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Sequel to ‘Human Centipede’ Refused Certification

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has refused to certify the sequel to the film the Human Centipede I haven’t seen either film, though I was intrigued enough by the title of the first film to read the description when I was browsing in my local DVD store, though I immediately wished I hadn’t – it is pretty disturbing. The original story is of a surgeon who becomes obsessed with creating a ‘human centipede’ by attaching his victims together, mouth to anus.

The sequel sounds like a more extreme version of the original, no doubt deliberately designed to attract the type of publicity it is receiving. The BBFC were most concerned by the sexual nature of the most recent film, with the main protagonist becoming sexually aroused and violently raping his victims

We’ve seen this many times before: attempts to restrict a film are generally counterproductive, with the heated debate between censorship and freedom of expression sucking in a new audience of curiosity seekers. At its heart, the clash is between those arguing for freedom of expression versus those concerned about the harm. Both represent fundamentally important matters that are very difficult to reconcile.

One argument used is that of questioning the value of the expression, arguing that there is no merit in the film. This is a difficult argument to make. Though the original Human Centipede is by all accounts a pretty lame film, it may have some sort of value. A commentator on an article about the film in The Guardian pointed out its value as a metaphor for the relationship between David Cameron and Nick Clegg in their enforced coalition.

An alternative approach is to examine the harm that such a film might cause. This is also tricky because people tend to assess harm very intuitively: harm either seems obvious or not. Despite this, harm seems something that could, in principle, be assessed empirically. One way that an empirical approach could be profitable is in questioning the reliability of our intuitions. Modern films can be so realistic that it is very difficult not to get caught up in them. We often react similarly to the way we might if the events depicted were really happening. Even preposterous horror films where we ‘know’ it’s just a film can make us scared. If this happens, then it may be that at least part of our intuition may be a reaction against direct harm we ‘think’ is happening but is not.

However, this does not necessarily mean that violent films or the ‘beliefs’ they result in are harmless. Some, perhaps all of us, are sensitive to the environment we live in, or believe we are living in, such that such beliefs affect our behaviour. Indirect harm might also be a risk though people watching violent films and altering their behaviour as a result of the ‘beliefs’ they engender. I would suspect that children, being in a stage of learning about their society and environment, would be most susceptible to this type of influence. It would be interesting to see if there is such a direct / indirect harm distinction, and the circumstances where indirect harm might arise.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Dmitri Pisartchik

    Thanks for an interesting entry, Paul.

    The failure to grasp the counter-productive nature of censorship in the modern information age has always struck me as odd. Just like with actual persons acting out to gather attention, the most effective way to "censor" an unwanted item is to simply ignore it. Cut off the fuel/oxygen supply and the flame simply sputters out. As such it always struck me that censors are more in the business of moralizing and grandstanding than about protecting the public when it comes to censoring questionable art.

    I have not seen the first Human Centipede, nor will. Same for the sequel and the inevitable third, fourth, etc. installment. That said, I do know of quite a few people who will definitely see it. Not because they consider it art or metaphorical, but simply because it is grotesque, revolting and shocking. They're just into that sort of thing Frankly speaking, its what gets them off. I personally do not share this inclination, but I also cannot see how I can coherently forbid them from pursuing that satisfaction in a non-harmful way.

    Clearly, this adds nothing to the film's artistic merits (indeed it explicitly rejects any such notion) but I still think it places a value on it that should go into the calculus of the Harm Principle. So there is at least some positive value to this film, over and above the economical benefit of job and revenue creation. I've always found the Harm side of the equation deeply suspect, however. What harm does this film do, exactly? Try as I might, there is nothing of substance that I can think of in this regard.

    Those who are deeply offended by it, or (as indeed might happen) might suffer psychologically and even physically (becoming violently sick comes to mind) as a result of watching this film are free to see another movie instead. Will this movie inspire (to twist the words meaning) someone to copy some heinous acts that it depicts? Possibly, but I would immediately question whether it was the movie itself that was the root proximal cause or whether the potential perpetrator was mentally sick begin with and would have been set off by any number of other possible triggers. Clearly, there is no empirical evidence of a strong correlation, much less a causal link, between the first movie (or any other offensive material of that kind) and violent crime.

    The only way I can see the Harm argument having any real force is if the movie was such that it positively advocated or actively incited hatred and violence. To my mind, this is significantly distinct from (simply) presenting or depicting violence. Having not seen the movie I cannot say for certain, but I am fairly sure that this is not the case with either installment.

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