Why Censorship Can Be Good for Creativity

Censorship destroys ideas. Take, for example, a creative writing workshop where a small group deems a topic offensive and out of bounds. When that happens, a line is drawn, and the room for exploration is limited. Ideas that could’ve been will never be. In this new world where we’re redefining how we should speak and what subjects are appropriate, we writers need to walk that fine line without stepping on others. 

This type of sensitivity within a trusting group doesn’t only harm writing workshops but also workplaces, friendships, and even families. When one side is considered correct and the other wrong, even in the realm of creativity and art, the fun of creation is gone. But is it? 

In an interview with J Thorn on the Writers, Ink podcast, author Chuck Palahniuk describes how this type of censorship caused the demise of a writing group he had been a part of that lasted almost thirty years. 

“It’s a tragedy,” said Palahniuk, “but nothing lasts forever.” 

Values, words, or perspectives that you considered appropriate today can be offensive in the future. All it takes is a culture shift. 

Palahniuk recalled that after 9/11, transgressive fiction fell out of favor. Transgressive fictions are stories that focus on characters that feel oppressed by conformity and the expectations of society. Stories like Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and, of course, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (Amazon) are all examples of transgressive fiction. 

In early 2000, the culture no longer wanted to be associated with a whole genre — not just a word, but an entire creative style. These novels suddenly looked terrorist-y, and anyone reading them would appear to be promoting real-world violence. Authors were worried about being labeled terrorists because of themes in their books, much like how someone today can come across as racist, sexist, homophobic, or body-shaming because they used a word or phrase. Transgressive fiction faded from the shelves, but as Palahniuk illuminated, in its place came horror fiction. 

Photo by Freddy Kearney on Unsplash

Transgressive fiction also fell out of style at the end of the ‘60s. While serial killers such as Charles Manson and the Zodiac killer were terrorizing society, the public tried to come to terms with those events. This climate led to a slew of paranormal horror, slasher, and thriller movies. When there is a void, creativity will fill that space. People will always be curious about the darkness within a person’s soul. And while some genres make it raw and blatant, horror focuses less on the subject and more on the emotions during those frightening times.

Those who wrote transgressive fiction to share their message could now communicate through horror. Horror fiction acts as a cloak for those darker themes without directly reflecting the realism of current events. 

We can approach all censorship the same way. 

“A certain amount of censorship is creative,” said Palaniuk. “Because it does allow writers to veil their message. So their message needs to be a little more indirect.” 

Should your work ever be targeted by censorship, know that it’s not a war you could win. Instead, learn to cloak your message so it’s palatable for a greater audience. Your idea gets shared, but it’s not a confronting act. 

Give it a shot. If you’re exploring a topic that is frowned upon — something you wouldn’t talk about at a party — something political, religious, or your readership would be sensitive to, try to hide the message below the surface. Make your point without screaming it at the top of your lungs. Refrain, cloak, and see if you can write great work that makes a point without doing more harm. 

There is a lot of evil out in the world today. Although censorship might not be the cure for all of it, censorship can be a bandage that helps people heal. You don’t need to be the one to pull it off. But you can tell your story without causing scars. Do that by masking your message within another genre and allowing your creativity to conceal the reality of our troubled times. That way, you can convey your ideas and explore the topic you’re interested in, and nobody gets hurt in the process. 

Good art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Good art does not do unnecessary damage. Learn to dance with censorship and see it not as the enemy of creativity but as a road less traveled. 

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Some movies bomb, while others F-bomb

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The Wolf of Wall Street’ breaks record with most fucks said in film

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. Jan 14,2014

How did it happen that we now live in a world where the movie with the highest number of F-bombs dropped is not in a gangster movie, serial killer flick, or even a buddy comedy, but rather a film about stockbrokers?

There is no argument around Martin Scorsese’s prowess as a filmmaker, and that any key choices made in the film were well-calculated and thought-out. I’m certain he knew he was going to break some record. After all, he has shown affection for characters with dirty mouths in his other movies with high “fuck” counts: Casino with 422, Goodfellas with 300, and The Departed with 237.

