Few subjects are as important, to an author, than the one I am going to discuss here.
Censorship stands in oppostion to everything authors stand for, because it is the literal opposite of publication. And authors have been aware of its dangers for as long as there have been words. Which is to say it has always been with us, at times only scratching at the floorboards under our feet, or, at other times, murdering us.
Take a moment to consider all those, throughout history, who had their lives taken from them simply because of the words they uttered or wrote.
Jesus of Nazareth
Martin Luther King
Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum.
And a host of others—some with famous names, and many thousands whose names were blotted out, so that even their deaths have been censored from the official record. Not all of these are confined to the distant past, either. People are dying every year for what they say or write or otherwise espouse. In some cases it is happening right in our own cities.
The Charlie Hebdo Attack
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on this post for a while. It was originally going to come to light in January of 2015. This was a subject for which I believe I have a unique perspective. And I was delighted to consider that I might get people talking about it in a new way.
And then the Charlie Hebdo attack happened in Paris.
As I was beginning to make an outline for my post, I caught word of the horrific events of that day. What followed was a difficult decision. Should I take advantage of current events to make my opinions about censorship more poignant, or should I hold off, knowing that I am vastly underqualified to speak on any subject that people have died for?
If I went ahead with writing the post, would I be trampling on the memory of those who had been censored to death?
If I didn’t write the post, would I be tacitly agreeing with the murderers? Would that mean I agree that people should be silenced, because I myself was being silent?
And I must emphasize that I am not a victim of these attacks. When I say they forced me to make a difficult decision, I do not mean that I endured any kind of real suffering, or that what I went through can compare at all to what the victims and their families have gone through. I am writing this post not because I am an expert in the subject of censorship, or have experienced any degree of it firsthand. I am writing this post because I believe my voice has as much right as any other to offer an opinion on this subject, with the hope that, if enough people do share their opinions, the truth will eventually come to light.
I eventually decided that I would not cancel my post regarding censorship. Instead, I would delay it. I would wait until people had time to process the event completely, until a time when my opinion would not come in like lemon juice on fresh wounds, or make myself seem like some white knight riding in to give everyone the “correct” answer.
And so I have waited, until today.
How Censorship is Enforced
This post is not entirely about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I promise.
However, I must mention one thing I did learn about censorship from the attacks.
It came in the immediate aftermath of the situation. I had decided, as I said before, to delay publishing my feelings about the event. Others, however, felt no such restraint. In the days following the attacks, my social media feed was filled with comments like the following:
“I’m opposed to killing people for the things they say, but Charlie Hebdo said some awful, awful things.”
“I’m opposed to killing people for speaking their minds, but some things should just never be spoken.”
“I don’t condone what happened to the people who worked for Charlie Hebdo, but they represent the worst in journalism.”
“I’m opposed to killing journalists, but Charlie Hebdo has a history of making inflammatory remarks.”
“I wish this whole thing hadn’t happened, but Charlie Hebdo was just asking for something like this to happen.”
“I don’t think they should have been killed, but if we don’t want this to happen again we need to start respecting the feelings of the people who did the killing.”
Allow me to offer an opinion, to those who began tallying the sins of these slain writers when considering why they were murdered.
Allow me to offer an opinion, about the kind of people who can say the above things.
OPINION: The moment you say “I’m opposed to killing people because of their speech, BUT…” you have failed a fundamental test of your character as a human being.
Truly, the writers and commentators at Charlie Hebdo wrote a lot of controversial things. Perhaps they even wrote despicable things. But one thing ought to be clear to everyone: the things they wrote had zero impact on the sum worth of their lives. Nothing that anyone ever says, nothing that anyone ever publishes, revokes their fundamental right to life, or gives someone else a reason to take their life. And to say that one person’s death is less tragic than another’s, because the victim had previously hurt their killer’s feelings, is to crucify humanity as a whole. Because by so doing you deny the powers of reasoning and logic that make us all human in the first place, and declare, by your own words, that we are nothing more than rabid beasts, able to resolve our fears and disagreements through murder alone.
I will begin my remarks by saying that I oppose, in all cases, the idea that censorship should be enforced by the sword. If ever you are looking for an example of “objective evil,” or are wondering if anywhere in this world there is a deed that is always immoral, no matter the context, then you need look no further than the idea of killing people as a means of silencing their opinions. Such an act is always wrong. There is never justification for it. Of this, I am absolutely certain.
But beyond that, my certainty ends.
How this Subject has Humbled Me
I have long been an admirer of the first amendment.
I like to think of myself as a proponent of free speech.
For a long time, I have wanted to proclaim that I oppose all forms of censorship, and declare that it should never be instituted. I have wanted to say this because I understand the power that comes when the flow of information is completely uninhibited and have witnessed, in my lifetime, several revolutions that have come about as a result.
I want to say that I will never support any kind of censorship.
But I cannot say that, because it would be a lie.
