Tag Archives: censorship

Writers and Free Speech

In “A Letter On Justice And Open Debate” https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/, the authors JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood (amongst many other authors and academics), speak out against what they label as “cancel culture”. They condemn the growing tendency to silence (or attempt to silence) those who express opinions which offend particular groups or individuals. And argue that the best way to deal with views with which one disagrees is by engaging in free and open debate, rather than attempting to silence those expressing such opinions.

The letter has provoked controversy. Take, for example this response from a WordPress blogger:

“there is no such thing as cancel culture. This is fans deciding they do not want to associate with sexist, racist, ableist, bigoted authors/artists/what have you, and deciding to not purchase future works from them.

It is also not censorship because the government is not coming in and forcing these authors to remove their books from store shelves or anything like that. Fans are simply refusing to support these artists anymore. Publishers have that same right. So do booksellers.” (see https://amberskyeforbes.wordpress.com/2020/07/08/cancel-culture/).

Whilst the blogger is correct that the government is not forcing anyone to stop stocking, publishing or buying books and/or expressing certain opinions, the fact that some authors are, for example removing their books from JK Rowling’s publisher is intended to put pressure on said publisher to stop publishing Rowling’s works. The publisher has (quite rightly) not bowed to such pressure. However, where they to do so, this could have the effect of depriving Rowling (or anyone else who expresses a controversial opinion) of their source of income. Sure someone as famous as JK Rowling would, in all probability find another publisher, but what about lesser known writers? In the latter case such people might well be deprived of their source of income. Depriving someone of their (legal) source of income is a big thing to have on one’s conscience is it not?

I do, of course defend the right of people to spend their income as they wish, and withdraw their books from particular publishers, for we live in a free society. However, actively calling for others to boycott the works of particular people (merely because one disagrees with something they have said) can very easily spill over into bullying. Society (or a section of it) does not possess the power to censor and/or ban opinions. It can, however create a climate in which authors (and others) fear opening their mouths in case they offend a particular group or individual. This is a very unhealthy state of affairs.

I have been told by one particular blogger (via a comment on their blog) to “educate myself”, as I expressed an opinion with which they took issue. My readers wont be surprised to learn that my response (had I voiced it, which I did not) would have been unprintable! The blogger in question was, of course perfectly entitled to their opinion (as am I). however telling people to “educate themselves” is not the best way to gain friends and influence people. Such statements come across as arrogant and are not the best way of encouraging free and open debate.

An acquaintence told me that he was thinking of writing a book on HIV/AIDS. The main character in his novel would be gay and HIV positive. However, my acquaintence (not himself being gay) was worried that where he to write his novel he would be castigated for writing about a subject of which he has no (direct) personal experience. Consequently that book will, in all probability never get written.

Of course when one writes or speaks about a subject about which one has no direct experience, one should be sure to do research prior to doing so. However, if someone wants to make a fool of themselves by writing a poorly researched book, or speaking on a subject with little knowledge of said subject, they have the right so to do. Of course we the reader/listner have the perfect right to point out their errors. Indeed it may be our duty to do so. But what neither the state nor society should do is to call for poorly researched books to be banned. Nor should either the state or society prevent people from expressing offensive opinions.

The advocacy of violence to achieve political or other ends is a criminal matter and anyone advocating it’s use should feel the full force of the law. However disagreeing with someone is not violence and its dangerous when people contend that the expression of measured opinion constitutes violence. As someone who is disabled (I am registered blind) I would be offended where someone to say that disabled people have no right to be employed, and that all anti-discrimination legislation should be repealed, leaving it to the discretion of employers whether to employ the disabled. However me finding this view particularly objectionable does not mean that the person expressing it has committed an act of violence. They have not. They have expressed an opinion which, in a democratic society they are perfectly entitled to do, and the best way of me dealing with their perspective is to argue against it. I may feel angry but the person has done no violence to me and I should not hound them on social media, nor should I call for them to be deprived of their source of income.

We live in a liberal society and long may we continue to do so.

I Take Offense!

Recently, I attended an event which began with a choir performing several songs. Later on that same day, I learned that a number of attendees had been offended by the irreligious nature of several of the songs and where minded to complain to the organiser of the event.

