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exploring taboo themes from the outset (such as the Tienanmen Square massacre) because they know their work will either not be published, or will invite punishment from the authorities.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!