This problem is not uniquely my own. It is all too easy to put free-speech advocates in a bind once they declare themselves to be anti-censorship. All you have to do is find the kind of speech they disagree with.
And I guarantee you that you can find speech that they disagree with. In fact, I guarantee you can find some idea, somewhere, that makes their skin crawl. And once you broach the subject, you have proven them to be liars and hypocrites.
Anti-censorship Activist: “I pledge to get rid of censorship in all its forms.”
Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “That’s great! So how many Playboy magazines do you want me to stock in your child’s school library?”
Activist: “Oh my heavens, no! Don’t put any smut on our library shelves.”
Mr. DA: “Okay. But one of the teachers wants her class to read Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries this semester. Do you know where I can buy those in bulk?”
Activist: “Those ideas don’t belong in our children’s minds. That teacher should be fired.”
Mr. DA: “Consider it done. By the way, would you mind if I share a very special book with your attractive daughter. It’s called Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.”
Activist: “Stay away from my family, you creep.”
Mr. DA: “Starting to wish you had some censorship right about now?”
So, while I stand by my claim that censorship should never be enforced in a certain way, I can’t utterly renounce censorship on principle, because that road is a trap. If you come out as universally opposed to all instances of censorship, you are instantly discredited. That’s not to say there are no such things as purists. Every now and then, you meet someone who is unreservedly in favor of the free flow of information, no matter the consequences. But those people are liars, too, as I will demonstrate below.
In All Its Forms
As I said before, censorship is the opposite of publication, and though it has done a lot of disservice to the free exchange of ideas over the years, it is a kind of universal sin, in that we are all guilty of it.
Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself the following questions:
Have you ever changed the channel when a certain commercial comes on? Or when any commercials come on?
Have you ever stopped reading a book because you didn’t like it?
Have you ever steered someone you know away from a book or movie because you think they wouldn’t like it, or because you think it would be unsuitable for someone in their situation?
Have you ever tried to take down an embarrassing video of yourself from the internet?
Have you ever kept yourself from swearing, right when you were about to?
Have you ever closed your eyes during the scary part of a movie?
Have you ever had a really evil thought, and then silently reprimanded yourself for thinking it?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that at least some of the above examples do not constitute censorship. Perhaps you think this because none of the above examples deals with institutionalized censorship. Or perhaps you would argue that some of the examples should be considered “self-censorship,” which you do not believe is a real kind of censorship.
Hear me out.
Small Censorship is still Censorship
There are many cases in which censorship has been institutionalized. Governments have long tried to control speech. The First Amendment was created in response to this. And, more recently, corporations police what is said by them, by their employees, by other companies, and even at times by customers and journalists. Defamation lawsuits are tricky business, but they do happen.
But does this mean that censorship can’t be small? I would remind you that there was once a time when corporations didn’t exist, and governments were little things, whose rules only held sway in, for example, a single city, or a single village.
Try to imagine such a village, in humanity’s primeval past. They lack many of the trappings of modern life: running water, electricity, antibiotics. But one thing they still have (and that we largely inherited from them) is censorship.
Tell me, are you familiar with the concept of a “Taboo”?
It is an invention older than literacy. In ancient communities, certain subjects were forbidden, so that they could never be spoken. The subject might only be prohibited when outsiders were listening, or in the presence of children, or in places that were not considered sacred. But these taboos were enforced, sometimes in the strictest imaginable fashion. It had nothing to do with big businesses, for there were none. And the government was hardly omnipresent. Yet censorship was still there, all the same.
And these taboos might not apply to an entire community, either. Some might only be practiced by a single family, or small group of conspirators. In this arena, secrecy and censorship go hand in hand. But that might be true of our day, as well.
Self-Censorship is still Censorship
This one might not be obvious to someone who is not a writer.
But if you are a writer, then you understand that writing is not really about putting words down on a page. It is about choosing which of your words to put down on that page. That is what makes the job as hard as it is.
In an ordinary conversation, where you are talking with a friend or loved one, you may be somewhat careful in choosing your words, but you don’t waste too much time on this because you know your words will disappear as soon as they are spoken, and will only be heard by this one person anyway. In such a situation, self-censorship seems like a small and inconsequential thing—barely a kind of censorship at all.
That’s not true with writing. Granted, some people write for their own amusement, but a great many of us write with a much more menacing goal: publication. All the words that end up in books and news articles and movies were once held in the privacy of the writer’s own mind. When the writer chooses, in his mind, to put down one word instead of another, he has both censored and published his own thoughts. It might only seem like harmless self-censorship at the time, but the ripples of that act eventually finds their way into the public market, and the finished product is the direct result of not only what was written, but what was held back.
Try to think of self-censorship as the Dark Matter of the publishing world. It makes up more than 90% of the censorship in the universe, but to most people it is invisible. Yet it affects everything we read, watch, or otherwise consume in society.
