A co-worker once said to me that I have a head like a gumball machine. At first, I thought that he was referring to me being bald. However, he went on to explain that a thought, like a gumball, will roll around in my head, eventually finding its way out of my mouth. Although I consider him a friend, I don’t believe it was meant to be a compliment. I can hardly blame him; my wife feels the same way. On the way home from parties, she would give me my performance review, listing what I said wrong during the evening. You shouldn’t have said to such-n-such that you thought a certain commentator was full of it, even though he is. She would remind me that not everyone felt that television is an opiate for the simple-minded. Harmless comments such as those I was told were not the way to win friends and influence people.
For most people with my affliction, this is not a problem. We just plod through life, saying the wrong thing, apologizing when necessary, explaining that there was no intent to offend anyone. The problem for me is that I am a professional author and public speaker. I make my living saying things.
Before I say anything further, I must apologize. I try to keep the posts on this blog related to Italian and Italian-American culture and history. However, over the past month, I have been censored. What was censored should not have been. Therefore, I feel compelled to speak out on an issue that concerns us all.
In one instance in which I was censored, I had recommended the book The Pope and Mussolini. It is perhaps the best book I have read this year. In recommending the book I noted how the Pope, in fear of communism, had assisted in the rise of fascism in Italy. The comment was tagged as not meeting community standards. Wow. Recommending a Pulitzer Prize-winning book was not up to community standards?
The most recent instance involves my previous blog post, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, & Sorrento. The image that accompanied the post was of the White Parade which is held in Sorrento Italy on Holy Thursday. It is an observation of the day that goes back roughly 1500 years. The people in this procession wear white robes with pointed hoods. Of course, the ignorant among us do not bother to read, they simply react. Italians had been dressing in the style well before the Americas were even known, much less the organization with which such costumes are associated existed. People, in their laziness, just assumed that it had something to do with a particular organization that I will not name for fear of being censored yet again.
This is the reason the image for this post is an empty box. I had recently seen the empty box posted on several social networks with the caption, something no one can complain about. Of course, my response was that the person who created the image was an obvious racist because the box was white. Fortunately, they saw the humor intended in the comment. The only way to not offend anyone is to say and stand for nothing.
As an author, one of the rights I see as most sacred is the freedom of speech. At the same time, I also realize that all of our rights, because we live in a society with others, have some restrictions placed upon them. As Oliver Wendell Holmes reminded us, my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. We agree that freedom of speech is not absolute. To cite the old example; I haven’t the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. We agree that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to libel another person or to threaten them with violence. These are the easy cases, but there are instances when things are not so clear-cut. We must recognize that when and what to censor is not always obvious, that we sail between Scylla and Charybdis. Yes, I know this is an overused metaphor, but it is especially apt in this instance.
We can adopt a complete and total libertarian view, Charybdis, anyone says anything they want without restraint or repercussions, let them all compete freely in the marketplace of ideas. This, as of late, seems to predominately be the position of the right. Unfortunately, we have various social media outlets used to incite violence. These same outlets, once the violence occurs, are used to publicize the event. Initially, it had been hoped that the Internet’s freedom and ubiquity would lead to a greater understanding between people, greater access to information leading to a more informed society. Instead, partially due to the algorithms used by search engines and social platforms, we have become more divided and less informed. We live in silos in which our biases and prejudices are confirmed. Silos in which assumption and facts go unchallenged. Charybdis swallows us up in hate, dragging us down beneath a sea of misinformation. Misinformation, what a silly word. Lies, we are dragged down beneath a sea of lies.
Some recommend that we steer so clear of Charybdis, that we fall prey to Scylla. We pluck from our decks all but the most pure, eliminate any who would challenge the accepted dogma of what is seen as the moral and the good. This seems to be that position of those on the left, a position that is the very antithesis of liberal principles. I am told that while guardians of the good do not believe in censorship, there must be consequences when someone says something with which they do not agree. Consequences. Why am I reminded of inflexible authoritarian teachers punishing children out of pure meanness? What they really mean is punished. If you do not agree with the orthodoxy then you need to lose your job, your books must be banned, your career ended.
If this purging were not enough, anything you might have said or done in the past is held against you. An Inappropriate tweet. A past misdeed. A poorly conceived metaphor. Disagreeing with an article of the faith. All sins are mortal for which no self-abasement is sufficient and no forgiveness possible. You must suffer the consequences; you must be punished. How can we have a free society unless everyone is brought into line?
The danger here should be clear. How can ideas be tested if they are not challenged? How can they be challenged if those who challenge them are punished? What does this do to the arts? Think of the great music that has been created by those that stood on the outside. Think of the great literature that challenged the accepted way of thinking. Think of the great scientists who were great because they looked at the world differently.
Frank Zappa said; “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Do we cast all of that aside for homogeneity? Understand, the greatest art does not come from those who are the pure, the worthy of veneration, the accepted. Think of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein told him his work Up In Michigan was too obscene to be published. Today it is seen as a truly great work of literature, written with great sensitivity. What great works of literature or artists are being repressed because they do not conform to the rules, who are suffering consequences.
If we are to advance as a society, we value the free and open exchange of ideas. We must first listen and understand another person’s point of view before we agree or disagree. We must be hesitant to silence another. It must be more than simply disagreeing with their view, but that there is a substantive likelihood of harm that will result from the speech, more than someone being offended.
Hemmingway also said; “Before you act, listen. Before you react, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you criticize, wait.”