"I am of course confident that I will fulfill my tasks as a writer in all circumstances -- from my grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But may it be that repeated lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer's pen during his lifetime? At no time has this ennobled our history." (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist/critic)
In the early 1990s, I worked for several years as the Media Co-ordinator at LambtonCollege
in Sarnia, Ontario
. I was responsible for programming the on-campus radio station, for press releases, acquiring advertisement revenue and producing the monthly student newspaper, The Other Side
. During my tenure, one of the comedians that was brought in as a student activity was banned because of his jokes "against" women. All he had to say to me on the matter was, "These bitches are once again giving me grief." I did not react so cavalierly. I penned an entire issue of the student voice against censorship. On the front cover, I asked whether people were offended or not by my choice of photograph. Having secured the rights from National Lampoon
, I used a pseudo-advertisement that had appeared in one of their recently published magazines. The parody photo was of a man in his swimming trunks chasing two topless women, all holding drinks, running down a tropical beach. The sponsor "ClubHed" made their pitch like any real resort would. The headline ran across the top reading, "Run around with your dick hanging out," then across the bottom, "and hump whoever you want." The issue was a huge success among the student body with little complaint. Although a second printing was required, that did not influence several instructors at the college who filed a Human Rights complaint against me. They demanded I retract my opinion and the use of the image. I refused and was interviewed and interrogated. I noted to the Tribune how I had been granted permission to use the ad and of the availability of the magazine containing the piece throughout the city. Case dismissed. I suppose the response of the institution's staff answered any questions I might have regarding being offended. They all missed the lesson. It did not matter the subject, it was censorship that was at issue. It was such a nice gesture of them to prove my point.
“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”
(Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet/activist)
The first real assignment I took after the death of my partner was for a local newspaper, The Age Dispatch. Despite the limited circulation, and the size of Strathroy, I submitted the piece. When it was published, I barely recognized my point. The editor had removed anything which may have been construed as offensive or derogatory. The article had been "trimmed of the fat," but I maintained that the fat was the part of the article that made it "taste" good. It doesn't matter the subject matter, or the edited parts, it was the surgical precision with which the content in question had been removed that stood out to me. Not one line of the piece was without sources. Not one statement was untrue. It seemed, and it still does, that only those areas dealing with a specific target audience had been banished. God forbid a group of people should have to read the truth about themselves. God forbid someone should be offended. When I complained to the editor, he actually offered me another article if I would keep within the boundaries of conventional journalism. I needed to learn how to edit out my subjective interpretations and stick to an objective presentation. I never worked for the newspaper again. It seemed contrived to me that the editor would ask me to delve into the psyche of my focus group, then pull the entire point of the piece to a completely different place. I was censored because that's how mainstream media does what it does. It's not interested in the truth, just a version of the truth homogenized to a target audience. While I am unaware of any personal issues the editor had with my work, it was clear from his hatchet job that he was preferring someone other than the guy who did the writing. Although I have had several offers for these types of submissions since then, I tend to stay away from print news. You can end up giving away your words, kidnapped by space and censors.
”We do not fear censorship for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue -- the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word, that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare." (D.W. Griffiths, American film director)
One of the things that people are surprised to learn about me is how I love to sing. It is a pleasure I have indulged in since the time I was a very young boy. From stage productions to talent shows, I have always enjoyed the expression. I was in all the choirs, performed at many benefits but mostly I sang at the front of my Church. I can still see my Mother accompanying me on her autoharp, sitting on a step in the sanctuary. Back then, the pews were usually full on any given Sunday. It's not like that any longer. I sang at bars, winning several karaoke contests and I have even sang at funerals. I sang at my sister's wedding and I sing every day as I live out my musical life. I have only one memory of censorship associated with my singing. About a year after the death of my first partner, in the summer of 1996, my friend Brenda and I were asked to sing a duet for the Sunday morning service. This was not the first time we had agreed to be the spiritual entertainment, but we had not sang together on those previous occasions. Our voices fit like a symphony would. Our well-trained instruments played off each other and our song seemed filled with something beyond ourselves. The contemporary Gospel tune, "Heaven," performed originally by Michael English, was an obvious choice for us both. The hardcore message of unity and agape love rang through the mix of pop, soul and rhythm and blues. Even scriptural references jumped out within the song, of the lion and the lamb and their walking together in peace (Isaiah 11:6). Unfortunately, there was no peace to be found. One Thursday evening after choir practice, Brenda and I stayed late to run a sound check and make sure things were good to go for the coming Sunday. It just so happened that the organist, Larry, walked through the sanctuary, interrupting our rehearsal. The next day, the rug was pulled out from beneath our feet. Apparently "that" kind of genre was unacceptable to the music director's taste. With a contract that gave him final say over all music, our journey to the other side was lost, gone forever. Both Brenda and I left the Church. I have not returned but I cannot speak for her. Larry died in the mid-2000s, a microcosm (to me) of how religion really works.
“It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what." (Stephen Fry, English comedian/activist)
For millennia, the Church has been controlling not only what we say (and think) but how we say it (and think it). Censorship hid behind claims of heresy and blasphemy. Those who spoke out against the establishment were excommunicated, imprisoned, and even killed for their ideas. Religious censorship dates back to the beginnings of religion. Those who opposed the teachings of their chosen belief structure often met with a terrible fate. Secret societies and underground movements formed because of this fear. It was not above the Church to slaughter a parishioner for what they believed. You could count on some form of retribution by God (so to speak) if you dared declare anything Holy unacceptable, particularly through a public means.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Instead of Inquisitions, we now have Shariah Law and Jihad. You can't post a picture of the Prophet without worrying about losing your head. Journalists, cartoonists and anyone who sits next to them, are prime targets of this violent religious censorship. Anything that might offend the sensitive nature of such an entity as Allah means open season on the freedom of speech. On January 7th
2015, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi (brothers) forced their way into the Parisoffices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French weekly newspaper. 12 people died including a French National police officer. 11 others were injured. The Islamist Terrorist group Al-Qaeda (Yemen) took responsibility. At issue, cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed which the publication featured shortly after. Since then, the phrase "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) has come to not only represent support for Hebdo but objection against censorship in any form.
"We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard." (Voltaire, French writer/philosopher)
Censorship is a choice. You decide whether to submit to it or not. Allowing an institution or person(s) to dictate what you proclaim, or not, grants control, usually through fear of reprisal in one form or another. Depending on the situation, one cannot always stop censorship, but not all censorship is negative or a bad thing. We really all should edit our work. Some things are just not relevant or even inappropriate to the project at hand. Redacting prepares each piece for presentation through revision and is a form of self-censorship, not to mention proper etiquette. There are rules when dealing with socially acceptable/unacceptable behaviour. This correcting yourself is a valid and often required process. We say too much or we make mistakes. We include things that just don't fit with our thesis. We have to remove these incidents to properly express what we are trying to convey in a more congruent and relevant style. When dealing with a public forum, we should be required to have a cohesive and well thought out production, regardless of how we had to edit, in fact censor, the material. It is one thing to censor yourself, but an entirely different thing when you are censored. Either way, one should have the right to speak their truth without fear of compromise or even death.
"Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent."(Mark Twain, American writer)