Every burned book enlightens the world. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Censorship both repels and fascinates me as a phenomenon, because it attacks from so many angles. In the US the evangelical far right is often the source of book banning, or the boycotting of certain movies because of the ideas portrayed, often concerning sexuality. A few years ago there was even a big uproar over the Harry Potter series.

I asked one of my high school students, who had told me her pastor forbade the children from reading the Harry Potter books, “what about The Lord of the Rings? That’s a work of fantasy and magic.”

“Oh, he says it’s alright to read a book if it’s a classic.” The pastor was deferring his authority to an unseen literary board, but I let the subject go. There’s no arguing with people whose ideas are based on faulty logic.

There is pressure to censor one’s thoughts and words from the far left, or from advocacy watchdogs. Most comedians or satirists feel the wrath from different groups from time to time. For example, a scene in Tropic Thunder, in which the character played by Robert Downey Jr. tells the Ben Stiller character he shouldn’t have “gone full retard,” received negative attention from advocates for people with Down Syndrome. I understand their viewpoint, that the wording in the film promoted negative stereotypes and was extremely disrespectful, but I also wonder, should the filmmakers not have included the scene because of the perceived insult? They were building a character and a plot point in that scene, as well as satirizing actors who take themselves and their roles too seriously.

In his essay, The Censor in the Mirror, novelist and poet Ha Jin writes about how the Chinese Propaganda Department shapes the themes writers produce in China. Chinese writers stop themselves from exploring taboo themes from the outset (such as the Tienanmen Square massacre) because they know their work will either not be published, or will invite punishment from the authorities.

In most western countries we enjoy freedom of speech, and even take this freedom for granted. But even though we ostensibly have the right to say whatever we want to, there are subtle forces that keep writers from expressing their thoughts. There are editorial and consumer tastes – sometimes we succumb to peer pressure, either in the form of editors who are uncomfortable with our ideas, or critics who might have misunderstood our intentions.

Sometimes it’s a fear of what family members will say about us. There’s a certain sense of decorum we want to maintain among our friends and relations that can inhibit us from revealing our deepest truths. In my own case, I think I censor myself most often because I’m shielding myself from the darker thoughts that contribute to the person I am. There’s a certain place in my thinking where I stop myself, more than likely because of societal conditioning and upbringing. This is why free-writing is so important to the process of writing for me.

I’d be interested to know if and how you censor your writing, and why. Leave me a comment!

16 thoughts on “Censorship

  1. carolee says:

    i just read a chapter in natalie goldberg’s “old friend from far away” in which she talks about censoring ourselves, either due to fears about our true character or about what others (family, friends) will think. she writes,

    “here’s another rule of writing practice: go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous. otherwise, you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. it’s that large animal that makes your living room unique and interesting.”

    she goes on to suggest a cure:

    “make a list of all the things you should not write about. yes, then, of course, systematically go down the list and let it rip. ten minutes on each one.”

    also mentioning this: “hide your notebook in a good place.”


    personally, writing makes me brave, more than i am in real life. i’ve spent the last couple of years coming out as a writer/artist, meaning that i’ve started to allow it to be a well-known part of my identity in my family and in my community. i like to think one of my tasks for 2009 will be to come out more in terms of owning content, too. but we’ll see. it’s far easier to hide out.


  2. Dave says:

    There are some topics I censor myself from writing about simply because they are not my stories to tell. For example, I would never speculate about my parents’ sex life. I looked at a (pseudonymous) sex blog once where a guy basically published a diary about his married sex life, describing their sex acts in loving (ha!) detail. It seemed pretty well done, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who could stand to learn from something like that. I wondered whether he had his wife’s consent, though. If not, it seemed like a bit of a betrayal, to put it mildly.

    I guess the simple point that I am trying to get at with these scattered remarks is that we all set boundaries for ourselves, taking into account not only the needs and sensibilities of our audiences, but also what’s right or wrong. Not to mention our own aspirations: what do we actually want to write about? A good example here I guess would be my decision not to write directly about politics on my blog very often if I can possibly avoid it. It’s too easy for a cranky middle-aged leftist like me just to rant, and at Via Negativa I want to challenge myself (and my readers). So if I write about politics, I try to make it in the form of a poem or a story or a personal essay. Censorship — or just a stylistic preference?


  3. Holly D says:

    Well, hm…honestly, I don’t (usually) go on about things like my family’s personal life, but if I feel very strongly the need to share something, it’s pretty much impossible to stop me.
    It’s funny that you mentioned this…I was thinking and talking to family over the holidays about those “yearly letters” people send out in their Christmas cards, and what people would say in them if they were honest. Hmmm…I’m gonna write about this on my blog!


