Is There Anything Wrong With Self-Censorship?

I know I’m a little late for Banned Books Week, but I had a discussion with Moritheil on Twitter the other day that turned from why people were more enraged about a certain webcomic’s rape joke and not a Colombian telenovela about an abused girl living in poverty to a debate on censorship and self-censorship. I feel like the debate needs a bit of further exploration.

First of all, I’m against any form of legal censorship. I would never ever want to legally ban a book, a theme or any other thing that would hinder creators from expressing something in their works. However, journalism ethical standards were pounded into me during college. Not only was I required to take a class purely on ethics, but many of my other degree-related classes talked about ethics as well. What I took away from those classes is that your article, novel or other form of creative work could very well hurt a person or cause them to harm themselves. Every professor I had classes with had a story where an article they wrote and published caused a subject to kill themselves or lose something that impacted them a lot, like a job, their family, etc. There were many other times when one of their subjects would threaten to do harm if they published the article. Whenever such stories came up, my classmates and I wound up being questions on what we would do. Did we risk publishing if it meant someone was harmed? Was there something else to be gained by going ahead and printing it? Even when there was some benefit behind it all, how did we feel knowing that we might have blood on our hands? It was heavy stuff to consider when none of us had ever published much more than local news stories.

While I wouldn’t say this issue comes up much on this blog, my twitter or the other places I write the most, I have been thinking about the potential emotional and physical impact creative works have on other people. There have been more than a few webcomics that have taken jabs at rape, women and other things that weren’t funny to a lot of people who got very mad about said jokes.

But forget for a second the people who are able to get loud and vocal about it, what about the people who don’t speak up? What about the men and women who were raped? What about the women who are mistreated every day by men? What about jokes about murder or suicide, for example, and how it affects those who lost someone? How does it feel to be a victim of rape, abuse and murder and read these jokes? It must hurt a lot, I imagine. Yet do creators stop to think about who they’re hurting as they write these gags? Doesn’t seem like it.

Comics creators are one of the creators that think the most about whom they’re creating for. Living with one creator, having read manga for so long, it’s obvious to me that a lot of them think about “will this sell” and “will my audience like this.” While a lot of comics creators love what they do immensely and do it in part to fulfill their needs to create what they love, very few never think about who’s going to be reading. But do they think about who they hurt at the same time? Sometimes, but I’d really like to see them do it more. Here’s where self-censorship comes into play.

I’ll reiterate that I don’t want to put any bans on any creators. What I would to do is encourage creators, especially comics creators, to think about whom they might hurt with a joke and make the choice whether or not that needs to be their punch line. Would they actually change their material because they stopped to think about it? I don’t know and it’s up to them.

On the other hand, plenty of creators do this all the time. They decide whether or not a certain subject would be appropriate for what they are doing, tossing out ideas left and right that they are against or think their audience would react poorly to.

Now, dear readers, do you think trying to encourage creators to think about those who might be negatively affected by their work is outright censorship? What about self-censorship? How do you feel about comics creators choosing to specifically avoid certain jokes and topics? Is it wrong for people to be enraged and hurt by creators who choose to include such topics? Are we oppressing these creators’ choices by saying we’d like to see more sensitive punchlines or are our values as a society changing ahead of some creators’?

What do you think?

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5 Responses to Is There Anything Wrong With Self-Censorship?

  1. Wintermuted says:

    True meat for the mind. But for my own take on what should be considered as bereft of tact, or insensitive (especially in the creative ; recorded arts), I feel that it is not on the same level as journalism, and has as much a right to be there as anything else. This is by no means a slight against those who may find themselves offended by certain events, words, ideas, but rather a slippery slope that must remain open forum. After all, experiences vary from human being to human being, and as such, it is near-impossible to know where the skin is the thinnest.

    And self-censorship, at least to me, makes little sense as a means to curb this phenomenon, as it is more a matter of social & psychological patterns as exposed to changing mores splinter people into different realms of effect. Imagine the number of folks who have been less akin toward offense regarding issues that are now being seen as vital, when only a few decades ago were largely taboo. It is because in the shifts in cultural attitudes brought upon by a free expression community that this happens. Again, there is no clear barometer for artisans of any kind to work with in regards to individual taste.

