Censorship and the Storyteller’s Role
When I was a child, I participated in a campaign to block the censorship of The Hobbit, by a group of religious fundamentalists in my hometown. The child of a church-going member of the group had apparently taken out a copy of JRR Tolkien’s first foray into The Shire and, upon the discovery that the book contained such “Pagan” themes as dragons, trolls and fellowships, instead of making the child return the book, they destroyed it and formed a coalition with like-minded Christian parents that they should campaign to have the book itself removed from all school libraries in my district.
Mind you, this is from a time well before the internet had became a fraction as accessible and wide-spread as it is today, otherwise those church-goers might have been a tad embarrassed to discover that old Tolkien was devoutly religious himself, and had written The Lord of the Rings in the Christian tradition and pumped it full of Christian symbolism. But a part of me thinks they’d have wanted it banned anyway, using the excuse that such topics opened children’s hearts to Satan, and could lead to other such occult activities like playing Dungeons and Dragons, or in later years, collecting Pokemon cards or being a Harry Potter fan.
The challenge at the time was that this bible-belt faction had a lot of pull in local government, and what I didn’t get at the time is that members of the school district were supportive of the ban as well. At my school, the school librarian gathered a bunch of kids together she’d known to have read the book and, in the process, taught me how to go about making my voice heard by getting all of us to write short essays she could present along with staff and students across the entire district that opposed the censorship of the book. Thankfully in the end, common sense prevailed over superstitious nonsense, but it didn’t come without a fight.
Moral outrage has been a theme across the world in relation to storytelling for millennia. Homer’s The Odyssey was banned in Caligula’s Rome. Today, we’ve seen faction-backed pushes for censorship among everything from Huckleberry Finn, to the highest grossing comic book film of all time. I’m the type of person who doesn’t believe in the banning or censorship of books. Make it risky, make it raunchy. Express unpopular ideas. So long as they exist as words on a page in the context of a story, they should be said. Because it’s the job of a storyteller to share their profound truths bathed in absurd lies. It is up to the reader to decide what to do with them.
These days, you can barely throw a stone without hitting someone who believes some book or film should be banned. Some individuals express moral outrage over something so shallow as character design in video games, crying foul over the unrealistic proportions of their designs, asserting that curvy female characters are over-sexualized and buff male characters are presented as power fantasies. Others believe ideas shared might prompt people to violent acts, such as the faux-concern among some media conglomerates that The Joker might prompt people to commit mass murder.
In fairness, there is some truth to the concept– but it’s a truth stretched so thin as to become immeasurable. A common argument is that the murderer of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, was directly inspired by Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. It’s impossible to say for certain that if he had not been so obsessed with the book, the murder wouldn’t have occurred, but considering Chapman’s dire hatred for Lennon and other celebrities, it’s entirely likely it would have. Despite the insanity plea during his court case, Chapman was found to be sane at the time of the murder.
So what drives this moral outrage against storytelling?
Fear. For some, it’s fear that words and ideas they don’t like will be spread and influence people. Their logic is that if the story is banned, if the images are destroyed, then none will make the mistakes of those characters and historical figures. The same fear drives people to remove statues of nation-builders because of some ills they inflicted. This fear fools people into thinking their righteous anger is enough to save the world.
But the fear itself can be far more dangerous than the thing they fear. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, he undoubtedly understood he was going to ruffle some feathers. But the moral outrage behind his novel was a far more dangerous thing than the novel itself. Rushdie was placed under official protection of the British Police because a religious decree from the leader of Iran at the time called for his assassination. This can be scaled nearly infinitely.
A teenager was nearly driven to suicide because a fan drawing she made of a popular cartoon character had a lighter shade of skin than was acceptable to a cadre of other fans of the show, who outright attempted to drive her to suicide and displayed no remorse in having done so. Their righteous anger was all that was needed to wish death upon someone without worry or care.
So what’s the point of all this?
The risk to storytellers and performers from moral outrage is omni-present. What is socially acceptable today might be the banned books of tomorrow. We cannot and should not self-censor or follow a rigid track for fear of offending or otherwise propagandizing rigid beliefs. Furthermore, storytellers must be free to express ideas in fiction– more importantly, all ideas. When we write, we play with a cast of characters. Many are extensions of ourselves, many others are unique creations. But as storytellers we understand than the dynamic in our characters is often found in conflict, and as such, we have license to explore ideas not our own.
It’s important to explore those ideas– to encourage them to play out on a stage of our own making. To portray these conflicting ideas and beliefs in an environment simulated on paper to show the lessons that already have been taught to us in the past and perhaps stop them from dying out.
Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry’s adventure as a moral lesson on how slaves were people too. Banning it because of the use of a questionable word used to describe the slave, or changing the word itself risks taking away the importance of that work. Homer’s The Odyssey portrayed an ancient Greek ideal of freedom that threatened Caligula, but today we understand it for what it is. The removal of a statue of a historical figure only erases the knowledge of what they did, but also closes the door on learning important lessons of why it ought not be done.
It’s our job as storytellers to challenge ourselves and share truths that may have been forgotten along the way, even if they’re ugly. Nothing comes for free, and the cost we are to incur is moral outrage, ignorance and fear. Our rewards are in knowing that we have touched someone in the most profound way possible– in their imaginations. As a storyteller, I will pay that price happily.