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.