The Nature of Censorship

A lot has been written about Clean Reader and that particular storm of controversy. Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig has a pretty good roundup of links and opinions. (Don’t miss out on his own thoughts on the matter, either.) The different sides have all been well-represented and I’m not sure if I have any fire to add to the ongoing discussion, but it’s made me think about the nature of censorship in general.

For those who aren’t in the know, Clean Reader is an app you can download through iTunes or Google Play that enables you to censor “filthy” words in the text of an ebook. You can choose to filter out just the strongest stuff (basically the F-bomb, but a few other notable words as well) or anything that might be remotely offensive. More than just filtering it out, the app substitutes less questionable words for the censored ones. The creators have said outright that their intention is to open up more possibly objectionable work to readers sensitive to strong language. This might, theoretically, allow your grandmother to actually read Chuck Wendig’s writing, except a.) most of it will be blanked-out white space, and b.) you know Grammy would be really into all that profanity. She’s not fooling anyone.

Close reading of my post so far might have clued you in on my stance on the matter, which is “I don’t like it, but it’s a complicated and personal issue.” There are a few points I’d like to address, and I’m going to do so Scalzi style:

  1. This has the same flavor as a discussion from a couple of years ago about adding trigger warnings to classic literature. On principle I object, but in practice there’s no harm in doing so. The principle is the same as it is with Clean Reader: you’re changing the context of the work. I’m sympathetic to people who have gone through serious trauma and who might be at risk for flashbacks or relapses if they read something that cuts too close to their own experiences. That said, literature should be the lens through which you can safely provoke those responses in yourself and come to terms with them, either on your own or with help. Life won’t pull its punches, and if you hide from your memory of trauma rather than face it, then when the time comes that you can’t look away, how can you trust yourself and your reactions? The same with cursing or hate words: blocking them won’t stop them from existing, and when you inevitably run into them in your daily life, you’ll have no basis from which to act.
  2. On the justification of “protect the children,” I fervently disagree. In my experience, both as a kid and working with kids, they’re tougher than you might first think. If they don’t understand something and aren’t prepared to try, they’ll skip over entire sections of text in favor of finding the parts that they do understand or have an interest in them. When they ask questions or voice concerns, that means they’re old enough to start thinking about these things. When your daughter comes to you upset about swear words in her book, the exact wrong reaction is to develop an app that blocks the material she doesn’t like. The more right choice is to have a discussion about authorial intent and why swear words exist. If, afterwards, she chooses to avoid the books with swears in them, that’s her call to make. Eventually she may relax her standards and start reading more edgy works, which is not a bad thing. But that’s a topic for another post.
  3. Now we enter the murky waters of “is this censorship?” The answer is an archipelago of “maybe.” The thing is, there’s no solid ground. The app does allow you to read the unaltered text of the work, it just offers an alternative without “objectionable” words. However, in so doing, you’re changing the text as it was meant to be read by the original author, which can completely skew the meaning. For example, if you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with every dirty word and phrase taken out, I could argue that you never really read Huckleberry Finn. I’m a big believer in the death of the author, but that only relates to intent: under Barthes’ philosophy, you still have to take the entire text of the work and divine your own meaning for it, not alter the text to suit your own tastes.
  4. It should be noted that this is a service you pay for. The app itself is free, but you have to buy the books you want to read through it; it doesn’t work with books you’ve already purchased. This changes things greatly. It’s one matter if you want to buy someone’s book and run roughshod over it with a permanent marker, redacting everything you don’t like. That’s tantamount to self-censorship, which is still not great, but it’s a personal decision. However, the creators of Clean Reader are essentially selling you a pre-censored version of these books, most of which remain under copyright. There’s still a question on the legality, as I understand it. Apparently there was a similar service for movies that was shut down for violating the creators’ rights. How similar this is, I don’t know, but there’s at least an argument to be made.
  5. Related to the above, authors are not given the choice on whether or not their books are included, and in fact have to get in touch with the Clean Reader people to have their work removed. It at least seems to happen quickly, and the people in charge don’t ask any questions beyond confirming the author is really the author. However, it reminds me of that Google Books fiasco from a while back, wherein authors were required to opt out of having the content of their books displayed freely online, rather than opt in. That clause, I believe, is still being contested in the courts.
  6. I’m not a published author (yet) and so I don’t have a dog in this fight. On a professional level, though, I have cause to want to fight against it. The ALA has a long-standing policy against any form of censorship and how to fight against it, which is laid out here. Obviously the examples are geared towards censorship in library, but the general philosophy of “no censorship is acceptable” works for me. The fact that a book receives a challenge usually reveals how important it is to keep a book in the library. So it goes with profanity: that there are people out there devoted to erasing it from books means it’s all the more vital we make sure profanity is here to stay.

The problem with censorship is that it’s the slipperiest of slopes. Any “just this once” justification you come up with can be applied ad infinitum. Every “but it’s a personal choice” can be carried forward forever and expanded. The only foolproof response to censorship is to resist every attempt, no matter how trivial it may seem.

Authors, refuse to allow your works to go through this treatment. Readers, reject this filter on your reading. While your reasons for avoiding certain books may be valid, such as not enjoying profanity or being wary of potential triggers, don’t bow to this oversimplification of a complex issue. The easy way out is never the right answer, no matter how much you want it to be.

Written by James

A paralibrarian by trade, James "Captain Raspberry" Taber studied story theory at UMass Amherst. His obsessive personality serves him well in gaming. If he approaches you, do not panic. Hold your ground and make noise. If all else fails, use your emergency banana.

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