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Read No Evil
May 15, 2012 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Dalal al-Mutairi, the senior book censor for the Kuwaiti government, sits down for a chat about her job and what it entails.
posted by reenum (38 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Read no evil – Senior censor defends work, denies playing Big Brother

...says she's more of a 'Big Sister.'
posted by anigbrowl at 7:11 PM on May 15, 2012


“Many people consider the censor to be a fanatic and uneducated person, but this isn’t true. We are the most literate people as we have read much, almost every day. We receive a lot of information from different fields. We read books for children, religious books, political, philosophical, scientific ones and many others,”
There was something just profoundly chilling about this quote, like it is describing some kind of uncanny valley of literate inclination. I have absolutely no doubt that she is extremely well informed in terms of political thought, religious diversity, and Islamically uncomfortable topics, but it is like there is something vitally important yet totally missing behind that sentence. Its like the difference between feeling a certain deep kind of glee when looking at, say, Sarah Palin's book and realizing that a day will come very soon when only academics interested in history would think to find it interesting, and wanting to prevent those who currently find it interesting from reading it.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:28 PM on May 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


Blasdelb: and on top of which, to not make the connection that if they are the most literate, and they are keeping the public away from the very things they credit with making them so, they are keeping the public from reaching that peak of literacy.

This also stuck out for me: "For instance, a philosophical book needs about four days to read." Really? Just four days? Eep. That's gotta be a pretty loose pen.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:33 PM on May 15, 2012


I can appreciate that there is actually a committe that hears the arguments for censoring a given thing and decides based on some known logic. It almost seems quaint and old-timey.

Compare to China's internet censorship which is often mysterious and befuddling in its changes from day to day and is often controlled by no one in particular.
posted by Winnemac at 7:34 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was going to ask how effective Kuwait thinks book censorship to be, in the age of the ebooks. Then I saw this chilling thread on Amazon's forums about how Kuwait was cut off from the Kindle store two years ago. Nook doesn't seem to be much better. Big Brother is alive and well.
posted by Triplanetary at 7:40 PM on May 15, 2012


I remember years ago reading an essay about how the most fanatical people are often the most intelligent. They tend to be the ones who come up with the propaganda, and, instead of being weird cynics, they really believe he propaganda. And because they manufactured the propaganda, they are really invested in supporting it.

I suppose censorship has the same sort of unfortunately paradox. You have to be smart enough to understand what you're reading, so that you know it must be censored.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:58 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Different professions have different tastes. Sometimes we wonder how the work of some people goes on, especially if it is not very common. The censors who are responsible for censoring books and other publications do an interesting job, which becomes harder during some periods of the year, yet it seems they enjoy it.

Even taking David Crystal's "international Englishes" into account, The Kuwait Times is in need of a good editor. Good grief! What a jumbled mess.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:24 PM on May 15, 2012


Christ, what depressing article. And to think the United States went to war over this benighted little sandbox.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


And to think the United States went to war over this benighted little sandbox.

Kuwait, per se, wasn't the reason the US went to war.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:38 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like a great job, being paid to read. And, well, censor stuff, but I'd love to be paid to read.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:38 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems one can be both well read and ignorant.
posted by dazed_one at 10:29 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"We start censoring the books in this fair about three months before it is held. We receive about 7,000 to 8,000 books to read. There are about 15 censors working on this fair. These censors take the books home with them to finish their reading. If we find a book containing restrictions, we write a report that is passed to a committee which decides that certain books will be banned from the fair,”
So, they read about 5.5 books a day as well as write reports? Doesn't seem possible.
posted by unliteral at 11:07 PM on May 15, 2012


Kuwait is a strange place. Most people who live in Kuwait are not Kuwaiti:
The State of Kuwait's current population is estimated at roughly 3-3.5 million people; counting both locals and foreigners. Roughly 1 million (or nearly one third) of Kuwait's population is local, with 2-2.5 million residents registered as foreigners/non-locals. It is estimated that one in every 3–4 people in Kuwait are of Kuwaiti citizenship.
posted by pracowity at 12:39 AM on May 16, 2012


Oppression isn't all thugs with guns (although it is also that, of course). Oppression is also a perfectly banal woman in an air conditioned office stealing the horizons from her country's youth. Thanks for reminding me, I guess. Now I feel all sticky.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:45 AM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


KokuRyu: "And to think the United States went to war over this benighted little sandbox."
So, your position is that it's perfectly okay to invade other sovereign nations if you consider them oppressive in some way?
posted by brokkr at 2:29 AM on May 16, 2012


In case the censor makes a mistake, the head of the department will be responsible for this mistake, as they should also read the book.

