World Is Crazier and More of It Than We Think
by Tim Upperton
“Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
– Jonathan Swift, “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
I got something banned yesterday. Someone on Facebook, whose friendship request I’d unguardedly accepted, tagged me, as well as many others, in a post. The post featured a still from a linked video that appeared to show a person about to jump from a suspension bridge. I didn’t play the video, which was no doubt infested with adware and which, in any case, obviously depicted something I deeply did not want to see. I unfriended the poster, but every time someone responded to the post – “Why have you tagged me in this? Who are you?” – I would receive a notification. By the time I’d worked out how to stop this from happening, I was incensed. The tag was accompanied by a winking emoticon, which somehow made the post even worse. So yesterday afternoon, I reported it. Amazingly, Facebook acted, and promptly: “We reviewed the post you reported for containing self-injury. Since it violated our Community Standards, we removed it.”
I felt… better. Not just because a horrible post had been removed. I felt a pleasurable swell of self-righteousness: I had expressed my will, my taste, and my will, my taste, through the anonymous powers-that-be at Facebook, had prevailed.
And actually, there are many things I would ban, if I could. Child pornography. Pornography of all kinds: the rape porn, the revenge porn, the sadism porn, the incest porn, the bestiality porn, the hardcore porn and the softcore porn that isn’t softcore at all, really, but which demeans the woman who is its object, and everybody who watches it. Once I got started, I don’t know where I’d stop. I would ban Fifty Shades of Grey. I’d ban Game of Thrones.
And that’s where I’d run into a problem. Lots of people – millions – have read Fifty Shades of Grey. Millions watch Game of Thrones. I have friends who love Game of Thrones. It’s just swept the Emmy awards, which to me suggests it’s a rape and sadism fantasy wrapped up in high production values. But my opinion isn’t universally shared, and people who might nod in agreement about banning, say, child porn, stop nodding at Game of Thrones. The rape, the torture, the incest and the bloody killings are, they say, conventions of the fantasy genre. It’s fantasy, none of it’s real, it’s entertainment.
To which I say: fuck your fantasy genre. But my voice is one among many, mostly opposing voices, and I glumly realize that no protest of mine is going to make Game of Thrones go off the air any time soon.
Given that we are always going to ban some things (child porn, despite its ubiquity, is illegal) and not others, the banal question is where to draw the line. My line is different from yours; yours is different from the parish priest’s. Facebook refers to “Community Standards” for its mandate in removing the post that offended me, but this is an empty phrase. There may have once been a time when society was sufficiently homogeneous that certain standards were widely agreed upon, but that time is long gone. As Louis MacNeice has it in his poem, “Snow”, “World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.” Not just plural, but incorrigibly so. The hand of the censor may seek to make us all conform to one standard, one morality, but this attempt is doomed to failure.
Such an attempt was made in recent weeks with the interim banning of Ted Dawe’s young adult novel, Into The River. This story of a Māori boy’s painful coming-of-age at an elite boarding school is not, I think, a great piece of writing, despite winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award and the Best Young Adult Fiction prize in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. Some of those outraged by the ban have defended the book in terms of its literary merit, in a manner reminiscent of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in the 1960s. But they’re wrong. Take the three opening sentences of the novel – each of them a paragraph:
There was a tap on the window.
Te Arepa sat up.
It was Wiremu!
It’s not quite a dark and stormy night, but in its contrived air of suspense, it’s close. I’ve got the first, self-published edition (sent to me last week, in plain packaging, by a friend who in doing so risked prosecution), and perhaps these infelicities – and there are many – were edited out of the later Penguin edition, but I’m not betting on it. That exclamation mark is not a one-off; its excitable presence is pervasive and, for this reader at least, irritating. But the book’s not aimed at me, it’s aimed at teens, and that, I suspect, is why the Film and Literature Board of Review, or rather its president, Don Mathieson, QC, issued the interim banning order. There are far more sexually explicit and foul-mouthed books than Into The River readily available in bookshops in New Zealand, not to mention what’s available on the Web at the click of a mouse. What seems to have upset Family First, the conservative Christian group that challenged the book’s unrestricted status (it had earlier been rated R 14), is the fact that the very people the novel is about and written for – New Zealand teenagers – might actually be able to read it.
Don Mathieson seems to have had similar concerns – his was the lone voice on the Board proposing, unsuccessfully, an R 18 rating for the book when it was first published. Quite how Mathieson, a devout Christian and editor of a book unlikely ever to face a ban, Faith at Work (issued by “Castle Publishing, New Zealand’s premier Christian and family publisher”) became sole guardian of our nation’s morals is a question for another time. The futility of the gesture was immediately apparent. Despite its garnered awards, the book had been enjoying no more than moderate sales, and when I asked around, none of the teens of my acquaintance had even heard of it. Well, as always happens when you ban something, they’ve sure heard of it now. For its author Ted Dawe, the interim ban is the best possible news: when the ban is lifted, as it surely will be once a decision has been made about its age-restricted status, it will be flying off the shelves.
How disappointed, I wonder, will this new wave of readers be to discover what the book’s much-touted sex, drug-taking and obscene language amount to. The leader of Family First, Bob McCoskrie (“Are you concerned about rising family breakdown and the decline in standards and responsibility? I know I am”), went to the trouble of counting objectionable words: “It’s a book that’s got the c-word nine times, the f-word 17 times and s-h-i-t 16 times.”
Top marks for arithmetic, but these figures don’t demonstrate an act of reading, they demonstrate an act of searching: this man went looking for smut and, by God, he found it. But a novel is more than a sum of its offensive words – and seriously, who really finds “shit” (sorry, Bob, “s-h-i-t”) offensive anymore? Way back in the 18th century, Swift pointed out the obvious – the aristocratic ladies he wrote poems about, however refined, all did it: “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (Swift wasn’t averse to exclamation marks either, it seems.) McCoskrie’s circumlocutions are ludicrous: they only make sense if we mentally say the offending word. That’s banning, in a nutshell: it draws disproportionate attention to the thing banned. Say “c-word,” I think “cunt.” Thanks, Bob.
I know I’m not so different from the McCoskries and the Mathiesons of this world. My list of things I’d ban is different from theirs, but it’s still a list. But unlike them, I know that my morality, my taste, is hopelessly subjective and culturally constructed. It has no objective reality whatsoever, and – however strongly I may feel – I have no right to impose it on anybody else. Let’s ban the things that hurt people, in the same way that we ban dangerous cars from the road. But for all the stuff where there is no obvious victim, banning isn’t the way forward. The way forward is the opposite: to educate people, so that they make intelligent, informed choices about what they see, what they read, what they listen to. I hate a lot of movies, books, music – my list is long. But what I hate even worse are laws that would prevent me from making my own choices in these matters. That’s always the first step of an authoritarian state, and the other steps soon follow.