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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pointing to a lack of confidence?

A policeman stands guard behind placards depicting censored masterpieces of world art in Kiev in 2011
A policeman stands guard behind placards depicting censored masterpieces of world art in Kiev in 2011. Other sculptures, by Raphael and Rubens, have also been censored in a film screened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

Pointing to a lack of confidence?

In this region, state censorship of the media and cultural activities remains remarkably strict.

It is not an ideal situation and opponents of the practice often cite former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”

It was the perspicacious Potter who coined the expression “I know it when I see it” to determine if something is sufficiently offensive to need vetting.

Of course, what is, or is not, offensive in America is different from that in Cambodia, Myanmar or Thailand, for instance.

And that is why it is necessary here to issue a warning that this week’s column should be kept away from children and others of a fragile disposition, since its content may cause discomfort or even anguish.

It relates to censorship and women and misogyny in this region.

Consider, for instance, Thailand’s female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who, like most women, has two breasts. That is an obvious, natural and inoffensive disclosure.

What is unnatural, offensive and kept a closely guarded state secret is that each of her breasts has a nipple on it.

You see, nipples fail Potter’s test.

Following long-established custom, officials across this region know that when they see one it is offensive and must be expunged from public view.

It is an absolute rule of law that is invoked without exception due to a concern that social stability might otherwise be threatened.

Of course, some believe that the policy is rather harsh, or perhaps adolescent, or even a little funny.

It is not, although in some ways it can best be explained by reference to a comical British legal phenomenon, which occurred whenever a sly or ribald remark was made in the courtroom.

Immediately, a strange figure with a scarf across his face would spring up and scurry around the court patting the bosoms of women nearby.

Puzzled visitors were told that this would be explained later, and indeed the next day’s newspapers duly reported that after each clever comment “a muffled titter ran around the court”.

And that is what this region employs: a corps of dedicated but largely anonymous “muffled titters”, who monitor every magazine, movie and art exhibition to excise any visible areola, pink, brown or mauve.

A little cleavage may be permissible, but certainly not an exposed nipple, nor even an aroused one under a filmy blouse or T-shirt.

Support for this policy crosses party lines, social strata, religious denominations and even international frontiers from Indonesia to Laos.

Few realise, however, what is involved and what it costs – it is estimated that Thailand, for instance, spends more than one million dollars a year to expunge all visible nipples that might otherwise “sabotage national custom”.

It requires a lot of staff – and they are not easy to get, for it is tough and demanding work that calls for an ability to think outside the box.

Consider, for instance, how some insidious elements stoop to using clothing adverts and concert fliers, or even schoolbooks and other educational outlets, to corrupt innocent young minds.

A recent program on television’s History Channel about ancient Greece included shots of Mycenae and its famous Lion Gate in the Peloponnese.

Luckily for concerned parents who want to educate, but not corrupt their kids, the ever vigilant muffled titters fuzzed out the mammaries of all the Venus de Milo type statues in the background.

Likewise, when a film featured a woman in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, it was comforting to see that all nipple-bearing breasts in the masterpieces by Raphael and Rubens were blotted out.

So, although there is perhaps a certain eau-de-washroom aspect to their work, the region’s myriad censorship officials are doing a grand job and it’s time to applaud them.

But we should do so in private, while keeping mum about Yingluck’s you-know-what. For sure, it’s better to maintain the pretence. Just imagine the alternative.

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