Monday, May 1, 2017

Down With the Gatekeepers

Think censorship is all about authoritarian governments or legislative overreach? It actually begins much closer to home.  ♦ 
Writer: It’s a simple term and a complex job. By dictionary definition, a writer is “a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories [. . .] especially as an occupation or profession.” If you could not already assume as much, I, the person writing this article for you, am a writer myself. Why do I write? Because it's a form of expression that has allowed me to assert myself in a different manner than I'm able to verbally. Through writing, I have the ability to choose how to portray myself. I have the power to decide what to show people about myself and what to keep undisclosed. It gives me, along with every other writer, the freedom to represent myself, my beliefs, my fears, my hopes and dreams, and my entire being if I wish.
   That freedom, however, is gradually being taken away.
   Censorship is obviously not a new subject, but in the current climate it has begun taking on some surprising new forms, one of which is the concept of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are statements purposefully placed before a piece of writing, alerting the reader that the content they are about to read contains material that may be distressing to some individuals. The degree of labeling of this “upsetting” material can range, but it all has similar effects. In a piece titled "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," author Roxane Gay dives into the purposes of trigger warnings and why, in her opinion, they should not exist, as they begin to quckly resemble and reinforce censorship. Such warnings suggest that the writing that follows includes experiences or perspectives that are “too inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly,” and these labels have almost no chance of going away once they’ve been attached to a piece of writing.
   When work is censored, that label, in a sense, becomes the work. If writing is considered immoral, pornographic, or controversial, these labels will forever be associated with the work in the minds of the general public. The reality, though, is that the world we live in isn’t perfect. It is filled to the brim with flaws and difficult subjects that could upset many people, and as nice as it may be to believe that we have the ability to protect ourselves from the harsh truths of our world, this idea is simply unattainable. This illusion of safety is exactly what Gay intends to expose to her piece by listing off just how many subjects have been deemed (allegedly) too difficult for readers to handle: “Over the years, I have seen trigger warnings for eating disorders, poverty, self-injury, bullying, heteronormativity, suicide, sizeism, genocide, slavery, mental illness, explicit fiction, explicit discussions of sexuality, homosexuality, homophobia, addiction, alcoholism, racism, the Holocaust, ableism, and Dan Savage. Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning. This is the uncomfortable truth—everything is a trigger for someone.” We might be attempting to escape these mature or complex or uncomfortable subject matters, but in truth we're simply setting ourselves up for inevitable failure. Shelter from life is rationally impossible.
   But who, exactly, is in charge of deeming whether works of literature are worthy of such demeaning labels? This is where we arrive at the subject of those whom I’ve come to know as the “gatekeepers,” individuals who hold the fate of our precious words in the palms of their hands. In an article for Pen America titled ""Censorship and Writing for Young Adults", author Keith Gessen describes his experience with an individual who’d read his work and claimed that the words he’d used were “objectionable” and not appropriate for his intended audience. Gessen explains that he would have liked to just ignore this individual’s protest as being narrow-minded and out of touch with the current generation, but he came to the realization that this man, at the age of 76, was what he considered to be a gatekeeper: someone who approves of and then introduces new writings to the younger generation, or looks to keep works from them. Gessen points out that the concept of censorship becomes tricky at this point, because the reality of the situation is, those individuals who try to limit and edit our writing can also be those who have the main power to introduce our writing to its intended audience.
     Who are these so-called gatekeepers? They could be someone you know. They range from publishers, editors, librarians, and teachers to parents and grandparents. They decide whether books are “nice” enough for younger audiences to read. Gessen explains that the majority of young readers don’t buy books, but rather, receive them as gifts, are forced to read them in a classroom setting, or borrow them from the library. Before they are given these opportunities, though, the books involved are shown to and challenged by gatekeepers.He also relates his writing experience to the idea of censoring the reality of the outside world, asking“if a child or teenager lives in a world where bullying, racism, suicide, faith, love, sex, terrorism are all everyday concerns, should we really be banning them from gaining knowledge of these issues?” Gessen argues that refraining from censoring the written word, allowing young readers access to books with such touchy subject matters, could help young readers get their heads around important issues long before they are forced to encounter such things in real life. Life is full of difficult issues that we are not capable of censoring or ignoring. Who are we really protecting by trying to censor the danger out of writing? “Are we committing a disservice to the next generation," Gessen asks, "under the guise of protection?”
      Life is not perfect; it never will be. Any attempt at pretending it is through the process of censorship only establishes a false foundation for young readers to build off of as they go through life. It will lead to continuous disappointment. Seen this way, censorship doesn’t just affect the freedom of writers; it affects the future of the younger generation. In order to survive in life, you have to be prepared for what you will face. Restricting the knowledge of young individuals does nothing but give them a “false illusion of safety,” a “guise of protection,” and the inability to learn and understand the real world around them. Young readers need to be able to choose what they read more independently, but gatekeepers, trigger warnings, and other soft censorship restrict their options. If they only read what is being fed to them, they are bound to perpetuate their own ignorance of the real world.
  • About the Author
    Madison Casey is a freshman Creative Writing major at Miami University. She is from Chicago, Illinois, and will endlessly argue that no other place has better deep-dish pizza. Her favorite hobbies include soccer, photography, and watching horror movies.

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