Are Book Bloggers Becoming Censors?

In the UK right now, there is a lot of talk of scrapping the human rights act. There is actually support for this among the electorate. This seems crazy, right? How could anyone think that scrapping the human rights act is a good idea?

Because sometimes it’s used to protect people we know are bad. But it turns out those people are humans, too.

The reason this whole thing is giving me so much anxiety is because I can’t help but feel that in the end, either we all have the same rights, or no one truly does.

For better or for worse, freedom of expression works the same way.

I have noticed quite a lot of people on bookish Twitter haven’t really grasped this concept.

So, let me explain: freedom of expression includes people you disagree with.

I’m just going to pause for a second and (hopefully) establish myself as different from those crusaders for freedom of speech who are forever lamenting ‘political correctness’ because they think they should be allowed to be racist/homophobic/sexist/massive assholes whenever they want to without being considered inappropriate and/or fired from their jobs. I am actually a massive fan of political correctness. I think it is a movement with noble aims to create a more inclusive society that perhaps doesn’t implement itself so well, choosing to police language rather than educate people about its consequences.

(as someone who spent a large portion of her teenage years policing language, I would know)

I’d also like to preface this by saying that this post won’t reach a definitive conclusion. I absolutely believe that freedom of expression is vital and to be protected but I am disgusted to my core by the vast majority of political and social discourse right now, and the prejudice that seems to surround so much of society breaks my heart and makes me feel some days like I might be better off living on the moon, away from these terrible people who, were I in their presence, I would undoubtedly scream at to SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP.

Being a person is hard and I don’t even pretend that have it figured out. I’m working to be less judgemental and I would ask you pay me the same courtesy.

So. Let’s do this.

If you do even a little bit of research, you will find that in most societies, freedom of expression isn’t a given fact. It is a hard won battle. Just ask Socrates – in 399BC he was tried and found guilty of ‘corrupting young people with his teachings’ and given the choice of renouncing his beliefs or drinking a cup of Hemlock. He chose the Hemlock.

This was not an isolated incident.

Over time the controllers of expression have morphed from church (in the 1500s through most of Europe all books had to be approved by the church before they were published), to the sovereign before being controlled by the state and finally the courts. Even now institutions like schools and libraries are regularly pressured into removing certain books from their shelves because some people believe their content is offensive (the American Libraries Association regularly publishes a list of such books), and universities block certain speakers from addressing their students at all.

Historically, censorship has been a right wing thing. It’s been institutions like churches and governments not wanting their members to gain access to alternative viewpoints. That remains true, but increasingly, perhaps particularly among my own generation, there is in increase in the policing of ideas by those who consider themselves progressive, left leaning people.

Perhaps the most concerning part of this is that I don’t think they realise they are doing the same thing.

The latest bookish incident that got me thinking about this was a Carve the Mark bookstagram photo. The person who took it used makeup to create the appearance of having ‘carved the mark’ into their arm (I’m guessing this has something to do with the book? I haven’t read it. I don’t plan to.) People freaked out, demanded the photo’s removal, and demonised anyone who defended it. The reaction to the photo is much like the reaction to the book itself.*

People see it and they are like: REMOVE IT FROM MY SIGHT IMMEDIATELY.

And I get that response. I have often had that response. But I also have to acknowledge that that response isn’t the right one. In the introduction to his collection Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship, J.M. Coetzee writes that

‘Life, says Erasmus’s Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness’

While his expression bothers me (there are a lot of penis metaphors in this piece. It’s a weird essay, though I recommend reading it in full), I think that Coetzee’s point is sound. We need to be an active community, one that discusses, rather than censors. We need to have conversations about why the themes in CTM, and separately the issues raised in that photograph are problematic. And when I say discuss, I don’t mean telling each other to fuck off, which I have seen a whole bunch of over the past couple days.

I mean break it down, pull it apart, and hopefully, learn from it. History shows that the way we have solved our greatest problems isn’t to hide them away, but to bring them out into the light. When something is seen for its true ugliness, people are much more likely to turn away from it. It sounds idealistic, and it is certainly really, really difficult, but over time it is the only approach that seems to work.

The basic ideas on which we book bloggers want to ‘ban’ certain problematic texts/people/viewpoints are the same ones on which gay literature has been banned on the basis that it was ‘obscene’ and Judy Bloom’s work removed from schools and libraries for its frank, non-punishment oriented depiction of teenage sexuality. It’s the same as the reasons behind Ulysses being banned in the UK and US for more than ten years after it was first published.

Freedom of expression: everyone has it, or no one does. And sometimes that SUCKS. But overall, I have to think that there have been more positive gains than negative.

Progress doesn’t exist on an island where people all think the same thing. It has to include everybody, even people that we don’t like, and are never going to agree with. So keep talking, stop telling each other to fuck off, and accept that in the end people can read anything, even the bad stuff. We just have to talk about why it’s bad. And yeah, that prospect is exhausting. But in the end it’s kind of all we have.

In her essay collection Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit speaks of progress as a journey, rather than a destination. She writes that:

“Moths and other nocturnal insects navigate by the moon and stars. Those heavenly bodies are useful for them to find their way, even though they never get far from the surface of the earth. But lightbulbs and candles lead them astray; they fly into the heat or the flame and die. For those creatures, to arrive is a calamity. When activists mistake heaven for some goal at which they must arrive, rather than an idea to navigate Earth by, they burn themselves out, or set up a totalitarian utopia in which others are burned in the flames. Don’t mistake a lightbulb for the moon, and don’t believe the moon is useless unless we land on it.”

