The Problem with Courteous Censorship

Naomi Wolf in her 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, both celebrated and lamented about the role women’s magazines play in women’s lives. These magazines, she said, provide a place where a female perspective can be expressed, but it is distorted by the advertisers:

“Advertisers are the West’s courteous censors. They blur the line between editorial freedom and the demands of the marketplace…A woman’s magazine’s profit does not come from its cover price, so its contents cannot roam too far from the advertiser’s wares.”

Unfortunately, the same can be said not only about women, but wine and song.

And more.

For example, most of the people I know in the “Christian business” (by business I mean speakers, artists, writers, publishers, etc.) cannot come out of the closet for fear of losing the gatekeepers approval. Gatekeepers include powerful organizations such as the CBA, Christian bookstore owners, pastors and influential and very conservative denominational and religious leaders. The people who control the money. Courteous censors.

When I say come out of the closet, I’m not only referring to sexual preference, but lifestyle choices such as drinking alcohol, expressing their true opinions, and creating art for the real world.

Regarding wine. How can a magazine that accepts millions of dollars in advertising from winemakers be objective about wine? Many of the finest independent wine makers will never be mentioned or rated in “shhhh,” Wine Spectator, because they refuse to buy into and sell out to a limited system of numbers. When was the last time you saw a Hendry or Miner wine in Spectator?  Courteous censors.

Regarding song. A few years ago I found myself embroiled in a mediation between a recording artist you would know and his record label. (A label that is now defunct I might add.) He had written a song about a neighbor who was considering selling her body to make ends meet for her children. It was a raw, real song without profanity and sexual innuendo—a song about the all too often harsh reality of day to day life. It was censored. Courteously, of course. With the removal of two words, real life was taken out of the song.

How many profound and real thoughts by our musicians, speakers, painters, poets and writers do we never hear or see because they are courteously censored by gatekeepers and advertisers? Or, even worse, when the artists censor themselves out of fear.

Most of us are blissfully ignorant of the harsh reality of these courteous censors.

Those of us who aren’t are destined to struggle with cynicism every day of our life.

A courageous woman, Melissa McEwan, decided to bypass the courteous censors of women’s magazines and write an essay on a blog called Shakesville about casual misogyny:

There are the jokes about women…told in my presence by men who are meant to care about me, just to get a rise out of me, as though I am meant to find funny a reminder of my second-class status. I am meant to ignore that this is a bullying tactic, that the men telling these jokes derive their amusement specifically from knowing they upset me, piss me off, hurt me. They tell them and I can laugh, and they can thus feel superior, or I can not laugh, and they can thus feel superior. Heads they win, tails I lose.

The ability for everyone (sound Gutenbergish to you?) to click “publish” like Melissa did at Shakesville should make the blood of every courteous censor run cold.

In a world of the not-too-distant past, the gatekeepers and advertisers (the “media”) approved and produced almost all media.

Publishing our creations for the world used to be something we had to ask permission to do; the people whose permission we had to ask were publishers (i.e. magazine, music, and book publishers).

Not anymore.

The courteous censors no longer form  the barrier between private and public creation. Instead, creatives have an increasing freedom to “come out of the closet” in the public conversation.

And this expansion of literary, cultural and scientific creation will benefit society. And that means it will benefit you and me with more knowledge and less (can I dare say it?) cynicism.

Question: What are your thoughts about courteous censorship?

If you are so inclined to practice courteous freedom, please share this article with your friends by clicking one of the “publish” buttons below.

Again, credit where credit is due. Much of this article was directly inspired by Clay Shirky’s must read book Cognitive Surplus.

One Response to “The Problem with Courteous Censorship”

  1. Courteous censorship even happens on a more subtle level. While working at a retail store with a broad spectrum of customers (ages, fashion, style, politics….) I did an experiment that I repeated off and on throughout my time there.

    How I dressed directly affected my sales. When I dressed in a soft white sweater with pink flowers I got all the old ladies, but none of the college students with the piercings all over. If I wore my ethnic outfit I was more likely to get the old hippies. I quickly learned to create as neutral an outfit as possible in order to get sales from everyone.

    My customers were courteously editing my work apparel. If I wanted sales I had to appeal to as many demographics as I could. It had little to do with my expertise or ability to assist the customer and mostly to do with how I looked. And (for those suit and collar lovers) a more formal way of dressing would have been a complete disaster. My perfect neutral outfit was a generic pair of jeans, comfortable shoes that weren’t tennies, and a plain casual shirt with no printing on it that suited my coloring and build. Really, really neutral.

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