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.


40 Responses to on censorship

  1. Is there a difference between saying I think that book is racist and You must be a racist for reading that book? I think some of those who complain about censorship are responding to the latter. Personally, I want people to feel comfortable speaking their minds. At the same time, I wish we would stick to “I” phrases when possible. If it’s true that someone thinks I think you are a racist because you enjoy that book, they she can say so. But if what she really feels is anger at the book rather than the reader, I wish she’d say that.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think the first and most important thing is that neither of those two statements are censorship – you may feel one of them in unfair, but that’s a separate issue. I think people also often interpret the first phrase as the second – in that people will often interpret readers expressing concern/hurt about what they perceive to be racist content in a book as calling anyone who enjoyed it a racist.

      I think perhaps more generally a common problem with this kind of discussion is for it to get derailed into questions about whether individual people are or are not racists as opposed to questions about whether particular texts are or are not problematic or harmful.

      But I am definitely a big fan of the ‘I’ statement 😉

  2. Natalie says:

    Thanks for this, I found it immensely helpful.

  3. Beverley Jansen says:

    Thank you. First time, for longer than I can remember, where the words ‘censorship’ and ‘free speech’ are used correctly. I am sorry to say that I find our friends over the Pond very quick to defend constitutional free speech, and even quicker to shout down anyone who expresses a view they don’t agree with ( I particularly in this instance speak of Goodreads)

    p.s I love your blog’s tick box ‘Confirm you are NOT a spammer’ – much like J’s Visa form for US which included something to the effect… confirm your are not a Terrorist, or intending to plant a bomb.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I genuinely don’t think this is a US / UK thing. I think it’s more an internet thing 🙂 People are just very protective of their right to insult other people, which is fine, they do have the right. But other people have the right to complain about insulted.

  4. Yet again I’ve reached the end of one of your posts and wondered why there isn’t a darned LIKE button. I need some way to definitively show I like this, because I, well, like this. It makes sense.

  5. Pam/Peejakers says:

    YES! To all of that ^^^^

    Omg, this has got to be my shortest comment to you, ever. Do I win a prize? 😉

  6. Susan Ford says:

    This is perfect. Now if only we could get the word out on what censorship really is. I have to correct people at work all of the time.

    Oh and the book a out the holocaust survivor and Nazi romance was an inspirational, and it made the RT (or Rita?) finalists! There was quite a lot of anger over this.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, I wrote a blog post about the Nazi romance. It’s one of those things where I can see why both of these books were written and why they appeal to the people they appeal to, it’s just I think we as a community need to be a lot more aware of why other people find the existence of such books deeply hurtful.

  7. Des Livres says:

    I loved this. While having strong opinions on the story in issue on goodreads, I chose just to “like” the reviews holding the stance I agreed with, without commenting further there, as I thought I should do so only if I had…tried to read the story, the premise of which revolted me.

    Having said all of that, I thought there was a fifth option, re others’ opinions and a contentious reading habit. That is, notice what they say, (the people criticising the sort of book being read), seek to understand it. Read into what is behind their complaints. Ascertain where you stand vis a vis their point of view. Come to a thoughtful, intelligent, responsible point of view – adjust reading activities accordingly. In fact, reading activities may naturally readjust as a result of investigation/understanding of the history/reality. That’s my job as an adult with all the information sources available that we have today. It is not the job of the less privaleged to lay it all out for me.

    I am thinking of say, a reader from czechoslovakia born in 1997, coming across that goodreads slave story. Or perhaps an American from the deep south born in 1997 (and still living there, who has never met a Jewish person) coming across For Such A Time. I am also thinking in the context of being a whilte Australian, and growing up in complete ignorance of the Dispossession and genocide and stolen generations which happened in Australia, and then discovering it, learning about it and accepting it (and my own extreme white privialege), and finding my own place and position vis a vis the situation with indigenous people here.

    It’s fine not to know about something to start with, but as adults we all have a responsibility once we become aware, to investigate what is going on, and seek to understand it, and then take responsibility for our own place in the reality.

    I am really truly not a spammer…just sayin’

    • Alexis Hall says:

      This is all very sensible and I admit I was over-simplifying with my short list of options. It is very important to realise that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves or – if we can’t be bothered to do that – accept that we’ve made the choice to be ignorant of something and, as the saying goes, whereof we know not, be silent.

