In this series on self-censorship, we asked writers, artists, journalists and human rights activists to define self-censorship. Where possible, they are invited to give examples of their experiences, and to describe what they have witnessed.
We presented each interviewee with the same set of questions, adapting them or asking further questions where relevant.
Our intention was not to challenge the interviewees. We wanted them to express their own perspective of self-censorship.
Touka Neyestani is an Iranian cartoonist who left Iran in 2010 and now lives in Toronto, Canada. He has won several prizes at international cartoon exhibitions and works with many publications and websites. His cartoons regularly appear on IranWire.
On his blog [in Persian], Neyestani explains why he decided to leave Iran:
“I was tired of living a criminal life. I taught drawing to a few young men and women and it was not allowed. I used live models for my drawings, which was not allowed. I said things in the class that were not allowed. Instead of watching programs on [Iranian] TV, I watched channels that were not allowed. I listened to music that was not allowed. I watched or kept movies at home that were not allowed. Sometimes I sneaked a glance at Facebook, which was not allowed. On my computer I had a load of pictures of lovely and beautiful people, which was not allowed. At parties I socialized with people that I was not allowed to [socialize with]. Everywhere, I laughed out loud, which was not allowed. I loved to eat dishes that were not allowed. I preferred to drink Pepsi instead of yogurt drinks, and that was not allowed. None of my favorite books or writers were allowed. I worked with newspapers and magazines that were not allowed. I thought thoughts that were not allowed. I had wishes that were not allowed.
No, I was never punished for so many criminal activities but there were no guarantees that one day I would not be taken to task for each and every one of them. Worse than anything else, the thought that hurt me most was that I was committing crimes all the time and that I must escape the grasp of law.”
IranWire talked to Touka Neyestani about his views on the culture, clutches, and uses of self-censorship.
How do you define self-censorship?
For me, self-censorship means hiding a view that I believe in but I do not find it prudent to express — sometimes because there is no personal or social benefit in sharing an opinion, and sometimes because I cannot take the consequences, such as offending the sensitivities of some people, or the wrath of the government. Even if that opinion is expressed vaguely it is still a kind of self-censorship because the person who expresses it has already thought about how to deny it.
Is self-censorship rooted in traditional Iranian culture or in the policies of governments that have run the country in the past?
I believe that today’s self-censorship has its root in our culture, but our culture has been influenced by the policies of all past governments. One can say that this type of caution has turned into a sort of second nature in all of us. This habit has been formed throughout many centuries. Even our children know that their parents, once outside their homes, must pretend that they are something that they are not. What other country has an expression close to [the Persian expression] “Your red tongue can cut off your green head?” Where else in the world has the word “sly” become the designated adjective for poets?
Is self-censorship an example of social misconduct or prudence?
Both. It is a combination of both. There is an assortment of conducts and beliefs that have been established in our culture and touching them offends sensibilities and creates tensions. They are taboos that we try not to talk about as much as possible.
I think all humans are strongly affected by the historical period and the society in which they grow up. It is impossible to change or correct everything that an individual has adopted from society and the dominant beliefs in that society, even if many of them are wrong and harmful. Any change that goes deep needs a laying out of the groundwork and the passage of time.
An example is the traditional view of many of us toward women. Segments of society have learned gradually that this view is outdated and counterproductive and now they are working to change it. Today it is easy to understand that our ancestors treated women wrongly but we cannot blame the late [classical Iranian poet] Saadi for a poem that he wrote 800 years ago and that is by today’s standards misogynic. Caution in expressing your opinion slows down society’s progress but, at the same time, a society that has yet to grasp the necessity for change is not kind to being frank and outspoken.
You must have practiced self-censorship. Can you give us an example?
Yes. Recently I very much wanted to draw cartoons of how some people view Cyrus the Great. They see Cyrus as a man who looks like George Clooney but with a curly beard, white-skinned, tall, smartly dressed, educated and a believer in human rights, from equal rights for men and women to rights for sexual minorities. I find it farfetched to believe that a great man like Cyrus who was busy 2,500 years ago conquering and building an empire could have said something about human rights as we understand them today. It would mean that for thousands of years all thinkers, philosophers, artists and people all around the world talked, wrote, argued, fought, killed and were killed, destroyed and rebuilt, grew and became wiser only to arrive at the same rights that our great king had listed 25 centuries ago.
Of course I am never going to draw those cartoons. I don’t have the patience to fight fanatics. In the end I would be accused of working with the Islamic Republic regime or, at best, of being an Arab-worshipper. I would not even dare to say that Arabs or Persians are all the same to me.
As I see it these are fables and myths that we have made up. They are good stories and like everybody else I love them, too. I believe Cyrus was great. I believe that he was a great emperor but he was not what we are advertising. All mythological and religious stories are amalgamations of reality and fantasizing. They have been honed throughout the centuries and that is why they are effective and dangerous. I prefer not to shout about people’s beliefs from the rooftops. Count it as prudent self-censorship.