Self-censorship is one of the tools in a writer’s arsenal. It’s what he uses when he finds he’s gone too far off course, or is being too forceful with one of his ideas or themes. Without that, every book and article would be a million-word rant about whatever the writer was feeling while whipping up the first draft. Such would be the death of reading.
The government censors classified information to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
People lock their diaries away from prying eyes, because it is not meant for them.
Private schools put a price on the information they dispense.
You choose to never write your PIN number down or share it with anyone.
All these may be good things or bad things, but they are all examples of censorship being used with a purpose.
Consider, for instance, a computer virus.
Such a virus is not a tangible thing. It is just a piece of information that spreads from machine to machine. If I were to simplify the concept, I would say that a computer virus is nothing more than an ebook that has the power to print more copies of itself and distribute those to a wide audience.
How do you fight such a threat. You can’t fire bullets at it or cut it with a knife. You can’t blow it up with a bomb. So what do you do?
That’s right, you censor it.
You keep it from publishing more copies of itself, or otherwise keep it from being read by any uninfected machine. If possible, you erase it. If not, then you block it. That’s what your antivirus software actually does.
And, by the way, that’s also how your body stops literal, non-computer viruses.
A real virus is also just a string of information. In this case, that information takes the form of DNA or RNA. The only purpose of this DNA is to publish more of itself, and it hijacks the natural “printing presses” in your body’s cells to do just that.
Once your immune system catches on to the problem, it will eliminate the threat, how?
By censoring it.
Your white blood cells will devour one of their infected friends to keep the dangerous, self-printing books from spreading. And if your immune system cannot destroy the offensive material, it will simply stop it from being read. It will put markers on the infected part of their friend’s DNA, which send the message “DON’T READ THIS PART” to all the innocent cells in the neighborhood.
With this, we see that censorship is an activity that nature itself dabbles in, and is not exclusive to human consciousness.
Does that Mean You Like Censorship?
Of course not. Even when censorship is not enforced by the sword, it has a lot of nasty side effects.
Censorship often keeps people from exploring new ideas.
Censorship can create ideological echo chambers where people are not allowed to part from orthodoxy.
In our day and age, censorship has turned many of our colleges into nurseries, where simpering children complain about how awful freedom of speech is.
Is irony somehow invisible to these people, or are they just stupid?
I am not suggesting that censorship is ever a non-problem, or that its rotten reputation is undeserved. However, I am saying that it is impossible to oppose censorship universally.
As I said before, there are some purists in the world, who actually want to get rid of all censorship without exception. I also said they were liars. Have you guessed why?
Hint: think about what it would take to stop censorship completely. What would you call such an act?
That’s right, you would call it censorship.
Forbidding the act of censorship is, itself, an act of censorship. That doesn’t make censorship good, but that does mean that it will never completely go away. Still, it can be moderated. And the best examples of censorship, including some of the examples I listed above, try their best to balance it, or at least leave room for change and debate, rather than rigidly enforcing themselves. I think the edge can be taken off of censorship, if we all agree to keep open minds about it.
One Last Warning
As an author, I have a hard time countenancing any kind of book bans. Too many worthy works have been held back by people’s paranoia or superstition. However (and I realize this opinion may be unpopular), I acknowledge that some forms of censorship are worse than others, and I find outright bans to be more palatable than that other, increasingly common form of book censorship: bastardization.
A good example is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.
Few books have been as unjustly censored as Mr. Twain’s little volume. When it was first published, people wanted to ban it because it humanized slaves and tried to present them as real people. It was an abolitionist story, through and through, and that did not sit well with certain of Twain’s countrymen living between Texas and Virginia.
One century later, and the book was being banned again, because it was written in a way that was true to the period. As a novel, it had introduced generations of young people to the idea of shared humanity that crosses racial boundaries, yet it was called racist, and was banned in many arenas by people who had never read the book.
I don’t believe this book should be forbidden to anyone, but I am far more horrified by the alternative. Some well meaning people have attempted, at various times, to redeem the book by grooming it, by cutting it, by stitching it into an unrecognizable shape. What remains is not the novel that Hemingway called the root of all American literature. Of course, some people prefer to read this story with its teeth pulled, so it cannot bite them. But I would argue that if people—especially young people—are not allowed to witness the pain of a past dark age, they might be tempted into thinking that such an age was not really dark to begin with.
Just a thought.
Now you know my thoughts on censorship. But I’m really more interested in hearing what you have to say on the subject. Do you disagree with my thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo attack? Huckleberry Finn? Censorship in general? Do you support censorship? Or are you an anti-censorship purist? I am curious to find out.
I also wouldn’t mind hearing the same opinions from your friends, enemies, and frenemies, if you’d care to point them my way. I hope one day we’ll all know the right way to move forward on this subject. For now, I’m just waiting for the voices to start talking.
See you later.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…under their own spell.”]