Censorship is on my mind. As usual, I can’t decide whether this is an organic development from the outside world, or a topic I’m currently cocooned in thanks to recent reading choices and discussions with friends. I want to say it’s both (but maybe that’s indulgent).
This issue may have started feeling close to me back in March, when that massacre/terrorist attack happened in Kunming, China. I remember meeting two friends for our usual Monday morning Breakfast Club and hearing about the tragedy of it from my Chinese friend. I expected to see it splashed all over my top news pages, but this was also the time when the Ukraine/Crimea/Russia issue was in full throttle, which I think pushed the farther-away China off the front pages. Later, another Chinese friend explained that many from back at her home were outraged at how (the few) Western outlets were reporting the situation, particularly by downplaying the tragedy (see: this article). As time passed, I was surprised I still wasn’t seeing the issue bubble up to big headlines in London or the states. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised? Others told me that China was doing a good job shutting down the story.
I probably first learned what censorship was in middle school, in the context of ridiculous, repressive governments and conspiracy theories. After that, it became something I more associated with North Korea – real, but extreme to the point it’s almost not. This past year, I learned about censorship in China on a much more personal level, from my small number of Chinese friends that help make up the even tinier elite fraction of the Chinese population that actually knows what’s in front and behind the “Great Firewall of China” because they jump it with VPNs. That’s the famous kind of censorship, the ban on Facebook and Line, the one that makes headlines, makes students roll their eyes, makes adults scoff at the government in charge. But these past couple of months I’ve been tuning into the censorship in its more implicit, social pressure, trendy/ing form. This is where it gets so complicated for me to figure out, because, as I said already, censorship gets such a bad rap… but if we do it for the current social mores, it’s okay, right?
Later in March, I started wondering about that razor-thin line between protecting everyone’s voice and inadvertently shutting them all down. For example, the CEO of Mozilla left his post within his first two weeks on the job after the news resurfaced that he had supported a ban against gay marriage a few years earlier. His views were seen as offending the freedoms of others, and Mozilla was also boycotted. Then those first attacks were attacked by others who felt the CEO shouldn’t have been punished for his personal views. Maybe Mozilla Chairwoman put it well when she said (on the blog – see link above), “Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.”
A friend was reading George Orwell’s 1984 ahead of seeing the play in London last week, and exclaimed to me how eerie it was to read such a close reflection of how things were in China. She asked me if Orwell had modeled his book after her country? Our chats finally moved me to read a similar book: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953, shortly after 1984. The two are similar because they both explore themes of societal repression and homogeneity. After 60 years, this passage in Fahrenheit 451 rang so familiar, where a fireman of books explains how books became obsolete:
Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels need to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did… It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God…
In Bradbury’s crazy fictional future world, censorship came from the people ground-up. It was demanded by a skin-deep entertainment-loving public who couldn’t handle controversy without stamping it out. This theme is also echoed 60 years later in the hyper-commercial District 1 of The Hunger Games, which I realized while watching the visual depiction of it in the second Hunger Games movie last week. I guess this idea of the mass, self-censored public is always ahead of us, always not now, but in the future dystopia.
In 1979, Ray Bradbury wrote a Coda to Fahnreheit 451, and it’s so angry. Bradbury was angry about how many individuals requested he rewrite his book to be less offensive and more inclusive of their respective minority group, to which the author responds: “The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority… feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.” The picture in my head is of many bubbles in one box, each one growing and growing and growing, but inevitably pressuring the other bubbles to get smaller and smaller. Does this have to be? Or is this the reality of modern communications, and twentysomething me is just entering the picture? “Censored” seems like the right description for what is happening to many views in the U.S. these days, but it’s confusing for me to consider, because it carries such negative connotations, and it’s not in the canon of words used to describe the United States. Basically, it’s scary to be attacked for an unpopular view, which feels a bit cognitive dissonance-inducing, given the values of the country I live in. Right?