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Censorship: Definition, Examples & Issues

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  • 0:01 Censored
  • 1:00 Types of Censorship…
  • 2:56 Why Censorship Happens
  • 3:58 Benefits of Censorship
  • 5:07 The Ongoing Debate
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you can explore the definition and uses of censorship and engage in the ongoing debate about the role of censorship in the modern world. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Censored

'Bleep, bleep, bleep.' What's going on? Is this a lesson on profanity? No - that right there is the sound of censorship, or the suppression of information. Censorship can take many forms, from burning books to restricting what information is available on the Internet for the citizens of an entire country. At its most basic, it's all about the control of information. Whoever owns the access to information can decide what people learn and what they do not. This can be governments, private companies, mass media - any group that in some way controls access to information.

But why? Well, a government or a private company may not want people finding out too much about their policies because the result could be a rebellion. Knowledge can be power. But can censorship be a good thing, too? Well, let's take a look, and then you can decide for yourself. We promise not to censor you.

Types of Censorship and Notable Examples

In general, there are four major types of censorship: withholding information, destroying information, altering or using selective information and self-censorship.

Withholding information is a common form of censorship used by many governments throughout history. For many years, the United States government heavily censored information that came out of war zones because the government did not want citizens to turn against the war. The less citizens saw of the war, the more likely they were to believe it was a good thing.

Another common one is the destruction of information, like the book burnings used by the Nazis to physically eliminate information that went against their ideas. The act of trying to erase someone from history has a long precedent as well; ancient Egyptian pharaohs were known to destroy any records of rival pharaohs, even to the point of making their names illegal.

What else? Oh yeah, altering information is a good one. The former dictator of the USSR, Josef Stalin, was known to have photographs altered to remove images of people whom he had executed.

More commonly, altering information comes back to education, rewriting textbooks so that history only shows what you want it to. For many years, American history textbooks ignored the atrocities committed against Native American communities, and Japanese textbooks used to gloss over their brutal invasion of China during WWII.

And of course, there is also self-censorship, when people monitor themselves and stop themselves from giving the entire truth. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps you are afraid that the government will kidnap you for speaking against them, or perhaps you are afraid that you will be fired because a viewpoint is not supported by your employer. Encouraging self-censorship is one of the most effective ways for those in power to keep information quiet.

Why Censorship Happens

Regardless of how it's achieved, all censorship is seen as justified by somebody. Political censorship, for example, is used by governments to control the image of the state. For example, during the Cold War, the USSR needed the areas under their control to believe that they were winning and that life in communist Eastern Europe was better than life in the United States or capitalist Western Europe. So, the USSR carefully monitored writers, newspaper editors, television programs and other sources of information to ensure that only positive aspects of communism were depicted, along with the negative aspects of capitalism.

Another frequent source of censorship across history is religious censorship, where information is forbidden because it goes against religious ideas. One famous example of this was the trial and imprisonment of Galileo in 1633 for proposing that the Earth revolved around the Sun, which at the time was seen as heresy.

Benefits of Censorship

So, people in power who are afraid of the truth obviously like censorship. That means it must be pretty bad, right? Actually, many forms of censorship are not only accepted but embraced. For example, information regarding national security and military defense are often censored from the public. Many argue that if information on the movements of the United States military, for example, were made public, that an enemy would have an advantage and could launch brutal attacks.

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