I suspect the "mistakes" do not include censoring something that is blameless.....

Always during each Book Fair, the media writes about banning hundreds of books from being sold. And they blame us for this. The committee that decides the ban consists of members in high positions from outside and inside the Ministry of Endowments and the Ministry of Information. The censor is not responsible for the ban. He only reads and gives his opinion according to the law,

It's hard being a censor. People blame you for censoring things, when all you do is write reports that describe why books should be censored to the agency with the power to actually forbid their sale/reproduction/distribution. Because then it's not your fault. I guess it's not so much fun being a cog in the machine.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:14 AM on May 16, 2012


So, your position is that it's perfectly okay to invade other sovereign nations if you consider them oppressive in some way?

Although I don't particularly like the way the sentiment was expressed, I think KokuRyu's comment was almost the opposite of this -- that defending oppressive regimes is a bad use of resources. Of course, it was an opressive regime with access to natural resources, but....
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:20 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The US invasion of Kuwait was pure unprovoked thuggery.

I remain your faithful correspondent and dutiful arsewiper, but wouldn't mind a day off occasionally.
posted by Wolof at 3:54 AM on May 16, 2012


Censors: they read books so you don't have to.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:45 AM on May 16, 2012


Huh. At least, unlike "not-a-nerd" American legislators who sought to inhibit the free flow of information, this censor at least seems concerned with not giving the impression of gleeful ignorance.

I wonder how complicated it would be for an online book retailer to start accepting payment in bitcoins or by some other anonymous means, or how hard it would be to make widely available the means by which this censorship could be systematically circumvented. (I'm not totally certain what those means are, but a joint effort by Amazon and the Tor project, or something, would be awesome.)

Those of us not in Kuwait should probably think about these things, too.
posted by kengraham at 5:27 AM on May 16, 2012


And to think the United States went to war over this benighted little sandbox.

"...because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:02 AM on May 16, 2012


In some religious books, the censorship department cooperates with the Ministry of Endowments. “Religious opinions may differ and that’s why we demand a professional explanation, although we have some censors who are graduates of the Faculty of Islamic Law. Some religious issues are transferred to the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs. The banned books include publications printed in Israel, Christian missionary and Jewish books and other similar books,” she noted.


Gee, I wonder why there is no peace in the Middle East....
posted by ocschwar at 6:08 AM on May 16, 2012


I wonder if Fifty Shades of Grey is on her Amazon wishlist.
posted by dortmunder at 6:10 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The idea that this representative of the most literate doesn't feel like an oppressor as she does her job--that she is proud of her work and the skills it requires--is part of what makes this so striking. We can think of this as classic "banality of evil," but I wonder to what extent the people of Kuwait want to be censored and appreciate that this work is being done. To what extent are they like those who call in to complain if someone bares a breast on TV because they were offended? These are, as slithy tove said above, people of whom I know nothing. Do we liberate the women when we forbid the wearing of burkas? Would grateful Kuwaitis embrace us as liberators if we got rid of their censors?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:11 AM on May 16, 2012


Obscure Reference, those are difficult questions, but they are perhaps they are one reason why "liberation from the oppressors" (by an outside party with its own oppressive tendencies) is the wrong approach, and circumvention of censorship by the individuals affected is correct.

