Whose ox is being gored? (censorship)
by Robert Bixby
What do you object to? Chances are, no matter how tolerant you are, there is some limit to what you consider acceptable. And, regardless of your feelings about nudity or depictions of sexual behavior, there is some limit beyond which graphics become objectionable. The same is probably true of the stories told in novels and movies.
The only question seems to be where the line should be drawn. Should kissing be allowed in movies? There are cultures in which it is not. Should all depictions of women be removed by censors from magazines? I received a frantic letter from one of our readers in Saudi Arabia, asking for a copy of the text on page 12 of the February/March issue because the censors had torn out the advertisement on page 11. If you have that issue, you might want to locate the offending page. Seeing the picture, you might even agree with the Saudi censor. The censor looked at the picture and was stirred deep in his heart; this stirring made him believe that anyone who looked at the picture would feel similar stirrings. That would be bad. Therefore, out came the picture.
The mental process of the censor is one much commented on in the online world, and I've been involved in a discussion with two other writers for some time about it. The argument boils down to this: Is there a definable difference between erotica and pornography? Erotica is generally considered to be acceptable, at least among adults, while many people seem to think pornography is so corrosive to morals that it should be illegal.
Sometimes it's fun to consider examples of banned books from past eras. The mild titillation of Lady Chatterlay's Lover, for example, kept it banned in this country for decades. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure was decried so widely and heatedly that some unfortunate readers bought it hoping to find naughtiness in it--and one of those readers actually wrote to Hardy to complain that he felt he'd been cheated. Hardy, one of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, stopped writing novels in disgust over the endless furor they created among the ignorant. He turned to his far less successful poetry, and the world is a poorer place for it.
It's important to remember the example of Hardy and D. H. Lawrence (author of Lady Chatterlay) when we hear people trying to restrict language and depictions on television or in computer games (as one of our own columnists did a few months ago). No one can argue that all artists could measure up to Hardy, but when Hardy turned his back on the novel, it was an incalculable loss. In my personal value system, it would be worth putting up with all the hack porn writers on earth to have just one more Hardy novel.
There have always been upstanding, civic-minded bozos willing to take a stand and draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not. These people are always the least qualified to do so, being unable to tell the difference between art and swill, and imagining a sense of outrage to be a moral guideline. They're with us yet, as eager as ever to provide us with arbitrary guidelines--passing out blinders, prosecuting museums for art shows, ripping pages out of magazines, organizing letter-writing campaigns to have television programs taken off the air, influencing advertisers to turn their backs on certain magazines, passing laws that allow seizure without due process of any material that they find mildly offensive.
These facts should be of concern to any desktop publisher. A caustic wind of intolerance is sweeping the landscape. Your reaction may be that you don't publish anything that could possibly offend anyone. It may be that you will tone down what you publish so no one can be offended by it. Or it may be that you will give up publishing in order to avoid confrontation.
When you hear a spokesperson demanding censorship, remember the suppressed authors throughout history. Drawing a line kills human expression, and however different you feel you are from a publisher under attack for pornography, an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us.
What is your opinion on this matter? Please write to me in care of this magazine, or leave a letter in COMPUTE/NET.