As long as there has been art, there have also been people who wished to dictate how artists expressed their subject matter. Some have even gone so far as to say that some subject matter should not and must not be expressed in any medium. Censorship has been widespread and far-reaching through most of human history. There have been times and places throughout mankind’s ascendancy on this world where to write political satire, certain forms of poetry, or erotica were worth as much as one’s freedom or life. Artists of all stripes have felt the sting of censorship, and no medium, from innocent watercolors to the very building blocks of language, has been spared censorship’s ravages.
It should come as no surprise that my chosen medium of expression is the written word. As a result, I’ve made something of a study of the history of language and fiction with a view to better understanding it. Meaning no disrespect to artists of any other discipline, from a purely academic standpoint, I believe the written word may be the most maligned form of artistic expression, even today. Censorship by government action is, of course, the default definition most people recognize, and the very word conjures images of Nazis, despots, swastikas, and the Hammer and Sickle device of Soviet Russia. In other words, where censorship is permitted and even taken as accepted, even with the purest of motives, totalitarianism cannot be far behind.
Many readers are doubtless well aware by now of the recent debacle where PayPal elected, on its own and with no real justification other than repeated quoting of their (nebulous, ever changing, and often lamented for both) Terms of Service, to tell booksellers, readers, and authors they could not use PayPal to purchase or sell certain works containing “obscene” subject matter. This began in mid-February.
For a few days, there wasn’t much information to be had aside from a few random blog posts. In hindsight, however, the seeming silence on the subject was actually more of a pause while the erotic writing community drew in a deep breath and waited to hear the rest. As the story unfolded, it was learned that PayPal had initiated sweeping action to rid shelves at Smashwords, All Romance Ebooks, and eXcessica Publishing of titles containing rape, incest, bestiality, and “other questionable material.” The merchants were effectively told to go along or face seizure of their PayPal accounts without recourse.
Writers are a fractious lot, as a rule of thumb. The old truism “When it comes to art, everyone’s a critic” holds just as true for writers as painters and sculptors. Writers even take their criticism to extremes, arguing with passionate advocacy over comma placement, the proper use of colons, semicolons, and em dashes. I myself have often equated the difficulty of getting multiple writers moving in the same direction on ANY topic to be on the same order of difficulty as herding cats. But when that eerie silence fell over the blogosphere, I suspected a tsunami could not be far behind.
In the days to come, I was proven right as outrage seared the Internet from Australia to Alaska. My first blog post on the subject shattered all previous records for visits in a single day by a factor of five. Whole months had gone by where I didn’t receive as much traffic as that one post generated. On the heels of this, petitions were launched, whole websites were dedicated to the problem (such as http://BannedWriters.com , of which I am a member), and PayPal was inundated with emails ranging in tone from confused to outright hostile.
This battle raged for over a month, flooding social media and the blogosphere with fury. In the end, after numerous denials and evasions, PayPal relented and stated they would not apply such fetters to any work that did not contain images of the behavior described. This was celebrated as a victory, and it is. When such luminaries as the ACLU, Forbes Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and TechCrunch weigh in on a subject with a universally neutral to negative tone, it inevitably draws notice. But none of that would have been possible were it not for a group of authors who put aside their own differences and varying beliefs to embrace an overarching credo: “I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Whatever you think of these topics, it is nevertheless the right of the author to determine what best serves their story. The reader and the publisher are more than capable of determining what is “acceptable” fare, without the input or aid of government or other third parties. Any form of censorship, no matter how well-intentioned, can only lead to worse and more stringent censorship if it is permitted. It is to be hoped that PayPal has learned their lesson and that the next megalithic payment company who attempts to fill PayPal’s shoes will take heed. But it would be a grave mistake to assume this is over. There have been suggestions that PayPal is doing one thing and saying another, to its own detriment and that of the free society so many have given blood and life to sustain. To say the situation bears watching is putting it mildly.
Writers, perhaps uniquely among artists, are aware of the power of words and a unified front. We proved that words can be used as a weapon to effect change. Anywhere censorship arises, or under whatever guise it may come, it is the duty of all artists to defend our basic right to express ourselves as we and our peers see fit. The stand taken was not necessarily in defense of the topical matter under question, but in defense of the fundamental right of artists to portray the world as they see it. The next time, your photographs, paintings, or sculpture could be under fire. The time to take a stand is not after the flames have been stoked, but before.
Until next time,