The above incident caused me to consider to what extent (if any) I (as a poet) am under an obligation to avoid causing offense. Should I censor my writing and/or performances to avoid upsetting my readers and/or listeners?

I am, by instinct a liberal as regards such matters. If you don’t like a book, a television programme, or a poetry performance then you can stop reading the work in question, turn over to another channel or walk out of the performance.

Having said the above, where young children are present it is, of course wrong to expose them to adult material. I have never known of a poetry performance where it has not been made clear as regards those who will be attending. Of course where a performance is advertised as being suitable for all ages, young children etc, it would be wholly wrong to read poems touching on adult and/or erotic matters. Some of my poems do contain adult themes and I would never dream of performing them at an event at which children where present.

However, I am deeply concerned at the growth of the view that there exists a right not to be offended. Let me qualify the foregoing statement somewhat. Of course we all have a right to be offended. Indeed one can not help finding certain things offensive. What we do not have is the right to use our sense of offense (how ever genuine that may be) to censor artistic expression. Most of us are offended by something or other, whether that be swearing in public or the person standing next to us on the tube who has failed to clean their teeth! However we do, as adults have the capacity to either ignore the offending behaviour or to walk away. To argue that certain songs, literature etc should be prohibited and/or restricted simply because I (or you) don’t like it, is deeply iliberal and ends in a society where poets and other producers of art confine themselves to writing about flowers and sweet little lambs frolicking in the countryside. Whilst there are some wonderful poems and other artistic creations touching on these themes, no artist should be compelled (or feel so compelled) either by the state or the force of public opinion (whether majority or minority opinion) to self-censor. To do so leads to an anodine world in which little (if anything) of artistic value flourishes.

I well remember having a conversation with a person of deep faith in which they stated that no one should be allowed to criticise their religion and, in particular their god. I find this perspective deeply disturbing. We do, thankfully live in a liberal society wher you and I have a right to be offended. However we have no right to use that offense (however deeply felt) to call for the censoring of the opinions of others, whether in the field of art, politics or in any other sphere.

Students At Manchester University Paint Over Kipling Mural

Students at Manchester University have painted over a mural of Kipling’s poem “If”. They say that they where not consulted regarding the murel, that Kipling was a “racist” and an “imperialist” and that it was not appropriate for the mural to have been painted.

I agree that the students should have been consulted (as the mural was in their student union building). However I am in agreement with the editor of the Kipling Society’s Journal when she says:

““Of course he was a racist. Of course he was an imperialist, but that’s not all he was and it seems to me a pity to say so,” she said. Montefiore argued that Kipling was “a magical story-teller” and that his perspective was part of history. “You don’t want to pretend that it all didn’t happen,” she said.

“Dickens said dreadful things about black people in the Jamaica rebellion. Does that mean you don’t read Dickens?” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jul/19/manchester-university-students-paint-over-rudyard-kipling-mural).

I am not, as it happens, a fan of “If”. I feel that Kipling produced far better verse, including his “Danny Deever”, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46782/danny-deever, in which he describes the hanging of a soldier for killing a comrade “while sleeping”. However the tendency to project our own values onto the past is worrying and (if we are not careful) can end up with censorship.

In my poem “Rhodes” I deal with a not dissimilar issue, namely the demand by “The Rhodes Must Fall” campaign to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College Oxford, https://newauthoronline.com/2016/11/23/rhodes/. In the case of the Rhodes statue those campaigning for its removal have (thus far) been unsuccessful.

China Bans George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

On reading that the Chinese government has banned George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm”, (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/china-bans-the-letter-n-and-george-orwells-animal-farm-as-president-xi-jinping-extends-grip-on-power-a3777686.html), I was reminded of Lord Acton’s remark that:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are
almost always bad men,…”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton).

The Acton quote, jostled in my mind with that famous quotation:
“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whom_the_gods_would_destroy).

I have visited mainland china or, to give that country it’s full title, The People’s Republic of China (PRC). While there, I found the people whom I came into contact with both friendly and helpful. I did, however feel an underlying sense of unease, a feeling which I can best describe as a sense of being observed.

