Dec 13

January 20, 2012, Segment 5, Project U Radio

Segment 5: January 20, 2012.  ”Editorial Discretion”. Editors, would you publish work with content that you think is personally objectionable (i.e. racism) if you thought it was an otherwise good piece? How do you feel about a blanket policy about certain kinds of content, such as “We don’t publish anything that includes sexist elements”. Do you make distinctions as far as language, character, etc. and have you had this issue come up when selecting work for a zine, website, journal, or project? Do you find the line of subjective interpretation to be difficult? Have you rejected work that you thought was well written because it contained something that you thought to be offensive or thought might offend readers? Beyond offensive, but perhaps hurtful or harmful?

If you want to start at the beginning, check out the archives *here* for our Censorship show, December 2, 2011, where we discussed movements like The Citizens For Decent Literature whose aim was to suppress literature that organizers felt was “objectionable”. Inspired by this and being a fan of free speech, Literary Underground’s Michele McDannold started a printed publication by the same name and soon after, a website to showcase poetry online. Brief editor of the website content, Michael Goscinski, was invited on to talk about censorship and a lengthy conversation ensued.

My distinction on the difference between censorship and editorial discretion is simple- one involves the systemic suppression of free speech through an authority either by their own undertaking or under pressure by a group that has lobbied for suppression. The other involves the discretion of a content producer and their right to have standards with respect to content. If I have a magazine, I have the right to decide that I don’t want any content that involves clowns. (to use my example from the show) We are looking at my right as an owner and producer to discretion, which I believe to be important. But censorship would involve the government telling producers that they cannot publish content that involves clowns. This distinction takes away editorial discretion with a blanket rule across the board, presumably (they say) for societal or other benefit. This is an external, imposed control meant to assert one group’s moral or religious view onto another group by limiting clown content. …… 

This point was made on this show when I was accused of hypocrisy when I stated that editorial discretion and censorship are not the same things. Maybe I can explain it another way. I have a store and I decide I will not sell peaches. I just don’t like them. In the other case, I want the right to sell peaches and my customers want to buy them but there is an external authority either by law or some other machinery that is preventing me because THEY have decided that peaches are no good for the customers and they want to interrupt the supply chain of peaches from farm to customer by limiting my rights as a seller and by extension, the rights of the would-be peach buyer.

The subject came up: Would you publish a racist poem if it was good? I said probably not, because that is my choice as an editor. I was told that this means I support censorship, which I certainly do not. I support my autonomous discretion as an editor who has the right to use my privately owned resources. I have the right to publish stories by women, by people between the ages of 38-42, by people who live in the state of Louisiana. And I have the right to decide that I don’t want racism poetry. End of story.

Now is that censorship? I say no. I am not being told that it is against the law to publish racist poetry. I am not suggesting that any other publisher heed what I say or do. I am not imposing my aesthetic or bias or personal or editorail discretion on anyone else. I am simply narrowing a criteria for content.

If I decide I will only publish haiku, am I censoring you if you send free verse? No. If you send racist haiku and I do not want racist content, am I a fan of censorship? I don’t think so. I am exercising my discretion as a producer of a private publication that I own. That is not censorship because it is not systemic, external, imposed by a power wielding body… nor is it applicable to society beyond myself.

Mike said: “If you don’t publish a poem that is good because it is racist, that is censorship.”  I say no, that is the exercising of autonomous editorial discretion whose implications do not extend to society at large, nor are enforced by an external system. Is it right, wrong? Who can say. That is individual. I suppose that is why we benefit from diversity in publishing because that poet can go elsewhere. If something is BANNED, however, that recourse is lost.

But my point is, the word “censorship” is not accurate as we define it and use it in the context of free speech.

Is it “self censorship”? Well, that’s a tough term because attaching “self” doesn’t really jive with the commonly understood definition of the word “censorship” which is not individual but systemic in scope and whose actions are ostensibly targeted at the social (macro) versus individual level. That is like saying you are practicing self-democracy.

Now I should direct you to what Michele had to say about editors and censorship posted here: “Shitty Poetry And Censorship”,   where she states:

I think in general the definition of censorship is an individual or group actively trying to push their idea of appropriate, moral, good etc on anyone else. Regardless of their intent. It’s a little bit different but worth discussing the idea of self-censorship. So an editor or a publication will not publish work because they view it as racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. Is that a form of self-censorship? Sure. Do I defend their right to do it, absolutely. Just don’t tell me or my publication what we have the right to publish. But let’s be honest and I think this is especially important in the independent small press.. what one person would deem racist, sexist or homophobic- another would not. That is a judgment call. The simple fact of including the words nigger or cunt in a poem is enough for some people to call it racist or sexist. For others it goes more to intent and the promotion of hate or domination of any one group. And there’s a time and place for everything. If i’m looking at something for red fez, I wouldn’t say I would err on the side of ‘safe’ but I would be more likely to reject a submission if it’s clear to me that the author is a douche racist. If I was in charge of Citizens Online (which i’m not), I would have to spend a little more time looking at it. Is it good writing? What’s the intent, etc. and yet still, that kind of talk bothers me sooo much that I would probably impose self-censorship unless the poem is so extreme that it would be obvious to the average person that it is complete ridiculous bullshit. That being said, rules are made to be broken. I have a poem that will be published soon that uses some of those ‘bad’ words. I tried to make it obvious that people who hold those words up and use them in a certain way are retarded (oops, another non-PC word) but i’m sure it will still piss some people off. It’s all good. Just don’t threaten the publisher with a lawsuit or death threats if they don’t take it down… that’s Censorship.

Because this has generated discussion on both sides, we decided to revisit this issue on our January 20 show, Segment 5, where we will invite callers to weigh in on this issue and their thoughts as it pertains to censorship, editorial discretion, and control either by the outside (law, regulations, bans) or the editor (self, subjective bias, discretion, criteria)

Would you publish a racist poem that was well written but clearly racist in its intent?

Can you think of an example of a good racist poem whose merits are so awesome that they outweigh the destructive consequences of bigotry and intolerance?

Can you think of a benefit to fostering racial stereotypes and dehumanizing characteristics in favor of literature, why or why not?

Are there times when racist language should not be confused with intent, such as in cases where the writer wants you to reconsider racism by reminding you of it?

Mike said that if a poem is good, even though it is clearly racist (intent) that he would publish it, that it should make no difference what the views of the writer are. I say that I don’t like racist poetry and that is my choice when editing a publication that I pay for, because I don’t want to perpetuate cultural tolerance for the hate agenda. “Not on my dime.”

I don’t think I should have any say about what Michele does, Mike does, or anyone else. I don’t think anyone should tell a publisher what to publish whether we like it or not. For me, I don’t like it. But I don’t favor a law stating that NO publications can include racist poetry. THAT would be censorship, stripping editors of that choice. Mike and I would clearly exercise our choices differently, in the hypothetical. But “censorship” is about NEITHER of us being able to make that call because some group, like The Citizens For Decent Literature, has fought to tell us what is right or wrong.

December 2, 2011 Episode (archived)

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