In Defense of the Offensive

In the past, censorship was enabled through regulations on what could be sent by mail.

In the past, censorship was enabled through regulations on what could be sent by mail.

I found it hard to find a good title for this; the one I’ve chosen doesn’t really fit the bill. Our world is becoming more and more complex, and the modes of distribution wider and wider. The internet and digitization of material has meant that barriers to publication –  once the purview of mostly wealthy, entitled white men – have been dramatically lowered. Censorship was never solely in the hands of the state. True, states enacted laws that limited what could be published (made public), but publishers and bookstores have always been able to exert control on what, in practical terms, saw the light of day. With a few, notable exceptions, this form of control resided in the hands of the privileged. And indeed some of those privileged entities did see beyond their own narrow interests and published and distributed works that reflected other realities, told stories of the unempowered, served as rallying cries to revolutions. But it was always dependent on their choice to do so.

I want to make this point clearly. Even when publishers like Grove Press chose to publish works that were deemed ‘obscene’, they weren’t obliged to do so. They were always the decision makers. Similarly, bookstores could choose whether or not to carry those books. Some stores may have chosen to – but they were in control of the decision to do so.

Our historical memory is often convenient and selective. Miller vs California, the landmark case that brought the subject of obscenity to the Supreme Court was not about whether it could or could not be published, but whether it could be sent through the US postal service. States have always employed middle-men to do their censoring for them.

The ability to write, format, upload and self-publish on the internet changed this. Yay. It’s not that you might want to read whatever is available to you now, but at least the choice lies with the reader, not with the middle-men. Mostly.

However, there are significant limits to this freedom. Huge online bookstores like Amazon DO make active decisions on what they will allow sold on their sites. And transaction processors, like Paypal DO make active decisions on what material they will process payments on. The state now rarely needs to prosecute a publisher directly. It can rely on commercial entities to act in fear of prosecution, or simply rely on them to act of as arbiters of what is ‘fit’ for readers to read. Very much like the U.S. Postal service in 1973. Similarly, servers can be pressured to ban customers who post obscene material – and do so regularly. It is fundamentally disingenuous to say that the acts of these commercial entities don’t constitute a form of censorship. And in the 21st Century, economic censorship has just as much teeth to stifle speech as the Committee for Unamerican Activities once had.

Yes, of course, a writer can choose to publish their works for free. But in a society where money has become the single, most important measure of value, this becomes a complex matter of perception. How can any work offered for free be of value? Oh, you may say it is the content that counts, but this attitude is not borne out by consumer behaviour research. A book given away for free is consistently rated lower than a book someone has paid money for, even when it’s the same book. So having a book for sale – even when its pricetag is $0.99 – is always going to infer that its contents are of greater worth.

A couple of weeks ago, Jenny Trout, an author, decided to express her disgust for an ebook called ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress: Werewolf Fetish Vampire MILF Sex Slave‘. I haven’t read it and, after perusing the other titles the author has on offer, it’s unlikely I will. Not really my cup of tea. But the irony is that the title is misleading. There is, it seems, one very short story that involves the subject matter in the title, along with a bunch of other short erotic stories having nothing to do with it. So, you get the idea: sensationalist title with not much follow up.

I think it is entirely appropriate to give a work, once read, a scathing review. Competent critique engenders debate and analytical thinking. It encourages readers to form their own opinions – positive or negative. I also think it’s very legitimate to take issue with the title, and critique it robustly, because for historical and humanitarian reasons, it seems gravely insensitive. In truth, it may be a worthless piece of crap. Or not. It may be a piece of post-modern satire. It might be the literary equivalent of Django Unchained. I simply don’t know. I do know is that the vitriolic nature of Trout’s post has ensured that the book has sold more than it might have. One has to wonder if a more measured approach would have been more effective.

What I know is that it is a piece of paranormal fiction. It isn’t a rewriting of history, or a non-fiction book that champions the perpetuation of a slave economy. It’s fiction. It’s fantasy. It might be highly offensive, but then, to a lot of people, so was Crash, by J.G. Ballard. And in its time, the explicit eroticization of a relationship between the female member of the British landed gentry and her gardener was also considered obscene. Not just for its sexual explicitness but because of its portrayal of a relationship between classes. It’s not my intention to compare the literary merit of ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress‘ with Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘, but to point out that we’ve never been good at measuring the literary merit a book at the time of its publication, especially when those books are clearly intended to shock and confront social norms.

What I do know is that using one’s influence to encourage a demand for a book’s removal from e-book stores is, in my opinion, a step too far. By all means critique it. Address the important socio-historical issues at play. In fact, the existence of the book on Amazon’s shelves offers us the opportunity to discuss why this sort of subject matter is problematic. By all means, let people know that you found the whole premise of the work offensive! But the minute you demand that it be barred from sale is the minute, in the 21st Century, that you are championing censorship. And to deny this is disingenuous. Moreover, removing a book from the virtual shelves robs anyone else of the opportunity to make up their own minds about it, including coming to the decision that eroticising slavery is in bad judgement and poor taste. If the book doesn’t exist, in the public sphere, then we are robbed of our decision not to buy it or read it, and robbed, as authors, of the decision not to write anything like it.

