In 2012, as I was scrambling to finish up my undergaduate degree, I took a class on young adult literature (because who wouldn’t want to take a class on YA lit, right?). Most of my classmates were English education majors and planned on teaching English lit to middle school and high school students and as such we had a lot of discussions about the appropriateness of material for different age groups and acting as gatekeepers of books for young readers—and that eventually led to a discussion on censorship. It’s been more than two years since I was in that class, but in all that time, one sentiment from our censorship discussion has stuck with me:
The problem with standing against censorship is who you end up standing with.
I have no problem bashing censorship along with librarians and English teachers across the country. I had no problem telling all those silly parents who were trying to ban Harry Potter from their kids’ school libraries back in the Harry Potter heyday that they were being completely ridiculous. I have no problem proudly sharing my goal of one day writing a book that ends up on a banned list (what an honor it’d be to be in such illustrious company!).
But it’s not just librarians and English teachers and nice folks who have a problem with censorship. It’s also icky people like child pornographers and racists and bigots and the ilk that haunt MRA websites. It’s people who mean to cause harm with their words or people who deliberately spread misinformation to stir up mass hysteria.
And I can’t really say that I oppose censorship against things that I agree with while censoring things I find abhorrent. It’s kind of a double-standard and by fighting against censorship, I find myself fighting alongside people I’d rather never be associated with.
And that’s really uncomfortable.
Of course, there are limits to free speech. There is legal and necessary censorship. Those child pornographers, for instance, are breaking the law because the creation of their content involves the abuse and exploitation of children. And there are all sorts of laws that protect against defamation and libel and sedition and hate speech and probably a lot more that I can’t remember because government and politics were never my strong suit. Those are all good things and I do think that those limitations to free speech are necessary and useful.
But in the day to day, things get a little murky and in light of recent events, I wonder if writers and content creators are self-censoring too much out of fear of offending or out of fear of extremist retribution.
On the one hand, I get this fear and this self-censorship completely. I’m a bit of a bleeding heart and I’d be devastated to learn that my words harmed or offended people—especially marginalized groups who have a hard enough time with decent representation as it is. I don’t want to hurt people, I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to cross-lines and step on toes—and sometimes I worry if that stops me from trying at all. Sometimes I worry that I can’t help diversify literature because it’s not my place to tell those stories, even though countless voices among the We Need Diverse Books campaign assure me and others like me that it’s better to try. It’s better to dig deep and research and revise and talk to diverse voices and incorporate feedback and revise again and still put my work out there, knowing full well that some people might be upset, that some people might disagree, but that fear isn’t a good enough reason not to try.
And on the other hand, I want to tell people to stop being so sensitive. I want to tell them that they don’t have to consume media that doesn’t fit their tastes. They can ignore it if it offends them. No one is making them read or watch or consume. But I also realize that makes me sound like a Class A Jerk and that especially where marginalized groups are concerned, creators need to be sensitive and aware of the negative and harmful stereotypes they might be perpetuating and they need to stop that. Nothing I write and share is exists in a vacuum and it’s my responsibility as a content creator not make the world worse.
At the end of the day, I think the content created with honesty and integrity will have the most impact and be the most memorable. Content based in hatred and harm will sink to the bottom and content that fosters dialog and positive change will surface over and over again, but we still have to slog through all the crap to get there. We still have to deal with the fact that there will always be extremists and there will always be bigots and there will always be jerks who enjoy harming other people—and we still have to deal with the fact that they are entitled to say their piece (and I’m entitled to think their piece is a load of crap and write up lengthy diatribes about how wrong they are).
I don’t know if this post really has a point. (Every one of my old English teachers would be horrified by the lack of point in this post.) I’m not even sure I really know what I’m trying to say. But in light of the recent tragedy in France, censorship and freedom of speech—especially in regards to content that people might find problematic—have been on my mind. No one should have to die for proclaiming what truths speak to them—no matter how irreverently it’s portrayed. No group—be it government or extremists on either end of the political spectrum—has the right to attempt to silence the voice of another group.
We all have voices. We all have stories and truths to tell. And I believe our voices and our stories are powerful things.
Let’s just try to use those voices responsibly.