on censorship

So, yet again, the attention of the romance community has been drawn to book that a lot of people think is really, hugely offensive. As always, large segments of the internet have responded to people saying they are offended by something with claims that the people who are saying they are offended are somehow opposed to free speech.

This is like the opposite of that old joke about fucking for celibacy.  I sort of feel I should unpack this but I’m kind of at a loss because I don’t understand what people don’t get here. I am genuinely unable to comprehend the mentality of a person who interprets the expression of an opinion as contrary to principles within western democracy which protect and enshrine people’s rights to express their opinions.

As far as I can tell, and stay with me on this one because it’s a peculiar analogy, the rules of free speech on the internet are kind of like the rules of right of way in sport fencing.  It’s my understanding that, in sport fencing, the person who launches the attack first will always score the point unless their opponent successfully parries. If you thrust at me, and I counter-thrust at you, the rules of the sport mean that my thrust doesn’t count. Or something. I do the historical version of sword fighting where getting stabbed means getting stabbed.

Anyway, the rules of the Internet seem to be that the rules of free speech only apply to the first person to say something objectionable.  So if I say I like to read stories set in the American civil war about black slaves falling in love with white slave owners, I’m exercising my God-given right to freedom of expression. But if you respond by suggesting that I might be speaking from a position of privilege, you’re basically a book burner.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who complains about words being used incorrectly. I don’t mind that the word “awesome” gets used to mean “good” instead of “instilling feelings of awe” or that “literally” is used to mean “in the strongest admissible sense” rather than “according to the exact meaning of the words in the sentence.” Or even that “decimate” is used to mean “cause large scale destruction to” rather than “execute precisely one tenth of while in the Roman Army, sometime around the 5th century BC or during its reintroduction during the Third Servile War.” But I do get really annoyed that people seem to be using the word censorship to mean, in essence, any negative reaction to anything.

Because, let’s make this very clear, censorship is a very serious issue. It has, historically, been used as a tool by the powerful to silence the powerless, to suppress debate and shore up an unjust social consensus. The fact that people invoke the spectre of censorship in order to silence people who dare to complain about books they like would be hilarious if it wasn’t so totally fucking depressing.

To break this down: if you write a book I don’t like, and I say I don’t like it, I am not censoring you, I am giving an opinion. If I you write a book I don’t like and I tell other people not to read it, I am still not censoring you, I am still just giving my opinion. The fact that my opinion makes people decide to avoid your book is neither here nor there. Even if you write a book that I don’t like and I say that I do not believe this book should have been written or published or, even if I say that your having written this book makes you a colossally bigoted arsehole and reflects badly on the people who chose to publish it, I am still not censoring you. All of these things are, in fact, the opposite of censorship. They are discussion. They are the very natural consequence of you exercising your right to write and publish whatever the hell books you want to.

Censorship is when an external authority, usually but not always a government, forces an individual or group to restrict or alter their mode of expression by threat of sanction.

I will admit, there is kind of a grey area when you get into, for example, decisions made by publishing houses or, for that matter, anybody else who has to make a call about whether stuff gets printed or not. You can make the case that publishers, editors, and even bloggers do have authority within their sphere and there are quite famous examples of texts that have been supressed without ever being formally banned. Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from public release for decades because he was under pressure to do so. Performances of Jerry Springer the Opera  have been cancelled because of complaints from Christian groups. Anita Sarkeesian has been prevented from speaking at several events due to personal threats and, on at least one occasion, a bomb threat called in by Gamergate.

But there is an important difference here between the use of coercion in order to prevent something being expressed or published in any form and simply choosing not to give someone a forum within the space you personally control. Many years ago, and this probably ages me horribly, the then head of the BNP (for American readers, that’s the British National Party – the extreme right bit of the UK political scene) was invited to speak at the Oxford Union. This caused a bit of the stir at the time and was defended on the grounds of his right to free speech. This argument, however, was bollocks. Every man, woman and child in England has the right to express themselves however they want within the law. They don’t get the automatic right to talk at one of the most prestigious venues in the country. Conversely, there was also some controversy about the BBC screening a party political broadcast on behalf of the BNP during, and my recollection is vague here, an election in the 1990s. Here the situation is very different: political parties who get enough votes (and they had got enough votes) are explicitly entitled to use the state broadcasting service to communicate their message to the electorate, so keeping them off Beeb would, in fact, have been unacceptable political censorship.

There is a difference here and, perhaps I’m being myopic or oversimplifying, but it seems really obvious to me. Threatening to kill someone if they make a speech at someone else’s venue: censorship.  Not inviting someone to make a speech at your venue: not censorship. Lobbying parliament to have a book banned: censorship. Saying you didn’t like a book on Goodreads: not censorship. Defacing a work of art because you disagree with its content: censorship. Cleaning graffiti off the front of your house: not censorship.

Censorship is when you try to stop an idea being expressed in any venue. Deciding what gets expressed in a venue you control isn’t censorship, it’s curating. To put it another way, if you acquire books for a publishing house (which I do) or run a community on Goodreads (which I don’t) then your every decision contributes to a wider sense of who that publishing house or that community is there for. If you choose to publish, to take the recent controversial example, a book about a black slave who falls in love with a white slave owner you are saying that your community is for people who like that kind of story and not for people who feel harmed or excluded by it. Quite simply, publishing something is a positive action in its support. Much like the controversy over For Such A Time in the RITAs it constitutes an endorsement. The way people use the word censorship to describe the decision not to publish content is to equate not actively endorsing something with the use of threats or violence to suppress it. This is absurd.

With my most optimistic hat on, I like to think that a lot of these problems arise because people are genuinely well meaning but have difficulty seeing past their own privilege. If I enjoy a particular type of book and somebody else tells me that they feel that those sort of books are, say, racist, then they leave me with four options.

  1. Accept what they say, carry on reading the books and self-define as racist. This is basically unacceptable to me because “racist” is not part of my self-identity.
  2. Accept what they say and stop reading the books. This allows me to maintain my sense of identity, but I will now feel as if I have been censored because I have allowed someone else to tell me to stop enjoying something I have previously enjoyed.
  3. Reject what they say and carry on reading the books. This is fine, but might mildly conflict with my desire to be the sort of person who takes other people’s concerns seriously.
  4. Reject what they say and stop reading the books. This makes no logical sense.

Looking at it like this, I can see that a basically decent person would feel that having their choices criticised on the grounds of a social justice issue represents a forcible intrusion into their life and behaviour. Apart from the illogical one, the options above boil down to: feeling bad about yourself, changing your behaviour, or silencing someone else. Given those choices, I can see why so many people go for option three. And, also, in fact why, to them, criticisms on the grounds of social justice feel (for want of a less made up word) censorshippy.

The good news is that there is a solution. The bad news is that it means biting the bullet and adjusting either our behaviour or our self-image. This is a fairly basic introduction to being a fan of problematic things but all you have to do when someone points out that something you like harms them and doesn’t harm you because you have privilege that they don’t is … well … believe them. And it doesn’t mean that you have to stop liking the thing and it doesn’t mean you have to stop liking yourself, it just means you have to accept that you’re reading from a position of privilege that allows you take pleasure in something that other people can’t. And if the thought of something you like being harmful to others really upsets you then maybe you should stop liking it and if it doesn’t upset you very much then that’s okay as long as you don’t deny other people their hurt or their anger.

The open exchange of ideas sometimes means hearing things you don’t want to hear about things that you enjoy. That isn’t denying free speech, it’s part of it.


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