Thursday, 29 January 2015

Flirting with the devil: N M Browne

Recent events have got me thinking about self censorship. I am hardly alone in that, nor are my thoughts particularly insightful, but bear with me if I share them anyway.
As the product of my largely liberal education, I am in favour of free speech. There are inevitably a few politicians I would love to gag, a couple of radio pundits, and pretty much everyone on day time television who would greatly improve the quality of my life by never speaking in public again. ( This goes for a few people, I actually know too.)  
I hate everything that suggests that a woman should only be concerned about her hairy underarms, wrinkles, cellulite, and ‘greys’, that suggests that without shiny straight hair and perfect toned physiques we are somehow failures, that we are less competent, more emotional, manipulative and hard to understand than the other half of the human race. If I were a person of colour, disabled, gay or transgender I would no doubt be as sensitive to any speech which denigrated me, belittled me, made me a butt of jokes, suggested that I was somehow less than human, less worthy of respect and consideration, as I am of the many kinds of anti women discourse which currently lights my fury fuse.
 Yes, I hate quite a lot of speech, particularly the online kind that makes your eyeballs burn and your blood pressure rise like some cartoon steam engine about to blow. Yet I reluctantly accept that it would be unreasonable if only my voice and that of others I agree with were free to speak our minds. To control and censor speech is the first step in a brisk walk towards totalitarianism, towards oppression and thought control. Moreover words are too powerful to drive underground. If they are out there, they can be refuted, ridiculed, reduced, if hidden they become special, sacred, inviolate.  A culture that cannot cope with ridicule, that cannot refute a false argument that cannot use words and stories to persuade and mock,  is one that lacks any kind of confidence in its own prevalent values.
 I firmly believe that a writer, even a children’s writer, can write about anything.  I tell my students so. Yet in reality, I self censor all the time and this is the heart of my problem. I want kids of all shapes,sizes, colours, abilities, gender and orientation to feel that they could be the hero of their own narrative. In consequence I try to excise anything from my text that would suggest otherwise. I would like to include more diverse characters in my narratives. I have written about an overweight female warrior, black fairies, self doubting were wolves and Welsh freedom fighters, but I’m not sure they count as culturally diverse.  I am fearful of inappropriate cultural appropriation, of getting things wrong, of making anyone feel less and being criticised for it  and I think this hinders me.
 Over the last few weeks I have come to believe that this second guessing of the imagination is perhaps a mistake. My father’s daily paper espoused views that were in diametric opposition to his own: he got a little bit angry every day. Maybe he was ahead of his time. In this internet era where  unexamined search engine algorithms personalise the news and views we see, it is more vital  than ever to expose ourselves to antithetic views, to raise our dander, to be obliged to defend our own prejudices.  Maybe we all grow a little from having our sensibilities affronted and our world view challenged. Self censorship is a form of condescension: I can deal with this idea, but my readers can’t and where it isn’t condescension it can be cowardice: people might not like me if I say this.                               I’m not sure either vice is to be encouraged. A writer who cannot cope with criticism probably should not be a writer at all. So, from now on, I might just ‘publish and be damned.’

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