Section: News

On the Record: Martha Bayles, Cultural Critic

by Phoebe Roe

According to Martha Bayles, “With friends like Hollywood, Charlie Hebdo and U.S. higher education, the First Amendment doesn’t need enemies.” Bayles is the author of Ain’t it a Shame? Censorship and the Culture of Transgression. Bayles researches the impact of American media on a worldwide audience. Bayles will deliver a lecture this evening at 7:30 p.m. in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater.

You have been a professor at Boston College for a while now. How do you deal with censorship in the classroom?

I rely on voluntary restraint in the classroom, my own and the students’s, and it’s never been a problem. My students don’t say things that they’ll regret and I don’t either, so we don’t really need any kind of censorship. 

Do you think people are too “politically correct?”

I think campus speech codes create self-censorship that is involuntary restraint, and I think it is not a good thing. I think it is actually the enemy of free speech and the enemy of people being suitably tactful and careful about what they say in the good sense. I think speech codes, like legal censorship, tend to make people kind of defiant. As long as the unwritten rules can be disputed, argued about and allowed to change over time, and as long as people can speak for or against them, I don’t call that censorship.

Do you see these types of trends worldwide?

There’s a lot of censorship in the world and it’s growing, and it’s growing in ways that would surprise a lot of Americans because we think with the Internet and social media that the world is having more and more free speech but in fact, there are a lot of governments in the world who have gotten really good at using this same technology to keep an eye on people, to harass people, to censor what they try to say and to go after them.

Is there anything that can be done to change those trends?

It’s not easy to change what’s going on in another country. I think the main reason we have free speech is for political speech. The people who wrote the Bill of Rights had in mind that people should be able to speak freely about political matters. They didn’t have in mind racial epithets and profanities and insulting people’s religions. We’ve expanded our freedoms and expanded them to the point that we think of freedom of speech as being offensive and insulting to people and I think if we figured out that that’s not really the best way to set an example of free speech we would have made some progress. 

Do you think people should keep in mind that their comments can be viewed on a universal scale? 

I think we should understand that there’s a lot of people listening in on our social media and our phones and all of our electronic communication these days. It’s a fairly benign form but those same technologies can be used by the National Security Agency in this country, which freaks Americans out, but [they] can also be used by other governments that are much less constrained than the American government in terms of what they can do. We’re selling [technology] to them and they’re using it to suppress their own people. The age during which you thought the Internet was some magical thing or that social media was just you and your friends having some kind of magical telepathy — those days are gone. 

Do you think social media is here to stay?

I don’t think any technology like that goes away; it gets put to different purposes. I have a feeling it will settle into being another greater medium with its good sides and its bad sides. But I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t see the future.

You’ve done a lot of traveling for your work. What is something valuable you have learned that you think students should remember as they’re venturing out into the world and trying to make an impact?

Through all the rhetoric you hear and all the propaganda that’s out there, people are incredibly drawn to America and incredibly interested in America and even when they say really hateful things, they want their kids to go to school here. American culture is just so pervasive and dominant, even its enemies borrow from it. Young people should be really mindful of that fact, but they should also be mindful of the fact that 95 percent of the human race are not Americans, and it’s a very big world out there and you should go out and explore it sometime — by trying to learn a language and spending time in a foreign community with people other than your fellow students or your fellow Americans. I came to that late in life but this kind of work has changed my life. I’m so mindful now to the rest of the world, in a way that I wasn’t when I was younger.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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