Is censorship the most effective response to ignorance?

January 18, 2013 12:00 pm

On Monday, The Observer published an opinion piece by the notoriously controversial writer Julie Burchill. In it, Burchill engages in an extended rant defending her friend and fellow writer, Suzanne Moore, who was forced to leave Twitter last week, following widespread abuse regarding comments she had made in an article for the New Statesman.

Indeed, in the original said article, Moore talked of how “we [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”. Following its publication, the Twittersphere sprang into action; user after user expressing their disgust and dismay to the writer directly, so much so that Moore deleted her account on the social networking site and resigned herself to relative cyber anonymity. Of course it was a reckless and offensive example to provide, and yes, it was highly insensitive. Yet, if we view the offending dialogue within the greater context in which they were used, it’s hard not to come to any other conclusion than that it remains somewhat insignificant in relation to the overall feel of the piece. In fact, the reckless use of ‘Brazilian transsexual’ is just one tiny iota of dialogue in the otherwise wonderful piece that Suzanne Moore created; an in-depth and fascinating look at contemporary feminism and its future. You could call this article many things; it certainly wasn’t, at its core, supporting a view that is transphobic. Indeed, the debate that followed the publication of Moore’s article was that of a debate based on semantics and throwaway phrases; a furore fuelled by vocal online critics who simply failed to recognise the message of social progression and egalitarianism staring them blindly in the face, instead favouring a nit-picking approach that unleashed a wave of  unfair accusations and unnecessary antagonism. The choice of the wording was stupid, but does that automatically make Moore a bigot? Of course not. Times columnist Caitlin Moran summed up my thoughts on this unnecessary debate perfectly in a single tweet; “Briefly, if you don’t like what someone else is doing/saying, don’t tear it down: make your own thing, instead.” 

Suzanne Moore

By being hounded away from Twitter, Moore has been censored and removed from the debate that she supposedly started. Is this a victory or defeat for those who pride themselves on their own right to express their views so potently and directly online? Surely by contacting Moore in the first place, the online community who contacted her wanted an apology; an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – at least a debate of sorts? Instead, they achieved silence; a metaphorical ‘brushing under the carpet’ if you will; not, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and most importantly, not a moral victory.

Enter Julie Burchill, a writer who is no stranger to courting controversy and attracting criticism. Angered by the events following the publication of her dear friend’s controversial piece, Burchill embarked on creating a frankly inane opinion piece that went far beyond the realms of simply defending Suzanne Moore. Instead, she engaged in what some labelled as a transphobic hate speech; an argument so full of prejudice and cruel jibes that it is, at times, beyond belief. On first read, I honestly believed it could have been a rather ill-fated reverse-psychology style experiment. Yet, as I read on and on, it was clearly not the case. In her piece, Burchill labels those who criticised Moore’s choice of vocabulary as “a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs” and “a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing”, before then going on to use the phrase “trannies”, and concluding her argument by constructing an ‘us and them’ situation in which she pleads with the “shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days..” to not “bully us lowly natural-born women”. Understandably, this article too was met with a barrage of online criticism; this time, in my opinion, criticism that was wholly justified. This was bigotry; not a defence of a colleague or dear friend. It was so much more than that – a prejudice ladened train of thought that was full to the brim of a sickening rhetoric; a rhetoric that seemed to suggest that she held some sort of intrinsic authority over those who she was so ruthlessly criticising. In short, it was, in my opinion, a sickening pile of offensive garbage that anyone with a shred of respect for equality, decency and social progression would find offensive, demeaning and plain outrageous.

Julie Burchill

Yet, before a calm, measured and frankly vital public forum for discussion could be generated; before the dust had even had a chance to settle following the publication of Burchill’s vile rant, the same people who took to their keyboards to criticise Moore took to their high horses and demanded resignations, both from Burchill herself and the editor who had green-lit the controversial pieces’ publication. Before even requesting a public debate; a debate that could educate, inspire and evoke a momentum for change, the keyboard warriors had spoken and demanded the heads of those who were considered guilty. Even Lynne Featherstone, the former equalities minister, who still works in government, took to her Twitter account to demand the resignation of Burchill; you couldn’t make it up. It’s good to see the lessons of Leveson have lasted all of five minutes –  because in a post-Leveson climate, the one thing we really need to establish is a direct line of influence and power between the government and the press!

Indeed, the one thing that this sorry incident must not harm, in any sense, is the ultimate quality that our press prides itself on; its freedom from government. For all the sickening claims that Burchill makes, the offensive terms she spits out in her vile piece, we must remember, the article itself is not offensive by definition. Freedom of speech however, must, by definition, include opinions and viewpoints that others find offensive. If not, we live in a climate where censorship prevails and rules supreme.

Unsurprisingly, The Observer has since removed the piece from its website, with editor John Mulholland claiming that the paper “got it wrong” before swiftly apologising for “the hurt and offence caused”.  Just what exactly did they ‘get wrong’? The allowance of an opinion that does not chime perfectly with what is deemed to be acceptable published to the masses? Without writing and debate that evokes argument and discussion, our journalism, our press and the very fabric of our existence would be a rather bland and dull affair. There is no denying that Burchill’s piece is an example of hideous, prejudice-ridden twaddle that is deeply offensive, and it is subsequently reassuring and refreshing to see that a large majority of people who read the piece strongly disagreed with her sentiments (around 90% of those questioned on The Independent’s website, to be precise). Yet, by deciding to remove, and censor Burchill’s article, The Observer and its editor have begun treading down a very risky road.

Yes, above all, a healthy debate has not been had. Instead, an army of individuals who refuse to see the larger picture in these instances have effectively eradicated the opposing view – subsequently bringing about a dangerous form of censorship that has brought upon itself as far an influence as Twitter users to government ministers. I, like many, deplore Burchill’s vile sentiments – her article was offensive, bigoted and ill-judged. Yet, however hard to stomach it is, it doesn’t, under any circumstance, justify removal and censorship. Indeed, to remove this from online publication does not remove it from our minds; it doesn’t reverse any effect that its publication had on the reputation of both Burchill or The Observer, and it most certainly does act as a victory for those who so violently opposed it. Indeed, a true victory would be an apology; something that the very author of the offensive piece has yet to provide. As such, it’s hard not to view The Observer’s decision to remove it from its website as disastrous for a publication that, even in their justification for removing the said article from their website, prided itself “on ventilating difficult debates and airing challenging views”. It is not only a dark day for British print media, but also for a publication that has built a reputation on groundbreaking and boundary-pushing journalism. The finest and strongest print media from around the world seldom bow to political and social pressure so easily; The Observer’s strength should lie in its independence – instead it’s weakness wallows in conformity. A great shame.


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