On Censorship and the experience of writing Fair Play or Foul.

Dear GR management (GRM in this review). I assert my right as the author of this book to write what I consider to be relevant by way of a review. Please don’t delete it!

Dear GRM, occasionally I write reviews for a shelf called ‘pairs’. I copy the same review to the two different books I discuss. Please don’t delete either – or both (how would you decide?) – though I appreciate it breaks your new rules.

Censorship is like bacteria, or those tiny little mites that live on each of us in their millions without us being conscious of them. We are surrounded by censorship, we all live by and through it, every day we exercise it ourselves and experience the censorship of others. From the time we begin to learn to speak we are told and told and told what we can’t say. We find out that speech is anything but free and we so quickly take it for granted and learn how to operate within the context of free speech that isn’t free, that maybe we never think about the ramifications of that at all.

For some the beginning of this issue, as it pertains to GR, is the deletion of some reviews by management. Various people decided that it was a violation of free speech – unacceptable censorship – and began to fight to change that. Mainly they fought by making sure they wrote things that GR would have to delete to be consistent with their own policies. My understanding is that those who had their reviews deleted like to read fiction for teenagers that they consider to be badly written and then trash it in ways that apparently entertain them. Other people on GR have come to their support by protesting.

But what IS free speech? I expect I can speak for anybody reading this that there is no such thing as free speech, only ever something approaching it. I expect anybody who does genuinely believe in free speech is right now safely locked up in a place for sociopaths. This means, therefore, that there are some sort of rules guiding what free speech is. Some of those are legal. Some are a matter of morality, perhaps personal, perhaps peer-shared, perhaps imposed by some other extra-legal body. Should a GRReviewer (GRR) be allowed to insult writers gratuitously or otherwise? The protest movement itself seems to think that this is acceptable as far as I can tell. One insults a writer and if they notice, they cop it on the chin. That’s free speech. Further, it would appear that the protesters consider that they have the correct ‘definition’, if you like, of what ‘acceptable free speech’ is, whereas others – the GRM in this case, do not.

So my first point is that I, if nobody else on GR, is uneasy about this idea. Why should a small group of GRR be the ones who make this decision? Why are they the correct arbiters of what is the acceptable notion of free speech and appropriate censorship rather than GRM or anybody else for that matter? And, I couldn’t help being curious to know, do they practise what they preach?

Recently I posted a comment on a thread that was started by somebody leaving GR. Quite some time ago now, she had accused me of being anti-semitic on a review I posted. Note that as it happened, it was my own book I was talking about, so I guess both reviewer and author were being called anti-semitic. I have to say this rankled and rankles still. I can’t imagine a worse thing to be called – and the nature of what followed was unsatisfactory to say the least when she refused in public or private to discuss what she had stated, defriended and blocked me. So much for free speech, I thought at the time, as I left her comments up. Eventually a year or more after they were posted, I finally decided free speech be blowed and deleted what she had written. So, moving forward to my recent comment on her leaving, having stated a lack of sadness at her departure – the following happened. I was told by various friends of hers who are fighting the free speech campaign to “fuck off”, to “delete my comment and apologise”, that I was a “toxic bitch”, an “idiot”, and so on. I was also blocked from being able to post more, so I could neither defend myself nor apologise, if I had thought that was the right thing to do.

Interesting. So, it is perfectly fine for somebody to come to my party – in this case my review of my book – and call me anti-semitic – but it is not okay for me to go to their party and express in what I can only call a polite way – my reference point being the responses posted – that I am not sad somebody who has accused me of this rather dreadful thing is leaving.

Most illuminatingly, one GRR who has some thousands of GR friends said rather gleefully this on the thread after quoting part of my comment:

when someone who has a reputation of being unpleasant and toxic has reviews deleted, no – no one cares

In case you are wondering, she was talking about me.

This it seems, is getting to the essence of what ‘free speech’ means, at least in terms of GR protests. It is a highly prescribed affair, to do with patronage, popularity. It is not about principle.

One of the things that I am now curious about, but may never know the answer is this. Nobody came to my defence on this thread. Of course, this maybe because everybody reading it was in general agreement with the free speech advocates who were trashing me. But then again, maybe it was a fear of expressing themselves in view of the mob they would have to face to do so. I’ve been wondering about this all day, only to receive a private message late this evening in which the person who sent it said

I saw that everyone freaked out at you…which was really unfair, mean-spirited, and completely in opposition to the very kind of free speech they think they are supporting.

Not a huge amount of data, but still, it comforted me that my theory about all this might be right, a theory based on the last time I was involved in a battle for free speech. What people say in private and what they are willing or able to say in public can be very different things. Which brings me to this book.

