Talking Censorship at SMASH at The Barbican!

The wonderful SMASH flyer

Well this was something I wasn’t expecting. I was CC’d into a Twitter callout last week by Will Brooker (AKA Dr Batman, thanks mate) asking for someone to take part in a debate on censorship in graphic novels. Before I knew it, I’d agreed to join in and was on the panel.

I was panicking slightly (a lot). While I’m a university lecturer, a lot of what I do is heavily based on working with, and getting to know, a group of students over time. My style is also very performative. I jump around a lot (it keeps my brain going). This was going to be a sit-down affair. With (an unknown amount of) people I didn’t know. In a medium (graphic novels and comics) that I’m not that familiar with.

(For the record, I’ve read Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three from The Dark Tower Series, Derf Backderf’s frankly brilliant My Friend Dahmer, bits of Sandman and Dan Schaffer’s incredibly clever, naughty and sexy Kill Darlings. That’s it. Film is really my thing.)

Anyway, then it turns out we had to give a position speech. We were told to keep it to 2 minutes. AAAARGHHH! Okay, seriously, I’ve had my papers accepted for every academic conference I’ve ever applied for, but largely stopped going to them because they absolutely terrify me. I hate the formality of it. Of having to stand and be serious rather than riff my arse off.

Do what you’re afraid of.

Thankfully, I was to take the position against censorship. The speech I put together was done in a hurry and was basic Aristotolean rhetoric – ethos (wave the PhD around a bit and show you’re trustworthy; make ’em laugh), logos (highlight Bandura’s Bobo dolls experiment showing we learn from what we see, but then mention all the bad stuff in The Bible), pathos (appeal to artistic reason – graphic novels enable us to talk about violence in order to understand and develop from it to become better people).

Okay, a confession: I didn’t realise 2 minutes didn’t really mean 2 minutes and was so busy panicking I didn’t ask. Also, point of pride – I wanted to do it in two minutes. As part of my identities course, I’ve historically referred to an indie American film called Rocket Science, which is about debating. It was made by the same guy – Jeffrey Blitz – who made the Oscar-nominated Spellbound. Rocket Science features a technique called spreading, which involves talking incredibly quickly whilst retaining utter clarity. It seemed so damned impossible that of course I was going to have a crack at it. Dammit, go for the apex or go down in flames.

At my final test run (to my possibly bemused and ever-patient flatmate), I managed it in 1:47 seconds.

I now know I didn’t need to do it that fast, and the speeches are apparently being put up on the SMASH website. Until then, here was mine:

I am strongly against censorship. While studies such as Bandura’s infamous Bobo dolls (where children re-enacted violence they’d seen) suggests media depictions can lead to real violence, to censor media is to confuse correlation with causation. Want a book with lots of murder, rape and torture? Try The Bible.

You shouldn’t censor art as what you censor will always be subjective – even the Obscene Publications Act hinges on notions that art is either educational and positive or may “corrupt or deprave”. Censorship assumes we know better than others what is good for them.

What’s more, folk will often censor for themselves. My book on King’s IT includes a world-first eye-tracking experiment examining how people read King’s novel. Content warnings were given. When the children are about to fight the monster, one recalls being abused. My eye tracking data and questionnaire showed readers skipped over the words that were triggering for them. They self-censored, but even skipping over the word encouraged them to think of what they were reading and empathise with the girl.

We need uncensored media to educate us about the world so that we can live in it. If we ban ideas we don’t like, they don’t automatically vanish from existence. Face the beastie head on instead: A few years ago, Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party was gaining popularity. Griffin was finally allowed on Question Time. He giggled and got basic facts wrong. His party fell apart within days because people saw for themselves what an utter plonker he was. 

Choose not to engage personally with a topic by all means, but don’t take that decision away from others.

I believe in the inherent good of people. I believe that even “bad” people are capable of redemption. I believe by holding up a mirror to society, media can help to save us from ourselves.

I was over the moon with the event, the new folks I met and, frankly, doing an event at The Barbican.

A wonderful sketch of the SMASH panelists by Paul Shinn, who can be found at

(Coming shortly – more adventures in SFX makeup and another Evolution of Horror podcast in which I introduced a very startled host to ad hoc occultism…)

(Also, I now really want to re-run the censorship debate taking the pro-censorship position, just for the hell of it.)

Published by drcharlieallbright

Lecturer in Media, author, film journalist and storyteller. Has written a book on Stephen King's IT.

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