on two types of self-censorship

Both my parents are pretty artsy people, so there is some nude art at home. There’s a statue of some kind of nymph – that used to terrify me as a child, not so much because of her nudity but because of her dead-eyed, Nefertiti-esque face – and a couple of nude paintings. But one time, anticipating that family friends (and their young kids) were coming over, my mom decided to discreetly stash away some of our collection for the time being.

Paul commanded the Corinthian Christians not to dwell on their self-professed rights, particularly when it came to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Now it is true that idols have no power, therefore any ceremony that involves them equally has no power, including meat sacrifice – therefore, as Paul says, it should be fine to eat it. But, he continues, if doing so causes another Christian to become confused or conflicted, it’s not worth it. Give up the meat if it confuses other Christians around you.

About a month ago, Rockhampton in Australia made the news for a bit of discreet flag-covering. Rockhampton’s schoolchildren had been asked to paint various national flags over six bull statues, to celebrate their cultural diversity. Two Taiwanese flags however ended up being painted over by the regional council, as part of the national recognition of the One-China policy (the PRC is one of Australia’s biggest beef export markets). A small furore erupted.

The BBC has recently been accused of ‘blackwashing’ history. Its recent TV series Troy: Fall of a City generated some controversy for choosing a black actor to portray Achilles, while earlier this year its animated Story of Britain attracted criticism for pointedly including black characters in many of its scenes, even where it wouldn’t have made historical sense (eg. in the Iron Age Celtic segments, or the post-Roman Dark Age segments).

And Battlefield V – the latest in a very popular, macho, shooting game franchise – has recently generated controversy for releasing a game trailer that prominently features not only weirdly cartoonish action scenes in a WW2 setting, but also an amputee woman soldier engaged in fierce combat. The trailer is already breaking a record for having far more YouTube dislikes than likes (393,000 to 309,000 as of the time of writing).

I see all of these as examples of self-censorship: don’t show, say, or do anything that would upset the people around you, even though without them, this would be normal for you. It would be your right.

My artsy parents normally admire all sorts of art, including nude art, and they have the right do so. Many Corinthian Christians normally ate meat, even sacrificial meat – this was their right. Rockhampton’s schoolchildren normally have the right to proudly display their parents’ countries of origin. The BBC would normally have the right to portray its characters however it wished, hopefully leaning toward historical accuracy (historically, white Achilles, like black Achilles, wouldn’t make sense, though on balance it seems slightly less incongruous). And normally macho shooting game franchises would have the right to pump out whatever testosterone-fuelled mulch they so desired, though those games that chose WW2 as a setting would have to tone down the cartoonishness.

But out of concern for our family friends’ little ones, my parents stashed away some of their more sensitive art. Out of concern for other Christians’ conscience, Paul recommends not eating sacrificial meat. Out of concern for not hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, Rockhampton Regional Council covered up the offending flags. Out of concern for leaving out black people, BBC included more black characters in its shows. And out of concern (possibly?) for alienating female gamers who have felt marginalised, Battlefield developer Dice decided to include a woman soldier as a main character.

I don’t see however the same concern, the same motivations, in each of these actions.

Taken cynically, my parents simply wanted to avoid any trouble with the friends; Paul wanted to grow the early Church, and so was willing to be pragmatic if it would mean retaining and expanding Church membership.

But taken positively, both my parents and Paul were doing the same thing: they were being loving. They would rather forego something that they were happy with than cause upset to people they loved.

Taken positively, Rockhampton Regional Council, the BBC, and Dice want to avoid upsetting other people’s sensibilities. Rockhampton Regional Council wants to reaffirm what Beijing states, and the BBC and Dice want to include people who have heretofore felt neglected.

But taken cynically, all three bodies want to avoid trouble, because trouble would endanger their primary goal: to turn a profit.

The first type of self-censorship seems to be motivated by love; the second by fear. The first type’s considerations seem timeless – showing deference to friends, showing deference to other Christians for the sake of their peace of mind – while the second’s are firmly rooted in present sociopolitical issues: the growing soft power of the PRC, and the tug-of-war social struggle of identitarian inclusivity; and of course the context of very real pressure from special-interest groups which prompts their self-censorship to begin with.

One type of self-censorship is slightly more nuanced: home is still filled with art, but the more sensational pieces have been stowed away; Paul clearly states that eating sacrificial meat is fine, but firmly lays aside this right for the sake of other Christians.

The other type is more blunt: NOPE, NO TAIWANESE FLAGS HERE, NO SIR!; and in the case of the BBC and Dice, particularly egregious self-censorship that ignores nuances and borders on historical revision. One would be hard-pressed to find black Africans in Iron Age- and Dark Age Britain (and even in Roman Britain, given that the vast majority of the Roman Empire’s African contact was with North Africa, not sub-saharan Africa); and while one would be hard-pressed to find women soldiers fighting in WW2 (barring the Soviet Union), why should this mean women didn’t participate in the war? Women were found serving bravely in all sorts of capacities, frontline (often as mechanics, drivers, nurses, searchlight operators, or sometimes even pilots) or on the home front (factory workers, agricultural workers, moms keeping the family functional while the dad was off to the front, and others).

Self-censorship motivated by love seems more flexible, nuanced, and balanced. And because it is proactive I find it more trustworthy, more in tune with the balanced truth. It is not clearly motivated by self-preservation.

Self-censorship motivated by fear is often reactive, given that it is often concretely rooted in a particular issue. It is totalising, blunt, and often tries to overwrite or distort the truth rather than respecting its balance. It is not built on timeless and universal value, but rather on fleeting, self-interested, self-preserving, and often short-sighted impulse.

It seems the second type of self-censorship is what we see in the world at large.

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