have a veil of modesty about her, and the "deanimation," or loss of soul, that occurs when primitive or childish wonder is lost, and the naked body is seen with knowing eyes. He links deanimation to what he calls the "apperceptive breaking out" of the sexual organs from the body: no longer seen as integral with the body, nor yet as "fields of expression of inner and passionate movements," the sexual organs—particularly, one might note, the male apparatus, with its appearance of extruded viscera—threaten to become objects of disgust. It is not strange that we should wish to preserve the childhood of children by protecting them from such sights; but whose sensibilities are we in the first place guarding, theirs or our own?

The sexual organs, observes Saint Augustine, move independently of the will. Sometimes they respond to what we do not want them to respond to; sometimes they remain "frozen" when we want to employ them. From this disobedience of the flesh, mark of a fallen state, none are exempt, not even the guardians of our morals. A censor pronouncing a ban, whether on an obscene spectacle or a derisive imitation, is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up. The spectacle is ridiculous, so ridiculous that he is soon a victim not only of his unruly member but of pointing fingers, laughing voices. That is why the institution of censorship has to surround itself with secondary bans on the infringement of its dignity. From being sour to being laughed at for being sour to banning laughter at what is sour is an all-too-familiar progression in tyranny, one that should give us further cause for caution.

In the above similitude, I need hardly point out that the one who pronounces the ban does not have to be male. The one who pronounces the ban by that act lays claim to the phallus, but the phallus in its mundane form as penis. Taking up the position of censor, this one becomes, in effect, the blind one, the one at the center of the ring in the game of blind man's buff. For a time, until the blindfold that at the same time marks him, elevates him, and disables him can be passed on, it is his fate to be the fool who stumbles about, laughed at and evaded. If the spirit of the game, the spirit of the child, is to reign, the censor must accept the clownship that goes with blind kingship. The censor who refuses to be a clown, who tears off the blindfold and accuses and punishes the laughers, is not playing the game. He thereby becomes, in Erasmus's paradox, the true fool, or rather, the false fool. He is a fool because he does not know himself a fool, because he thinks that, being in the center of the ring, he is king.

Children are not, qua children, innocent. We have all been children and know—unless we prefer to forget—how little innocent we were, what determined efforts of indoctrination it took to make us into innocents, how often we tried to escape from the staging-camp of childhood and how implacably we were herded back. Nor do we inherently possess dignity. We are certainly born without dignity, and we spend enough time by ourselves, hidden from the eyes of others, doing the things that we do when we are by ourselves, to know how little of it we can honestly lay claim to. We also see enough of animals concerned for their dignity (cats, for instance) to know how comical pretensions to dignity can be.

Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is a state we claim for ourselves. Affronts to the innocence of our children or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being but upon constructs—constructs by which we live, but constructs nevertheless. This is not to say that affronts to innocence or dignity are not real affronts, or that the outrage with which we respond to them is not real, in the sense of not being sincerely felt. The infringements are real; what is infringed, however, is not our essence but a foundational fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects them from being treated like animals. (It is even possible that we may look forward to a day when animals will have their own dignity ascribed to them, and the ban will be reformulated as a ban on treating a living creature like a thing.)

The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based. Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as comical as that of the irate censor.

Life, says Erasmus's Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one's part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.

We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innocence worthy of respect is an innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the theater of life it may turn out to be indispensable. True respect is a variety of love and may be subsumed under love; to respect someone means, inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater, would be false, a dignity that would be risible.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 11-15 of Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship by J. M. Coetzee, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1996 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

J. M. Coetzee
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship
Cloth $24.95 ISBN: 0-226-11174-1
Paper $15.00 ISBN: 0-226-11176-8
©1996, 304 pages

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