Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Is it Censorship?

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The subject of censorship has been on my mind today, particularly as it relates to publishing and creative endeavors. The items that prompted this are:

1.  Outcry demanding that a publisher pull a book that examines racial and societal inequalities through a fantasy setting.
  • The book in question is a fantasy novel centering on a character who grew up in a stratified society, which includes many fantasy races
  • Outcry against the book began before it had been published, and was picked up by many who admitted they had never read the book.
  • Criticism generally centered around two issues:
    • Out-of-context quotes of horrible characters saying horrible things.
    • The question of whether or not a writer from a certain demographic has the right to write about certain topics.

2. Retailers pulling down a "taboo" book (I won't link to it for various reasons.)
  • This book was a "taboo erotica" title filled with incest, including parent with underage child, and rape.
  • When Amazon pulled the book the author actually used that as part of her marketing.
  • Various retailers eventually pulled the book until, as far as I know, no one sells it.
  • Ultimately, the book violated TOS, which is why it was pulled.
  •  Many supported the author's right to write "taboo" subject matter while others attacked the writer personally.
3. Criticism of a forthcoming alternate history show that hasn't even been written yet.
  • The show is set in an alternate timeline in which the Civil War ended in a stalemate, slavery was preserved and has evolved into a modern institution. The show will cover events leading to another Civil War.
  • Some criticism revolved around the subject matter, opining that modern slavery should not be represented at all, given the race-related problems that pervade our society.
  • Anger over white writers writing about slavery (despite the fact that half the creative team are black.)
  • Critics seem to either be unaware of or don't have a problem with the myriad works of alternate history in fiction, especially those covering the same or similar subject matter.

Questions that Arise

What qualifies as censorship?
Inevitably, the question of censorship arises. Some argue that none of what is described above is censorship because it does not constitute a legal ban on the creation of the various works describe above.

What is censorship? It depends on your definition. One such I found:

Censorship- The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.

A ban on certain creative works would fall under "prohibition," but what about "suppression"? When vendors refuse to sell a product, is that a form of suppression? When a publisher pulls a book without returning the publishing rights, is that suppression? When people make a concerted effort to have a book or show pulled, are they actively supporting suppression? If so, then that qualifies as a form of censorship.

Do we truly believe in free speech?
Growing up, the oft-heard mantra was, "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it." There's no question that's changed, especially with the advent of social media.

We now hear, "Your right to free speech doesn't mean you're free of the consequences that come from expressing your ideas."

In my youth, the big battles were over censorship of books, music, and movies, usually because they were deemed "obscene" or offensive to religious beliefs. In my mind, the "good guys" where those who defended the artists and said, "Let them put the work out there and let the consumer decide what (s)he wants to read, view, or listen to."

Now, with a controversy like the book Black Witch, we're seeing active attempts to prevent the publication of a book because portions are either offensive, or because the author is part of the wrong demographic.

Do all writers have the right to explore challenging subject matter?
Can/should a writer from a very different background explore issues relating to race, culture, economics?

Is it all right as long as the writer doesn't profit from the writing?

Would a writer who hails from that same socioeconomic group necessarily do a better job than the writer who is trying to write "the other"?

Is there a line between saying, "I'm not going to read that book because I don't think there's any way a [insert race] can really understand or do justice to the subject matter" and actively trying to halt publication of that book?

What do we, as writers and readers, do in response to the above?
I don't have the answers, but my instinct says:

As a writer, explore any subject matter you want, but do the very best job you can, do it respectfully, and know that some people might have a problem with what you've written, depending on the subject matter.

As a reader, it will vary from person to person, but I lean toward free expression on both sides. The publisher is free to publish, the writer is free to write, the seller is free to list, and I'm free to not purchase and to let the world know why I've made that choice.

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