• Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

A Plea for Less Censorship

ByFreddy Lowe

Apr 13, 2023

If you ever want to feel good about the world, go to The Guardian and search for their cartoons section.  From Edith Pritchett’s Venn diagrams to some quite hilarious political drawings, it is a good time.  My favourite cartoonist is Tom Gauld.  He created one that now sits on my computer’s home screen.  It features a group of people with varying levels of knowledge about a controversial book (“read the book”, “read a review of the book”, “read a critique of the review”, etc.) who become increasingly irate with every filter through which they’ve accessed it.  It culminates in the angriest person: the one who “hasn’t read a word but [is] not letting that get in the way of a good rant”.

It is a phenomenal cartoon and perfectly encapsulates my view.  I concur with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that “literature is in peril” – here is why.

We live in an era of high literary censorship.  From the rewriting of Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, to Twitter users publicly burning books by authors they don’t like, to far more troubling incidents like the attacks on Salman Rushdie and his publishers, J.K. Rowling’s “you are next” threat, and writers across borders risking their lives by writing what they think, people across the political spectrum seem to share the trend of eradicating literature that does not align with their political tribe.  

Of course, one can easily doom-monger.  Censorship has existed for centuries, and literature has still thrived.  Literature will still be released and will remain inspiring for future generations.  Nevertheless, this does not detract from the sometimes life-threatening consequences of censorship for those on the receiving end.

Content warnings are another example.  I have avoided using StoryGraph (an otherwise admirable independent competitor to Goodreads) because every book entry contains a section for users to submit content warnings.  Content warnings are given with the laudable aim of preventing readers from accidentally stumbling across things they will find upsetting. This is why they are championed by good people. However, I find many content warnings hampered by a lack of context.  If a book is labelled “content warning: sexism”, we must interrogate what that means.  It could mean that the book contains a sexist message.  It could also mean the book contains sexist characters without the author’s endorsement of their attitudes.  In my view, the latter is perfectly reasonable.  It is sometimes even necessary if literature intends to reflect the real world.  Nevertheless, “content warning: sexism” carries an implicitly negative tone.  It imposes a disparaging interpretation onto the book before we have even read it and undergone the necessarily subjective process of deciding for ourselves.

Literary discourse can suffer too. School classrooms are occasionally reflective of this: rare cases aside, most controversial discussions in a classroom environment will be just one aspect of the teacher’s plan for that lesson, and so conversations per topic will be limited to about five minutes. It is extraordinarily difficult to summarise nuanced and complex problems in such short time, and when words are easily misconstrued or people sense potentially upsetting interpretations of your words that do not remotely represent your intentions, it is much easier to avoid speaking at all so as to circumvent any resulting social censure. I have had many instances where colleagues and I could have established that we had essentially equivalent views and just disagreed on some nuances, but due to the intense nature of institutional environments, social censure is made regrettably possible.

This takes me back to Tom Gauld’s cartoon.  All over Twitter and YouTube, there is less nuance than in educational institutions. I see people criticise books that they openly admit to not reading.  When they do occasionally read them, they read them with a pre-existing bad faith and a determination to problematise.  These environments have fierce, unspoken rules on what one can and cannot say, as these critics tend to shut down any defence of these books and claim that those who do so are “prejudiced” or “insensitive”.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in 2021 that she speaks to young people terrified to tweet anything for fear of being viciously piled on by their peers – a feeling that many instances of less-than-civil disagreements have instilled in me too. Regrettably, it is a human reaction to hear disagreement from somebody and jump to disparaging conclusions about their character, rather than hearing them out with the benefit of the doubt.

And so we have a generation of social media users who, as Adichie also put it, “ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves[…], because by ‘educate’, they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity’”

Let us change this.  Let us read books thoroughly – and with the good faith we would want from people reading our work – before critiquing them.  Let us resist the temptation to call people prejudiced when they dare to disagree with our interpretations.  Let us champion freedom of speech and association, even for people we strenuously disagree with. Let us remove the heat from literary discussions and stop censoring authors of ideas that are not our own.   

Literature is fantastic; there is so much to celebrate.  Let us discuss it with good faith and freedom of speech. 

Image “Robo-shushers (naar Tom Gauld)” by Faculteitsbibliotheek Letteren & Wijsbegeerte is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival