There are certain joyless people in this world, generally belonging to a subset of angry white men whose fortunes depend, at least in part, upon furthering racism, sexism and homophobia, who would have you believe that feminists are politically correct harridans obsessed with censorship and shutting you the hell up. Since feminists stand for freedom and justice for all people, starting with women at the center, this charge tends to be inaccurate, untrue and, often, purposefully misleading in keeping with a larger right-wing strategy of claiming victimization on behalf of the dominant whenever the gals, gays and people of color get a little more visible.
Censorship is the institution, system or practice of censoring. Let’s consider the following discussion from the Concise Encyclopedia on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
Act of changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good. In the past, most governments believed it their duty to regulate the morals of their people; only with the rise in the status of the individual and individual rights did censorship come to seem objectionable. Censorship may be preemptive (preventing the publication or broadcast of undesirable information) or punitive (punishing those who publish or broadcast offending material). In Europe, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches practiced censorship, as did the absolute monarchies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authoritarian governments such as those in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and the former Soviet Union have employed pervasive censorship, which is generally opposed by underground movements engaged in the circulation of samizdat literature. In the U.S. in the 20th century, censorship focused largely on works of fiction deemed guilty of obscenity (e.g., James Joyce‘s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover), though periodic acts of political censorship also occurred (e.g., the effort to purge school textbooks of possible left-wing content in the 1950s). In the late 20th century, some called for censorship of so-called hate speech, language deemed threatening (or sometimes merely offensive) to various subsections of the population. Censorship in the U.S. is usually opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Germany after World War II it became a crime to deny the Holocaust or to publish pro-Nazi publications. See also Pentagon Papers.
In other words, censorship is practiced by governments or institutions for the purposes of control. It is associated most frequently with authoritarian states or religions. It is generally against freedom, which is, again, not where feminism and other civil and human rights movements calling for the emancipation, empowerment and inclusion of more people and more people’s perspectives in free public life are headed.
This stands in stark contrast to religious and/or sexual fundamentalist movements who regularly call for the restriction or silencing of medically and scientifically accurate information, or simultaneous presentation of know-nothing mockery and false equivalences having no basis in reality, as well as consensual sexual expression and artistic depictions thereof, within public schools, public libraries and public life for the purposes of maintaining a currently unequal and unjust balance of power that favors heterosexual white men with money and some allegedly, dubiously celibate men within religious orders that seem to spend increasing amounts of time and money to suppress free sexuality on others’ behalf and hide sexual proclivities or outright crimes on their own behalf. Here are a few quick examples of their censorships and/or justifications for them:
- “Evolution is just a theory, but Creationism has been advancing within the scientific community.”
- “Abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life.”
- “Schools shouldn’t teach about condoms because they make you more likely to get sexually transmitted infections.”
- “If you’re raped, you’re less likely to get pregnant than with consensual sex, therefore if you’re pregnant you wanted it.”
- The regularly reoccuring Global Gag Rule that has required international family planning entities that receive U.S. funds not use any separate funds to even say the word “abortion.”
- The history of books, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, going to court within the United States.
There are a few regularly reoccurring accusations of censorship leveled against feminists that I’d like to address directly, and why the actions discussed are not censorship.
Applying pressure to a private business that has condoned, promoted or not taken a position against hate speech against women is not censorship, it’s activism. Our lives are increasingly defined by corporations and their policies. Telling an advertiser to stop objectifying women isn’t censorship, it’s applying consumer demand within the free market. Telling a business to stop sponsoring a show that calls women sluts for using basic birth control — nearly every woman in this country at some point in her life — isn’t censorship, it’s assisting them and other consumers in allocating their dollars wisely. Telling a user-dependent website to stop tolerating rape imagery isn’t censorship, it’s an uprising within the user community for the purpose of adjusting community standards to those that are safer for everyone. Private corporations are free to ignore the activism, and they are also free to do the right thing. When given sufficient nudge they often do, because women are important consumers.
Supporting policies that require the posting of disclaimers within settings where medical care might not be offered, despite presentations to the contrary, is not censorship, it’s the supplementation of additional (accurate) information in keeping with the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. At the local level, feminists often take action to ensure that crisis pregnancy centers representing themselves as medical facilities make it clear that many or all staff are not medical professionals and that they are not dispensing medical advice. That is not censorship. No one is stopping them from lying and saying that abortion causes breast cancer, and other non-truths that have been debunked. Posting a sign when a pharmacist refuses to dispense contraception is not censorship. Requiring Catholic hospitals that don’t provide the full range of medical care to make that clear in materials is not censorship. In all cases they are left free to continue lying and suppressing — how is that censorship?
The “censorship” charge against feminists tends to be ridiculous, and we can expect it to keep on coming. It’s almost worth a laugh since those who yell it the loudest tend to be those who most rely on censorship to continue legacies of discrimination that the human spirit has long outgrown. In the meantime it’s important to remember that those leveling the charge are more often those who wish to leverage institutions to control and suppress others, while feminists are those who wish to expand institutional freedom to allow more people to live equitably and with justice for all.