On the other hand, are there social norms/laws/policies that are objectively bad, in the sense that they undermine the legitimacy of their enforcing authority even if they have huge popular support? I'd say that the answer is clearly positive, and censorship is a good example. The reason is that "the people of Kuwait" are not a monolithic entity. It's almost impossible that ALL of the people of Kuwait want censorship. Holding the view that oneself and one's neighbours should be denied access to certain segments of reality for the sake of social order is, while childish, one's right. However, if even one of one's neighbours wants access to reality fettered only by the limits of their own faculties, then enforcing this view becomes unambiguously evil. It's the prude's responsibility to change the channel when Janet Jackson's nipple makes an appearance, not the responsibility of society to protect the prude's right to willful ignorance. This is doubly true in a democracy, where the majority is at least ostensibly responsible for any censorship/surveillance/secrecy perpetrated by the state.

Censorship is one of a few issues that should push people over the edge dividing cultural sensitivity and respect for social order from a belligerent attitude of lolxians/lolmuslims/lolstatists/lolvertisers etc. The fact that the values held by a majority entail oppressive practices is no justification for those practices. We were supposed to have learned these things in, say, Salem, MA in 1692.
posted by kengraham at 6:34 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


So, your position is that it's perfectly okay to invade other sovereign nations if you consider them oppressive in some way?

If you're going to defend a regime (in this case the Kuwaiti regime of 1991), it would nice if the regime was committed to the basics, like freedom of speech.

And let's not forget that it was Kuwaitis who trashed and looted the Iraqi museums in 2003.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:32 AM on May 16, 2012


So has there ever been a sci-fi book about a censorbot gone awry, some sort of totalitarian AI that ends up destroying everything cultural via it's power to censor? Like Big Brother, only more like where the protagonist is more like Winston+HAL?
posted by symbioid at 7:32 AM on May 16, 2012


███████████████████████
posted by flabdablet at 7:34 AM on May 16, 2012


████████ had to ████ it
posted by flabdablet at 7:35 AM on May 16, 2012


I should clarify that by "belligerent", in my previous post, I meant something like: "people should challenge and ridicule proponents of censorship, and embrace clever means of circumventing censorship, and clandestinely distribute censored material, and donate to and read the fruits of Wikileaks even if its founder is an ass, etc.". I did not mean, by "belligerent", that one should favour a censorious, secretive, repressive political regime's forceful intervention in the affairs of a less powerful censorious, secretive, repressive regime, which is, I think, being discussed here.
posted by kengraham at 8:58 AM on May 16, 2012


Many years ago a crusader against pornography in New Zealand was interviewed on local television. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:
"Ms. Wodehouse, why do you think pornography should be banned in this country?"
"Well, because it has a deletrious effect on society. It causes rape, and fractures the family."
"You've studied pornography extensively, is that correct?"
"Oh, yes. I have stacks and stacks of it."
"So why doesn't it have that effect on you?"
(Long pause)
"Well, because I'm different".
Ms al-Mutairi obviously has not turned into a political radical from reading the books she bans every day. The censor never believes that other people could be like them. Censorship is always elitism.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


In some religious books, the censorship department cooperates with the Ministry of Endowments.

I was struck by the idea of a "Ministry of Endowments," but my thoughts have all be suppressed, so I am afraid I cannot share them with you....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:35 AM on May 16, 2012


publications printed in Israel, Christian missionary and Jewish books and other similar books

I wonder if the censors actually read these books, or are they banned on sight of title or subject?
posted by lstanley at 9:44 AM on May 16, 2012


Many people consider the censor to be a fanatic and uneducated person, but this isn’t true. We are the most literate people as we have read much, almost every day. We receive a lot of information from different fields. We read books for children, religious books, political, philosophical, scientific ones and many others,

...and I keep other people from reading them.

So...fuck you.
posted by kjs3 at 12:15 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This also stuck out for me: "For instance, a philosophical book needs about four days to read." Really? Just four days? Eep. That's gotta be a pretty loose pen.

So, they read about 5.5 books a day as well as write reports? Doesn't seem possible.

Given what she says in the article about how the system is structured and her own role in it, I think the term "processing" might be better than "reading" to describe what she does. It sounds like she has a list of items based on the censorship law and developed by the censorship department/committee rulings that she compares a work against. So she goes through works looking for these items and noting when they come up. This is different from reading and engaging each and every work, and as anyone who has ever had to do something similar with large numbers of documents can tell you, you can get pretty fast at skimming a document, analyzing it for some keywords/ideas, then moving on.

