Self Censorship and the Social Justice Warrior

This post is an articulation of feelings I have been mulling over about internet media and culture, a subject I have no academic qualification to speak on but have strong feelings about. I don't intend for this to be inflammatory or contrarian but if it helps start a discussion I'll be happy. My only intention is to contribute to an important conversation. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and hope you get something out of it.

Definition

Wikipedia (I trust it, don't you?) has an entry on self-censorship which starts:

Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one's own blog, book, film, or other forms of media. This is done out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities or preferences (actual or perceived) of others and without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority. Self-censorship is often practiced by film producers, film directors, publishers, news anchors, journalists, musicians, and other kinds of authors including individuals who use social media.

You're welcome to look at a few definitions which are more broad (Cambridge def, Oxford def). I actually like using the Wikipedia entry, so I'll be using it in this piece.

There are a few highlights of the Wiki entry that I want to point out:

  • Self-censorship can be caused by real or perceived sensibilities.
  • It is done out of fear or deference (submission/respect for others wishes).
  • It is mostly a voluntary action practiced by creators.
  • It is practiced by individuals producing everything from "big media" to social media.

I like these four points because they set up a conflict I want to explore: the Creator versus the Consumer.

Consumer

The consumer watches, reads, or listens to something and when they find a discrepancy which does not fit their mental model for what that media should do, they have the option to point it out.

  • "This character is a crude portrayal of bi-sexuality."
  • "This line was offensive to the elderly."
  • "This scene triggered me because I was almost killed in a car accident."

The consumer points it out directly with the creator, to the creator publicly, or to the public and not directly with the creator at all. This archetype is almost always acting in the interest of a racial, gendered, sexual, or social minority and often they do so on behalf of minorities which they themselves are not apart of.

As a feminist I agree with the consumer’s intentions and with each individual consumer who voice their concerns. Just like a writer doesn't improve without feedback so to a content creator cannot mindfully make more respectful work without being made aware of the mistakes they have made. Each individual consumer, with exceptions of course, is a good person doing the right thing.

Creator

The creator wants to share an idea with the world. They have the burning urge to write, blog, podcast, televise, film, tweet, tumblr, paint, compose, etc. Their intentions are also (usually) good. This archetype wants to create something great and share it with the world, or at the very least some sub-culture they identify with.

When the creator creates something they inevitably put a part of themselves into that thing. When a consumer points out what that something should have done differently they are often a small voice in a hurricane of feedback. This hurricane is often filled with positive feedback but the silent majority that appreciate something often say nothing while the loud minority openly share their thoughts and criticisms. Those who speak up are also known to forget that a human being is going to read what they just hit send on. Even if the feedback is ultimately constructive the content creator is known to only see the bad and fight to see the good. As a result of this personal shit-storm for the creator, continuing to create becomes a fight against both the creativity but also against their fans who care enough to give them that feedback, but deliver it in a hurtful or stressful way. There have been many stories in which a content creator who wanted to put themselves out there was forced to pull back because of circumstances like these.

This is best explained with an example, so here is an expert from an article on The A.V. Club:

Steven Universe writer gets hounded from Twitter by fans

[...]

The online backlash was apparently quick, powerful, and seemingly coming from two different directions: ’shippers, irritated and outraged by what they saw as Zuke pushing the agenda of her preferred pairing, and others who accused the Cartoon Network show of engaging in “queer baiting.†Among other definitions, the term refers to TV and film producers introducing perceived sexual tension between two same-sex characters with no intent of ever bringing the relationship to fruition, and is decried by critics as a manipulative use of sexuality in order to draw in viewers and attention.

The criticism and attackers were apparently strong and frequent enough that Zuke decided to shut down her social media presence, and close herself off to “thousands of people who think because I work on a TV show that I owe them myself all the time.†Her account has since been deleted, but a screenshot of her last tweets is currently making the rounds online.

In this instance the writer of a very progressive kids show (which I proudly watch with my other adult friends) was ridiculed for... what? Not being perfect? Not flawlessly pushing every equality agenda at once? Ultimately it may have been held to a higher standard but to what end?

Modern creators are being pushed and prodded by tens to hundreds to thousands of tiny voices saying "This isn't right, do this better." As a result both new and experienced creators feel a pressure to craft something which is perfect and devoid of that which can be critiqued and judged. A whole generation of writers, directors, and story tellers are afraid to say anything because it might be panned for it's imperfections and/or perceived agenda. The unfortunate part is that many forget that your work will be critiqued no matter what you say. In twenty years we'll be looking back at 2016 and be flabbergasted by our ignorance about... I don't know -- laugh tracks. The point being that we are not perfect creatures and so too our creators are imperfect. We collectively acknowledge that, yet the creator is punished harshly when they make a mistake, receiving a punishment which does not match the crime.

Conclusion

The main takeaway from all of this is that we should try to be mindful of the creator's imperfections when pointing them out. Time and time again the mass of the internet is able to devastate the creators we have and scare the creator's we don't. We all say stupid things that we don't remember are offensive or haven't yet been informed is offensive; whether somebody said an offensive thing to an audience of millions or an audience of one we shouldn't criticize them just because we can. A friend of mine put it pretty well when he said 'On this road to social justice we're not all on the same page, let's cut them some slack.'

I understand that I am saying this to nobody in particular. The problems, fear, and weight of the internet are not something I have experience in; they are a concern all the same. I am not well known and I have not created nor been thrown into any shit-storms I talk about. Those close to me have experienced this trauma and they warn others like an oracle warns adventurers not to go into the dark forest. I understand that self-censorship is not a new problem by any means, but since the dawn of time there have been individuals scared of change for completely rational reasons.

Be mindful of what you say and what you do not say on the internet. As a fan you have more influence than you think over the media you love. Everything is created by people just like you. Before you say something negative remember that a person will read it, so meditate on it before hitting send. Imagine reading it in the sea of everything else that person is dealing with. Individuals should hold each other responsible but that doesn't mean you need to hurt them because they offended you. I wont advise you on when or how to act because that is your responsibility. If you find something truly offensive of course you should tell the person who made it, but also remember that you are in a unique position to be judge, jury, and executioner, even if it is only on a small scale. Having this power, meter your response to match the crime and think before you act.

We are all people. We all want to do the right thing. I don't mean to discourage consumers from voicing their concerns, just to avoid punishing creators for imperfection. In the world there is no good and bad only people making the best of their situation with positive intentions.