Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Boy Who Cried Censorship

I spend a lot of time on the Internet talking about stories. I talk about my process, I big-up other authors who need signal boosts, and I try to offer advice that's worked for me in the past. However, there is something I've noticed that has become a part of online discourse in general, and a part of writers' groups in particular, that I wanted to talk about. It's the cry of censorship as a defense against someone else having a differing opinion to yours.

Because unless the government is demanding you stop talking, no one is censoring you.

Yes language means more than what's in the dictionary. We'll get to that.

Meaning, Usage, And Your Opinions

We love the idea of the freedom of speech, but most of us don't actually know what it means. In the broadest of broad strokes, it means you can say what you want without legal reprisal from the government. So if I want to say that Donald Trump is a leaking sack of suet re-purposed for sexual misadventure, I can't be arrested for that. Plenty of people may disagree with me about that, but at least at the time of this writing I'm perfectly within my rights to say that thing.

Now, that right to speak doesn't guarantee anything else. It doesn't guarantee me a right to be agreed with, or the right to use someone else's podium, or the right to be granted equal time by other people. Nor does it mean that I am free from the consequences of my speech.

The arena of public opinion isn't particularly forgiving.
Let's take an example we've all seen before. You're on social media, and you see a conversation that catches your eye. Maybe it's someone lamenting that a new major motion picture has cast a white performer in a role of a character that was originally an ethnic minority. Perhaps you agree with the original poster, or you share a differing opinion, but the next person to comment after you says something like, "Ugh, stop trying to shut out other people's opinions. You're just want to censor people who don't agree with you."

That statement is stupid for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is that, according to the definition we're all working from, only governments can censor people. However, in the sense that some people will attack or shut out dissenting opinions, that does happen. Most of the time, though, that's not censorship. If you go to a Facebook group, or a subreddit, or an open mic night, you are not guaranteed the chance to speak and be heard. You're on someone else's page, and your ability to talk or not talk, to be a member or be banned, is decided by the people who actually run those facilities. If the moderators, bouncers, or page owners decide no, they don't want you in their group, they can shut you up, and kick you out.

That's shitty, sure, but it isn't censorship. You still have the right to say whatever you want to say, but that group has made it clear they don't want you saying it there, and that's why they've closed their door in your face.

What Was That About Consequences?

You know how, when you were a kid, your parents would sometimes tell you that you wouldn't get in trouble if you just told them the truth? Even if you said or did something wrong, they were more interested in honesty than they were in punishment? A lot of the time we think that's how freedom of speech works. You can say whatever you want, and you won't get in trouble for it. Especially if you're just being honest with people.

With the government, that's usually true. With everyone else, not so much.

Yes, I heard you. That silence? That's the sound of judgment, sweety.
From big, important issues of the day, down to issues of nerd emphemera, we all have our own opinions. Whether you feel that Jared Leto is the worst Joker in the series, or you think that writing accents phonetically is a bad idea, those are your opinions. If you put those opinions forth in the public arena, wherever that might be, you'll likely find folks who agree with you. However, you'll also find folks who disagree with you. Their disagreement is not your ideas being censored, any more than if you disagree with someone else that you're censoring them. That's just the open market deciding whether your ideas will be accepted, or wadded up and thrown in the trash.

No one likes to admit it, but sometimes we're the ones the general consensus tosses on the trash heap.

And if there are extreme repercussions for the views you espouse? If you lose friends because they find out you hold particularly sexist views about why it's perfectly okay for women to be paid less for doing the same job? Or if a partner breaks up with you because they found your racist rants on a forum? Or if you get fired because someone caught you berating and belittling someone who is supposed to be part of your team? Well, none of those are censorship. Those are the consequences that come from speaking your mind.

You can say whatever you want. However, you can also hit a hornet's nest with a stick. If the hornets fly out and sting you so badly your eyes swell shut and you can barely breathe, that's not them censoring your stick-swinging agenda. That's reaping the consequences of what you chose to do.

If you're still not sure about the difference, read the comments below. People espousing their opinions? Just fine. But it's my blog, my page, and my soap box, and I don't have to let anyone up here to speak if I don't want to. Is that narrow-minded, or prejudiced, or rude? It might be some, or all of those things. But it isn't censorship.

So, it seems I accidentally did two Business of Writing posts in a row. Next week, something on craft, you have my word. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support my efforts, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude.


  1. XKCD has a great comic for this.

  2. This topic has come up in most of the groups I belong to on Facebook! I shall share it.