So I don't think she's thoroughly reading and absorbing Being and Time or the Critique of Pure Reason in 4 days, she's checking to see if there are any hits in these works from the list. I think that's what she means when she says she's just following the rules given to her.

Holding the view that oneself and one's neighbours should be denied access to certain segments of reality for the sake of social order is, while childish, one's right. However, if even one of one's neighbours wants access to reality fettered only by the limits of their own faculties, then enforcing this view becomes unambiguously evil. It's the prude's responsibility to change the channel when Janet Jackson's nipple makes an appearance, not the responsibility of society to protect the prude's right to willful ignorance.
kengraham

Though I agree with you, I think you're doing a lot of question-begging here. It's "unambiguously evil" to you as a Westerner. You're not explaining why the counter-argument you're addressing is wrong: that social order really is important, and that censorship is necessary to maintain it because the alternative is worse and more dangerous for everyone. Sure, not every single Kuwati would agree, but to preserve the society overall you can limit some people who don't want to be.

Please note again that I don't believe this at all and am against censorship. I'm just pointing out that you're "censorship is bad because it's bad", which isn't really a reply to the social order argument. To do so you'd need to explain that social order isn't or shouldn't be the paramount concern involved, that censorship doesn't promote social order, or that that, even if social order is paramount and censorship promotes it, that preservation of order at the expense of individual freedom is actually the worse option.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:13 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, I'm definitely question-begging. I wasn't making an argument in favour of the claim "censorship is bad", or really intending to, because I'm not clear on what collection of premises are acceptable to everyone, here. I was simply stating the opinion "censorship is so bad that concerns of social order can't justify it, regardless of the particular society in question".

My attitude is actually that the ethical questions here are not very interesting: societies will sometimes prey on some of their members, and those members will sometimes try to protect themselves. Privately, i.e. without making concrete moral claims about it, I sympathize with those members of society who try to escape or circumvent oppression. I suspect this sympathy comes from the fact that I find it easy to think of situations in which my interests, though motivated by malice toward nothing, could conflict with the "social order". I suspect that, faced with oppression from my society, I would seek to protect myself. Regardless of the reason, assuming some moral equivalence between my hypothetical oppressed self and an actual oppressed person, I am sort of obligated to endorse the actions that they take to protect themself. Whether social order takes precedence over the oppressed person's (or the hypothetical me's) concerns isn't likely to figure in the oppressed person's (or the hypothetical me's) decision to protect themself, and is to that extent beside the point.

This is, however, based on the fact that I find it easy to sympathize with the person who would like to read censored material safely and is prevented doing so, and I find it almost impossible to sympathize with someone who endorses censorship. Why? I suspect it is because someone who endorses censorship very likely does so because they hold (their perception of) social order to be paramount. I can't sympathize with "social order", though, because, not being conscious in even remotely the same way I am, "social order" can't have the sort of interests and preferences I'm likely to be able to relate to. And, empirically, endorsers of social order as the paramount concern are not people to whose views on the conflict between individual autonomy and social order I can easily relate. So I suppose I can replace the question-begging with an emotional argument.

(Somewhat irrelevantly, it's an emotional argument based on extremely strong emotions. I also don't think it's as culturally-informed as all that: plenty of "westerners" are all too ready to abridge free speech in the name of nationalism or cartoon-Jesus or corporate profit or "the children" or whatever the word "decency" is cynical code for that day.)

I'm not quite sure what type of argument you're after, though, Sangermaine. I could probably list some ethical premises with which I more or less agree, and produce a (very simple) deductively valid argument, from those premises, in favour of the claim "social order isn't or shouldn't be the paramount concern involved", but I'm not sure what, in your view, would constitute an adequate defense of the premises themselves.
posted by kengraham at 5:19 PM on May 16, 2012


Given what she says in the article about how the system is structured and her own role in it, I think the term "processing" might be better than "reading" to describe what she does.
That's not what she said.
"As a censor, I read a book from beginning to the end, word by word."
posted by unliteral at 5:56 PM on May 16, 2012


Nearby : Girl brides in Yemen: the fight for the right to say no
posted by jeffburdges at 5:17 AM on June 9, 2012


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