Plato and Tipper Gore

An idea that is particularly important to Plato in the Republic is censorship. One thing he is particularly concerned about is the stories that are told to children. He points out that we have a habit of telling children “stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious” and then as they grow older, we move them on to more realistic stories. (For an alternative view of the truth in these stories see G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful essay on the Ethics of Elfland here.)

The example that Plato gives is that of Kronos. So, if some young Greek lad got it into his head that he needed to go after his father’s junk with a scythe, all he would need to say is, “But you told me that Kronos did it to his dad Uranus!” The issue for Plato is that “young persons cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.”

I’ve brought up the issue many times in class to discuss groups like N.W.A. and a certain song by Dr. Dre. What has surprised me most in the most recent discussions is how the pendulum has swung over the years. In the past, I would seldom find a student that would advocate for censorship of any sort. Last semester, I not only found some, but perhaps as much as 50% of the class felt that censorship of some sort needed to be in play – if for no other reason than that parents were not taking the responsibility to do the censoring for their children. I can attest that during my two year stint as an elementary school teacher, I often heard young children who at 8 or 9 years of age would be singing songs of a graphically sexual nature.

I cannot conceive of any sort of system of censorship that would work in this country. I do think that we have de facto censorship imposed by other means. I am intrigued by ideas like the German law that makes it illegal for Holocaust deniers to publish their propaganda. I don’t really watch TV, but I do watch the Daily Show online with my son fairly often. If that is any indication, it seems like people are allowed to get on the infotainment programs that pass as news today and tell lies as often as they want without consequence. That certainly shapes not only the young, but the culture as a whole.

Does anyone have a solution? As we all know, Plato’s solution was simple. Only the wise are allowed to rule and decide what’s appropriate.