I am very glad that Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf‘ is available for sale at Amazon. It is a disgustingly racist screed. I’m sure there are people out there who read it and embrace its ideas, but for many more, it serves as a reminder that one ignores the published intentions of murderous madmen intent on achieving power at one’s peril. I am equally glad that Amazon sells ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion‘ because it serves as an exemplar of how a spurious piece of text can be used to encourage race hatred. Even when it comes to non-fiction, my stance is that it is much better to have the crap out there so you have an exemplar to push against, to rail against, to criticize, to engender discussion.

Censorship – whether by state, or by economics – treats grown adults like children. It is always a testament to how little trust we have in our ability to educate and encourage critical thinking. But it inevitably relieves us of the harder task of providing better education and producing more profound critical thinkers.

Lately, I have watched intelligent, thoughtful people reject nuance in favour of intransigence and absolutism. It is always easier to draw a hard line than to defer judgement, to live with what is offensive, to bear the disorienting fluidity of meaning. But it ensures our decisions, as consumers, and our discussion, as thinkers, are borne of choice and consideration, not force and ignorance.

  14 comments for “In Defense of the Offensive

  1. Forrest Franks
    March 15, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    A never ending battle, there is always those who want to control everything and everyone.

  2. TFP
    March 15, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    “Belief”
    : a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true
    : a feeling that something is good, right, or valuable
    : a feeling of trust in the worth or ability of someone is a very difficult

    A person having a strong belief or feeling can be very difficult to deal with. For instance, try telling a young couple in love that they cant be together. Their feelings & beliefs are so strong that there is no reasoning. In a recent writing you talked about control & passion. The flames of passion & belief can be blinding to reason. Flames eventually cool or even die off. Seems Jenny is very passionate about this book, for .99 I just might have to give it a read…naw, doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.

    😉

    • March 15, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Perhaps my problem is that I just don’t believe in anything that strongly. I do feel like I hold strong beliefs, but none that I don’t question from time to time. Certainly none that make me feel justified in removing the choice of others, once they are adults.

      • TFP
        March 16, 2015 at 5:54 pm

        Dogmatic beliefs are indeed most difficult to deal with, especially when there are so many social implications.

        On a side note…I noticed Jenny used the ‘F word’ quite a bit in her critique of the mentioned book. I personally found that to be unnecessary, not that I object to the use of the ‘F word’ in certain contexts, but the way she used it causes one to be rather dismissive of her intellectual opinion. I suppose that’s a whole different subject…

        • March 16, 2015 at 6:05 pm

          Yup, I think it probably is. It certainly doesn’t invalidate anyone’s position for me.

      • g
        March 21, 2015 at 7:23 am

        you obviously have one strong belief, the essential subject of your writing:
        that erotic literature should be written, read, enjoyed (perhaps), and inevitably critiqued and judged by strangers.

        this in itself is a moral choice, to create and distribute publicly this writing.

        many groups across the world condemn you for it, albeit indirectly. or at least, consider it in poor taste, like cheap coffee with too much sugar.

        but i appreciate it, as do many others.

        the one who strives to please everyone, pleases no one.

  3. entheos
    March 29, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    After reading this I clicked the link to Ms. Trout and read her rant. Her commenters tended to be depressingly unaware of the idea that pressuring retailers to remove books from their shelves because some people found them ‘morally offensive’ might not be as great an idea as Jenny made it out to be.

    WTF causes people to be unable to think about their position critically?
    Maybe I’m being cynical but it seems like having a good idea is so exciting to some people that they’re unwilling to look beyond it in case it turns out to be a dud.
    Or maybe they just feel compelled to drive society in the direction they think it should go, and they don’t actually give a damn if getting their way means eroding every citizen’s right to make their own choices.

    Grrrr…

    • March 29, 2015 at 6:55 pm

      WTF causes people to be unable to think about their position critically?

      I’m not sure I can answer that, but historically, riled up crowds tend to have very little ability for reflection. The problem for me is… however offensive the book might be, it’s not illegal. So this is a crowd riled up by indignation, not a crowd demanding justice be done. And to me, that makes a big difference, because the first was the sort of bloodlust that has led to witchburnings and to lynchings.

      These people insist they don’t believe in censorship, but legal censorship is at least a mechanism inscribed in law, having gone through some due process and voted on by lawmakers, or ratified by legal precedent. At least there is some ground on which censorship might be disputed or opposed. But what happened there was frankly a form of economic Jihad – a crowd convinced of their moral rightness demanding that a piece of writing be made, for all intents, invisible to those who might decide to read it.