Today’s China is not that of the country which suffered under the dictatorship of Mao and which is so chillingly described in Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans”, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Swans). It is, however a society which, on the on the one hand wishes to embrace the market economy while, at the same time shying away from the values of individual freedom which (at it’s best) distinguish liberal societies from authoritarian ones.

There will, no doubt be those who say what do values of individual freedom matter when, at bottom people are concerned with their own material comfort? Sitting here, writing this with no fear of the midnight knock Ion the door, I, for one know the answer to that question.

The Great Wall of China

Those who control
And patrol
Are accepted
(not rejected),
For they prevent disorder
By protecting the cyber border.

Who needs Mill
When you can shop
As you will.
And the chop does fall
On those who look beyond the Chinese wall.

On BBC Radio 4’s “The World Tonight”, which was broadcast on Thursday 3 August, an interviewer asked a number of Chinese people what they thought of their country’s heavily restricted internet. (In China Twitter, Facebook and Google are banned and government approved channels are utilised by those wishing to go online). A few chinese do bypass blocking by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNS) and other similar services, however the majority of the Chinese population search for information and interact online using the approved (government) channels.
None of those interviewed criticised censorship. Indeed one interviewee went so far as to say that he approved of it, as the government needs to prevent disorder.
The interviews took place in a public park, which cause me to wonder whether all those being interviewed would have been quite so supportive of the Chinese Wall had the questioning taken place in private.
While I have visited China, I did not go online while there so have no experience of the great cyber wall surrounding that country.

Some Thoughts On Clean Reader

(The below post contains, of necessity some profanity. If you are offended by such words you may wish to stop reading now).

Today’s Guardian has an article about Clean Reader, an application which allows the user to reduce or eliminate the amount of profanity in a book, (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/28/clean-reader-is-freaking-silly). The author’s contention is that Clean Reader is a silly idea but, in the final analysis readers have the right to put their own interpretation on the books they read. So, for example the owner of a print book is at liberty to cross out words they don’t like provided they don’t pass off the amended text as constituting the author’s original work.

My concern as an author is that Clean Reader alters the original meaning of my work. Take, for example my short story Samantha. In Samantha we meet a young woman who has been forced into prostitution by her brutal pimp, Barry. For reasons of authenticity Samantha contains scenes of violence and, yes the use of profanity. For instance Sam is told by Barry not to let a client “anywhere near your sweet little fuck hole” until he has paid. This is how a man of Barry’s stamp, a brutal pimp with no respect for women, would address those who he controlls. Yet Clean Reader would render “fuck” as “love” making Barry’s words risible as no pimp would refer to a vagina as “a love hole”.

To take another example, Nick, the client Sam is visiting, says that he wants to “fuck”. Nick’s desire for sexual gratification has nothing whatever to do with romance so to change “fuck” to “love” as Clean Reader would is to render the story risible and to change it’s meaning to boot.

I don’t want anyone to be offended by Samantha or any of my writing for that matter. However if someone downloads Samantha I fervently hope that they read it as written. If a tool such as Clean Reader is utilised the true horror of Sam’s situation is sanitised (I.E. forced prostitution is portrayed in a downright risible manner with clients making love, rather than “fucking” sex workers).

In conclusion, I have concerns regarding Clean Reader, specifically that it has the potential to alter the author’s original meaning and convey an inaccurate view of the work being read. I suspect though that most readers will avoid the app and, given time it will fade into obscurity or cease to exist completely.

When Does A Book Review Become Trolling?

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The old saying seems particularly apt when discussing the issue of trolling and, more specifically it’s relationship to book reviews. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a troll is an individual who makes comments in order to provoke conflict. Here we are not talking about a reader who provides a 1 or 2 star review and furnishes a reasoned explanation for his/her perspective on the work. Authors may not like such reviews (although one can learn from constructive criticism), however they can not be considered as constituting trolling. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and the taking of offence at the expression of opinions with which authors (or anyone else) may disagree is not a valid reason for labelling such expressions as trolling.

Genuine trolling is, however sadly alive and well on the internet. Take, for example the following review and the comments generated by it, https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/499148682. The reviewer takes a positive delight in ripping the author’s work apart. It is, to the reviewer a source of considerable hilarity to point out grammatical errors (real or imagined). He appears to revel in making his followers laugh and laugh they do in response to the reviewer’s tearing apart of the author’s work. What should be a serious forum for discussing literature degenerates into an arena in which the reviewer and his/her followers rip their quarry apart. Blood sports are banned or curtailed in many countries but they remain alive and well on the internet.

