Image credit: David Goehring

Censorship, Bullying, and Community: Can’t Have One Without the Other

Years ago, when I was in a graduate program, there was this guy we called the N-word shouter. He was an enrolled undergrad student who, daily, during class break, would stand in a public area where there was a lot of foot traffic, and repeat the N-word, over and over, into a bullhorn. Interviewed by the campus paper, he straightforwardly explained that he was trying to make students of African descent so uncomfortable that they left.

Image credit: David Goehring

The college, with quite a bit of fanfare in an attempt to draw attention away from this clown, enacted a hate speech code, setting up rules and penalties about deliberately making people uncomfortable with speech or any other representation or communication.

Two years later they were dealing with petitions from creationists who were being made uncomfortable in biology class, and from a woman who said she was an abuse survivor, she wanted to major in art history, and she wanted men (including teachers) excluded from any room in which female nudes in any medium were studied. The English department had so many censorship requests that they admitted they could no longer keep track of how many students had asked to be excused from the study of how many books, or had demanded that some books not be taught.

I was lucky to be off doing research and was only aware of it peripherally (in this case, that means “whenever I got some sleep and picked up a paper, which wasn’t often”).

I don’t believe that any administrator of whatever level of brilliance could have written a code or designed a protocol that would have specified in advance (or even just allowed) that the N-word shouter be bounced off campus while Ms. “No Naked Ladies In Front of the Boys” be told to cut the bullshit. In any description for any censoring regulation, sooner or later you come down to the effect on the listener/viewer, because otherwise the sender can always just lie.

There’s an idea out there that censorship begins from some benign purpose of ennobling or bettering the population; protecting the children, protecting traditional ways of life, protecting long-abused populations, and so on. Bluntly, I think this is at least usually and perhaps always a lie. It’s not the protection or the absence of the offending material that is the real purpose; it’s the forcible muzzling, ideally the intimidation, of the artist or speaker.

What I see when I look at censors is not concerned people worrying about the quality of children’s literature, but bullies noticing that someone is escaping their arbitrary power. There’s a strange parallel here because just as we seldom ascribe pure malignity to the censor, we never ascribe any socially beneficent purpose to the bully. And yet is the bully not upholding community values? For example, the community is opposed to being physically small and easily frightened; the community does not want members who dress like dorks and know all the answers in class; the community needs to make sure everybody’s sexuality is what it should be according to the largest ten year old in the room.

The censor is the agent of the community when the community is claiming a benign purpose for bullying people into silence. The bully is the agent of the community when the community finds it convenient to disavow censoring the weird, the uncouth, and the generally disagreeable people into silence. And the silence … well, there’s the community benefit, now isn’t there? When it comes to dissidents, the only good one is a silent one.

Image credit: Kristin Schmit

Popping back up to the starting example, I think the community really wanted the N-word shouter thrown out, for the perfectly good reason that he was vile and didn’t fit their values, and this was a way to do it. I think the anti-naked-ladies lady saw a possible way of shutting down (by making it impossible for it to operate) a whole department dedicated to the male gaze, which pretty clearly creeped her out. A little town where some kinds of rape have always been tolerated is less interested, I think, in preventing girls from hearing alternatives (by definition, they already have a brutal way of suppressing their opinions anyway) but in punishing the local librarian, the New York publishing houses, and ideally Laurie Halse Anderson herself, for Speak, which makes them feel bad about it.

I was a genuinely weird kid in 4th and 5th grade; I was pretty badly bullied through 7th grade; I did, in fact, become better at conforming, and after that had more friends, and the other kids were more comfortable around me. (Partly because I engaged in some futile-seeming violence with the bullies that nonetheless worked in that they stopped). The misery, fear, and soreness inflicted on me led quite directly to my having more friends and being more content with the world.

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I am still not grateful to the bullies, nor do I think they had no idea what they were doing to me, or believe any of the other lines of defense. A censor is a bully that the community will avow; a bully is a censor they disavow (but they’ll still accept the silence the bully enforces).

Silence not only equals death; death is what silence is for, specifically social death for anyone who spoils the community by standing outside of it. It takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to stone a witch. Doubtless they’ll say they were protecting the child.

Julie originally asked me to comment about how I handle the occasional noises about my YA novel, Tales of the Madman Underground. Well, it hasn’t drawn much more fire than Mother of Storms, and somewhat less than Kaleidoscope Century or Directive 51. About all I’ve ever said, in a general way to people defending the books, is that I wish they would not plead social utility (“the author warns us that …”) or even literary merit, if any. I wrote them because that’s who I am and what I do; some readers have been good enough to like it and to want to read it. They, and I, are taking pleasure in thoughts that you do not want us to think. That is between me and them, and rather than trying to inflict your will to silence on any of us, I suggest that your community would be better engaged in fucking itself.

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John Barnes has written about 5 million published words, including 30 commercial and 2 self-published novels, making him an extremely well-published obscure writer or vice versa. His young adult novel Tales of the Madman Underground received a 2010 Michael Printz Honor Award from the ALA.
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5 Comments

  1. Perhaps I would’ve gone with a noise ordinance instead. I would’ve let him keep shouting but take away the bullhorn.

    A society that seeks to be free from offense has got to enact the most totalitarian measures imaginable.

    Steve

    Disclosure and not so subtle brag: My book JUMPER was on the top-100 books banned in America ALA list (1990-1999).

  2. A brief rescindment of the law against physical violence might have worked just as well against the N word guy. Sort of a Marshall law situation, like the October Crisis in Quebec. Give the football players (white ones would be best) a few free days to beat the shit out of him, put the laws back in place an everyone is good.

    • Gabrielle beautifully demonstrates my point; the urge to bully and the urge to censor are identical. Noticing speech she doesn’t like, her “solution” is to beat up the speaker. QED.

  3. Two years later they were dealing with petitions from creationists who were being made uncomfortable in biology class, and from a woman who said she was an abuse survivor, she wanted to major in art history, and she wanted men (including teachers) excluded from any room in which female nudes in any medium were studied. The English department had so many censorship requests that they admitted they could no longer keep track of how many students had asked to be excused from the study of how many books, or had demanded that some books not be taught.

    None of these complaints are in line with a policy that forbids “deliberately making people uncomfortable”; when the action in question furthers some legitimate aim besides making people uncomfortable, then the policy does not forbid it. The conclusion that this is an example of a bad policy, or that any policy is necessarily bad, is not supported by the evidence presented.

    More generally, the law that says you can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater is a just law. Free speech has always been subject to reasonable limitations, and this is mete and good, despite whatever Barnes says about “bullies” and “censors”. Which limitations are reasonable? That’s a hard question, but Barnes seems to think that it’s an easy one, responding, “None of them.”

  4. Being made uncomfortable is your problem. You have a right to free speech; you do not have a right to not have your feelings hurt, to be accepted, to be liked, or not to suffer the pain of cognitive dissonance.

    It’s easy to be tolerant of things we really don’t dislike or disapprove of. It’s when things desecrate what we really consider holy or heap coals of fire on our head until it wants to exploooode with humiliation and rage that we learn what’s really what.

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