*A short digression with regards to that photograph. I think the furore it produced was unnecessary. I think that artists should be able to take on difficult subjects in their work. Trigger warnings are important, but it is also a sad fact of life for people with triggers (I have a few of my own that I’m currently in the process of coming to terms with #adulting) that they are freaking everywhere. The world isn’t a safe space, and screaming into the void of strangers on the internet isn’t going to make it one. Nor is demanding only images that make you comfortable. Some images are hard, and that’s kind of the point of them.

 

 

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

24. Loves a good story.

10 thoughts on “Are Book Bloggers Becoming Censors?”

  1. There was a reason people were very upset with the pic and that was nothing to do with the book but that because people were triggered by it, and caused a lot of people to have panic attacks. People wanted the poster to take it down because there is no way to trigger warn it properly so someone could be happily scrolling down their feed and see that, and yeah the creator editted it to include a trigger warning but on instagram it doesn’t work because you see the photo first. And yes there is an extent where people need to protect themselves but it’s unfair to say that when that page had never posted anything like that before. It invades the safe space they created for themselves.

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    1. I just saw your * but I completely disagree with you. If you’ve created a safe space for yourself it’s not fair for that to enter into it. You don’t expect to see something someone has called art that is basically romanticising self harm.

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    2. I think it’s so weird that insta doesn’t have any kind of trigger warning function. Especially given the major problems there have been in the past with communities encouraging self harm/ disordered eating behaviour, etc.

      This is a lot of why I said I struggle to come down on a firm opinion on all this. On the one hand, I believe in people expressing whatever they want, but on the other, I also believe in being kind and considerate, and the photograph was obviously neither.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah 100% they should have an option for like maybe NSFW pictures or something so tht you have to click on it to view it, like some posts on twitter have. At least insta have a thing where if you search “#cutting” they will say “this is worrying are you ok do you really want to search this” or something to that extent which is a step in the right direction. I can understand people’s worries of censorship vs trigger warnings but for things like this where its completely unexpected for something you thought safe their feelings are completely warranted!

        It also didn’t help that the poster started deleting negative feedback, thats when you know you’re in the wrong surely.

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  2. I have to say that I disagree with you. Self harm is such a massive and well-known trigger that I’m frankly surprised the bookstagrammer wasn’t prepared for people to have strong opinions. (And yes, as someone who has self-harmed in the past, it did upset me.)

    Your examples are based on Judy Bloom and Ulysses, but I don’t think that’s at all the same thing. Someone can very easily choose not to read a book, but once you’ve looked at a picture, it cannot be unseen. I agree with you that art should explore difficult topics, but I honestly think that this particular picture aestheticized and romanticized self-harm, and did not explore the emotional or physical implications of what it means to self harm.

    I can also understand why some people got angry with the person who posted the picture – she did not react well either, and deleted a lot of polite and fair comments. There were all the opportunities to have a debate about the depiction of self-harm in the photo and in the book itself, but she was clearly uninterested. I think it is unfair to wholly blame the people who were upset by the picture for the breakdown in communication and debate.

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    1. I totally get what you’re saying. To be honest, re. the photo and the book, I don’t have as much context as I could have for the post.

      I think it’s a shame that instagram doesn’t have any kind of trigger warning function. It seems like it would make sense.

      I really don’t wish to place blame on people for feeling triggered. This is where I honestly don’t know what I feel about this. While I respect people’s right to express whatever it is what they want to express, I find it endlessly frustrating that people do that without really thinking of what impact they might have on other people. It’s really disappointing that the creator of the photo wasn’t interested in discussing people’s reactions to it.

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  3. I’m with ya! Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should! I think there is a big misunderstanding about what freedom of speech actually means.

    My peeve lately has been reposting on Twitter but only retweeting parts of things so you don’t get the full story. That Carve the Mark picture is one of them actually. At first, I just saw someone retweeting the comments or something along that like. I get why they didn’t retweet the photo but I had no idea what it was even referring to! So then I had to do some research and dig deeper before I jump to conclusions but not everyone will do that.

    I get why people were upset by the photo just as I understand why people had concerns about the book. But again, it was an artistic interpretation of something that is described in the book (which isn’t necessarily self-harm but a way to mark killings by scaring the skin by cutting it). Not that it being “art” gives it a pass but I do think it could inspire a conversation about why romanticizing something can be dangerous. It’s unfortunate that the dialogue seemed to be stifled on both sides and on Twitter (can’t say a lot with only 140 characters).

    But a trigger warning would have been nice as the photo is rather suggestive of self-harm if you are just scrolling through and have no idea what it is in the book.

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    1. Stifled is the perfect word for conversation on Twitter. I know it’s pointless to complain about it when it’s not like I’m providing a viable alternative, but it seems like the worst place for the most important conversations. The issue at the very centre of most of the arguments that bloggers (and everyone, but for my argument, I’m being specific to the bookish community) are having is that they are nuanced. And that is lost in 140 characters, and lost by people who would rather say ‘fuck off’ than actually have a conversation. Every time I see it I want to respond and point out that they are being massively unhelpful, that there are situations in which those two words are appropriate but that this isn’t one of them. But I doubt it would achieve much beyond the words suddenly being directed at me…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly, Twitter isn’t the place but the problem is it is so easy to just spew something out and (most likely) find people who agree with you to support your argument. The anonymity of the internet doesn’t help either. People are much more comfortable when they are behind a screen.

        Liked by 1 person

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