As a libertarian (with a small l) I am wary of banning activities. There is a thin line between a person expressing their strong objection to a book and an individual deliberately looking to stir up conflict for the sake of so doing. However it strikes me that forums such as Goodreads need to look at whether they have strong enough measures in place to prevent, so far as is possible, unproductive and often vicious attacks on authors.

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book in question nor am I acquainted with it’s author).

Fame at Last

I was surprised and delighted to be asked by International Business Times to write a blog on the subject of self-publishing. You can find my article here, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/516626/20131024/rape-incest-books-banned.htm



Vanishing Books

I have written previously about the pulling of erotic titles by the retailer WH Smiths and Smith’s supplier, Kobo due to erotic (adult) titles being found on the retailer’s website. The concern was that children might access such material. Obviously children (in the UK those under the age of 18-years-old are so classified) should not be accessing erotic material. There does, however appear to be something like a witch hunt developing with authors not falling into the adult genre having their books pulled. See, for example the comments accompanying this post, http://www.serenajanes.blogspot.ca/2013/10/now-for-something-sweet.html#comment-form). I haven’t read any of the author’s works, however the short extract provided in the forgoing post does not, on the face of it appear to warrant her book being withdrawn from sale.

As I mentioned in my previous post regarding this issue adult fantasies (those concerning consenting adults) ought to be available for adults to view and purchase. Rape and incest fantasies are certainly not my cup of tea. However I am not aware of any convincing evidence that works of this nature lead to the commission of crime. In the absence of such proof I can see no valid reason for prohibiting their sale as certain UK newspapers appear to be agitating for. In short fantasy is precisely that, fantasy as opposed to reality and people should be free to fantasise provided that their fantasising remains exactly that, fantasising.

Freedom of Expression

On 19 May I published a poem entitled “Her Mother’s Daughter” (see http://newauthoronline.com/2013/05/19/her-mothers-daughter/). In the poem I address how a mother oblivious to the fact that her young daughter is engaged in sex work would react if she discovered her involvement in prostitution.   My poem provoked the following response from a lady engaged in sex work

“This is fucking horrible. This entire project is vile. What the fuck are you even doing creating a whole project about sex workers as a non-sex worker based on shitty stereotypes, asinine paternalistic bullshit and inane drivel? As a sex worker myself, this is gross. For the sake of humanity, please stop. You are propagating stereotypes and lies about us and this causes us DIRECT HARM. STOP STEREOTYPING SEX WORKERS. Stop speaking for us. We can speak for ourselves.”

It goes without saying that sex workers can (and do) speak for themselves and that they have every right to do so. However I am extremely concerned regarding the implied view that anyone who is not a sex worker does not have the right to express a view on the issues pertaining to prostitution. If we follow this reasoning to it’s logical conclusion then only black people should speak about matters pertainig to blacks, only white people on issues relating to whites etc. This way of proceeding would stifle literary and, indeed artistic expression and would lead to a debased cultural landscape in which writers and society more generally is frightened of expressing an opinion as it might, just possibly offend some one or other. As someone who is blind I dislike the stereotypes which some misguided individuals hold concerning visually impaired people. However I have no wish to prevent the expression of opinion. If I disagree with views being voiced I can (and will) challenge those views, not by calling for their suppression but by arguing against them as any believer in freedom should do.

As regards the substance of the above quoted criticisms, the commentor makes no attempt to express a contrary perspective. Rather she indulges in that age old trick of shooting the messenger rather than attempting to engage him in debate.

In point of fact I accept the right of sex workers to sell sex and the right of clients to purchase services provided that both parties are of legal age and coercion in the form of threat or violence is absent from the exchange. However that is not at all the same thing as accepting that prostitution has no harmful effects on those engaged in it. Ultimately in a free society individuals have the right to make choices which may harm them (that is an important right which should be respected), however that is not the same thing as saying that one has no right to express concerns regarding said choices. In a democracy free and open debate is essential.