Narcissus' Echo

Thoughts, tears, rants, ruminations, hopes, fears, love(s), and prayers of just another being passing through this wracked sphere...

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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Self-censorship: abnegation

The translingual writer, Anton Shammas , once opined, "You cannot write about the people whom you love in a language they understand; you can't write freely. In order not to feel my heroes breathing down my neck all the time, I used Hebrew."

This quandary, posed by Shammas, used to be the exclusive domain of writers, poets, film makers, song writers, and other artists, but now we observe it in a larger portion of the generation: bloggers. While Shammas was referring to print and languages in his quote, I propose it can (be manhandled to) apply to the contemporary issues raised by the advent of blogs as well. Where does the "privacy" of those you love (your acquaintances, friends, significant others, life style partners) begin, and where does your freedom of expression and speech end? There is, I believe, a very wide spectrum between pouring your heart out online and being a tell-all exhibitionist. Then again, a blog is an exercise in exhibitionism (and all its readers voyeurs, of one degree or another).

Do we have to hide from those closest to us (so as not to hurt, offend, or disappoint them) in order to truly express ourselves? If this is true, then what does it say about the human condition? Oh, one can mask it by saying that one should always temper one's words about one's loved ones, treat them tenderly in one's expressions, etc., but deep down we know those are just euphemisms. It is OK to bitch to your drinking buddies about your GF's habits or traits, but it is not OK to write about them on your blog (well, you can, but you better pray she never discovers the existence of your blog). Why? What distinguishes your beer buddies from the people reading your blog? What is the difference? Sheer number? After all, not many of us have hundreds of beer buddies. Does it have to do with our subconscious associating certain qualities with print?

Why do we have to self-censor? When can you say what you want? When can you express what is burning in your heart? Or are you just ignoring it, letting day after day, year after year, decade after decade, pass until your dying day? Are you going to keep it all inside in hopes that you can bitch about your lifetime of repression to God? How many people die each day? Do you think God has time to listen to you? Do we consciously weigh our inherent rights to self-expression against the pressures of self-censorship? Pressures that arrive in various forms: from threats of lawsuits from government organizations, commercial companies, individuals with ambulance-chasing attorneys in their pockets, to friends resorting to emotional blackmail, withholding or holding hostage their friendship, to virtual strangers who send you hate mail or threats of physical violence. I am not talking about stepping over clear lines of what constitutes libel, or the digital equivalent of shouting, "Fire!" in a crowded theater here. No, what I am talking about is more mundane. I am talking about, say, I voice my opinion (and fantasy) that smokers who subject non-smokers to their 2nd hand smoke, should be hog-tied with their lips duct taped around the exhaust pipe of a V8 engine at WOT, I shouldn't have to be subjected to threats from, and admonitions of, friends who do smoke. This is not a case of irresponsibility for my expressions. Remember, this is MY BLOG. You are welcome NOT TO READ IT. Your exercise of censorship is but a click away; go to another website, or close the window, or quit your browser. While our opinions may or may not be influenced by those around us, it is a different matter altogether when those around us attempt to dictate or silence our opinions.

In The Writer Written: The Artist and Creation in the New Literatures in English, while examining All Visitors Ashore, by the New Zealander, C. K. Stead, Jean-Pierre Durix points out that,

Writing is an attempt to fill the gap of separation, to reach out over the vastness of silence, to keep in contact with the ideal object of one's desire, even if--and especially as--this object is unattainable. . . . For Curl [a character in Stead's book], writing is a way of avoiding the tremendous anguish of "nothingness and fear" (31) that seizes him together with the idea that he is crumbling to pieces inside himself. . . . Writing is a therapy, even if the aims pursued appear futile. (Jean-Pierre Durix, The Writer Written: The Artist and Creation in New Literatures in English (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 114-5)

How long shall one deny oneself this release; this therapy; this innate ability to recreate and recoalesce one's world order and world view? Singaporeans get uncomfortable (many of them getting mad. I seem to possess a proclivity for making people mad.) when I point out that, living in Singapore, from cradle to grave, one is told what to think, how to think, what to watch, what to read, how to read, when to marry, when to make babies, when to use contraceptives, etc. And now, they receive a signal that what they write on their blogs is being watched as well. A country that regulates with such stifling and draconian control cannot expect to produce anything other than efficient automatons. You cannot cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation with the presence of such soul-destroying engines running amok. The translingual exiled Chinese-American writer, Ha Jin, pointed out in many of his interviews that the biggest difference he experienced between China and America is that Americans trade security for freedom. This is something that many Singaporeans are not willing to do. You want a safe and regular place in your little well. You do not want to rock the boat. You want a safe and regular relationship with your friends. You do not want to rock the boat. For the majority of humanity, the environment and company kept define them; and, in that sense, perhaps Singaporeans aren't totally to blame: the entrenched culture makes them so; and so, they continue perpetuating the culture, in order to guarantee their place in it.

But what does it mean to silence oneself? For those IRC users out there (a dying breed), it is akin to being "devoiced." As it literally suggests, you have no voice. Whatever you type on your keyboard does not appear in the chat window. No one hears your screams; your words; your protests; your laments. You are present as a name on the list of people on the channel, but you cannot talk. You are a mere statistic. A friend is no friend; a lover, no lover; a benevolent government, no benevolent government, when they demand that you practice self-censorship, self-restraint, in everything that you say and write. What they are asking you to do, in effect, is to turn yourself into a digital equivalent of a subaltern. The subaltern have no voice. It cannot speak. The Dalit (Untouchables) in India are subalterns. No one hears them. They have no say in matters of the nation, or even society. They are, for all purposes, mute; represented only in census surveys. I will not be just another one of your neutered friends with a blog that only publishes material approved by you.

In my world view, I fervently believe that people should be allowed to freely write, print and say what they want. Censorship represents the death of art, and with that, the death of creativity, innovation, vitality, originality--life itself. There will be bad apples (e.g. Mein Kampf, Turner Diaries, etc.), but they are the price that comes with such freedom. Or would you prefer a world filled with nothing but songs and books of propaganda about "Dear Leader(s)"? Singaporeans: you might laugh at China, but dig a little deeper, think a little more, and you will be surprised at just how much your society holds in common with the "socialist republic." E.g. forcing school children to sing nationalistic propaganda songs, taking part in nationalistic marches and events, etc. Amnesty International Report 2005

Will I still my breath for you?
Will I hold my tongue for you?
Will I turn myself into a subaltern for you?

Forget about buying my identity or my freedom (with money, price of friendship, threats, or otherwise). Believe me when I say it's not for sale.

The door is always open; you can always choose not to read this blog; you can always leave. I believe a subscription to Cosmopolitan is still US$1 an issue / a month. Enjoy your unexamined life.


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