Saturday, 10 March 2012

Freedom of Knives

I hope all those people who say you shouldn't shy away from controversial opinions in your public platform just because you worry they'll make you unpopular are right...

In truth, I've been looking for an excuse to blog, or lecture, or just generally rant on this topic for a while, and the recent farce with Paypal and Smashwords (apparently Visa are involved now as well) is basically a transparent excuse for some spleen-venting.

Now, while I worry this blog post might make me unpopular, I'm very definitely NOT siding with Paypal. What they're doing is just flat-out fucking wrong, whatever their reasons.

(sidebar: swearing should never be censored. It should, however, be saved for moments like this.)

Pursuing irrelevant, reactionary ideological lines in the provision of a service your company has previously offered to everyone is disgraceful behaviour. As is the clumsy attempt to ban harmless entertainment. I can think of very, very few circumstances in which it would be OK to ban a book (maybe if we could ban forever all books that explained how to make weaponry, but that doesn't seem plausible). Censorship, understood as the attempt to prevent opinions and ideas being aired in public forums, is wrong.

So far, so uncontroversial.

The thing that bugs me is that because this is a debate about censorship, many people have started throwing around arguments that start from the premise that 'freedom of speech' is important, and I have a very complicated relationship with the concept of 'freedom of speech'.

Let's slide into controversial waters gently. 'Freedom from censorship' is not the same as blanket freedom of speech. I often hear people defending freedom of speech by saying things like 'I may not agree with what you say, but I'll go to the gallows/barricades/other morbid tool of state oppression for your right to say it'. You can look at this two different ways.

First off, you can look at it in terms of freedom from censorship, by which I take it to mean 'I may not agree with your opinion, but I will happily defend your right to hold views I disagree with and to air them for public debate in all circumstances, provided we're all going to be reasonable and, where possible, polite'. Or you can take the hard-line interpretation of freedom of speech, along the lines of 'You may not even be stating your opinions, but I'll happily die to preserve your right to say any damn thing you like'.

See the difference? And before you think I'm being absurd, I've had several friends, people I regard as deeply intelligent in all other respects, tell me that the move from the second interpretation to the first opens the door to totalitarianism wide enough that the society that makes that move is doomed. I'll come back to this point.

You can probably see where I'm about to go. I find 'freedom of speech', construed as the freedom to say any damn thing you like, an utterly abhorrent concept. And I'm not about to make the familiar argument about incitement and hate speech, however strongly I feel that it's a good one, because the waters are very muddy and I don't know of any good studies on the topic.

The argument I'm going to make is a bit more abstract and a lot more based in my personal experience. I'm speaking primarily as a fiction writer, and I guess I'm probably speaking primarily to writers as well. What's the job of a fiction writer? To use words to affect people, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The best writers can, with nothing more than a few words, make you burst out laughing, reduce you to tears, horrify you, rip away your faith in humanity and so on.

My point? Words are powerful things. Incredibly powerful. The pen is mightier than the sword, remember? (Please, no jokes about trying to fight a duel with a pen. If you get to the duel, you've been using the pen wrong). As writers, nobody should be more aware than us of the power of words.

Just how powerful are words? Well, here's where it gets personal for me. I've been on the receiving end of a lot of bullying in my life. Not once has it ever been physical, just so we're clear. Purely verbal. I was familiar with suicidal feelings from alienation and depression before I hit puberty. To this day, the wrong remark can trigger deep depressive episodes in me, to the point that midway through last year I had to cut all contact with someone who had been a friend because they maliciously pushed my buttons once too often.

Sidebar: The most painful words I've heard in two decades of this crap? 'Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you' (and, to a lesser extent, all variations on 'they were only joking') Please, parents, stop telling this to your kids. You might think it says 'be strong and it will all bounce off'. What it actually says is 'That deep emotional pain you're feeling? We have no sympathy, stop acting up.' The difference between sticks and stones and words isn't that words can't hurt. It's that the wounds you can get from sticks and stones heal.

Because of 'sticks and stones', I actually wish I'd had more physical bullying. I'd feel less like everyone I've ever heard use that line (including both my parents and pretty much every teacher I've ever admired) thought I was pathetic.

Here's an aphorism I'd like to coin instead: A writer arguing for freedom of speech is like a surgeon arguing for freedom of knives.

Knives can do an amazing amount of good when applied to the human body. That doesn't mean we don't have laws against just anybody sticking them in people. Nobody wants to get stabbed, after all.

Actually, given how manipulative and cruel writers can be to readers, I'm not sure that a better analogy wouldn't be that we're more like muggers arguing for freedom of knives, with the key difference being that the victims of muggings don't pay up front for the privilege.

Anyway, the point I'm getting at is that arguing that people should be allowed to say any damn thing they like completely ignores this power that words have to hurt. We forget, in the tireless - and vital - struggle against all forms of ideological oppression, that the right to freedom of speech comes with the attached responsibility to speak... well, responsibly. To understand that words have power and to refrain from using that power for evil.

I'm not claiming to have any good ideas for how to ensure people speak responsibly. Certainly, to bring it back round to the point and close up a loose end from earlier, institutionalised censorship isn't the way to go, and passing laws about what people can and can't say is a very dangerous thing to do (hence the 'opening the door to totalitarianism' argument). And we do, theoretically, have a legal system which allows some form of censure against those who cause harm with their words; if you can prove that your mental health has been damaged by things people have said to you, you could probably get compensation.

Two problems there: first, finding proof, and second, you've already been hurt. Chances are that if you've been hurt badly enough to end up in court, your life is pretty much ruined. Clinical depression can be chronic, effectively incurable.

Punishing the guilty isn't as important as protecting the victims, but protecting the victims is nearly impossible. I can't help feeling, though, that it might help if we stopped arguing that victims should receive no protection at all, which is exactly what the 'say any damn thing you want' people are arguing (however well-meaning they feel themselves to be).

Freedom from ideological oppression is important, but words can really fucking hurt.

1 comment:

  1. hm..? ..."I find 'freedom of speech', construed as the freedom to say any damn thing you like, an utterly abhorrent concept. And I'm not about to make the familiar argument about incitement and hate speech, ..."

    I was wondering as I read this, if you were thinking, what I was thinking but didn't say. There were enough books in the mix at smashwords what were crime based. Not mystery novels, but pro-incest, and rape as entertainment, and that sort of thing. Enough so I actually had people tell me they didn't shop for my book at smashwords because there was so much really bad crap in the mix. I mean these books were or are IMO "knives". They are hate and mental illness. I guess it's all about what direction the sharp edges are pointed. That and it's been proven that if you can read, if you see these titles and blurbs then your mind reads them, even if you are looking for other content. I ended up putting the adult filter up most of the time. I haven't been back lately to see how it is now. Anyways, interesting rant. And I so sometimes write violent and gross stuff in my stories, just am very careful about who's getting cut up and why.