The Danger of Self-Censorship

There’s been a lot of talk in my area lately about banning books. I love this.

Oh, it’s not because I think that banning books is such a good idea. It’s not. Nor is blindly insisting that every book needs to be in a school library to have significance. They don’t. What I’m happy to see is that people on both sides of any attempt to ban a book are recognizing something extremely powerful and true: The written word carries tremendous significance.

The reality is, we know about our pasts beyond a certain point with any degree of reliability only because people wrote stuff down. Oral traditions are great, but if you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know how skewed things can get the further you travel from the original sender. The written word, however, is more likely to be a true and accurate account of what happened in the moment than the story your grandfather told you, whose grandfather told him, whose grandfather told him …

The written word gives context to our lives, and I’m not talking about just historical non-fiction texts. The works of fiction from any generation are extremely revelatory of what was going on in the society from which the text was born. Zoom out a little bit from the words you’re reading and it’s not hard to see what was going on around the author when he or she organized the various letters into groupings.

Books are reflections of the times, sometimes from what is going on in the moment (which makes it unsurprising that best-seller lists are starting to be flooded by virus-themed works) or reactionary to a time period just past that the next generation is struggling to put into some sort of context. Grapes of Wrath is a great example of this.

The thing is, for a written work to do what it’s supposed to do for subsequent generations, it needs to be authentically written by someone unencumbered by any fear of what others might think of his or her writing. It must be the truth as that particular author sees it and feels it. Writers are constantly trying to put their thoughts together and get them out in print (or now, online) in the hope that what they feel taps into something internal and maybe even subconscious that others are feeling.

I know that’s true with what I try to do as a storyteller. But I’ve been struggling lately, and I didn’t even really know I was struggling until fairly recently. It’s not that I had writers’ block or anything. Far from it. I can spit out a bunch of words on a variety of topics in any given day.

No, the thing I realized recently is that I’ve been metaphorically banning my own books.

Let me explain.

I feel things. I see things. A lot. I have a particular way of looking at life that is unique to me. This doesn’t make me special. So do you. So does everybody. What I realized I’ve been doing of late — and I’m not exactly sure yet for how long I’ve been doing this — is altering what I would truly write were I unencumbered by thoughts about how what I write would land.

Here’s the truth: I recognize more than anyone I know the power of words because I see how mine have had an impact on the people who read them. I’ve seen my words inspire. I have seen my words convict. I have seen my words lead to community turmoil after publication in one of the various newspapers for which I toiled earlier in my career. I’ve seen my words anger people I love.

Somewhere along the journey of rebuilding my creative spirit and unleashing its full potential, I started to censor myself. Interesting thing: This correlates strongly with a time in which I lost the confidence to, as the saying goes, “Speak my truth.” It wasn’t just the written word I was struggling to authentically deliver. I wasn’t using my voice to talk about the world, the people in it and the situations that occurred because of the interaction between the two as I saw it, as I felt it, as I personally experienced it.

I muted myself. I wrote things and said things because they would be OK to other people, would reduce the chance of conflicts with people I cared about, would be acceptable and not lead to turmoil during a time I sorely needed an influx of serenity.

The problem with that is it creates an inaccurate record of the moment. It is, to put it bluntly, a lie. And it’s had destructive consequences.

Me muting myself to get along in this world more easily has created a false narrative — about me and the world around me. Because I believed that the authentic me needed to be softened and, to a large extent, hidden, I created this warped equation in which Real John equaled Wrong John. After all, if me starting my thoughts and my opinions with courage and conviction was too much for the people in my orbit and led to strife and anger, well, then there must be something wrong with the real me.

So I shut up. I started censoring what I would write, and in some cases, I stopped writing and speaking altogether. Better to be quiet and get along than to speak up and be hurt by the reactions.

It’s funny, though. Sometimes, my writing was so damn well received when I was censoring myself. The John that stayed in his lane and didn’t write about the full depth of what he saw and felt was accepted and loved — or, at least, his writing didn’t anger people. But if he strayed out of those lines and wrote the truth as he truly saw it? Well, then, suddenly people who seemed to never care about or mention the stuff he wrote or who actively supported his writing would find a way to let it be known that what was written was Not Acceptable.