In the early nineties I wrote a book – this book – which examined various high profile cheating scandals in bridge. In a nutshell I suggested that maybe the people accused of cheating hadn’t been, that the chiefly American accusers might be wrong as a consequence of strong cultural differences between their understanding of bridge and those of other nationalities. I also suggested that the Ely Culbertson might have deliberately destroyed a competitor for the HUGE money by creating the idea that he was cheating. I sent this book to several publishers and was prepared for polite declinations. I was not expecting what actually happened which was that I received vitriolic angry rejections. My book was being censored by mainstream publishers; their problem wasn’t whether it would sell, but they hated the ideas in it. What could I do? I thought I’d produced a good book that would sell, but I put it in a drawer and moved on. One day, however, I mentioned it to a top Australian player who asked if he could look at it. He took it home and brought it back first thing in the morning. Damn, I thought. It wasn’t any good after all, if he hasn’t even bothered reading it. But in fact what had happened was that he sat up all night with it and we now spent some hours talking about how wonderful he thought it was. He thought I should keep trying to get it published. I sent it to the editor of a UK magazine who serialised it. Then I self-published it.

Although it received nice reviews, soon after its release Jeff Rubens, editor of by far the most important bridge magazine Bridge World wrote a hostile editorial about it. He spoke, I guess, for the real heavyweights of bridge in the US, ex-world champions and such like. A reader sent in a very mild attempt to defend the book and that attracted yet more editorial anger. Wow, two hostile editorials. I knew I really had written something that was worthwhile at that point. Nobody else wrote to Bridge World to support me after that. Meanwhile the edition quickly sold out and I started getting feedback from people which was unexpected and completely the opposite from the diatribes that appeared in Bridge World. More than one person said it had been life-changing for them and they really meant it. It let them be more tolerant to others, to be less paranoid and angry about other people. Many people read it in a night. Somebody wrote to say he’d stayed up all night reading it and went down to a shop to buy three more copies to give people the next day. A bridge partnership stayed up all night reading it aloud to each other. Non-bridge players read it. I was invited to present a talk to a magicians’ convention in Vegas. Ten years or more later I still occasionally received these mails.

Lots of people wrote to say that they agreed with what I’d said.

But not one person wrote in public that they agreed with it.

Who could blame them when they saw what had happened to the first poor devil who made a stab at it in Bridge World? Mobs are scary to stand up to and Bridge World and the elite of US bridge are (in this context) a mob. We can say all we like that we live in a culture of free speech, but what does that really mean? I was wondering about all this today as I considered the situation regarding the post where I was attacked with such vitriol by some of those representing the cause of free speech. Is there a group of Goodreaders out there who don’t approve of the way in which free speech was exercised in this case, but are too scared to say so? Are the GR protesters a righteous mob? I have the toughness that comes of being what others have called a toxic bitch so I’m willing to stand up to mobs. But are other people? More to the point, since in the grand scheme of things it is neither here nor there if anybody sticks up for me, is there a mass of people on goodreads who are too scared to have a public point of view disagreeing with the protesters? They have, after all, set themselves up as the righteous defenders of free speech. If one questions them, is one doubting the very idea of free speech? Does that scare people? Is the protest movement speaking for the many silent, or not? Do they need majority support to morally justify themselves?

Going back to the book I wrote, some years later came another development. One of the ex-world champion US players who was a prominent accuser of others being cheats published an autobiography in which he presented various evidence to support his case. Trouble is, some of his evidence was factually incorrect. Whether by mistake or not, he had materially changed the stories of played hands in ways that made it look worse for those accused. I collected together both his stories and, from official records, what actually happened in each case, wrote it up and sent it to Bridge World. Does it surprise you to hear that BW declined to publish my article. Now, this was surely an intrinsically interesting story – ‘world champ lies in book, were the Italians REALLY cheating?’ – and yet he claimed that people weren’t interested. Censorship can use so much to bolster its imposition. But consider this. If all those people who wrote privately to me to support me had done it in public, Jeff Rubens would most certainly not have been able to use this as his excuse. Meanwhile it has gone into history, this false evidence used to accuse some truly great players of cheating.

So this review is addressed more than anything to people who may be in doubt about what is going on here at GR, but are too scared to speak, nervous to speak, or perhaps simply don’t understand why it might be important.

SPEAK!!! On the thread I mentioned at the beginning of this review I was blocked from speaking any more. I wish to make that point to make it clear that I wasn’t bullied into stopping, being bullied isn’t something I take to readily. Don’t be bullied. Not by GRM. Not by the protesters. Say what you think. In a way the latter is harder, if you disagree with GRM because they will be unfailingly polite, whereas the free speech advocates can say what they like, how they like, where they like. Okay!! Still speak! They are maybe a bit sharper with a pen than you are? So what. Still speak. Free speech isn’t worth a low-flying fart, it doesn’t really exist, without interaction. Here you can still do that. If you agree with the protesters, speak up. I’ve long been predicting a world where Amazon will be a straightforwardly evil presence, but not yet. If you are uneasy about the protesters, perhaps you are on the side of rubbished authors or GRM SPEAK UP!!! I have no idea if speaking up is ever a right, but it is surely sometimes a duty and I really think this is a case where it is a duty. How you are treated by the protesters doesn’t really matter. If they disagree with you, they might tell you to fuck off, call you toxic – that’s their definition of free speech. But live by yours. In the end that is all free speech can be: what YOU think it is. Not what GRM thinks. Not what Manny thinks. What YOU think. That is, it is what we all think, which makes it, of course, a right dog’s breakfast.