  4. Jo says:

    Interesting post. I laughed at Holly’s comment though. I started a poem about those annual Christmas cards the other day…….we didn’t receive our usual bragging card from friends and I began to speculate as to why and oops, a poem was born *grin*.

    I do not censor myself at all…….if I am worried that something will be uncovered, I disguise it. If I don’t write about it, it’s because I haven’t got round to it yet.

    And I tell you, NOTHING annoys me more than those banned book lists. In this country, if it’s published it is deemed as having some intrinsic value and is respected as such. I am happy I live in a very liberal country….though there is of course a downside to this, but fundamentally it suits my politics.


  5. Dick says:

    As Jo indicates, public censorship is an issue with a comparatively low profile in the UK so the malign influence of those manic god-botherers who have moved to centre stage in the United States reads alarmingly.

    I don’t self-censor. There are simply some subjects and topics that I don’t wish to disseminate. I’m always a bit suspicious of the motives of those who are ready and willing to disrobe publicly. Why the assumption of mass interest?


  6. paisley says:

    you know i am not an advocate of censor ship… we all have intelligent minds that can decide whether or not we agree with what we have read,,, and that is where free will comes into the whole issue to me….


  7. Nathan says:

    I suppose I censor myself in terms of form. I try to make my blog just poetry because I haven’t got enough nerve yet to speak out publicly in any other way. But if something is a poem I have no hesitation in putting it out there.


  8. Joyce Ellen Davis says:

    I generally don’t like censorship, and yet I am sometimes embarrassed by what comes out of my pen…sometimes I change it, sometimes I don’t. (I used to worry what my mother would think, but now, unfortunately, that’s no longer a worry. My husband never reads what I write.)


  9. Annamari says:

    I think it all depends on the context.
    I do not like the gratuity of offensive language or too explicit language. Thus I also try to avoid it. However, if it is the only way to make a point, I do not see why one should not use it.
    Like: if a character you depict is deeply prejudiced, how would you make him alive if he starts to talk politically correct?

    As for external censors, arrgh! Since when is that pastor a literary critic? (I think the way they chop the Bible should be censored if anything, but hello –this is a free land)


  10. christine says:

    Well, it seems like everyone has a different viewpoint. I want to be like Collin and write about anything under the sun. I might not publish it on my blog, but it probably wouldn’t matter. Like Joyce, my husband, or my other family members rarely read what I write.

    But touching on Dave’s point, I’d be angry if my husband wrote about our sex life on a blog. Even if his name wasn’t on it. I would at least expect him to use his imagination and alter details enough so that I couldn’t recognize us. But why it would bother me is a topic I’ll have to think about.

    Nathan, I know what you mean, there’s something about the form of metaphor, condensed lyric language, and symbols that makes poetry the ideal for for writing about the most intimate aspects of our lives.

    I guess boundaries are an issue when we have relationships to protect. But surely as writers we can change the details while remaining faithful to the essence of the truth.


  11. Deb says:

    I self-censor every moment of every day.

    Otherwise I would not be allowed to show myself in polite society. 🙂

    And I don’t consider myself an ogre, delegated to live under a bridge, my smells and sounds warning everybody passing by that a monster lives nearby. I’m pretty much average any way a person looks at average in the USofA, statistically speaking, anyway. (For example, I am the quintessential bird-watcher, truth be known. I have looked at the demographics.)

    Christine, I love that you write about this topic, and ask your readers what they do, what they think.

    I sensor myself. I edit what I submit to the writing/reading world. What I share on my blog. I edit what I write to myself, in my haggard scrawled script. I keep it pretty neat and tidy. Most of the time. Not only don’t I write about my sex life, I write about politics in a circumspect way. Sure. I am a bleeding-heart liberal. But I don’t let on how much so.

    This is something I struggle with in writing. How to let it out, but just far enough. Just far enough to be authentic (I kind of hate that word) but not be a crazy-lady.

    I don’t think this is quite what you had in mind about censorship, but it is where I headed. My fault, not yours. It’s an excellent question.


  12. suburbanlife says:

    I am not a daring writer, and yet what I have written so far has not been heavily censored. That may be because many friends and family do not read what I write. If anything I censor myself for is whatever may reveal me to be a poofy sentimentalist, and yet, much to my chagrin, sometimes that creeps in, because maybe that is who I can be sometimes.
    This is a really good query to put to your readers. Might I suggest that a discussion of representing certain sensibilities in authorial voice is one side of this question. In criticism, often individual sensibility determines the context of the critique, or so this has seemed to me. G


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