The other day, I posted about the SFWA Bulletin Petition thing. I’m not going to rehash that debate here, though you’re welcome to read it (there are links at the bottom of that post to other discussions). However, I do think it a good idea to take a moment to talk about the rhetoric surrounding this ordeal, because much of the anger and confusion is, if not deliberate, then certainly the product of a particular discourse which naturally stifles debate or discussion. The centerpiece of this rhetorical game is “censorship,” which many have already discussed at some length elsewhere. Here, I’m interested in how “censorship” is used in the service of the agenda at the heart of the petition and the debates that followed:
I. Censorship is a Distortion
First, I think it is worth reminding everyone that in discussions that begin with censorship, the charge itself is almost always not reflective of reality. The original version of Truesdale’s petition argues, for example, that the SFWA is “about to institute a policy of censorship based on political correctness in the organization’s
public publication,” followed closely by the following:
The search for a new Bulletin editor followed the Summer 2013 resignation (under pressure) of the then (lady) editor (for the use of an “inappropriate” cover among other alleged crimes), and the brouhaha involving two long-time and well respected Bulletin columnists whose use of the words “lady editors,” “beautiful,” and a few other innocuous descriptive words led, for the first time in the history of the Bulletin, to its suspension (as of this writing no editor has been selected and the Bulletin remains in limbo).
As has already been pointed out by many people (see the links in my original post), this charge not only misrepresents what censorship is, but also the events which led the SFWA to make the changes that it did. It is either a deliberate distortion, or a delusional one, but a distortion nonetheless. Much of this relies on fuzzy terminology, such as the idea of “political correctness,” which in one light might mean “respectful” and in another might mean “stifling,” though the latter is definitively not the intent nor the purpose of the acts that frequently fall under “PC” (a distortion in and of itself). After all, to ask someone not to call black people “niggers” in a professional publication is hardly “politically correct” (i.e., stifling of one’s speech), but really a request for common courtesy at the very least. “Politically correct,” in other words, is just a buzzword for “I want to be able to say whatever I want without getting called out for it.” In a civilized culture, that’s hardly a reasonable position to take.
Back to the subject of censorship as a distortion: Truesdale himself lists the offensive aspects of SFWA’s editorial job description, none of which fit within the definition he provides by implication. Censorship, in his argument, must by necessity have a political agenda. Yet, when he pressed Steven Gould for an answer to this “agenda,” the response demonstrated the exact opposite. As Gould wrote, “We don’t have guidelines for “acceptable” articles, art, and ads other than content needs to serve the needs of the organization. Chief among those are our 5 core mission areas: to inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for professional writers.” Simple right? Since the job of an editor is quite literally to fulfill the mission of whatever publication they edit, and that editor is answerable to whoever pays to publish the works, it’s hardly censorship to request that an editor have to do any of these things, particularly given the context in which the SFWA has made its claims. So the argument that an editor doing what an editor does in the service of a publication with a specific purpose is “censorship” is merely a distortion of editorial duties, and one grounded in a perspective which neither acknowledges that mutual respect must fall on the grounds of language (because language matters), but also within the terms of a given space. In this case, the SFWA’s space has a specific purpose, and the SFWA, it appears, has taken steps to make sure the Bulletin is relevant only to that purpose. There’s no active attempt to prevent members within the SFWA’s borders from saying what they like, just as there is no requirement for the Bulletin to publish whatever gets sent to it, as is completely reasonable. That’s just reality.
Ultimately, censorship is rarely used in situations where it actually applies in these debates, in large part because censorship almost never occurs in these debates. Real censorship looks like this:
- You’re threatened with or put in prison because of what you say or write by the government or someone working for that government.
- You’re threatened with or a victim of violence because of what you say or write by the same.
- You’re preventing from accessing avenues of speech by the same. For example: if you run an online newspaper and the government shuts down your Internet or destroys your computers.
- Or any other situation in which the government directly interferes with your ability to freely exercise your speech (setting aside, of course, cases of libel, etc.).
Since this petition relies on casting not only its initial terminology (censorship), but also the events in question within a perspective which requires absolute adherence to the first and absolute rejection of the latter (on the terms of the author alone), there’s little room for an actual debate here. In fact, the distortion of censorship (applying it in a scenario where suddenly “editing” becomes “censorship”) is a distraction. In vociferously defending this notion of “free speech” in a context in which it definitely does not apply, those who hold this position betray not only their ignorance of the terms, but also a profound disinterest in debate about the actual issue.
As I noted to Paul Levinson in the comments section of my previous post, it’s clear that “censorship” is merely a simple tool to get to a point without actually articulating the real issue. In other words, it’s a distraction. By the definition of censorship I have already poked holes into in the previous section, it’s patently absurd and false to use the term at all. Yet, in doing so, those who tow the censorship line engage in an almost deliberate act of obfuscation:
By your definition, all publications which have any guidelines whatsoever are acts of censorship, which makes the definition meaningless, except that it reveals something which is at the heart of all of this: this isn’t about actual censorship, but rather about what certain individuals don’t think should be removed from the discourse in a specific and focused institution. It’s about the *what,* not the action itself. “Censorship” is just the smokescreen being used to make this sound bigger than it really is, because it’s far more difficult to justify why the SFWA *must* print the kinds of things Truesdale would like to see published without it.
