Are You Being Censored, Or Are You Just Being Unpopular?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s a behavior I call “dick-tionarying” someone, which generally involves hauling out the Merriam-Webster’s and saying, “Well, actually….” to tell someone why they’re wrong.
One of the most frequent dick-tionarying topics?  Censorship.  Because someone says some unpopular thing and enough people cry for their head, and the next thing you know they’ve lost their job.  And they say, “Well, that’s censorship!” and the dictionary gets unfolded and people say, “Actually, it’s only censorship if the government’s involved.  That’s just the free market.”
But the difference?  Pretty fuckin’ slim from the point of the person who just lost their job.  If you were a gay person in the 1950s, good luck getting your views published in the New York Times, and forget getting them on CBS.  If you were a vocal advocate of interracial marriage in the 1970s, well, you probably weren’t going to make it as a newscaster.  There’s no official term yet for “Being unable to get your opinion heard in the widest arenas because nobody wants to hear them,” but I’m pretty sure that a lot of my transgendered friends feel the lack of a voice.
The fact that there’s no law making this happen, just a bunch of people voting with their dollars, doesn’t make it less painful to the people affected.  I mean, Cheerios just got a lot of negative pushback from their commercial showing a mixed-race couple.  If enough people protest, Cheerios will not feature mixed-race couples in future advertisements, nor will other advertisers be likely to do so.  And there will be a lack of interracial families on television, giving the impression people who watch a lot of television as though interracial couples are rare and freaky things, and making it harder for those people to feel included in mainstream America.
But that’s not censorship.  That’s just people making their preferences heard.  And if enough of the Cheerios crowd want to see no interracial couples fouling their airwaves because it makes them unhappy, then those couples will be deleted.  An opinion will be messily removed, and the talk will proceed without them.
As someone who wants talks to have all sorts of inputs, those absences concern me.
Thing is, it works both ways.  There’s no censorship at play if Resnick and Malzberg lose their column in the SFWA Bulletin over their stream of offensive comments towards women and liberals.  That’s just straight-up market pressure from people voting with their dollars… and if you’re a conservative who agrees with the boys, well, maybe it’s not censorship, but you just got told to shut the fuck up, same as all the other liberal examples.  You annoyed the crowd, and you got booted.
Is that good or bad?  My take is that it doesn’t matter.  It’s merely a fact of life: piss off enough people and they will no longer want to hear you.  That’s a terror that people don’t like thinking about – that the world is basically a big game of Survivor, and you can get voted off the island, often by people you violently disagree with – but the blade that cuts your crazy liberal ideas out of the nightly news is the same blade that’s probably moving to cut Resnick and Malzberg down now.
So be aware of the blade.
When you speak in public, especially as a professional writer, it is your job to be aware of who you are offending.  Maybe you’ll choose specifically to offend people, as a way of speaking truth to power – with the very real risk of never being heard from again.  And if you choose to thoughtfully break those ties, I salute you no matter what side you’re on, as you’ve just made a statement of conscience at cost.  I may disagree violently with you, but you just put your voice on the line to say what you thought was true.
But what Resnick and Malzberg did, I feel, was to offend without thinking.  This column was their space, a place to pat each other on the back – note the way they recommended each other’s books as great books in a prior column – and make dinosaur in-jokes at everyone’s expense, all at eight cents a word.  They weren’t thinking about anyone else’s opinions because hey, we’re Resnick and Malzberg, we’ve been saying crazy stuff for years, who could possibly be offended by us stirring the pot?
One senses a thorough befuddlement in their writings, as though “How could this have happened?”  And that’s the stupid end of not-quite-censorship.  You should know what your audience consists of… and if you’re going to insult large portions of them, you should at least do so with a concise, compact argument and not a lot of Statler-and-Waldorf blathering.  Because in a sense, it’s more offensive to be insulted by people who barely seem to understand that you exist.
You’re always going to run into that potential of the crowd rising up whenever you speak offense.  So make sure you don’t insult people for stupid reasons.  Do it thoughtfully, purposefully, concisely, masterfully, logically, unassailably. Do it to make change.  Do it to change minds.
Because your public opinion is always, always, at the mercy of other people’s good will.  It’s a currency.  Spend it wisely.

1 Comment

  1. Lisa Nohealani Morton
    Jun 5, 2013

    I think it’s a key difference that the Cheerios ad was Cheerios speaking on their own behalf using their own platform, and the Dialogues were Resnick and Malzberg not just using SFWA’s platform to speak but being paid to do it. It’s the opposite end of the marketplace. If Cheerios had decided not to run the ad, or to pull it (and obviously I’m glad they did run it), a closer analogy would be if the agency that made the ad claimed Cheerios was censoring them.

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