      It is genuinely a feature of a free society that people are not under any particular obligation to learn about the world they live in or have any understanding of their privilege – that’s a choice people are allowed to make if they want to. But if you make that choice, you lose the right to complain if people have a go at you about things you don’t understand.

      For what it’s worth, I’m almost half-tempted to write a blog post on the question of whether you have to have read something in order to have an opinion on it because I think it very much depends on context. To take the recent example of For Such A Time, one of the things that I somewhat carelessly suggested in my post on the subject was that the heroine converts to Christianity. This is not strictly true but some readers have interpreted the book in such a way that they consider it a strong possibility. I do think you have to have read FSaT to have an opinion on whether you think the book implies the heroine converts (or is likely to convert) to Christianity. You can’t really interpret a text you haven’t read. On the other hand, something a lot of people objected to about FsAT is that it’s about a Jewish concentrate camp inmate who falls in love with the commander of a concentration camp. This is a fact about the book and if your reaction to the book is based on that fact, reading it makes no difference.

      • Des Livres says:

        Hi Alexis

        I pretty much agree with all of this. I too have been toying around in my head around how much you need to read soemthing before talking about it, and pretty much reached the same conclusions as you.

        The “conversion to Christianity” question in FSAT is interesting – apparently the heroine reads John 3 16 and is much touched and affected by it – and the text leaves it there. Talk about an inviting open text!

  8. sofia says:

    With this issue I have a particular problem. The basic assumption that because you read something you are all on board with it. That you enjoy what you read. I do not read for enjoyment alone, I read out of curiosity, I read because I want to see different perspectives, explore new ideas, etc. Most of the time after reading a fiction I end up doing research, finding facts. I’ve read books that I did not particularly enjoy but still think it was a good experience in that they were thought provoking and eye opening and leading me to form my own opinion. And then how to rate these books is a further problem. How to rate a book which is well written, thought provoking but you do not like what is being said for example a book about a killer which takes you into his mind, you do not like the story, his actions but the story the perspective is still good. You do not condone killing but the book is good.

    And this assumption that reading equals liking involves censorship. In a community like goodreads you are judged by the books you read and if you care about what others think of you this curtails your freedom to read whatever you want to. Okay it is not the censorship as laid down by law, It’s peer pressure but it’s still there and powerful nonetheless.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      There are actually several issues here. The first is that, as you say, reading a book is not the same as liking a book. This is obvious and kind of how reviews work. The second is liking a book is not necessarily the same as endorsing the world view of the protagonist although you can make a case that it might be endorsing the world view of the author, which is not necessarily the same thing. The third is whether peer pressure constitutes censorship and, for that matter, whether letting someone know that something they have done upsets you constitutes peer pressure.

      To take your example of a book from the POV of a serial killer – I very much enjoyed the recent TV series HANNIBAL. But, crucially, at no point did I feel that the show was making the point that it was morally right to murder and eat strangers. Nor did I feel that it was in any way sanitising, whitewashing or romanticising murder. Obviously, Hannibal (the character) is cool and his twisted relationship with Will is compelling but, unless you’re basically a gigantic dickhead, you would never suggest that liking a TV in which the protagonist is a serial killer is the same thing as supporting serial killers. Well, unless I wrote a review in which I read “this show is awesome, we should all go out and kill and eat people.”

      Conversely, you can make a strong case that For Such a Time presents as its argument that it is morally desirable if not a moral obligation for Jewish concentration camp survivors to forgive Nazis. The TV show 24, in its later series, famously made the argument that torture was an effective and unquestionable moral tool to be used if in the fight against terrorism. The Garçonnière depicts the history of slavery in the American South in a way that denies the inherent injustice of the institution of slavery (in that it presents slavery as being bad only when the slave owners are bad people).

      Reading any of these texts says nothing about you like or what sort of person you are. Liking them implies either that you interpret them differently or that you are okay with the things that they suggest. And this, I’m afraid, does say something about who you are, what you believe and what you enjoy. And, in a free society with free community, if you do make a statement about what you like, people will respond to it accordingly. As I implied in the original post, if I say I like someone and someone else says they find it harmful, I have three options: I can stop liking it, I can accept that I don’t care, or I can carry on liking it with that liking tempered by the knowledge that other people are harmed by it. None of this is peer pressure, it’s just knowledge.

