Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is White-Out a Tool of Oppression?

Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity. Hermann Hesse

Some of you may have noticed that a few popular websites were blacked out yesterday. It was, actually, a minor annoyance for me, when I was doing some research and the websites I wanted to access were blacked out.

I suppose that was the point, though, to show us what it would be like, in reality, if the SOPA/PIPA bills were actually passed. Someone - other than us - would decide which websites were appropriate for us to access. It might mean no more YouTube, no more WikiPedia ... no more Surviving the Suburbs.

Maine's representatives in Congress are against the bills in their current form. In fact, yesterday, after I posted a note on Facebook that I was "blacking out" for the day in protest of these bills (and part of my above-mentioned research was an attempt to black out my blog for the day - which I didn't find, because those sites were blacked out ;), I received a missive from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, stating that she was not in support of the House SOPA.

These Representatives are in support of the bill. Unforunately, the US is a country where the majority vote wins, so when those of us in Maine disagree with more densely populated States, we're going to lose. Eight of California's fifty-three representatives support SOPA. Did I mention that Maine has two - total - Representatives?

It would be a tragedy if the Internet were to be officially censored. For the first time in history, a significant portion of the world's population is literate - not just with the ability to read, but also with a worldview that transcends borders and culture. While some may not think this is important, or even relevant, the fact is, when our knowledge base is limited to that which someone else deems appropriate for us, it's easier to oppress us. In short, if we can't read, for ourselves, someone else will be more than happy to tell us what they think we should hear.

But it's not just that. The Internet allows us to have contact with people in places we are unlikely to ever visit. There are people we'd never meet were it not for the Internet. Were it not for the Internet, for instance, I would never have met Gavin Weber, from Australia, and chatted with him, via Skype, for a podcast interview.

Why is that important, you ask?

Well, because it's harder to vilify a culture, a religion or a group of people, if we can meet them, albeit only virtually, and have a real conversation with them. I'm not likely to ever visit Australia - it's just not in the budget ... timewise or financially ... and because of that, what I know about Australia, were it not for the Internet, would be limited by what someone else observed and the information they brought back to me. With only the myopic vision of some nature photographer, for instance, I wouldn't have a very complete picture of what Australia is like.

There's the story of the four blind men who encounter an elephant, but they are only given the opportunity to touch one side of the enormous creature. They each think they have the full picture, when none of them does. Such is a world without the kind of worldwide access to information we now have. If the four men sat down together and each described his portion, they might have an idea of what an elephant really looks like. With a bit of information about Australia from this source and bit from another source and a little from that place, I begin to have a better understanding of the people and the lifestyle ... and guess what? I start to realize that they really are a lot like me.

I oppose censorship on all levels from governments deciding what its citizens can read to individuals who take it upon themselves to white out offensive words and phrases in publicly owned books, because it would be too easy for it to get out of control.

Recently, I was at my local library with my family, and another library patron was checking out a book to read. The librarian flipped open the book and showed the patron a few of the pages, where a different borrower had whited-out certain words. She explained to the patron that they weren't certain who'd done it (the book had, likely, been returned in the book drop, and was checked in and reshelved and checked back out - perhaps more than once - before it was brought to their attention), but they decided that it would be best to tell everyone who checked out the book about the vandalism (yes, vandalism!) in case they were offended that someone had been offended by some of the words in the book.

This really bothered me on so many levels - not the disclaimer by the librarian, but the fact that a person had BORROWED a book from the PUBLIC library and had been so offended by a few of the words in that book that she/he had used White-Out to block out those words. The whole book. This person, pain-stakingly, went through the WHOLE BOOK and whited out every.single.instance of every word that was offensive to her/him.

There have been, in the history of publishing, some pretty horrific books promoting some pretty horrific ideas, and there have been attempts to censor those books - to take those books out of circulation - to destroy them so that clean, decent people wouldn't be infected by their vileness. The American Library Association keeps a record of attempts to censor/ban books, and each year, they devote a week to bringing to light attempts to ban books. In protest to censorship, I'd once planned to start a reading group in which we would read from the list of most frequently challenged classics. I've read sixteen of the top 20, and more than half of the top 100. In fact, many of the books that show up on the Top 100 Most Challenged Books, also appear on the 100 Best Contemporary Novels list - which makes me wonder what truths people are trying to hide from other people?

