Silence or Shouting or Singing: Canadian Censorship as Contrasted by The Moral Philosophies of Kantian And Utilitarian Ethics

Canadian Censorship

Canadian Censorship

Censorship is the act of limiting expression in any media for reasons from individual safety, and corruption, to national security, and propaganda. Typically, and ideally, censorship is a way to protect people from other’s expressions. For example, there are reasonable limits to expression, “incitement to violence is never protected, there must be legal redress available for libel and slander, and governments may take certain legally prescribed measures to limit speech to safeguard national security” (Simon, 2015). Canada’s censorship laws are a legal balance between citizen’s rights and security. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures citizens the right to express themselves (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982).

Canadians can share what they think, believe, or feel in nearly any form of expression while being subjected to reasonable limits “prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982). Canadian censorship emphasizes a balance among liberties of individuals as well the society. Censorship is a complex moral issue since it has legitimate arguments on either end.

Context of Censorship in The Canadian Music Industry

Censorship does impact the music industry in terms of content, and lyrics. However, it’s a lot more subjective as an art form. Censoring music stems from a range of motivations including moral, political, and religious reasons. Within Canada, musical censorship is largely self-regulated with an overarching organization dealing with substantial cases and complaints from the public. Canadian music content is self-regulated by each creator, organization, or station as they follow the code of ethics of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters which limits the content of the music. These guidelines prohibit the radio broadcast of excessive profanity, sexually explicit material, and glorifying violence. In more substantial cases, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) can get involved (CRTC, 2020).

One case was brought to the Atlantic panel of the CBSC where CHOZ-FM aired the original version of “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits (Derek, 2017). In it, the homophobic slur “Faggot” was used. Although it is a homophobic slur typically used as a hateful insult, a national panel of the CBSC ruled that its use was intended to be satirical and not hateful (Derek, 2017).

Another case through the CBSC involved “The Bad Touch” by Bloodhound Gang in 2001, due to its sexual innuendo (Purse, 2011). There is a lot of subtle sexual connotations in its lyrics including the lines, “Love, the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket / Like the lost catacombs of Egypt. Only God knows where we stuck it / Hieroglyphics? Let me be Pacific, I wanna be down in your South Seas” (Bloodhound Gang, 1999). As with many of their songs, the subtle sexual innuendo is very prevalent. The council found that although “the song makes several references to sexuality; the Council is of the view that such references consist mainly of innuendo. The song playfully alludes to the sexual fantasies of the songwriter without explicitly describing them” (CBSC, 2000).

The main aspect of Canadian music censorship is self-regulation. Radio stations are often the most common avenue when people consider music censorship as the name coined for a ‘clean’ version of a song is a radio version. Radio versions and clean versions are a version of an original song without any profane words or topics. For example, Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” often has the ‘Fuck’ muted or the song itself is replaced with the version of “Forget You”.  These versions exist because of the range of audiences that those stations have. Censoring the content of their music provides the positive consequence of having more opportunities to be aired or played because they’re family-friendly.

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Record labels and production companies each have their own guidelines beyond the national guidelines. Warner Bros. Records have withheld albums because of their content. Both Ice – T and Paris had gangster rap albums withheld due to content concerns (Complex, 1992). However, after moving their acts to a different record label, there were no concerns over the content.

Those past cases show that censorship can and is rather subjective within music as many of those topics that are typically censored are used as satire or an explanation. In many cases, the issues resulting from a lack of censorship are also self-regulated. The CBSC held that “most questions of potentially unpalatable material, amount to questions of taste, and, in such cases, should be left to the listener’s discretion to listen to or turn off” (CBSC, 2000).

Kant And Censorship

What is Kantian Ethics?

Kant aims to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality, one that’s absolute and universal (Kant, 2012). According to Kant, Rationality, autonomy and dignity make humans different and thus should be the basis for moral actions. Kant separates actions into the morally worthy from morally correct, as he doesn’t want morality to happen by mere circumstance. “An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose to be attained by it, but in the maxim, according to with which it is decided upon” (Kant, & Paton, 2009). A Morally correct action is simply considered moral. Morally worthy deeds are unconditional, intrinsic, and driven by duty as opposed to reward or bias.

