Posts Tagged ‘censorship’


Coming out of my self-imposed blackout period. Apologies for being gone so long. Wasn’t feeling all that inspired by the general topics that were out there, but I’ve finally found a few that got my gears twisting again.

So today, let’s talk about this recent phenomenon of “triggering” and requested “trigger warnings.”

According to an excellent Guardian article on the movement, “Triggering” is a phrase you might see in the comments section of an online article that addresses racism, rape, war, anorexia or any number of subjects about which a discussion may not leave the reader with a care-free, fuzzy sort of feeling. It’s a phrase that’s been requested this semester by a number of college students to be applied to classic books — The Great Gatsby (for misogyny and violence), Huck Finn (for racism), Things Fall Apart (for colonialism and religious persecution), Mrs. Dalloway (for suicide), Shakespeare (for … you name it). These students are asking for what essentially constitute red-flag alerts to be placed, in some cases, upon the literature itself, or, at least, in class syllabuses, and invoked prior to lectures.”

Now, this brings a few thoughts to mind.

1)      A digital native generation that is entering or currently in college is essentially requesting that its required reading be thoroughly tagged with metadata. Not all that surprising, in theory.

2)      This must be the most massively traumatized generation in history, and all before they have reached college age no less, otherwise why is this happening?

3)      What type of current college student experiences trauma triggered by fictionalized accounts of “colonialism?”

Before I get web-slapped for being insensitive to those who have experience severe, deep, or even shallow trauma- allow me to assure you dear readers that I am not without a soul, and I am not without empathy. I am terribly sorry that people experience pain in their lifetimes. I am sorry that most often it is inflicted completely without any reason or cause. I understand that some of this trauma is so bone-shakingly deep that medication and years of therapy only scratch the surface of the underlying fear or suffering that pools in the soul of its sufferers like a dark, swelling ocean with no horizon.

But I have to say I don’t believe that never addressing, acknowledging, or facing the elements in life that may ever remind you of the trauma or the perpetrator is the solution to managing it. Here I’d like to insert an analogy: antibacterial hand soap. No, no, stick with me here. I promise there will be dividends…

The United States fears germs, bacteria and sickness in a very real way. And so we were ready pawns when the soap and personal hygiene industry began to flood the market with the daddy of all soaps- “antibacterial”- presented as the solution to killing all the tiny creepy crawlies we couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet and yet. As it turns out, antibacterial hand soap may also kill good bacteria, and reduce our body’s innate ability to fight off germs and viruses. In fact, the proliferation of triclosan, a leading ingredient in over 75% of antibacterial hand soaps might be a contributing factor in the rise of “antibiotic resistant superbugs” to such an extent that the FDA has issued an order for further investigation into whether it should be allowed in consumer products, and Minnesota has voted to ban it outright.

What does this longwinded analogy have to do with these proposed trigger warnings on literature?

Self-censorship, or insisting everyone else in the world draw a wide circle around anything remotely related to your trauma, or trying to eliminate all signs or reminders of that trauma in your life is like bathing in antibacterial hand soap. By avoiding the trauma itself, or using a carefully constructed virtual reality of “all happiness- no trouble” all the time people empower the trauma that ails them, converting it into a super-trauma that is apt to rear its ugly head at any moment. “The push for trigger warnings surely comes from a good place, but it’s nonetheless troubling” says the Guardian article. Yes, like antibacterial hand soap. In theory, all good. In reality, not so good. When you block your body’s ability to handle and build up a resistance to what is reaching out to ail you, essentially you’re disabling yourself.

And this is all tangentially related to this phenomenon of helicopter parenting and over-protective parenting. Oh yes it is. How else to explain this generation of children who are reaching adulthood with no capacity to defend themselves from the pain that life can (does) bring? If parents have been preventing their kids from ever making mistakes, getting hurt, getting dirty, or relieving them of the burden of having to pull themselves out of a period of discomfort, sadness, or frustration, then those kids have developed absolutely no capacity to work through adult and life setbacks of any variety.

Listen- I don’t have kids, but I do have a life. That said, I understand the sentiment behind wanting to protect my someday-children from any pain, but I do not understand the desire to prevent my children from actually experiencing life. From actually living and experiencing life. Life is often pain, life is often disappointment, life is often loneliness, and heartache, and trauma. Life must be lived, and living is often the act of working through pain.

It’s ironic, I just finished reading a novel suggested to me by a friend called “The Sparrow.” If these students had their way, this book’s cover would be slapped full of trigger warning metadata like religion, rape, aliens, cultural inequity. And there are horrifying events at the center of this book which are difficult to read about. But the very principle at the core center of this book is that when something terrible happens you have to face it and talk about that very thing to acknowledge that it happened, to face its effects on you, in order to release its hold on your past. At times the whole book reads like a parable for the power of confession, but it also intricately illustrates the pain of having to go through the process of discussing a trauma. And for that, the book is pretty effective.

All of which brings me back full circle- because the first thing I thought when I read about these requests for “trigger warnings” was the recent study conducted by the New School in NYC which received wide media attention, that “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” That, in fact, reading about other people going through emotional experiences helps to develop our own brains’ ability to process, file, and produce appropriate reactions and interactions to emotional situations. In essence, it helps our EQ, our emotional intelligence quotient, which can play a huge role in our success in life.

All of which the Guardian article on this subject states very well in its last paragraph: “In The Giver, the main character finds there is something more important than a society that’s free from pain. It’s a society in which we feel. That, of course, is the intention of art itself: it’s not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.” Bingo.