Hermann Hesse, who is the author of The Glass Bead Game, a futuristic novel that "questions" modern ideals, is attributed with saying that any culture that would burn books will eventually burn men. Through the Internet, we have access to the whole history of humankind, the whole sordid, awful, violent, bigoted, self-rigtheous history of people hurting people in the name of whatever they call good, and at the bottom of much of their holier-than-thou rhetoric is one goal - power.

If we allow censorship of this tool, the Internet, then we will be giving them power to rival the worst of the worst of oppressive societies ... and how long before some of the more dismal futures depicted in literature (1984, A Handmaid's Tale, The Hunger Games) become reality?


  1. Well said, Wendy. More of us need to stand up.

  2. excellent explanation! i wasn't even aware of this until i went to google something yesterday and the google logo was blacked out...which I then had to google :-) maybe I need to pay attention to the news better, but i really hadn't heard anything mainstream about this whole thing until last night's news. interesting what the media chooses to report on, whether or not mitt romney should release his income statements, and what is actually important, what laws are currently being decided by our "representatives."

  3. Hear hear! As an English teacher and a mother I'm horrified that your government is even thinking about doing this. It's another incidence of the squeamishness of America. (I mean... Ricky Gervais causes a stir at an awards ceremony?? Really...?)
    I hope for everyone's sake that this bill gets defeated. It's ridiculous that it's even being touted.

  4. So good you are expressing objections on this. Many are doing so. This is our power.

    brenda from ar

  5. Thank you, and well said.
    I have lived in the Middle East for the past four years, and in a country that decides what you can and can not read on the internet-and for the life of me, I still haven't figured out all the rules for what is allowed and what is blocked! But I would like to say this-it does not take long for someone who is accustomed to having access to "get over" being bothered by blocks. And for those who have never had the freedom of full access, it isn't much of a bother at all. Which is why I believe it is imperative this bill not be passed. It won't take long before we simply go about our 'normal' lives and most will have forgotten what the fuss was all about. And that would be a huge blow to our freedom. I agree-censorship is wrong, on all levels.

  6. That's exactly it, Lorna. It's insidious. It starts with something small, something everyone thinks is minor, like not allowing certain ethnicities or genders, or whatever, to engage in certain activities, and then, they're not allowed to shop at certain places or hold certain jobs or have a certain education; and then, they have to wear some identifying emblem; and then, they move them all into the same area; and then .... And all the while, no one noticed, until it became too late to fight back.

    So, this SOPA/PIPA is just one more in a long line of WTF legislation (Patriot Act - really? Health Reform - what?) that is slowly eroding our right to choose for ourselves.

    "They" say it's to prevent pirating and violation of copyright laws, but the way it's written, if I even LINKED to a website that was under suspicion of violating a copyright law (like eBay that allows vendors to post whatever pictures they wish, even if those pictures were copyrighted material and stolen from another website), I could be dinged too. It's too broad, and can be interpretted too loosely. There has to be a better way to protect intellectual property without destroying our freedoms.

  7. Fortunately, the bills appear to be becalmed for now. The prez has uncapped his veto pen, and that was enough to stop their progress. Many other congresslimers are getting out in front of the parade, as well as the four GOP candidates.

    That won't stop the MPAA from trying again and again; they have orders of magnitude more money than sense. But we have to stay on top of things.

  8. Wendy, what book was it that was whited out? If I own a copy, I'll mail it to your library so they can replace the whited-out copy. How frustrating for those who want to sit and enjoy a book, only to have the whited-out spaces pull them from the world they are exploring.

  9. PatriciaLynn - I agree - very frustrating ;). Maybe the person who did it will read my blog and realize what a mistake he/she made and replace the book himself/herself ;).

  10. PatriciaLynn - I agree - very frustrating ;). Maybe the person who did it will read my blog and realize what a mistake he/she made and replace the book himself/herself ;).