That reinforced the message: Real John = Wrong John. And this, of course, led to more self-censorship. I mean, it makes sense, right? Outside of my immediate family, my writing is the most important thing I have in my life. The ability to arrange letters into words and words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs is the thing I know how to do best in this world. To have my singular exceptional talent cause unjust strife has been devastating to my heart and soul.

Why? Well, because it led to me bottling up my thoughts, my feelings, my opinions, the things I feel are important. And because of that, I’ve been living other people’s truths while stuffing down these things that I think and feel and know are right or at least are valid. That, over the course of times, is damaging.

This is not to say that anyone should go around living an unfiltered life. Never should everything thought or felt be said or written. There’s truth in, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and there’s validity to the theory that silence is golden.

But where would we be as a society or as individuals if the not-nice thing was never said or if silence was always truly what was golden for every moment? Sure, we’d avoid some conflicts, but wouldn’t we just be fomenting even larger ones down the line, either with others or within ourselves? I tend to think that’s true.

This all came to a head for me a few days ago when I realized I was censoring myself in my own journal. My own journal! How ridiculous is that? I mean, if a person’s own journals can’t be a place where he actively struggles with his thoughts, feelings and beliefs, then it stands to reason no place is safe for that to happen. A journal should be a place for the ugly stuff, for an in-the-moment exposition of how the sausage of your life is made. It should be a place that, if considered over the span of time, a person’s growth and development is on display.

So if that stuff is being censored, if the words in there are whitewashed for some unseen audience or if the words never appear in there at all for fear of giving them the power of being etched in ink, none of that processing and growth and development is actually happening, is it? At the very least, none of it is there to be reexamined and reflected upon somewhere down the line to see the general trajectory of a life honestly lived.

So where’s the sweet spot? Where is that spot in which truth is spoken and it is received in the spirit in which it is intended, as nothing less and nothing more than the thoughts, feelings and opinions of one guy trying to figure life out? Where is that place in which the power of words can be felt and respected and not seen as tinder for a spark to grow into a raging inferno? Is there a way to do all of … this … in a manner that is valued and appreciated and celebrated and honored?

That’s really all I want:. a safe place to process life honestly. A place in which I can be truthful about the world as I see it, as I feel it without fear or harsh judgment. Because the thing is, I think… I feel … that people out there think and feel some of the same things I do. I’m not looking for a band of fanboys or fangirls who await my next missive, but I do appreciate those who, whether they agree with me or not, are comfortable with the fact that what I’m putting out there is part of the struggle to be authentic and to make sense of the world around me. If nothing else, perhaps it gets a discussion going — a civil discussion. Maybe it’s a way for others to reexamine their own thoughts and beliefs. Maybe it’s a spark that, instead of igniting rage, creates a flame that melts through cold and causes a softening of rough edges and leads to greater understanding and appreciation.

Perhaps that’s idealistic. Perhaps its narcissistic to think my words, my thoughts matter or carry any sort of significance to cause change and greater understanding. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, of late, I’ve been working hard to find better ways to speak my truth and be heard and seen and appreciated, and in doing so I’ve found some modicum of courage to say and write what I feel and believe to be a true, valid way of looking at the world and the events in it that influence me. But there’s hasn’t been enough authenticity in it yet for me to stop feeling like who I am is Wrong John.

That needs to change. The banning of books never leads to ultimate good. It is so, so often used by those with power to reinforce harmful beliefs. Wherever pages are burning, wherever thoughts are being incinerated, someone’s truth is lost. Whether that truth was popular, right, wrong or insane, burning those thoughts and feelings is to torch part of who someone is — and, more to the point, part of who we are as a society or culture.

That type of censorship isn’t good. Yes, words have power, and with great power comes great responsibility. Those who create words as part of who they are need to do so with care. But they still — always — need to keep creating, need to search for authenticity as they see it and they feel it so the collective has the best chance to benefit from what they do.

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