But if you are doing that, exercising your right to free speech in a closed room on your own with the lights off, either through fear, or because other people have told you that you can say what you like but NOT where it counts, I assure you that this is not free speech, even if the free speechers tell you so. If that was free speech, well, Soviet Russia was its most loyal supporter. There, after all, you weren’t stopped from saying what you thought, only from saying it where anybody was listening. There is no difference between a bureaucracy telling you where you can say something and a bunch of people on GR telling you that. The effect is the same. This seems so obvious to me that I can’t understand why it isn’t obvious to the protesters, in so far, at least, as it pertained to my modest experience with them.

I am reminded of what happened to Colin McGinn, who lost a great deal of his life recently after a student reported him for sexual harassment. A group of academics stated in a public letter that “We recognize Dr. McGinn’s right to free speech” but that he should not be allowed to say anything in public about the situation or to defend himself publicly by talking about what happened. This despite the fact that he was being trashed by media in one of those stories that still sells newspapers. He was at perfect liberty to talk about anything that didn’t actually matter to him.

Fortunately right now, you have more rights to free speech than McGinn, and a great duty to use them. This ad appears on Amazon at the moment:

Forum Moderator

We like to think of our forums as a Free-Speech Zone. And freedom works best at the point of a bayonet – or a “Delete Post” button. As Forum Moderator, it’ll be your job to keep the forums safe and sanitary, while highlighting the posts that actually have something valuable to say. You’ll slap the bad guys’ hands and the good guys’ backs.

If you are tired of Hydra, if you are thinking it doesn’t really matter if such and such is deleted, keep in mind that this is really what you are fighting about. ‘Safe and sanitary’ scares the bejesus out of me. I can’t distinguish it from something you’d see in a Soviet Russia or Communist China re-education camp. But that’s just my opinion. PLEASE HAVE YOURS. And please remember that it doesn’t really count if nobody can hear it.

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6 thoughts on “On Censorship and the experience of writing Fair Play or Foul.

  1. Cathy, I agree with Manny’s first comment on your piece, and your response.

    It’s hard to determine where our views coincide, given such a wide-ranging piece. I hoep you don’t mind if I say some things that are on my mind.

    I advocate free speech, but more importantly I advocate the use of it. It’s definitely a case of use it or lose it.

    The social and political justification of free speech is that it allows the circulation of rival ideas, in the hope that their co-existence and interaction will result in some good or progress.

    The expectation is not that everybody will come to a dialectical synthesis or a consensus or a lowest common denominator outcome. Co-existence and diversity is a positive in its own right.

    The real issue for me is what happens at the intersection of diverse ideas. What civility can be expected between people who disagree?

    I have always read in order to react to what I read. I converse in order to react to what I hear.

    Nobody can expect everybody to agree with them.

    If we say we believe in civility, the question for me is who is deserving of that civility?

    One of my gripes with GR herd behaviour at the moment is the belief that a reviewer can say anything they like about an author, but if you said exactly the same thing (in my case, in a parody written in verse), then the response is impermissible, but the original review is beyond reproach.

    My view is that, in the civility stakes, author and reviewer and reader are all equally deserving of whatever rules of civility are supposed to apply.

    In my case, I didn’t attack the reviewer in their thread. I didn’t deny their right to say that the author was smug and masturbatory. I didn’t say that they were wrong and I was right. I didn’t say that it was wrong to rate one or three stars what I had rated five stars. I don’t give a shit about how somebody rates a book or whether they liked it.

    I’ve read and enjoyed and liked hundreds of reviews that came from totally different points of view to mine, which is exactly why I joined GR.

    However, if someone wants to start saying an author is masturbatory or pretentious (what, is the author trying to aspire or achieve beyond their station?), then I won’t always hold my tongue, and I might respond in the form of parody of the underlying view that the reviewer expressed.

    An opposing view doesn’t have to be ad hominem. It also doesn’t have to be serious. It can be funny.

    Of course, not everybody will find it funny. But so what? Not everybody laughs at either of my jokes.

    The current retort of the herd is “oh, well, you were mean (or mean-spirited)!” “Toxic” is the other retort.

    However, that can be a red herring and the same judgement isn’t always applied to the original review. How “mean” or “toxic” was it?

