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Censorship: a journey through the pivotal tool of human manipulation to get to the Russia-Ukraine war

From the Middle Ages to the present day, if before censorship was used as protection against something outrageous and immoral, over time it has become a weapon to hide dangerous secrets and uncomfortable truths.

By Beatrice Jennifer Tagliabue

The word "censorship", according to the dictionary Treccani, comes from the Latin and indicates "the office of the censor, the judgment, the examination". In ancient Rome, the censor was in fact a magistrate charged not only with carrying out the census, then with registering citizens and their property, but also with examining, criticizing and blaming their conduct, customs, works and actions.

Censorship, however, is attributed, always by the same dictionary, other meanings that carry the term to the twentieth century, that is to what we most commonly understand today.

"2. a. Examination by the public authority or the ecclesiastical authority of the writings or newspapers to be printed, posters or notices to be displayed in public, plays or films to be represented and videos. which is intended to enable or prohibit its publication, display, representation, etc. according to whether or not they comply with laws or other prescriptions. With sign. concr. , the office itself which is responsible for the examination. b. Control that in times of war (and, in some nations or in certain circumstances, even in times of peace) the political and military authority exercises on correspondence from abroad or from military areas, or there directed, and also on correspondence between private individuals in general, to prevent espionage or the dissemination of military or depressive news of the morale of the troops and the civilian population, when it is not even directed (as is the case in countries with a totalitarian regime) to repress the free expression and circulation of ideas".

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Treccani (@treccanigram)

It is simple: censoring something means prohibiting its use and dissemination because it is considered wrong, dangerous or immoral.

For years Church, State, dictators, regimes and societies themselves have censored books, works, paintings, films, songs and advertising, in reality arousing even more curiosity about everything that was considered forbidden.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in Latin "index of forbidden books", was the official list created in 1559 by Pope Paul IV that reported all the works prohibited by the Catholic Church, and that was suppressed only in 1966. I only write because although it seems like a medieval phenomenon that has long since passed, in reality it has been just over 50 years.

The list included not only the writings of the highest philosophers such as Bacon, Kant, Descartes, Spinoza or Rousseau, but also scientists such as Galileo Galilei, the translation into foreign and vernacular languages of the Bible and some of the most important Italian and non-Italian authors: from Balzac to Defoe and from Foscolo to Leopardi... Did you know that the "Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio, a pivotal work of Italian literature and today a scholastic text, was censored for many years?

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Claudia Petuba (@claudiapetuba)

Even the history of art is periodically subject to criticism and censorship.

One of the most striking cases? Monet’s 1863 opera "Breakfast on the Grass" was considered scandalous by critics because it depicted a naked girl next to two bourgeois men. The nudity of the girl was considered outrageous not only because it affected the morals of the men "for good" depicted next to her, but also because nudity in art had been used until that moment to represent deities or allegorical characters. The same painting that the Parisian society refused to exhibit today resides in one of the most visited museums in the world.

Another artist persecuted by censorship is the Austrian Egon Schiele. A pillar of Expressionism, Schiele has dedicated his career to the representation of eroticism, the carnal instincts of the human being and his most intimate, sometimes dark and violent passions. An explicit sexuality represented by raw and not sensual subjects, Schiele paints on canvas the most intimate and secret part of the human soul, part that often frightens and is repressed. That’s why even in 2018, when the Vienna Tourist Board made posters to display in European capitals with the artist’s works to promote the exhibition, they were rejected.

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Egon Schiele (@egonschieleofficial)

If we talk about cinema there are many films censored or in some countries have been cut scenes: from "Clockwork Orange" by Kubrick to "Last Tango in Paris" by Bertolucci, and from the comedy "A Week from God" to "The Da Vinci Code".

The same thing happens in the music field: "God Save the Queen" by Sex Pistols, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by The Beatles, the noisy case of "Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A that opened the door to rap music, the video of "I Want to Break Free" by Queen because considered "too homosexual" and Lady Gaga herself, who in addition to seeing her discs withdrawn from Lebanon and China, can no longer enter the Eastern country.

Here comes the dictatorial and undemocratic character of a country.

If we think of censorship in history, one of the first cases that comes to mind is with the fascist dictatorship during the Second World War.

Closely linked to propaganda, censorship was the tool used by Hitler and the entire Nazi-Fascist regime to control population and information. Not only did fascist censorship ban books and works by Jewish authors, but all German media such as radio, cinema, and newspapers were totally controlled by the Nazis, and for citizens to listen to or watch foreign broadcasts was considered a punishable offense in court. This is because the fear that external information could threaten the morals of citizens, now isolated from everything, was high.