What are Morally Worthy Actions?

To determine if an action is morally worthy, Kant provides a categorical imperative consisting of three rules in which pure reason develops morality. Kant’s foremost rule is to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction” (Kant, & Paton, 2009).

The first part requires for any moral action should be done consistently by everyone by universalizing the action. Hypothetically, if everyone in the world did it, logically could one still commit the act? When it’s not possible to commit the act, there is a logical contradiction. When there is a logical contradiction, the action proves to be immoral and thus the opposite of it provides a perfect duty. If there is no logical contradiction, and no contradiction of the will, the action is considered moral and provides a perfect duty.

The next part is to question whether there is a contradiction of will, by asking whether people would want to live in this world or not. His results are one of two things a perfect duty in which there is no contradiction of will or an imperfect duty where the world isn’t ideal to live in. An imperfect duty is one that is moral but not applicable all the time.

Kant’s second rule is “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, & Paton, 2009). Humans are intrinsically valuable and are means within themselves. Thus, they shouldn’t be used as an instrument without informed consent. Kant’s third rule is “every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant, & Paton, 2009). This rule is similar to the first rule, but it expands the maxim to the entirety of the moral community. It says people should only act on maxims that the entire community can agree with.

Kant’s Thoughts on Censorship

In terms of Kantian ethics, consider the action of censoring an expression to protect society from negative, hateful, and dangerous ideas. If it were to be universalized, then everything that was discussed would become docile, beneficial and thus not require censorship. Thus, censoring everything is not logical because of the action’s inconsistency. When reversed to test it, the action becomes censoring nothing at all. When that is universalized everyone would be able to freely speak and it has no logical contradiction. Thus, a lack of censorship is a perfect duty. There isn’t a contradiction of will, as this would provide a liberal society. Individuals would have the autonomy of their thoughts and opinions. The second imperative applies if and how the action is using people as means.

Limiting individual expression halts people from being means unto and for themselves. While censored, they’d be unable to express their opinions and ideas. These expressions are extensions of the self. To limit them is to limit the individual. The third imperative brings up the idea of the rest of society. Censoring nothing allows for complete individual autonomy of thoughts, ideas and opinions. Regarding Kantian ethics, censorship is deemed immoral as the lack of it is a perfect duty.

Utilitarianism and Censorship

Utilitarianism’s goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. As pleasure is a human’s natural inclination, it is the only thing that is intrinsically good. Thus, reason implores the morally right act is that which maximizes human happiness for everyone involved even to the detriment of individual autonomy.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism was accused of being the morality of pigs because it’s based on pleasures. However, pleasure is defined as not mere physical pleasure but happiness. Bentham is open and claims that different people and cultures have different pleasures. Mill argues that there is a hierarchy of pleasure resulting in two types of pleasure – higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures are active, ennobling, satisfying, and enduring, while lower pleasures are passive, fleeting, basic, momentarily satisfying, and simple. To decide if something is moral, utilitarianism measure and compare pleasure and pain, by applying the principle of unity. The principle of unity is to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people by factoring any relevant impartial aspect into the equation.

Utilitarianism‘s thoughts on Censorship

In terms of censorship, utilitarianism aims to benefit as many people as is possible. Mill’s states that generally censorship doesn’t benefit the whole group (Doyle, 2001). The lack of it allows a benefit to society, “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (Mill, 2010, p. 142). This means that the information that is expressed has some inherent worth even it’s originally misinformation. It is used to further educate the masses.

Furthermore, Mill writes in his book On Liberty, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill, 2010, p. 18). Mill believes there is no justification in silencing an opinion because robs people of another viewpoint especially those that disagree with the silenced ideas.

However, Mill does understand that there can be some issues with a lack of censorship. There are some problems with the initial idea for censorship as its absence can cause harm to members of society in the current world (Doyle, 2001). Thus, Mill suggests that the harm principle is applied instead of overarching government legislation.