When profanity is used appropriately in film, it has the same effect as a nicely timed edit or a tension-building film score. You don’t even notice it, because you’re so enthralled by the film itself. Odds are, while sitting through The Wolf of Wall Street, you weren’t tallying the number of “fucks”—instead, the fast-paced movie probably kept your attention for most of the three hours. But hey, I’m not writing a review; I’m just wondering what 506 fucks in 180 minutes would do to me. Turns out, nothing, because I’m used to it.

Swear words are so common these days that it feels a little ridiculous to even call attention to them. You hear them at sporting events and on the streets, you read them on the Internet and social media, and of course, they fill the airwaves every time the television is turned on. Shit happens and apparently, so does fuck.

I hope there will soon be actors mimicking Matthew McConaughey’s beautiful yet brutish monologue, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s fuck-filled narration—it really is a shame that The Wolf of Wall Street, pending Academy Awards, will be remembered for another fuckin’ accolade.

It’s not a contest or anything and a movie’s objective is not to reach arbitrary milestones such as the one The Wolf of Wall Street has achieved. A movie is entertainment, and the only way to entertain is to get the audience engaged in the story. How do you keep an audience engaged? The writer must be honest when writing the script, creating truth in the situations and the characters; and the filmmaker must have courage to follow through. Would the movie be any less if it only had 435 fucks like in Spike Lee’s 1999 New York serial killer movie, Summer of Sam? Probably not—not any significant difference at least—but I know a censored version of both those movies would be unwatchable.

Which leads me to the next question: how long will it be until we get to see the next cuss-filled movie to overtake The Wolf of Wall Street? It’s hard to say, there is no particular trend. Since the early ‘90s, filmmakers have been taking more chances by incorporating risky language, while being governed by the motion picture rating system that limits their audience. Because swearing is such a common part of modern life, I can’t imagine it taking too long.

Google alert

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Will search engine censorship track criminals or create them?

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in the Other Press. Nov. 2013

The three titans of the Internet, Google, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo!, are developing an ethical way to ban perverse searches, most notably links to child pornography and abuse content. At one point, Google and Bing echoed one another in saying the regulation “couldn’t and shouldn’t be done.” They have finally given in with a little arm-twisting from David Cameron, the British prime minister, who threatened to bring in a new legislation if the search engines did not take steps towards the solution. Now with over 100,000 illegal search queries blocked, one must ask: are we in fact closer to solving the problem, or have we just closed the door and opened a window?

Google admits that “no algorithm is perfect” when seeking out sexual predators and abuse offenders; still, the search engine has selected 13,000 queries to include a warning, which states that what the user has searched for is illegal and offers suggestions for help. The problem is those users aren’t searching for help; they are seeking pleasure and release—and they’ll get it one way or another. As soon as these offenders recognize the trap doors of the Internet, they will find loopholes and alternatives, perhaps ones that are more dangerous and damaging.

There is a global consensus that child pornography and abuse is an abhorrent crime and that it should be banned, but the Internet should be a platform of unlimited information. The difficulty is finding the balance between blocking too much and too little. How do we let the researchers research, while creating restrictions for the perverts?

The search engines will have to decide how far they are willing to push the ban. If pedophiles start using unrelated keywords to communicate, does that mean innocuous words will be banned as well? Slang words are born every day, and to try to track each and every one is a lost cause. Dr. Joss Wright, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institution, made a valid point saying that users can start referring to abuse images as “cake”—you cannot block the word “cake” from searches.

It’s also important to remember that Google, Bing, and Yahoo! are just companies providing a service—they are not the Internet at large. The dirty images can still be uploaded and shared through peer-to-peer sites, and experts agree that that is the common interaction between Internet pedophiles.

This new firewall might stop a few perpetrators, but these big companies need to watch their step, because they’re headed towards a slippery slope. Consider all the illegal content in the world and then consider the depths of the Internet. Our freedom to search the web may be greatly hindered if authorities truly believe that blocking links is the key solution. You wouldn’t ban the use of cars if drug dealers were transporting contraband on wheels. The same goes for the Internet. This blockade is far from the solution—if anything, it’s a mere detour.