Tag Archives: freedom of expression

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.

Do Poets Attempt To “Control” People?

On my way home yesterday evening, I bumped into an acquaintence and engaged in one of those random and somewhat odd conversations one does, on occasions find oneself involved in. My acquaintence with the gentleman with whom I spoke is of a passing nature, in that we have spent a few minutes chatting when we encounter one another. However, yesterday evening we spent some 40 minutes or so talking, during the course of which I learned that he is an artist. This led me to mention that I write poetry, to which his response was that “poets/poetry wants to control people”.

I was, I must confess somewhat taken back by the above statement. Despite me trying to elicit why my acquaintence held such a view, I was unable to obtain an answer which made sense to me. However the statement that “poets/poetry tries to control people” got me thinking about whether there might be any substance to the opinion expressed by my acquaintence.

Poets do (as with the rest of the population) hold views on religion, politics etc, some of which find their way into the poetry they write. Can reading a poem which voices a particular opinion “control” the reader?

Many years ago I remember reading an anthology compiled by the late left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn, entitled “Writings On the Wall: A Radical and Socialist Anthology”. I remember being impressed by some of the writings contained therein, however the book did not turn me into a Socialist. Where there to be a simple connection between what we read and how we vote then, surely I would now be a card carrying member of the British Labour Party or another Socialist party which (as mentioned above) I am not.

A poem has no power to exert physical control over the reader. Indeed, during the course of our chat, I mentioned to my acquaintence that where I to take hold of him and demand that he act in a certain manner that this would, quite obviously entail an attempt by me to exert control over him (I hasten to add that no one was grabbed or maltreated in any manner during the course of our interactions). We can, therefore safely conclude that poetry (or any other form of art for that matter) has no power to (literally) “control anyone.

Having said the above, it is true that Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, Mao’s China and various other regimes have banned books and persecuted (or even murdered) writers with who’s work they disagree. For example “The Gulag Archipelago”, which catalogued the horrors of the Soviet prison system was banned in the USSR, and its author persecuted. So, obviously totalitarian governments fear literature that attacks the belief structure on which the regime is built.

Does the fear of totalitarian regimes of literature which attacks their world view proove that poetry (and other forms of art) have the power to “control” those exposed to them. No. What free artistic expression can accomplish is to encourage those exposed to it to question their view of the world (or at least some aspect of it). Encouraging critical thinking is not control. Quite the opposite for, in the case of the authoritarian government it is the regime (not the poet or other artist) who is “controlling”, whilst the artist is questioning the status quo.

In conclusion, poetry does not “control”. It may (and often does) contain a message (political, religious or otherwise), however the reader can make up his/her own mind as to whether they agree (or disagree) with the poet’s perspective. It should, of course also be remembered that much poetry is purely (or largely) playful in nature. There is, for instance in most limericks no desire on the part of the poet other than to produce laughter in his/her readership.

As always I would be interested in the perspectives of you, my readers.

Kevin

“Not Our Kind: the Problem of Book Reviewing Through Tribal Identification”

https://freebeacon.com/culture/not-our-kind/.

The above article is worth a read and is self-explanatory. As for the poem which sparked the article (which is linked to from within the piece), from a personal perspective the literary work is not particularly to my taste. However the attacks on the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee), which are detailed in the article, appear to me to constitute a gross over reaction to what he wrote and I must confess to being somewhat surprised by the fulsome apology of the periodical which published it.

The poet subsequently apologised for the poem and was (again” criticised for saying that the comments received where “eye-opening”, the criticism being predicated on the fact that blind people can not see and, therefore the language being construed as “ableist”. As someone who is registered blind I have no problem with the use of terms such as “eye-opening”. Indeed I have used this term myself and also frequently say to friends or acquaintances “see you around”, by which I mean not that I will (literally) see them, but that our paths will cross again.

Ultimately any work of literature should be judged on its literary merits not whether it offends a particular community and/or individual. Writers should not be constantly thinking could what I am writing possibly cause offense? If we go down that road we risk a stilted literary environment in which I don’t wish to live.

Bloggers and Echo Chambers

A blog is not a democracy, by which I mean that the blog owner has a right to determine it’s content, including whether to approve comments or whether to allow comments at all. As with one’s home, bloggers have the right to decide what is and is not acceptable. The home owner can decide that a guest expressing racist views should leave immediately, as, indeed can the website owner.

As a blog owner I endorse the right of site owners to run their sites as they see fit. If you don’t like the views being expressed and/or the other content of a blog (and the blog owner refuses to publish your perspective) you are at liberty to start your own site on which you can express whatever opinions you like (providing that you do not break the law by so doing). Having said that, I have always operated on the basis that a comment will be approved on my blog irrespective of whether or not the person commenting agrees with me on a given matter, provided that such disagreement is expressed in polite and measured terms. I don’t want newauthoronline.com to become an echo chamber in which only voices which mirror my own are heard. Such a place would lack vibrancy and I would not be comfortable running my blog on this basis. We can all learn from others perspectives and not permitting differing views leads, very quickly to a sterile environment. I won’t allow comments of a hateful nature (for example anyone who wishes to justify the Third Reich will find himself in my spam folder). However, other than such extreme instances I will publish all comments unless they are spammy in nature.

Some six months or so ago I commented on a post. My comment was not approved and the matter slipped to the back of my mind. I was therefore surprised on opening WordPress earlier today to see a response to my comment (the response not appearing on the site but being sent direct to me), in which I was accused of being “ignorant” and my comment having the potential to “hurt” the site’s readership. My comment was measured and politely expressed and so far as I can see the site owner’s refusal to publish it flowed entirely from the fact that they disagreed with my perspective. I am confirmed in this view by the fact that while the post in question had many comments, all of these where in total agreement with the views of the blog owner, in other words an echo chamber. As I say above, bloggers have the right to determine content, including whether or not to approve comments. However by only allowing comments which slavishly agree with their perspectives the site owner risks creating a tedious echo chamber. This maybe good for their ego but it is not good for free and open debate.

Kevin

Charlie Hebdo Front Cover

The Independent and The Guardian are, I understand the only 2 leading UK newspapers who have published the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo. In the interests of freedom of expression the article in The Independent is linked to here (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/charlies-back–and-controversial-as-ever–as-its-staff-take-aim-at-powerful-new-friends-9974065.html).

Trolling Along

On 6 December I published a post regarding trolling and, in particular it’s pernicious effect on book reviews, http://newauthoronline.com/2013/12/06/when-does-a-book-review-become-trolling/. I have, today received a comment on my post by a person who argues for (as he puts it) “the utility of internet flamers and trolls”. I do not agree with the premise of his article. It is, however well expressed and in the interests of encouraging debate I have linked to it here, http://pop-verse.com/2013/11/27/the-utility-of-internet-flamers-and-trolls-or-why-you-should-go-fuck-yourself-2/.

In my experience internet trolls are rarely (if ever) interested in promoting genuine debate whether about books or other topics. They are frequently people with a variety of problems who rather than confronting their own inadequacies choose rather to spew bile on the internet while hiding behind false identities. In the article linked to above the writer contends that different rules apply in the virtual as opposed to the real world. I can’t agree. Good manners should not cease merely because one is hiding behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

Many trolls exhibit behaviour which if demonstrated by children would result in those concerned being reprimanded. Indeed we expect children to exhibit childish traits but it is profoundly sad when grown men and women behave like kids in the playground.

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).