You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.
For some reason, that line from the movie Rosewater has been running through my head for much of the past two weeks. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, Rosewater is basically the extremist version of censorship – an Iranian journalist who’d emigrated to the UK some time ago is back to cover the 2009 elections, and when protests break out, he’s afraid to film them for fear of being detained.
Sometimes I feel like here in the States, we think we don’t have to worry so much about censorship anymore, because we’re protected by First Amendment rights. But do they really offer that much protection against fear?
Not so much.
We’re lucky, in a lot of ways, that yes, we don’t have to worry about whether we’ll be thrown in jail for witnessing something the government doesn’t want us to see. But censorship still pops up in other ways, usually in the form of offending someone else’s delicate sensibilities.
By now you might have heard about Michael Stokes’ ban from Facebook, but if you’re not, it seems some Facebook users took offense to some of his pictures. I admit, I enjoy ogling the mostly naked men he likes to photograph, and I absolutely love the skill and passion he’s shown photographing veterans with prosthetic limbs. He’s reminding us they are still human, still gorgeous, and still deserving of being objectified in the same manner we’d drool over Chris Hemsworth.
(I’m only half-joking about that.)
Several months ago, when I first joined the Self-Publishing Info Swap loop, I heard about something called the Amazon Dungeon. Seems the Dungeon is where books go to die – someone behind the scenes at Amazon flags your title as Adult (i.e. offensive) and the book, while still technically available for sale, doesn’t show up in searches. I mostly just brushed it aside, because at the time, dinosaur erotica was big, and wouldn’t that be considered bestiality, and therefore not allowed by Amazon’s standards? Yet there it was, and people were buying it mostly so they could make fun of it.
So imagine my surprise when I get the notice from Amazon that yay, Rehab has been published and is available for sale…and then when I search for it, I’m only able to find it by going to my Amazon Author Central page. It took me two days to figure out something was wrong, and by searching Sales Rank Express, I was able to find the problem.
I’d been Adulted and relegated to the Dungeon. All because someone at Amazon took offense to something in my story – most likely the cover. It is pretty hot.
The thing is, censorship is happening all over the place in our country, and it’s all couched in fear. We’re afraid we might get gay cooties if we catch a glimpse of two very attractive male police officers locked in an embrace. We’re afraid of what might happen to our children’s poor little brains if they stumble across an erotic romance by accident. And in some cases, we’re afraid of what state secrets might come out if we allow some intrepid reporter to chase a story that paints the government in a bad light (see: Kill the Messenger).
There’s a simple solution to that. Block images you don’t want to see. Install parental controls, or if those fail, talk to your kids about what they’re looking at. Shoving it under the rug and shaking your finger at it will only ensure it’ll continue.
The older I get, and the deeper I get into publishing in general, the more aware I am of how limited my freedom of speech actually is. We’re not living in fear of being dragged in front of the HUAC any longer, but there are things people can hide behind that mean no one will read those books or see those pictures. It’s aggravating to think there’s some pearl-clutcher sitting in front of her computer somewhere, scrolling the multitude of nearly naked men posted on Facebook and reporting them (clearly she hasn’t seen Tumblr.) Or a snooty, nose-in-the-air professorial type flagging gay and lesbian books meant for children because he doesn’t believe a child needs to be educated about sex, gender, and “choices” that aren’t actually choices.
Both Amazon and Facebook have written standards for content. Those standards are there for a reason, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there. We do need them. They’re what prevent the truly depraved and exploitative material from being run in front of the general public, and for that, I’m grateful (although did we really need dino-porn?)
The problem is those standards are based too much in opinion. If you have enough people on Facebook who flag a picture by Michael Stokes as inappropriate, it’ll get taken down. Same with Amazon – if someone behind the scenes deems your work inappropriate, you’re screwed. While it’d be a free for all if there weren’t standards, both venues need to take a good, hard look at how those standards are being upheld. Stokes’ Facebook ban was eventually lifted after numerous people protested – but what if the better response to begin with was to instruct those offended on how to activate the controls embedded in the site so they don’t see them?
Bottom line: censorship is alive and well and living next door to you. Isn’t it time we all sat down at the table and talked about it instead of lobbing these passive-aggressive bombs at each other?