Banning books and censoring films barely ever serve their purpose
A storm has brewed in the skies of show business in Bangladesh -- the storm of sexually explicit scenes and dirty language in recently released web series.
Provoking reactionary sentiments to ban, block, and excommunicate those content creators in visual, print, and social media, the series have, unwittingly, piqued to otherwise uninterested quarters, including the author of this piece.
In an age when the boundary between good and bad press is diminished to sound bites, the question to consider is: Does censorship excite, not numb, our sensory receptors for the forbidden fruits of the culture industry?
Bangladeshi cinema in the late 1990s and early 2000s
Television is just beginning to be affordable among the farmers and workers. On Fridays, an entire village would gather around the TV to share a pleasant afternoon -- laughing, singing, and crying with the characters. Glancing ceilingward at an awkward moment when the newlyweds, exchanging a slew of melodramatic promises, turn the lights out.
As the breeze blows, curtains part and close, rose petals slide off the bed, the camera pans away in a genius stroke of editing. Chowdhury Saheb has the hooligans chasing the hero -- a famished dreg -- for stealing a girl -- the heroine, daughter of a tycoon.
What does this plot, repeated infinitely, symbolize? A house call? Kosher cuisine? An endless procession of poverty pride parades?
Imran Firdaus, a film researcher, once told me: “Bangla movies of the bygone days were essentially communist idealism.” The poor marries the rich, rolling out the red carpet of equal distribution of wealth.
Wouldn’t that make the upper-class female body the nexus of state and political authority, to be ravished and restructured by the proletariat?
Indeed, that is what happens when the daughter, doted-on since childhood, graduates from burnt-out bread and bitter salty vegetables to mouth-watering curry dinners done to perfection. “Just like mother’s cooking,” the hero exclaims, stopping just short of chewing his fingers off.
Is it freedom when cinema reinforces feminine stereotypes, telling us that the female bodies and minds are valuable only as a means to a more equitable end for men? More importantly, do the sanitized nuptial scenes prevent adolescents, especially boys, from having sexual fantasies in a society where eroticism has been driven into the annals of the collective unconscious?
Close your eyes; whatever you do, don’t think about mangoes, I bid you. What are you thinking about? Mangoes, obviously! Some of you can even taste the pulp in your mouth from last evening.
Why is it so difficult to suppress a thought on demand? This paradox is explained by the ironic process theory in behavioural psychology. Coined first by Daniel Wegner, the theory shows that, when we are called on to consciously avoid particular thoughts or behaviours, they recur in our minds and manners with increased intensity.
A classic example of the ironic process theory is a study appropriately named “I suppress, therefore I smoke: Effects of thought suppression on smoking behaviour” (2010).
The participants, all smokers, were divided into three groups and asked to carefully document their smoking frequencies over a period of three weeks. Whereas group 1 was instructed to suppress thoughts of smoking (suppression group), group 2 actively thought about it (expression group). Group 3 was neither to express nor suppress their propensity toward nicotine (control group).
While the expression and the control groups did not report any major alteration in their smoking habits, there was a substantial increment in the quantity of cigarettes smoked by each member of the suppression group.
To test his hypothesis about the ironic process theory, Wegner had conducted a similar experiment in 1987. The participants were split up into two categories: Group 1 was told to actively think about a white bear, and group 2 was to avoid the same thought; whenever they imagined a white bear, participants of both groups were conditioned to ring a bell.
Needless to mention, the streams of consciousness of the participants of group 1 were intruded upon by the image of a white bear 47% less than those of the participants of group 2.
Why are our minds prone to manufacture the very ideas they are supposed to repress?
Inception (2010), a movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan, depicts how an alien idea planted in our minds from without is immediately attacked by our subconscious within, like white blood cells wrestling an infection.
The residue of the lymphocyte’s conquest is the antibody generated to shield the mind against any future attempt at thought invasion -- analogous to a recovered coronavirus patient developing cellular immunity.
The only way our thoughts can claim authenticity and autonomy is by negating the ideas bequeathed by another; hence, instructions about picturing a white bear appear lopsided to Wegner’s guinea pigs.
The logical conclusion follows, then, that banning books and censoring film would have the exact opposite of the effect intended.
One can sympathize with the urgency to protect the impressionable adolescents from the visual and verbal obscenities in the abovementioned web series. However, blocking and banning would prolong the problem, not solve it.
The argument that sexually explicit content erodes family values falls over backwards.
Capitalism prefers selling piecemeal to wholesale; personal packaging cuts through the red tape of social taboo. Since the advent of “social” media, individuals can friend/unfriend, follow/unfollow, block/unblock people and pages, advertising has been personalized, where smiling faces do not translate to happiness but ennui, envy, even hatred.
So, if the web series rebuff family viewing, that is exactly what online streaming platforms, eg, Netflix, Amazon Prime, even YouTube, to an extent, are designed for.
Furthermore, blocking the web series and their production companies on YouTube, summoning the producers to the Ministry of Information, shaming the actors and directors by tabloid gossip, or spying on their private lives would only serve to alert the target audience of the web series -- from teenagers to men in their mid-40s -- to a state of hyper-accessibility and heightened suggestibility.
Simply put, the mantra for dodging the contagion is self-quarantine; all the uproar about sexual perversion and cultural corruption would only leave the consumers craving for more. If not here, they would merely switch channels to find the taboo content elsewhere.
Perhaps, the questions to ponder at this point would be: Why don’t we stir up a ruckus when “Munni Badnaam Hui” and “Sheila ki Jawani” are played on loudspeakers in the alleys and on the highways on February 21, March 26, and December 16?
When women are objectified everywhere on billboards -- from soda ads to reality shows -- what is the alibi for our sense of decency? Why is the Bangladeshi culture industry so hell-bent on importing filth from abroad instead of striving for originality?
Lack of transparency in all walks of life? Absence of the freedom of thought and speech? Collapsed education system, law and order situation? Herd immunity to women empowerment, basic human rights?
What we need is neither judgment nor vengeance but an in-depth understanding of why creativity in Bangladesh remains parasitic and paralyzed, and only then, try to change for the better, now more than ever.
SM Mahfuzur Rahman is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).