“Mrs. Grundy” was the term first applied more than two centuries ago to a certain type of social and cultural enforcer, the sort who took it upon herself to intimidate others through her severe disapproval of behavior or ideas she considered improper. Mrs. Grundy has ever been the exemplar of busybody-ish intrusion for the purpose of ruthlessly enforcing conventional priggery.
Mrs. Grundy no longer takes the form of a middle-aged woman, gray hair wound into an agonizingly tight bun, with a bony hand hovering near her severe mouth to mime an expression of displeasure. No, in our day, Mrs. Grundy appears in the guise of the very same Enlightened and Urbane folk who once scorned her narrow certitude that the world needed to be spared discomfiting truths.
Mrs. Grundy is no longer merely the neighborhood scold; rather, she sits atop major news organizations. The objects of her disapproval are not the products and ideas of the Enlightened, but the ideas and images that might generate the misbehavior of the very same petty bourgeois she once represented. And, just like the Mrs. Grundy of old, she seeks to prevent such misbehavior in the name of protecting society.
On the night of September 11, 2001, ABC News made a conscious decision that was mimicked by the other broadcast networks in the following days: It would stop showing images of the attacks on the World Trade Center. In an age when extreme depictions of violence have become everyday matters on television, footage of planes smashing into buildings have been notable for their relative absence.
More than a decade later, ABC News’s then-president, David Westin, reminisced about a television special he produced on the night of the attacks and on which children asked experts about what had happened: “It was during the course of that special that one of the experts made the important point that children process information and video differently than adults. Every time they saw a video of the planes coming in and the buildings coming down, children might well think it was happening again…From that day we have not shown a moving video of the attack.”
Never mind that it was the most important video footage of the 21st century, with the most powerful repercussions. Because an “expert” said children might misunderstand what they were seeing, it was not to be seen, said Westin. I did not believe him then, and I do not believe him now. Rather, I am certain Westin and others decided that the incendiary footage was literally too incendiary—that it had a problematic emotional effect on people which would lead to bad things, such as, say, the certain explosion of Islamophobia about which we were constantly warned in the wake of 9/11. This act of censorship was designed to limit the discussion of 9/11, not to expand it; to create boundaries around it that these self-appointed gatekeepers of the public weal were certain had to be drawn and maintained.
And so it has been with the Muhammad cartoons that triggered the terrorist attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo magazine. It did not matter that they were the news, as the attacks on the towers were the news; they were not to be seen. Media outlets refused to run them, including the New York Times, supposedly out of sensitivity to the fragile sensibilities of those who might be offended by them.
Let us assume for a moment that this assertion was not a lie. Let us assume the real reason the Times and others wouldn’t run the cartoons is not that they were deathly scared that they and their personnel would be targeted by terrorists if they did so. Rather, let us assume they were telling us the truth; that Dean Baquet, the editor of the New York Times, chose to concern himself not with providing his audience with necessary information but rather (as he said) with protecting the delicate emotions of a Muslim family in Brooklyn.
But if we take Baquet at his word, he was not, in fact, exercising an editorial judgment; he was, rather, deliberately limiting the knowledge he otherwise would have imparted to that family because, like Mrs. Grundies from time immemorial, he knows what is best for them.
Baquet and his ilk were, in other words, acting not as editors but as censors. And in their censoriousness, they are choosing, at a time of peril for the very principle of free expression, to exercise their cultural leadership by shaking their bony, fleshless fingers at the people who were slaughtered for daring to publish these images—tut-tutting their corpses as their coffins were lowered into their graves.