      Again, I don’t want to make assumptions about why people like what they want or react to things the way they react to them. But it sometimes feels like when people talk about being “censored” what they’re really complaining is being put in a position where they really want to not care about other people being upset but don’t want to self-define as being the sort of person who doesn’t care about other people being upset. If I say something that upsets you, and you tell that I’ve done it, I can either accept that I don’t care or change my behaviour. But it would be absurd for me to blame you for communicating with me simply because you have denied me the option of not realising how little I care about your feelings.

      • sofia says:

        You’ve made me curious Alexis, have you actually read The Garconnierie? (I haven’t,so I cannot speak about it).

        And of course I do care if people are hurt by what I do and I do my utmost to be aware of my actions so that I keep ‘the hurt’ at bay. But at the same time I do not think that by reading, analysing a text for myself is in itself being hurtful to others. It might hurt me because of the content but that is a risk for me to decided whether to take or not. Then it is for me to stand by my reaction to the book and if I make this reaction public that will of course invite comment or not.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          I did skim through it but largely to head off the “if you haven’t read it, you can’t talk about it” argument. I don’t think it’s my place to analyse the racial politics in it because POCs have done it way better elsewhere.

          Again, you seem to be conflating several different issues.

          Reading and analysing a book is an entirely neutral activity. If you publish your analysis people will, as you say, comment on it. If their commentary is that they disagree with you or find what you’ve said upsetting, then that is part of how discussion in a free society works.

          You still seem to be saying that people being upset by a book you like or by what you say about that book is somehow tantamount to censoring you. And I don’t quite see how that works.

          • sofia says:

            No I’m not saying that at all Alexis. What I’m saying is that I want the right to read for myself and then decide what I think of the book.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            I don’t think anyone is impinging upon that?

          • Pam/Peejakers says:

            Hmm. Sofia, I’m wondering maybe, when you say you want the opportunity to read & decide for yourself, do you mean that you don’t want an outside authority of any sort, such as the M/M romance group on GR, to remove that opportunity by deciding not to publish the book in their event? I think (?) I saw talk of that or concern about that in the GR discussions, as potentially happening in the future?

            If so, I guess I would counter by saying the book could still be published for you to read & decide for yourself, but that it’s not necessarily incumbent on the M/M romance group to be the ones to do that. This is sort of like Alexis’ example of the BNP having the supposed “right” to speak at the Oxford Union. In that, while a speaker has a right to speak their views, no particular private venue has the responsibility to host them to do that. I would consider the M/M romance group a private venue in this analogy.

  9. EE Ottoman says:

    as someone who was last told I was censoring “authors” no more than a week ago, the way people use censoring and freedom of speech ticks me off. I’m not against the way words change at all. Because to me freedom of speech has specific legal means. There are real issues that are tried up in that everything from existence of a large neo-nazi group in the city I live in, to sex education. It feels trivializing to me to use freedom of speech to mean”I made you feel guilty about a thing you did or like.” Censorship too is a real thing that is not about how many people did or did not like your Goodreads reviews. I’m not laying this all at the feet of readers either because authors are the worst when it comes to this. Say anything about ableism, transphobia, homophobia etc in books and suddenly they’re calling in the ACLU.

    • EE Ottoman says:

      I think it’s worth noting too that in this most recent incident people were saying I was ‘censoring’ and ‘guilt tripping’ and using those terms pretty interchangeably. Which I think plays into what you said:

      “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.”

      Because their self image was as people who would never be ableist, me coming along saying things they liked or wrote might be ableist = censorship.

      Of course that’s quantifiably wrong, and as far as I’m concerned using a meaningful word in a stupid, petty way.

      It’s flattering to be mistaken for an entire government body … I guess.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Basically this 🙂

        I very much agree that a lot of the overreactions people have when things are pointed out to them comes from this conflict between the sort of people we like to think we are and our fundamental unwillingness to change our attitudes or behaviour to better match that sort of person. I self-define as not being ableist, therefore if a disabled person tells me they find my behaviour ableist, it’s their fault for being over-sensitive.

