The Ethics of Self-Censorship

The Ethics of Self-Censorship (the person and the work)

            I am more than fortunate to be a citizen of a nation which continues to value, at least legally, a general freedom of voice and speech. Politics are one thing of course, and they come and go, but as long as the essence of free and open discourse remains a key to our understanding of democracy, one can weather the squalls along the way. Certainly, there is a current sense that such freedoms are being eroded by extremities of that self-same speech and writing that most of us cherish and look to for both inspiration and perspective. The best response to such attacks is to speak and write in return, humbling the censor with eloquent truths, or at the very least, ideals. The greatest virtue of freedom of thought and expression is that it reminds the parochial mind that there is an entire world of diverse differences of which all must take account. In expressing these differences, we realize the Gestalt of the human species at large, including becoming more understanding of its species-essence.

            Yet self-censorship is, perhaps oddly, near the heart of this human dialogue. In day-to-day life, each of us, if we care about the social whole and about individual others, curtails our most frank sensibilities, generally regarding relatively trivial things. The old saw about the ‘white lie’, the patent non-response to such questions as ‘does this dress make me look fat?’ and such-like, are likely obvious to almost everyone. Such minor dishonesties, we agree, make the social wheel go round, and no one needs to know what we actually think about every little thing that could pass in front of us by the end of each day. This form of self-censorship is part of the package by and through which we maintain our sociality, even to the point of supporting our community or yet our culture. We cast a look of reproof at those who don’t play along with this mildly duplicitous game – children are not necessarily expected to be reliable players, but they learn, over time, how to master it, just as did we ourselves – as it stands to reason that they are not keeping up their end of the socially agreed upon bargain. In this, our sanction is in keeping with a number of other kinds of ‘betrayals’, if you will, that fuel various conflicts which buttress media copy in our time.

            More intense versions of sociality, as in crises where we imagine relationships or work life is at stake, require of us either distinct diplomacy or a yet transcendental tact. Here, where we are perhaps far more tempted to speak exactly as our conscience, or our ego, directs us, we rather reign in at least some of this personal truth given obligations or future rewards. ‘Do I preserve my marriage?’ is never of course a momentary kind of question, but we also know just how far to one side or the other a thoughtless comment here and there can travel. Intimate relations gone awry, the proverbial lovers’ tiff, the back and forth of friendship, even the contractually manufactured trust given to those who are hired to do this or that task in lieu of our own incompetent selves, also require self-censorship. To ‘not bite’ on potential baited editorials sometimes freely had from contractors presents to us a choice. In struggling intimacies, that same choice writ much more expensively, occurs and may indeed recur. Each of us is charged with well-known scripts that are themselves contrivances in principle, but in practice may become the pith of romance, even love.

            But none of this is usually in the discussion regarding freedom of expression, though it should be present at least as a backdrop. It tells us that we are, for the larger part, quite skilled at being our own censors, and thus would appear to render any institutional or yet State action superfluous. We can, in a word, police ourselves. Those who can’t, out themselves all too readily and are thus subject to a variety of sanctions, that is, if the rest of us stand firm in our avowal of keeping things moving along. Yes, the direction of this movement, who is steering, and what goals lay ahead or afar, all this can be debated, but the basic sense that our sociality should not be destroyed of a piece must also be ever-present, even foremost, in our minds. To that regard, the cut and thrust of conflicting interpretations and ideas can thence take place without placing stakes upon that dialogical table that would break us, bankrupting the individual and the collective the both. It does seem of late, however, that the bulwarks which shore up this delicate balance between freedom and sociality are being challenged more than usual, or at least, more than in recent mortal memory. Is this truly the case, or are we experiencing the push and pull of larger, historical changes to society and thus are made witness to more extreme voices reacting to such changes?

            First of all, the traditional difference between author and work may be cited. Nietzsche, perhaps coyly, perhaps irresponsibly but yet also honestly, reminded us that ‘I am one thing, my books are another’. Barring bare-faced autobiography, it is certainly correct to state that the person and the work are two different things. Even in composing memoir material, we are as persons who live, reflecting upon a life already lived, one that we are not quite living in the present, and thus there is an important difference to be observed. I waited a full twenty years plus before writing of my experiences in the deepest south, the Mississippi Delta, simply because those three years were an intensely focused, almost ethnographic journey, so overfull with richness and impoverishment that ‘processing’ all of it took a great deal of time, even though for portions of the interim was spent doing so tacitly, perhaps even sub-consciously. When the account was complete, I saw a quite different person populating the pages. Indeed, my wife found my previous self to be unrecognizable, as she did not know me at the time. I seldom flip back into my own books, but the rare moment I do, I am always struck by the voice of these earlier works, which sound so unlike my own today. To a degree, a different person wrote these books, someone with the same name as myself, but someone living another life, with differing experiences foremost in their mind, and distinct imagery inhabiting the landscape afore their mind’s eye.

