Please welcome my guest today, Author JD Revene
When I was a teenager I had a poster on my bedroom wall emblazoned with the legend:
I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
As a writer and a small ‘l’ liberal I still ascribe to that belief. There are few things dearer to my heart than freedom of speech.
And yet, as I grow older I’m more inclined to questions the limits of that: should all things be free game? I deplore racism, and I’m not sure how willing I am to stand up for the Klu Klux Klan’s rights of expression. I’m a parent now and I worry about the things my children might be exposed to. I have no problem with the classification of films, even books. Not long ago I bought American Pyscho, which came shrink wrapped, that struck me as odd, but I didn’t object, after all it’s published and available, even if the audience is restricted.
And surely there are some things we simply should not be allowed to write about. But what exactly would they be and who would decide? An obvious candidate might be paedophilia—remember the recent furore over a self-published ‘how to’ guide on Amazon?—and yet when I think that the following words come to mind:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
Would the world really be a better place without Nabokov’s Lolita? You know, I don’t think so.
So where does the answer lie? Is it, as suggested in the prompt for this posting, in self-censorship?
It has long been my belief that rights—like that of freedom of speech, which is essentially at the root of all argument against censorship—necessarily imply duties. I should stress this is neither an original idea nor a new one. I studied philosophy at University College London in the mid 80s, a college that was established by Jeremy Bentham, one of many philosophers to have argued this point (and if you would like to explore it further I recommend the paper The Correlativity of Rights and Duties, David Lyons, Noûs, Vol IV February 1970).
Thus, one might argue that whilst writers have the right not to be censored, there is a corresponding duty to exercise that right responsibly. However, this in itself raises questions. After all, if writers never test the limits then in what sense is the right real? And, as I said before, who decides what is and is not responsible?
These are not easy questions. And the answers may vary from writer to writer.
Perhaps, though, there is some higher duty. William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech said:
The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
By these things he means, the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths. Echoing Voltaire, I may not agree with him as to what those truths are—I am not so positive—but I cannot argue against the proposition that it is a writer’s duty to strive for the truth.
And that, I think, is my conclusion on this matter: as writers we should not accept censorship, whether imposed on by others or by ourselves, but rather we should strive to tell the truth, knowing that we must also accept responsibility for doing so—just as it is our responsibility if we fail to do so (my apologies for the convoluted syntax of that, such is the nature of a philosopher’s conclusions, which are rarely without caveat). This is not an easy burden to bear, but those of us who love writing, who are passionate for our art and believe in free expression, already know this.
The link I gave to Faulkner’s speech opened with a quote from J.B. Priestly and I shall close with it:
No matter how piercing and appalling his[or her] insights, the desolation creeping over his [or her] outer world, the lurid lights and shadows of his[or her] inner world, the writer must live with hope, work in faith.
JD Revene is an Anglo-Australian writer. His style is minimalist. You can find some of his short stories in the anthology Words to Music (also available for Kindle)
Please join in the discussion, your thoughts and insights are most welcome.