        Once again, with my semi-optimistic hat on, I like to think that these reactions come about because we do, at least, take these issues seriously. It’s just that it leads to this really unhelpful situation, It is undoubtedly a good thing that our society now accepts that its definitely wrong to be racist but, unfortunately, this makes us very unwilling to accept the word ‘racist’ being used to describe anything we don’t think of as definitely wrong.

        • EE Ottoman says:

          I mean yeah I agree with that you’re saying for sure.

        • willaful says:

          So true. The things retweeted by “Yes, You’re Racist” are astonishing. You can apparently hold the most loathsome, violent attitudes towards POC and still say “I’m not racist” with no sense of contradiction.

        • EE Ottoman says:

          I do think using the language of “censoring” and also “artistic freedom” can be willful too. Like I don’t think it always comes from people misunderstanding the concept. I think people can use it as a powerful way of manipulating the conversation way from their own wrong doings. And I do think sometimes that’s willful.

  10. I’m intrigued by EE Ottoman’s linking between “censorship” and “guilt tripping”. I’ve seen a similar link being made (by some) between the concept of privilege and “guilt tripping”, and it seems really hard for some people to accept that being privileged doesn’t automatically mean being guilty.

    Some people are born white, rich, male, able-bodied, and straight. That’s not an original sin. There’s nothing to feel guilty about, there. It’s what you do with the privilege you’re born into that may or may not contribute to feelings of guilt.

    Similarly (I think), there’s nothing wrong with reading and enjoying problematic material (I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve linked people to that Social Justice League post). And I don’t think there’s automatically something wrong with having to be told by others why the material is problematic. I first read Gone With The Wind when I was pretty young, before I had any real sense of history, and I somehow came out of it thinking the KKK were heroes who were protecting the poor southern women-folk from the dangerous black men. I was wrong, obviously (oh, so very wrong!) but it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, and I would say (hope) it’s not even something I should feel guilty about. It was ignorance, and my ignorance was understandable given my age, and I learned better and moved on am wiser, now.

    I think the best we can ask of people is that they keep their minds open. Listen to people, especially those who don’t agree with you. And I don’t just mean people who are more ‘liberal’ or more disadvantaged or un-privileged or whatever. Listen to everybody. If Donald Trump, by some miracle, says something intelligent, we should listen to it, and learn from it. But of course we should also listen to the critics of Donald Trump, and of everyone else.

    Damn, Alexis, what is it about your blog posts that make me want to speech-ify, not always in coherent ways?

    In short – I agree, we use the word censorship far too freely. And I agree, free speech is messy and complicated. (possibly you didn’t say that, but I feel you implied it!).

    Anyway, as always – thanks for thinking!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for comment – for what it’s worth, I always appreciate people speechifying 🙂

      Also, for what it’s worth, I too read GWTW at a young age and completely missed the racism. And, as you say, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing stuff or needing to have stuff pointed out to you or even continuing to like something once it’s been pointed out.

      In many ways, the really big take home in this whole set of related and on-going debates is that it’s kind of not about me at all. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if someone tells me or more likely tells the internet at large that they are hurt, upset or bothered by something it isn’t because they’re trying to make me feel bad about myself. It’s because they want their reality acknowledged.

      And those things really don’t impinge on each other at all. You can still talk about the good things about GWTW with the people who wanted to discuss them with you while still being aware that it presents a one-sided view of the American south at the height of slavery.

      If people want to read a master/slave romance then they have the right to do it. It’s just it would be sort of courteous for them to recognise for at least a nano-second that they’re reading about real historical situation that still profoundly affects people’s lives.

      • Ruby Curtis says:

        I think some people are smart enough to know that this was a part of American history. I also think that calling someone a racist because they like a story like this is like calling someone a satanist because they celebrate Halloween. People, black and white, don’t know who MLK is because they aren’t taught in schools about American History. The Civil Rights Movement is a footnote in the history books whereas I had to spend 6 weks studying it and write a term paper on it.

      • Ruby Curtis says:

        Where can I read about all the controversy regarding this story?

    • willaful says:

      Speaking for myself, your speech-ifies here are always worth reading, Kate. 🙂

  11. Ruby Curtis says:


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