      • entheos
        March 30, 2015 at 7:16 am

        That is indeed the answer I was searching for. I got a strong sense of camaraderie from the outraged commenters. I will go farther and say it’s an active sense of excitement and pleasure at joining in the indignance. I find it slightly chilling, in that it’s like watching the cell division of an embryonic monster. In this case it poses no direct physical threat but the process is clearly the same one that leads to pitchforks and torches.

        My attention has been drawn to this kind of behavior before, but I didn’t really understand what I was trying to do when I’d attempt to introduce reason. Now I know. I want to get a sense of how strong and how fast the monster is, in its early stages. Learning how to communicate with people who are rushing on that drug seems like a useful thing to know.

        • March 30, 2015 at 8:07 am

          Yes, I’ve begun to see it more and more in the name of ‘activism’. Apparently, as a society, we have become ashamed of our ability to disagree and critique respectfully. We believe our offense gives us the right to very aggressive tactics to make the offensive thing ‘go away’. I noticed this with the whole ‘scientist with a space-girls shirt’ on the Rosetta mission thing. It rose from ‘whoah, tasteless attire’ to ‘you’re the reason women aren’t going into science!’ very fast.

          But more, I notice it comes with a very ugly sort of jouissance of the other. There is a real destructive, libidinous quality to the group dynamics that I find frightening. I see the excitement, the very negative energy, the crowd-dynamics aspect of it. Frankly, it’s made me much more measured in the way I critique things.

          What really saddens me most about it is that I’m seeing it in a lot of areas where the righteous indignation energy far outstrips the offense. There are real problems in our world. Real injustices that result in terrible situations of people. And all that energy is just getting used up on things like one offensive book. Too bad Ms Trout could not mobilize that sort of activism and outrage for the millions of African Americans living NOW who are targeted, brutalized and killed by racist policing. Too bad the energy isn’t put towards stopping the mass rape of women and men in the DRC. Or to rescue the hundreds of girls who’ve been kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

          I think perhaps we glom onto these little causes, and invest so much energy into them because we believe the really big injustices are too big to do anything about. That’s entirely understandable, but it’s misdirected rage.

          • entheos
            March 30, 2015 at 12:44 pm

            I’d like to believe that it’s hopelessness about solving the big problems, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that clean. I think the little causes attract this energy precisely because they don’t ask anything of the participants except the willingness to feel superior.

            It’s closely related to the ‘Everything is a conspiracy’ vibe. I know a guy who used to think logically but over the last couple of years he’s become almost impossible to talk to. He swallows and defends ludicrous theories; the only requirement is that the truth is secret and ominous.
            The same enjoyment of being in the know without having to do anything but believe (not even the most basic fact-checking) runs through Jenny Trout and supporters.
            It fosters the intransigence you were mentioning.
            Anyone with an opposing argument is perceived as ignorant, an opponent, or both. It’s not about being right, it’s about feeling right.

            I don’t know if this mentality is increasing or if it just seems that way.
            But I do know that I’m deeply grateful that there are people like you who go to the effort to keep sites like this one open and free. Thanks again, I love your writing.

            You probably know by now that the whole thing was based on fundamental misinformation. The Angry Author’s review is up:
            https://theangryauthor.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/review-thomas-jeffersons-mistress-werewolf-fetish-vampire-milf-sex-slave-by-fionna-free-man/

            Somehow I doubt that Jenny Trout and fans will feel ashamed of themselves. After all, they were fighting for something good.

            • March 30, 2015 at 9:31 pm

              Oh, I hadn’t seen this review. I did notice that it was not a whole novel on the theme, and looking at some of the other titles from the author, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go there, for reasons of grammatical sanity. But thanks for the link. And no, they won’t feel ashamed. They have a ‘great cause’ and nothing can stop them in their bid to feel – as you say – right.

    • entheos
      March 30, 2015 at 4:52 am

      I couldn’t supress myself. I commented, and Ms. Trout responded that it wasn’t censorship. I disagreed. You might enjoy reading her logic.

  4. Lee
    February 12, 2017 at 4:55 am

    My position is this : no matter the offense of your (the hypothetical author) screed, my rights to ignore and turn from you are both a) sacrosanct and b) the extent of my rights.

    What I do not have (nor does any person, venture, or organisation) is the right to take my (their) moral position and put it on *you* by force, neither of arms, law, societal pressure, or personal pressure.

    I’m hearing a lot of political claptrap about “we must protect the people from themselves for their own good” from the political class just of late.

    It’s worse than tripe, its the path to tyranny which the somnambulent majority are being herded down, without their knowledge. Because the Dragon hasn’t turned round and bit *Them* yet.

    Oh, boy. Humanity … it sucks a lot, in a lot of ways. Some of them very bad, some of them … not 🙂

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