This week’s “Doonesbury” deals with a young woman who visits an abortion clinic in Texas. The comic shows the young woman being grilled by a middle-aged man who has no medical background and an episode in which the doctor “by the power vested in [him] by the GOP base” probes the girl with a 10 inch “shaming rod” required by a new Texas law — an act which Trudeau rightly insists amounts to rape. The comic was preceded by considerable controversy which resulted in a large number of newspapers across the country deciding not to run the series. It is graphic and very pointed and one can understand the expressions of concern, if not the outrage. But the notion that a newspaper must withhold the comic in order to please a vocal minority is troubling. Indeed, censorship is troubling.
The criterion John Stuart Mill employs to limit government interference in the actions of individuals would seem to be the only sensible one to apply in cases of censorship. Mill insisted that as long as a person isn’t harming anyone else the government should leave them alone. By analogy, unless a comic (in this case) can be shown to harm someone, it should be left alone. That is a very generous notion, though somewhat unclear since the term “harm” is vague. Some cases are clear — cases of overt violence for example. But what about covert or potential violence? Or what about mental harm? Some would argue that a comic depicting a young woman attending an abortion clinic and being subjected to what many would characterize as brutal treatment by insensitive males amounts to mental harm to those who read the comic — either because she is attending an abortion clinic in the first place or because of the brutal treatment she receives once she is there.
But no matter how we define “harm” the fact remains that no one forces anyone to read the comic. And that seems to me to be the crux of the situation. If there were graphic pictures that might offend a significant number of citizens prominently displayed on the street corner, the case could be made for censorship on grounds of mental harm, perhaps. Something that one cannot help but see is a better candidate for censorship than a book, movie, or comic that one must go to and view on purpose. No one is forcing anyone to pick up the newspaper and read the comic. That would seem to make it impervious to Mill’s rule — or anyone else’s.
The major newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, was among those that decided not to run the comic. There was such hue and cry over the act (in Iowa!) that the paper ran an apology and decided to run the entire series in the Sunday edition of the paper. Now that shows courage, because it is almost guaranteed to raise an even louder hue and cry. But people have been forewarned and, again, they don’t have to read the paper on Sunday if they don’t want to. As long as seeing the offensive material is voluntary, it seems to me, it should be deemed safe from would-be censors.
One of the keys to a “free press” which we rightly prize in this country should be the license to print anything worthy of serious thought and consideration regardless of whether it offends some or even many. That’s one of the criteria of “free” in this case, i.e., not restricted by narrow-minded readers who would have the paper print only items that meet with their approval. The editors decide and, if necessary, they warn us and in the end we determine whether we want to see the “offensive” material and judge for ourselves. In this case, the “Doonesbury” series is brilliant and satirizes the recent laws in Texas in a fashion they richly deserve. That’s the cartoonist’s job and in this case (as in most) Trudeau has done it well. Reader beware!