The theme of an ongoing conference convened by the University of the Philippines, De la Salle University and Ateneo de Manila University is “Forbidden.” Here are some of my thoughts on the topic, shared in my opening remarks for the conference.
We are a nation of “bawal” (“do not”). Look around and see how we are surrounded by bawal signs: Bawal pumasok, bawal umihi dito, bawal manigarilyo, even bawal mag-istambay (Do not enter, do not urinate here, do not smoke, do not “stand by”).
I tried to think, too, of all the books I was forbidden to read in my youth, the prohibitions coming from parents, teachers and invisible, distant guardians of morality. My memory of that distant past includes among the forbidden Freud, Marx, Mao, James Joyce, Amado Guerrero. More often than not, the bans were blanket and applied mainly to sex, which meant Playboy and Hustler magazines, what we call “lad mags” today. Mere possession could get you expelled from school, as it happened with a cousin. Also prohibited were notorious “bedtime stories” sold on Rizal Avenue, guaranteed to make you blind, as old wives’ tales go, because of the bad printing.
The other generic category was “communist” literature, which meant anything that was nationalistic or that talked about the poor. I still remember how, in high school, my English teacher reprimanded me for wanting to write a term paper about Vinoba Bhave, an Indian who pushed for land reform, ostensibly because Bhave was “socialist” and socialists are like communists.
When I entered the University of the Philippines, I had a taste of the freedom of reading whatever I wanted, with a good university library, and Erehwon bookstore on Katipunan, and, when more adventurous, Popular Bookstore, which was then in downtown Manila, on Doroteo Jose.
Alas, that freedom was short-lived. Martial law was imposed, which reinforced the bawal norm as households rushed to burn or bury subversive literature. In the years that followed, newspaper accounts about military raids and arrests typically described hauling in “voluminous subversive literature,” which made the communist threat sound more real.
Banned books, movies
Why do we forbid so much?
Part of it comes from our Catholic heritage. Within a few years after Gutenberg developed the printing press in about 1440, bishops began to issue directives banning the reading of certain books considered heretical (read: Protestant). The Sacred Congress of the Index was established in 1571; it published the Index Expurgatorius which, in turn contained the Index Liborum Prohibitorum or the List of Prohibited Books. Through the centuries, the definition of “heretical” was so broad that it included science books that proposed the earth revolved around the sun, as well as editions of the Bible that had not been approved by the Catholic church.
The last edition of the Index Liborum Prohibitorum was published in 1948 and abolished, de facto, in 1966, although as recently as 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, still referred to its “moral force.”
Closer to our times, there was the US National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the Legion of Decency which began, in 1933, to classify movies with codes from A-1 (all) down to C (with the terrifying “condemned”). These lists were actually posted in the Catholic school I studied in, and while the “condemned” whetted our curiosity, we never got to see them because the movies were never even allowed to be shown in the Philippines.
That office closed down in 1980, but by then the United States had developed a secular classification system for movies, a reminder that it is not just the Catholics who censor. American puritanism played an important role, too, in shaping our culture of prohibition, given that we aped nearly everything the Americans created. Today we still use a classification system based on the Americans’, with a tendency to lump everything under “PG,” for “parental guidance,” which translates in Filipino to “patnubay at gabay ng magulang,” followed by a long list of why such guidance is needed for several sensitive themes: lengwahe (language), karahasan (violence), sex, horror, or droga (drugs).
In the postwar period, American anticommunism also influenced our attitudes toward books, especially in the 1950s, with our Congress (again following the United States), launching inquiries into “un-Filipino” (read: leftist) activities.
Censorship remains with us, often in comic-tragic forms. Much has been said about China (read: communist China) trying to censor the Internet, especially with former Chinese premier Ha Jin Tao calling for a “purification” of the Internet in 2007.
Our Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines actually beat China to it in 2000, when it launched its own Internet server, complete with prepaid Internet cards called “X-Stop,” which blocked websites: 180,000 when it was launched, and expanding to 350,000 within five months. In an interview with a Church news agency, UCAN, one of the technicians explained what websites they were blocking: “gambling, smut, homosexuality and devil worship.”
I mention this CBCP foray into Internet censorship (or nannying), together with our history of ecclesiastical and secular prohibitions in order to put in context the challenges we face today.
I’ve always felt that censorship is problematic because the forbidden is always more alluring (in Filipino, mas masarap ang bawal). You can see the change in the Catholic Church’s attempts to regulate access, for example, instead of posting lists of condemned films. The CBCP now sponsors a website with Cinema (Catholic Initiative for Enlightened Movie Appreciation) providing a review of the movie together with an evaluation of its technical as well as moral content, from the perspective of Catholic authorities.
Censorship is much more difficult now, with the new information technologies allowing easier access to what was prohibited in the past. I worry more about the information overload, the misinformation and the disinformation. We still need to be able to talk with our young, and the not so young, about the need for discernment.
I would talk, too, about what “bastos” means: that it is not just a matter of how much skin is shown but also about respect. Censorship often deals less with respect than with blocking out views different from our own. I sometimes think, too, that it is bastos to demean people, the young included, by presuming that they are unable to think and to discern. Find out and discuss what they’re reading and watching on TV and the Internet, and then talk about disrespect, and respect.
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