    Overall, I find that the tone of the original review can shape the reader’s response. If it was mean or toxic , it can easily provoke a mean or toxic response.

    However, I can’t see why the same reviewer can attack an author and complain about the use of identical language about their opinions. In fact, that was the whole point of my using parody as the vehicle for my metacriticism. It held up a mirror to the original review and said, this is what you sound like, how do you like it.

    None of this is an argument for legal censorship. I oppose its intervention into community websites, except in the case of well-established legal wrongs like defamation, etc.

    I support civility as a social standard, but not a legally imposed one. However, I advocate identical treatment for all in the community: author, reviewer, reader, poster.

    I was not aware of your treatment in the threads you discussed. I get the same treatment. Just yesterday, a “friend” published an update quoting a response of Otis to a comment I made in a thread I started. When I posted on my “friend’s” thread (a comment that was trying to explain what Otis had said in context), he asked me not to post on his thread.

    Many people have called me “patronising” because of the ways I have questioned the efficacy of the Hydra campaign, in order to get the focus back on working out what the terms of use could be (we have to do that sooner or later anyway).

    “Patronising” is just the new version of “Mean” and “toxic”.

    The reality is that people don’t like my “tone” because they don’t like my point of view.

    Well we all have to live with each other and our points of view, without the name-calling. I don’t find mean, toxic or patronising as helpful.

    Let’s get back to the legitimate rivalry between the ideas.

    • Good morning, Ian! I don’t know if I care about the language or passion of exchange – if we aren’t going to get overexcited about the issue of censorship and free speech, then what? Whether people are doing things like stopping you from being able to speak, is a different thing again. Is there and should there be a difference between what one says about somebody who is alive as opposed to someone who is dead? About an author who is famous – and one supposes secure in that fame – and one who is not?

      I’m happy to take my own example, since I happened to be both reviewer and author when I was told I was anti-semitic in a comment. In bridge I’m ‘famous’ and I think if this was said in a bridge forum I would have laughed it off and a hundred friends would have laughed at the author of this comment too.

      But on GR I’m nothing, I’m just a made up person with no meaningful existence. The impact of what people say changes in its context.

      I’m losing the plot here, I’m not sure if I really understand what you are saying except that it seems to come down to the same thing as usual – what IS free speech? It is a limited thing, surely, even for you. You say you believe in free speech but what do you actually mean by that? Somebody else on goodreads believes in free speech and acts on it by blocking you in some way, they have their own definition.

      To me the problem is what I said in my original discussion. Free speech is a dog’s breakfast and there is absolutely nothing we can do about that.

      • Haha. I don’t know whether we are agreeing, arguing or arguing at cross purposes.

        Free Speech:

        I guess I’d say that it’s a reciprocal compact. I want you/others to respect my freedom of speech, but in return I agree to respect yours/theirs.

        Christians must respect Jews and Jews must respect Christians. [Add Muslims, etc to complete the analogy.]

        I don’t see how that’s a dog’s breakfast.

        Dissed Dead or Alive:

        Does it matter whether the author is dead or alive?

        Doesn’t it depend on the principles behind free speech? If we are only worried about whether we will “hurt” a living author, does it not matter that we might “hurt” their surviving relatives?

        If an author dies with no recognition and a family who has gone without for a lifetime, is it OK to dis the author aggressively and unjustifiably within the copyright period, if the survivors will be prejudiced financially?

        More importantly, in my mind, if it’s a matter of common decency, what difference does it make that the author is dead. It’s my civility that is on trial. The mortality of the object of my attack is irrelevant.

        Fame?

        Again, it’s not whether an author is somehow oblivious to offence because they’re financially or personally secure (whatever that means). It’s about my civility.

        My conduct isn’t more entitled to be uncivil, simply because you’re somehow more invincible or godlike.

        If this was the case, there would be no crime of blasphemy.

        The Context:

        On GR, we’re all equal and equally deserving of civility, dead or alive.

        Every time you open your mouth, you are prima facie deserving of respect. You have a meaningful existence as does everybody else.

        You don’t need a prior reputation or an incredulous audience to stand up for you.

        If your point is that there is nothing we can do about it, then I don’t agree with your point.

        • Just briefly, I’m sorry: GR shows for us right now that it is a dog’s breakfast. It isn’t just about being civil. You can trash something in a totally civil way and it doesn’t mean this is more acceptable that if you swear your way through it, which I, being more Australian than you evidently are, are very likely to do. You can prevent people’s free speech whilst being utterly civil about it. I don’t know that civility is necessasry, but if it is necesssary, it is nowhere near sufficient.

          Having said that, I have been told the story of your parody over lunch and it was hilarious to hear. I don’t see why being parodied isn’t some sort of compliment – at least it is often meant that way on GR….

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