This week is Banned Books Week, seven days in which we celebrate the essential freedom to read. I’d never given it much thought before. Not until my publisher at Orbit sent me an email and asked if there was anything I’d like to do for Banned Books Week.
I promise I had something more funny than this in mind.
I originally was going to see if I could convince some local police to take a picture with me, looking on impotently as I read a formerly banned book with savage glee. When I realized that cops terrify me, I had planned to gather as many books as I could and make a fortress of freedom out of them. When I realized how expensive that was going to be, I thought maybe I’d just take some selfies with banned books and call it a day.
I took only one.
It wasn’t that great.
I had originally planned on just letting this week pass by with no particular contribution to me save that I was making a token effort toward the celebration. It wasn’t as though Orbit had held a gun to my head, after all. And there were other things to be doing: I need to finish The Mortal Tally (Book Two in Bring Down Heaven), I need to prepare for The City Stained Red’s eBook launch next month, I need to get ready for New York Comicon. I was pretty content to take freedom for granted and not do much of anything.
Then I logged onto twitter.
As I tend to follow passionate people, I saw quite a bit of it on display. Sometimes, that passion turned venomous: people screaming at each other, wishing death upon each other, trying their best to get each other to shut up, generally acting quite vicious. Being the social opossum I am, I managed to steer clear of it, but as I figuratively lay on my back, feigning death and waiting for the scavengers to move on, I realized something.
I’m scared to death of censorship.
This is something of a blessing, however convoluted that may seem. I’m certainly not immune to other tragedies such as being murdered, robbed, beaten or raped. I could get into a car crash, be stabbed to death in an alley, develop an incurable disease. I’m in a place in the world and the society that lives in it where I can usually live free of these worries. Not everyone can. So while these disasters might happen to me, they’re not likely to.
Is me being censored any more likely, then?
I can’t imagine any religious groups getting angry at me and burning my book, despite that it’s full of demons (that’d kind of rock if they did, though). Nor can I really foresee an event in which the American government would decide that my book is a threat to the nation and forbid it (again, this would only increase my allure). It’s a little more likely that I’d say something that would anger someone and they’d start doing everything in their power to get me off the shelves, but that’s not likely to go further than twitter and it’d probably be forgotten the moment someone else said something worse.
So why am I so terrified of censorship if it’s not that likely to happen to me?
Because, put plainly, censorship hurts everyone.
It hurts the person whose art is stifled and whose expression is silenced, certainly. But it also hurts the person who succumbed to their fear and sought its censure to begin with. But most importantly, it hurts everyone: everyone who was refused the right to judge for themselves, everyone who was refused the right to have the discussion, everyone who was refused the right to agree or disagree, everyone who was instantly robbed of a voice. A work, however abhorrent, is gone and we have lost the ability to speak because we embraced fear.
And fear is at the heart of everything.
I believe that all fiction, maybe all writing, is an exploration of which is the more powerful human emotion: love or fear.
Censorship is a triumph of fear over love.
This fear that spawns censorship takes a variety of shapes. Many powerful people throughout history ear that a work might threaten someone’s influence or position in the world they live in and wanted it banned. Many parents succumbed to the fear that a work might negatively influence or alter their children and wanted it banned. Society at large lives with the constant fear that a work might introduce an idea that spurs someone to dangerous action and may ban something out of that.
But all these shapes of fear have a root cause: the fear of pain.
That is, after all, what the most common fear is, isn’t it? And it’s hard to blame people for being afraid of pain. None of us enjoy pain, be it mental or physical, and pain is never far from our thoughts. We’re hardwired to want to avoid it at all costs.
It’s my personal belief that pain is necessary for growth. Pain is what lets you know that things are happening. And just as your bones ache as you grow taller or your muscles are sore after working out, an idea that causes you pain is an idea that you eventually learn your response to and grow as a person.
The pain of loss is a reminder of how much you loved what you lost. The pain of betrayal is a testament to your capacity to trust someone. The pain you feel when someone else is hurting is the proof of your empathy and ability to love someone else more than yourself. None of these things mean anything without the ability to feel pain, sometimes even the willingness to feel pain.
Ideas cause us pain.
They do everyday.
About a month ago, I put a hole in my wall. I clenched my fist, swung it out and smashed a hole in the drywall just above my shoulder (don’t get any ideas about my ferocity; the drywall was very cheap). The reason I did this was because I read something in an online forum that made me incredibly angry. It was a vicious, hateful thing that made me genuinely upset. It made me angry and I damaged my house. I did this all the time when I was younger. I do it much less these days and I was embarrassed to have done it this time.
I regret doing it. I regret letting my emotions get out of control. I regret giving into fear. But I don’t regret feeling pain at it. And I would have regretted taking actions to try and silence the statement.
But why, then, would I feel that way at such a terrible message?
I wouldn’t have been rid of that statement or the idea that caused it. I wouldn’t have defeated it or banished it or come to terms with it and buried it. I would have put it in a closet and waited for it to come back out some day. I would have silenced it, knowing it could hurt me, and lived in fear of the day it would come back and hurt me again. And each time, my ability to deal with it would be called into question.
Some may think I’m suggesting we never say anything bad, ever. Some may think I’m suggesting we let hatred run wild and never confront it. I think it’s plain to see that I’m not a fan of fear and as I believe all hatred descends from fear, I’m very much for confronting these sorts of things. But the answer to that confrontation is freedom.
We have the freedom to confront ideas. We have the freedom to criticize them. We have the freedom to reject them and we have the freedom to dismiss them from our presence, if we must. But we cannot justify using freedom to deny freedom. We must let idiots speak. We must let wounds bleed. We must let the hatred and the agony and the panic in someone’s words make themselves known. We do not always have to listen, but we cannot demand them be silent.
What we do, in its stead, is present a new idea.
We are writers. Nothing is real to us until we put them into words on paper (or on a blank white screen, anyway). This is how we confront our fears. When we silence, when we censor, we give into those fears. We devote ourselves to that fear, rather than to expression.
Censorship is a triumph of fear. It is sometimes understandable why someone might give into that fear. It is sometimes understandable that the exhilaration that comes from temporary release of fear and pain can be liberating. It is sometimes understandable that people who feel powerless may find comfort in exerting some amount of control.
But these are fleeting. And nothing compared to the lingering shadow of fear that will haunt us when these things we try to silence come back to us. And they will.
I suppose this blog post is me confronting my own fear. For in writing this, I am afraid.
I’m afraid of retribution for what I’m writing here. I’m afraid of being ignored entirely and merely screaming into a void. I’m afraid that these words will hurt someone else. I’m afraid that someone will want to hurt me over these words.
But this, too, is a fear I could not live with. This is a fear whose specter would always be at the corner of my eye and just over my shoulder, a constant reminder that I had given into it and it only had to wait until it could come back and test me again. I would still be afraid, but I’d be safe.
And all it would cost me is just not writing.
Which is a fate unthinkable.
So I had to write this.
Do not give into fear. Do not let it triumph. Do not seek to censor and harm yourself. Do not seek to silence and harm others.
Do your best. Never stop writing. Never stop thinking.
Happy Banned Books Week.