Prompted by Noel Black
What Censorship and Permission Mean for Voices Scripted by a Dominant Culture
By Gregg Deal, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable on Censorship & Permission
The Right to Be Wrong
By Megan Gafford, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable on Censorship & Permission
By Noel Black
We live in a time of unprecedented strain on the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. But we also live in a time with an unprecedented amount of speech. After the rise of blogs in the early 2000s, Facebook and Twitter came along and made publishing so simple and fast that everyone with an account is now a publisher of their own uncensored thoughts and ideas. Or are they?
A recent study commissioned by Facebook found that, out of a sample of 3.9 million users, 71% deleted a post that they had previously written, indicating a high level of self-censorship on a platform where the “self” is as much a performance commodity as it is a subjectivity in search of expression. While posts can certainly be deleted, online speech can be hard to retract once published. Screen grabs can quickly become evidence in call-outs as users and “friends” police one another in ways that have been likened to a digital version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon — the circular prison design in which all the jail cells face inward toward a central watchtower with one-way mirrors, so that no one can ever be sure but must presume that they’re being watched at all times. For philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault, “the major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” When we post on Facebook or Twitter, we now presume that we’re being watched and that our speech is being policed by others.
Many would argue that this level of visibility and freedom to publish is a good thing. There are no longer gatekeepers guarding the doors to publication (online, at least). Anyone with something powerful to say and an understanding of the currency and algorithms of social media can speak and be heard. Those who express hate, bigotry, racism, sexism, etc. can now be held accountable for their words. As the conceptual poet/artist Kenneth Goldsmith found out in 2015 when he read Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a performance piece at Brown University, the internet was not going to sit by and allow him to co-opt a slain African-American’s body for what they saw as a minstrel-like performance. The calling-out of Goldsmith’s actions was a preview of the recent uproar over Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket” in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in which Schutz came under fire for her use of a murdered and disfigured black body (Emmett Till) as subject matter. But when do such call-outs and interventions qualify as censorship? Many of Goldsmith’s and Schutz’s defenders felt they were being censored, and claimed that their intentions were not racist. But do intentions matter where privilege and voice are concerned? And are cries of censorship or political correctness just red herrings when white artists don’t want to face criticism? Writers Shannon Barber and Sarah Schulman assert that these arguments are just smokescreens that allow even white liberals to avoid the discomfort of facing systemic problems in the art world.
Journalists seem to be taking the piss from all sides. The Trump administration has ripped a well-worn page from the authoritarian playbook in his non-stop denigration of the media and his cudgel of “fake news.” Meanwhile, both the White House propaganda makers and the journalists who suck up to them get their asses handed to them by comedian Michelle Wolf as the main course at the White House Correspondents dinner. But what good will speaking truth to power do when we live in a country of divided realities created by ultra-partisan, choose-your-own-adventure news?
Gun violence seems to have become a form of protected speech (never mind corporate personhood and money-as-speech) by way of the first and second amendments combined. The white power movement is out of the closet, and we must now consider how far we’re willing, as a culture, to protect freedom of speech when that speech celebrates a political philosophy that has led to the extermination of 6 million Jews. Should we be looking to Germany’s restrictions on hate speech, or are the seeds of the destruction of the Constitution itself protected by the Constitution?
Self-Censorship on Facebook (scholarly research) by Sauvik Das and Adam Kramer (PDF):
Foucault and Social Media:
An Interview with author and activist Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict is Not Abuse:
Musings on Default Whiteness by Shannon Barber (on censorship and “political correctness”):
Michelle Wolf’s Complete Remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner 2018:
Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?:Slavoj Zizek: https://qz.com/896463/is-it-ok-to-punch-a-nazi-philosopher-slavoj-zizek-talks-richard-spencer-nazis-and-donald-trump/
“It’s OK (To Punch Nazis)”, a song by Colorado Springs punk band Cheap Perfume: https://cheapperfume.bandcamp.com/track/its-okay-to-punch-nazis-single
PODCAST: This American Life Episode 645 “My Effing First Amendment”: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/645/my-effing-first-amendment
Germany’s Hate Speech Law:
New York Times article on The Intellectual Dark Web:
Kiddie Porn by Judith Levine, N+1 Magazine (Fall 2016):
https://nplusonemag.com/issue-26/essays/kiddie-porn/ (optional video to which the article refers: Perversion for Profit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_J55Fawfgk)
About the Prompter:
Poet, publisher, translator, and radio producer Noel Black was born in Tucson and grew up in Colorado Springs. He is the author of three full-length collections: Uselysses (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), La Goon (Furniture Press Books, 2014), and The Natural Football League (The New Heave-Ho, 2016). Black translated Puerto Rican poet Mara Pastor’s Llámame Láctea/Children of Another Hour (Argos Books, 2014). Pastor and Guillermo Rebollo-Gil translated Black’s long poem Prophecies for the Past/Profécias Para El Pasado (126.96.36.199. Editorial, 2015). With Julien Poirier, he is coeditor of Kevin Opstedal’s Pacific Standard Time (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016). His other chapbooks include: Lunch Poem, This is the Strange Part, Night Falls/Under Days, November to June, Vacancy, Shoplifter’s Honor, InnerVisions, and In The City of Word People. His most recent chapbook is High Noon (Blue Press Books, 2018).
Black was the coeditor of Log Magazine with Ed Berrigan in the late 1990s, and from 1998 to 2004 he ran Angry Dog Press and published the Angry Dog Midget Editions. From 2004-2006, he published and edited The Toilet Paper, a satirical monthly newspaper in Colorado Springs. After dropping out of the MA in Poetics program at the now-defunct New College of California in 1998, he will earn an MFA in poetics and creative non-fiction from the Mile-High MFA Program at Regis University in summer 2018. He lives in Manitou Springs, Colorado with his family.