            Even so, in none of these now fifty-seven works, will you find self-censorship. But you will find a series of different selves, or selfhoods. On the one side, this is one of the great privileges of writing, especially if one writes fiction. An unpopular tone may be placed in a character’s voice, blasphemy or even hate speech could spout from a villain, narcissism from the naïve hero, or a magnanimity foreign to the author’s person might save the day. There are no limits to literary ventriloquism. Philp Roth was a writer who played and ployed with this unlimited Mardi Gras of hall-of-mirrors theater. Readers may have felt they knew what the author was thinking, or at least intending, but post-Barthes this is naïve at best. Authorial intent is essentially irrelevant to readerly interpretation, and so it should be. Who cares what the author thinks about his works? In publication, the author becomes merely another reader. Yes, she may clarify in interview, for example, but this is still her reading. Books, and other kinds of media more recently, take on a life of their own and their potential meanings reside beyond any one person’s control or expectation.

            Yes, but what of this openness, this freedom, laying beyond institutional or discursive control? This is a more difficult question, one that cares nothing for authorial intent in the first place. In the history of hermeneutics, it was Schleiermacher who generalized exegetical interpretation, circumscribed as it had been to the reading of sacred texts alone, to all books. Dilthey went one better, challenging of us to interpret the world, both social reality and also the world of forms. The world is not a text, per se, let alone one autographed by a divine hand, as it was imagined to be during the Medieval period, but the process of interpretation is much the same. A book is a slice of reality, allegorical perhaps, or biographical. The world is the source of human experience in general, Dilthey reminded us, and thus it is its own repository of potential freedoms and limits alike. Fiction removes many of these limits, accentuating the worldly freedoms human beings find fascinating. Non-fiction allows us to get a handle on both freedom and limit in a realistic manner. Knowing the world means also to know how each of us might read accounts thereof. What are we looking for in a ‘good read’? What kind of voice, or positioning of such a voice, appeals to us, and how does that shed light on how we ourselves narrate the world? But from an institutional point of view, an organization bent on reproducing itself and its attendant powers, or yet developing them, perhaps at our expense, such diverse readings may become a threat.

            There may well be a sense, amongst those whose tendency is to conserve things as they are or as they imagined them to be, that fiction and non-fiction, even fantasy and reality, have become so blurred as to be indistinguishable. It is amusing to read about Moll Flander’s misadventures, another thing to actually be related to someone like her in the real world. And yet the one strongly implies the other. The ‘hook’ of most fiction is that it reminds us of our own lives, perhaps wincingly in some cases, perhaps with a sage nod of the head in others. Even so, this is where self-censorship reappears; we do not deny the unpolished aspects of ourselves and others, but we manage them, work around them, in daily life. Fiction has no need of this, nor even non-fiction, with its anthropological apologies in tow. If some of us begin to see in others the unbounded timbre of literary character or yet caricature in social reality, we may take some umbrage. This is, I think, part of the story surrounding the resistance to the LGBTQ2+ presence on the social stage. It is outrageous to wield epithets such as ‘misfit’ or ‘mutant’ against our fellow human beings, but less so to question why and how some of us have decided to apparently make art into life. The most pressing query must be: am I, in my altered state, still willing to abide by the basic rules of sociality by which all indeed must abide?

            Here, ‘I’ is used not so much as a place-holder or yet filler, but rather to make more intimate a general question we tend to only direct away from ourselves. In doing so, we place ourselves at risk of becoming too complacent with traditions or what is deemed customary, when these, in every healthy society, should be regularly questioned much in the same manner as we question government spending or policy initiatives. We need not become as the philosopher, to whom nothing is sacred and for whom the question no one asks is the immediately and automatically the most important. No, he’s just doing his job, one by which the body politic and body culture can recognize as a somewhat hyperbolic role model. I am not being slyly disingenuous here. My fiction is mostly agenda narrative, so it cannot, and should not, ever be considered even to be an attempt at art. But just so, how agenda driven are those who have seemingly so radically departed from this or that social norm, and how missionary are they? We may well question this given our own sordid histories replete with both activist agenda and immodest mission. If those who do not seem to practice daily self-censorship are to be seen as living literature, they may yet open our perspective to other possibilities of being human. But if they are merely flaneurs, flaunting a fashionable formula in opposition to basic, if perhaps tired, social relations, we might do well to question them in the same way we discuss a book meant to rattle our shared velvet cage. In doing so, surely we will uncover something interesting about our own allegiances to that framework, even if we also discover that ‘living art’ is a vain attempt to excise oneself from the shared responsibility of keeping sociality the very space from which human freedom is born.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.