For more reading on these “triggers” and their “warnings:”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/20/trigger-warnings-college-campus-books

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trauma_trigger

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Trigger+warning

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116842/trigger-warnings-have-spread-blogs-college-classes-thats-bad

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0

For more reading on literary fiction as an empathy-builder:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/06/06/is-fiction-changing-for-better-or-worse/fiction-is-an-exercise-in-empathy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuly-yanklowitz/reading-novels_b_4168344.html

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/04/229190837/want-to-read-others-thoughts-try-reading-literary-fiction

For more reading on Antibacterial Hand Soap:

http://www.geek.com/science/minnesota-becomes-the-first-state-to-ban-antibacterial-hand-soap-1594414/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/17/health/fda-to-require-proof-that-antibacterial-soaps-are-safe.html

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-key-antibacterial-soap-ingredient-must-go/

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Hi All, sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back in black. New year, and lots to discuss. Let’s get to it!

Clearly I couldn’t let discussion about SOPA and PIPA and the ensuing takedowns architected by Anonymous go untouched in this discussion space, so let’s delve into this, shall we?

For those who aren’t aware (where in the hell have you been?), let’s first break these two down to their most elemental forms:

Here’s what (admittedly biased on this matter) Wikipedia has to say about what SOPA is, “The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a United States bill introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Provisions include the requesting of court orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the sites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to the sites. The law would expand existing criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyright material, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison”

Basically, this was legislators catering to big media companies’ interests by proposing a law that would give the U.S. government the right to prosecute people who propagated intellectual property that they didn’t own online. In other words, the internet wouldn’t exist unless the government felt that it should.

“Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites.”

“Opponents say the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing material posted on a single blog or webpage. They have raised concerns that SOPA would bypass the “safe harbor” protections from liability presently afforded to Internet sites by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

So that’s SOPA in the House of Representatives. A second, replica piece of legislation was simultaneously being put up for consideration in the Senate called PIPA or the Protect IP Act. On this legislation, Wikipedia says:

“The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA) is a proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the U.S. The bill defines infringement as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if “facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described. The bill was introduced on May 12, 2011, by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors.”

So that’s the house-cleaning. They’re the same piece of legislation, same clear and dangerous threat to internet freedoms and the Internet’s intrinsic ability to allow for the wide and free dissemination of information.  Now down to the brass tacks.

Let’s begin with the fact that just pragmatically, taking on the Internets is always stupid. Why? Because congress and the President are centralized forces of power- quite well identified and held to certain moral and legal standards of behavior and comportment. The internet is none of those things. It is a nebulous, unscrupulous, largely anonymous and completed decentralized force of power, and it will not be stopped. Which is why, they have certainly won this round of the fight and will ultimately win the war on issues of intellectual property online.

So Wikipedia was one of the largest of many web resources (others included Reddit, the social news site, and BoingBoing, a technology and culture blog) that decided to shut down for a 24 hour period in public protest against these two bills.  As the NYTimes Bits Blog reported: “Visitors around the globe who try to reach the English-version of Wikipedia will be greeted with information about the bills and details about how to reach their local representatives. Mr. (Founder Jimmy) Wales said 460 million people around the world visited the site each month, and he estimated that the blackout could reach as many as 100 million people. In addition, some international Wikipedia communities, including the one in Germany, have decided to post notices on their home pages leading to information about the protests, although they will remain functioning as usual.”

“The government could tell us that we could write an entry about the history of the Pirate Bay but not allow us to link to it,” he said, referring to the popular file-sharing site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

But then Anonymous had to go and get all involved, making it no longer a seemingly noble protest, but taking matters into their own hands. And this is where decentralization begins to get really interesting.

For Anonymous it wasn’t enough to shut down one’s own site, and make one’s own decision to go dark- Anonymous wanted to prove once and for all to big media companies such as CBS and Universal Music that it is but for the grace of Anonymous that their sites exist at all. In a bold and HIGHLY under-publicized and under-discussed move if you weren’t online (I think largely because of Anonymous’s reputation as an anarchist and borderline-terrorist non-organization) Anonymous temporarily removed CBS.com and Universal Music as well as its parent company Vivendi from online view. There has been much speculation about whether the sites were full-on deleted, redirected, etc. and I won’t debate that here, but I think the major point here is that a decentralized network of self-labeled “hacktivists” hold the power to completely destroy someone else’s online presence as retribution. So while the politicians, PACs and lobbyists seek to pass these bills the old-fashioned way through our system of government and legislation, the internet turns its nose on their efforts and operates completely independently.

The repercussions of these acts by Anonymous are massive. Is it to be said once and for all that the internet is ungovernable? Certainly any jurisdiction over internet content and domains is highly debatable and obscure- who has the right or the resources to police the net? Where is that online security task force- is it a branch of the UN peacekeeping forces? Which country’s government holds the right to censor content? If Google’s tangle with China and the Arab Spring have taught us anything, it’s that the rules for who gets to yea or nay internet content are still being written and continue to be written by unknown authors, sitting in dark corners leading their revolutions with armies of revolutionaries who couldn’t recognize them if they passed by on the sidewalk.

President Obama said no to the current versions of these bills, but SOPA and PIPA are by no means dead in the water. This will be an ongoing discussion, but I stand by my opinion that even if SOPA or PIPA were to pass in Congress, they would have a completely unmanageable time attempting to enforce either in the chaotic and decentralized network that is the Net. The point it would seem, my friends, is moot.