    Again, for some artists that express in ways I don’t dare follow, I can see the ingrained need to share these ideas & notions. And yet I can’t imagine censorship that happens before the work is finalized. It is what happens post the work since there is no objective view as to what will fly and not. Even walking on egg shells cannot render some ideas harmfully impotent. In fact, I’m of the belief that there is a necessity to stare difficulty in the face in order to waylay stranger repercussions in the future. It has happened before.

    All this said, if it can raise the bar for some, rather I’m all for a more clever means of expression, rather than always be a blunt object. But sometimes, blunt artistic assault can be fully warranted. It just depends.

    • Journalism ethics don’t always apply to other mediums, but I always thought that one was food for thought. After all, entertainment has a profound effect on our lives and we remember things like movies and books long after we consume them.

      It would be unfair to impose creative restrictions on creators, but it feels like some don’t realize the negative effects their work could have. In the end, I’d just like creators to think about their impact more. It’s still up to them whether or not they stop creating offensive jokes, but I feel like a punchline with a misogynistic joke could be just as funny if the misogynist gets his comeuppance a few panels later.

      I’m definitely sick of comics that treat women like nothing as objects, treat rape as something to brush off and whatnot, but I’m only in a position to talk about it. I would hope that the creators make the sincere choice to move their jokes away from such subject themselves.

      Sorry if this sounds like a weird response. It’s a little difficult to make my thoughts clear here. ^_^

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  3. Kris says:

    If someone wants to censor themselves, that’s fine. It’s based on the creator’s personal feelings about something. But in some cases it’s ridiculous.
    What you are talking about is on another level. When I think “censorship,” I think about the stupid way comic books edit swear words as “@#@#$%” like no one can tell what’s supposed to be there. If you can’t say what you want to say, maybe you don’t really need to be saying it. That show “*bleep* My Dad Says” makes me groan every time I hear mention of it. It’s obviously “Shit my dad says,” but you can’t say that on that channel I guess. Personally, I think if you can’t say the name of your show on the channel it airs on, you should name it something else.

    But this idea that what you say could seriously harm someone…. If it’s on a personal level, like a story about someone/something very specific, then maybe it takes a second look, maybe you need to really think about it and check yourself. If it’s some random joke in a comic? No way. Because you just don’t know who is reading. You’re going to offend someone at some point no matter what, and it’s absurd to basically never talk about anything that might at some point offend someone. It’s also impossible.
    I kind of think that you can do one or the other: say whatever you want, or walk on egg shells.

    • Well. To be fair to the Shit My Dad Says TV show, they would get fined a lot of money if they actually said “shit” on air. That’s FCC rules and it’s just how broadcasting in general works. (The FCC is pretty dumb.)
      The rape joke thing isn’t just about hurting someone, it’s also a larger cultural thing a lot of people assign blame unto rape victims for no reason. The biggest problem with that joke is that it rejected a rape victim because it wasn’t worth the while of the hero to help a person in need. What kind of message does that send? Not the best one, even if the strip is meant to be a parody on video games. I could honestly see it be rewritten in a manner, just as funny, perhaps more controversial to the eyes of stupid people, where the “hero” has some sympathy for the victim, but can’t help him because he doesn’t have the capacity to save the guy in the game. Same with the womanizing joke in the other webcomic that I mentioned- it could easily be rewritten slightly to make for a less offending joke by just adding a panel or two showing the womanizer getting his comeuppance. I don’t feel like it’s walking eggshells when you could make it just as funny, but ten times less demeaning with little effort. (Also, I wouldn’t say “never” talk about something that offends. There are ways to talk about them in creative works that addresses the issue, but avoids being offended.) Anyway, in the end, women and rape victims make up for a substantial group of people, so making offensive jokes about those groups…? Yeah, you’re going to offend someone very fast.

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