Mill’s harm principle is described as. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill, 2010, p. 193). The first aspect is that the only harm to be considered relevant are social harms. This makes harm to the opinion holder irrelevant. Second, everyone should aim to have a maximum tolerance for opinions that differ from theirs, or from that of the majority.

Mill urges that the censorship shouldn’t be too imposing, as there is a “peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion, that it is robbing the human race.” (Mill, 2010, p. 142). According to the utilitarian views of Mill, Censorship is useful if only to limit harmful opinions.

Comparison of Moral Ethics and Censorship

Kantian and utilitarian ethics typically disagree within their theories. The two theorists agree in terms of the benefit of free speech but differ in their ideas of when free speech should be limited. Kant’s categorical imperative showed a lack of censorship is moral as it doesn’t have a logical contradiction or a contradiction of will. Mill’s principle of unity seemed to agree with Kant on this example initially. Mill states that censoring opinions limits the freedom and benefit to the public. Though, Mill admits, that self-regulation is required. Utilitarian report that censorship does have a use although limited. Mill provides the harm principle a guide to self-regulation.

Overall, although their perspectives are very similar, utilitarianism provides a better analysis of the use of censorship. It’s more realistic for the times. The era of instant and mass communication requires a sort of safety net against expressive crimes such as hate speech, stereotyping, discrimination, and exploiting dangerous secrets. Moreover, the harm principle is simple and accessible in its application since it meant for the public to regulate themselves instead of an institute telling the public what is inappropriate. This approach is also more holistic. It provides for subtle differences such as culture, or age. As well, it’s varied enough to be used through various cases in varying degrees of consequence and circumstance. Censorship is controversial because it requires a balance between individual autonomy and the benefit of the entire group.

man in black jacket and black pants holding black and red audio mixer
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Complex (1992) “A History of Scandalous Rap Album Covers: Paris, Sleeping with the Enemy (1992)”. Complex.

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Purse, G., 2011. A Brief Overview of CBSC Music Censorship.. [online] University of Alberta Faculty of Law Blog. Available at: <https://ualbertalaw.typepad.com/faculty/2011/01/a-brief-overview-of-cbsc-music-censorship.html>

Rolling Stones (2015) “Violent J Gives the Twisted Stories Behind ICP’s Best LPs”. Rolling Stone. February 13, 2015.

Rolling Stone. “Canada Lifts Ban on Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing'”. Rolling Stone.

Simon, J. (2015). The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom (1st ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Stanbury, R., Fockler, P., Hogarth, M., Whiting, S. and Ziniak, M., 2000. CIGL-FM Re A Song Entitled “The Bad Touch”. [online] CBSC. Available at: <https://www.cbsc.ca/decisionsarchive/19-9900/19-9900-0654_PD_E.pdf>

Let me introduce myself. I'm Dylanna fisher, a writer, creator, and visionary. Currently, I'm a journalism student at Grant MacEwan University based in Edmonton, Alberta. I've recently graduated with a journalism major while growing a freelancing writing company on the side, Dylanna Fisher Communications. Ever since I can remember, I've always been fascinated with sharing ideas with people. And that's exactly what I want to do. Check out my work on Switchingstyles.ca and on dylannafisher.com.

1 Comment

  1. Really well thought-out analysis, and really useful write-up in a time when “freedom of speech” is sometimes taken to extremes.

    I agree that censorship is often subjective (e.g. at what point does a swear word become unacceptable, and why indeed do we consider these words “bad?”)

    As a mom of three young kids, however, I am grateful for the “family-friendly” versions or “radio” versions of songs; at the same time, I tend to avoid the radio because innuendos, as you pointed out, are not always left off the airlines. This does not mean that I wish these would be censored, but as a mom, I make the choice to not expose the young kiddos to it. Self-regulation is important in radio/music, but it’s also important for individuals to make the decision of what they’re OK with…

    Lots to think about; thank you for a really thorough analysis.

Now tell Switching Styles what you really think!

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