At best, censorship is just lazy argumentation here. It’s a way of saying “here’s the answer” without providing the reasons. It’s the syllogism without sound premises. In focusing one’s discourse on support for a censorship accusation, you really succeed in keeping the rest of us focused on that, too. And since it’s utterly asinine as a claim, that means anything you might have said beneath it gets lost in the shuffle.
More importantly, arguing “censorship” stifles the ability to debate the issue at all. Those who argue against this position are labeled accordingly as “thought police” or “censors” or “fascists,” terms which have emotional and cultural meaning that varies from person to person. There’s almost no possibility of a reasoned debate when the terms of engagement have been so rigidly defined. Either you disagree with censorship or you don’t…and if you don’t, you’re bad.
“Censorship” is also serves as a painfully simple way to attack one side of a debate without providing an actual argument.
On that front…
III. Censorship is a Fear Tactic
Why else bring up “censorship” in situations where it clearly does not apply except to scare other people into agreeing? This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it is also a serious fallacy that has, unfortunately, been associated with the term in question precisely because “censorship” is used incorrectly at such a frequent rate. But that’s precisely the rhetoric at play here. Truesdale’s petition is utterly obsessed with this kind of rhetorical terror. From the first paragraphs, he accuses the SFWA of censoring, but he also implies by way of a not-so-innocent question that Gould may see himself as an authoritarian thought police. He likewise claims that this is mostly about straight males, who are, he implies, the target of this oppression, and that because the SFWA believes itself diverse, it must necessarily represent straight male views on things like sexy magazine covers (I kid you not).
All of this is meant to scare us. It is particularly meant to scare people who believe in 1) free speech, 2) freedom from discrimination, and 3) democratic government. That the SFWA is 1) not the government, 2) not an institution whose goals seem to have anything to do with discrimination (except tangentially), and 3) not the government, it’s alarmingly transparent how desperate Truesdale’s petition is to terrify the SFWA and its members. After all, he also says “This sounds far too much like a fascistic approach to freedom of speech couched in the usual language of ‘for the good of the people.'” I’ll just point you back to the section on distortions.
And since all of this is part of the easy, lazy tactic of “censorship” accusations, it’s no wonder it has been so soundly rejected by members of this community at large.
IV. What is this all actually about?
In trying to dig my way through all of this, I was struck by how difficult it is to figure out exactly what Truesdale and the people supporting him want (aside from “the SFWA shouldn’t do undefined X”). If censorship is not a legitimate claim, but rather a smokescreen for what are real issues (or issues which appear real), then it follows that there must be a point to all of this that is discernible. There are attempts to articulate the position, mind you, but they are almost always couched in the rhetoric of censorship rather than self-contained. Censorship is the main issue, not these other things; censorship is the charge, while everything else is tangential. This is precisely the problem with censorship claims, though. It distorts and distracts us from what the accuser is actually upset about, as if in some kind of Lacanian schema wherein the subject verbally expresses discontent over X, but subconsciously is concerned with Y. Getting from X to Y is understandably difficult. In any case, here are the things I think are at the heart of this:
1) It’s not about censorship, but about not being allowed to “say” what one wants to say.
Naturally, this is a slight distortion, as the SFWA is not obligated to give you a venue to say whatever you like. Presumably, Truesdale and others aren’t advocating an editorial policy where anything goes either, though the rhetoric seems to suggest otherwise. The Bulletin is not a soapbox. However, it seems to me that many of the voices on the “other side” of this debate are upset that their words have been deemed unacceptable within the Bulletin’s pages. This is obviously true, but the grounds on which that determination was made seems to have more to do with the Bulletin’s purpose as a professional publication for professional writers than anything else. Unless the SFWA allows itself to become the mouthpiece for the opposite side of the debate, rather than cutting all political discussions from its pages in order to meet the actual needs of its membership (writing advice / publication tips / etc.), this charge is difficult to imagine for me. I see an organization deciding “this is not the place for this kind of discussion.” One could certainly disagree, but to do that, the whole censorship line has to be dropped so it isn’t the focus.
2) It’s not about censorship, but about the purpose of the SFWA as they see it
I think the main reason this point is not articulated has to do with an unwillingness on the part of the people involved in this discussion to articulate what they know will be ripped to shreds. Even if you disagree that the covers and articles which caused the SFWA controversies last year are sexist, it’s really hard to justify unprofessional behavior within the organization itself as necessary for a professional organization or its professional publications. Then again, I could be wrong.
3) Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg were unfairly pilloried
I’m sure this is at the heart of it because some have literally said as much. I’ve covered this in the previous post, though, so I won’t do that here.
That’s really all I can think of, to be honest. Maybe I’m missing something and readers can fill me in.
Censored by the Advisory Committee of Dukedom (or, Conclusions)
In the end, I think it’s time that everyone move away from censorship charges as a rhetorical tactic. It does nothing to further debate. If anything, it hinders it by making it more difficult to get to the real issue. And that’s a serious problem when it comes to our ability to engage on much of anything.
But I also think it’s high time more people took more, well, time to actually understand what women, people of color, and, hell, even men, are concerned about in our community. It’s that lack of understanding, or, rather, the seeming refusal to understand, that produces so much turmoil in our community. Some might call it “checking your privilege,” but I see it as more universal: it’s just common courtesy to take criticism, when articulated as criticism rather than hate, to heart. You don’t have to agree with all criticisms, of course, but it’s a good idea to think about where to give ground. And as I keep saying, if it costs you nothing to give some ground, why not give it? We do it in every other context anyway, after all…