Both incoming and outgoing, the regime also put in place strict control over information coming out of Germany: in times of war many countries censor public access to information so that strategically important data do not end up in enemy hands.

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Il Simposio (@il_simposio_filosofico)

But if Western democracies seem to have evolved - you know, history serves to learn and not repeat the mistakes of the past - the same cannot be said for most Asian countries.

Chinese journalist Chang Ping, a contributor to the New York Times and editor of several Chinese newspapers, has been exiled from his country because of what he calls the struggle against "the Great Wall of Censorship of the Chinese Communist Party".

Victim of threats and oppressive control of the government, Ping had to cope with the kidnapping of his family following an article in the Deutsche Welle in which he openly demanded the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

According to the RWB, Reporter Without Borders, in the current ranking on press freedom China is in fact the fourth place. This does not surprise us, just think about all the information kept hidden about the virus Covid-19 and the pandemic, to the fact that the Shanghai Pride and all issues related to the lgbti+ community have been deleted or even more trivially to the parallel network of social media that closes the country of the Rising Sun and isolates it.

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da ꧁ℝ𝕒𝕗𝕗𝕒𝕖𝕝𝕖 𝔾𝕦𝕒𝕣𝕚𝕟𝕠꧂ (@politicallyraff)

Finally, we come to Russia, a country of imperial charm that gave birth to some of the most famous characters of history, literature, music, dance and beyond, and is considered a real world power.

The largest nation in the world, straddling two continents: Russian history is divided between Tsar and Communism, which fell definitively in 1991 following the disintegration of the USSR and the birth of the Community of Independent States.

When Russian President Gorbachev arrived in the Kremlin in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was already showing signs of weakness. With a planned economy no longer functional, the Afghan defeat and an increasingly independent nationality of the individual republics, Gorbachev decided to implement several reforms, drawing closer to the West, but with the aim of safeguarding the Soviet multinational Union. Synthesized also with the word "glasnost", that is transparency, the reforms provided, among other things, freedom of information, reduction of both military and political control of satellite countries and treaties with the United States for the disarmament of missiles.

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Confronti (Mag&StudyCenter) (@confronti_magazine)

After not even 40 years, and therefore in today’s times, we find a completely different situation. The Soviet State no longer exists, in favor of individual independent republics, and the current President of the Federation, Vladimir Putin, has slapped the freedoms and promises of glasnost.

With the aim of rebuilding and restoring Russian hegemony, Putin brought the war back to Europe,  with missiles and destruction, claiming Ukraine and threatening anyone who tries to obstruct it.

If it is true that the great wars come after great epidemics to exploit the economic and moral weakness of the population, it is also true that Putin’s operation was not born overnight, but is the result of years of preparation.

Here we return to censorship, an instrument that has certainly facilitated the rise of pointillism: the control of information, strategic political agreements and a network of oligarchs in its favor, Putin has veiled the image of Russia both in the eyes of the outside world, than the Russians themselves. What do we know about the genocide of Circassians and Armenians? About Abkhazia and Ossetia? About Crimea and Donbass? About the Chechen conflict? About the murder in Moscow of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya? Did you know that there is a Wikipedia page called "Journalists killed in Russia"?

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Vladimir Putin Владимир Путин (@leadervladimirputin)

Today, thanks to social media, we have a wider perception of reality, we have evidence of the Russian invasion and military violence, missiles, buildings and hospitals affected and the testimonies of the victims.

A situation, that of today, that brings us back in part to fascism, with the propaganda cartoon of Vanya and Kolya, transmitted to school to the Russian children to explain what is happening from the point of view of the Kremlin, in part to the policy of isolation adopted by China where Putin conducts a parallel war against social media, ordering total censorship of the very popular Instagram and creating an internal one.

 
 
 
 
 
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Un post condiviso da Aziz AnsariNotSorry (@slumdog_thousandaire)

Like all other dictators, Putin plays the role of the ancient Roman censor and uses censorship as a tool to change the perception of things and facts, exploiting people’s ignorance and ineducation to distort their morals. As Che Guevara also said, "an ignorant people is an easy people to deceive" favoring their manipulation.

From a work of art to a fact of news, censorship hides and hides threatening truths, and if sometimes we feel powerless in the face of certain situations, such as what is happening in Ukraine, the only thing we can do is inform ourselves and stay informed, because culture is the only thing that no one can ever take away from us.