Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Hate That Will Not Let Love Name Itself

So, Cory Doctorow has an... interesting take on the Clean Reader app. To quote the headline: I hate your censorship, but I'll defend to the death your right to censor. Hmm.

I can appreciate where he's coming from with his argument comparing this to a large-scale index of triggering material, a website designed for readers of ebooks to share warnings, to enable trauma survivors to avoid those PTSD triggers. And if that's a legitimate enterprise, he argues--and who could dispute that it is?--we have to also accept the readers who'd want to apply such strategies on principles we might disagree with. It's like free speech, says Cory. We might be utterly horrified at the thought of racist readers sharing warnings over material that would disturb them as racists, but we need to defend their right to make stupid choices about the sort of info they share, just as we defend the right of those racists to articulate their abhorrent idiocies, for all that we condemn their stance.

I think he's dead wrong. Couldn't be more fucking wrong.

The free speech argument is just plain bizarre, to be honest. If free speech bears any relation to this at all, it's in exactly the opposite way. The Clean Reader app is not remotely comparable to those hypothetical racists freely expressing themselves to share warnings, this being their constitutional right; it's about every and any exercise in free speech that would disturb them being made erasable, overwritable, inaudible. It's not an exercise in free speech. It's an exercise in restricting what is heard.

You want a "free speech" comparison for this situation? This is every single motherfucking racist in the audience for every single speech, debate, rally, or whatever, being able to buy a set of headphones that will kick in and garble the words of the actual fucking practitioners of free speech at any point it might become disturbing to that motherfucking racist. Worse, those headphones are designed to not just mute the disturbing parts but to actively alter the very words of the person exercising their right to free speech, as heard in the ears of the listener, so that the stance expressed becomes actively racist.

Free speech? Cory, dude, you're defending a universal filtration of free speech designed precisely to circumvent the principle of free speech. This is about getting round the protected status of free speech by allowing for a universally applicable filtering system whereby it doesn't fucking matter if you have the right to say something disturbing to a racist because all racists--every single fucking one of them--has these headphones designed to fuck the fucking fuck out of every challenge to racism and turn it into odiously racist drivel that validates their opinion.

If you want an analogy involving racism and speech, this is every fucking racist motherfucker being able to hear MLK's speeches as passionate advocacies of segregation and injustice. Being able to play MLK's speeches to their children in that repugnant travesty of a revisionist outrage. This is about turning free speech into an empty ritual formality with no meaning whatsoever because ha ha fuck you, if we can't stop the words from coming out of your mouth, we can stop them from going into people's ears. We can transform them en route no less, so that when they reach people's ears they support our stance rather than challenging it.

For the love of cock, any quasi-religious invocation of the sacred and holy Free Speech, (blessed be the ideal,) is a fucking risible fucking joke if in your reverence for the abstract notion you blind yourself to the fucking actualities of that sainted principle being pissed on by the imposition of Strictured Hearing.

Lemme break this the fuck down. Lemme give you an actual real-world analogy that's not wildly off-point like the trigger warning website, and which brings in the notion of free speech Cory invokes. This is like me and Cory being on a panel together at Utopiales--a really tech-savvy French con in Nantes, where as international panelists we'd get simultaneously translated for the benefit of any non-anglophones in the audience. In Utopiales, in Nantes, you understand, the francophone audience would get headphones so they could listen to the interpreters translate Cory and myself in realtime as we blathered on in English on the stage. Seriously, Utopiales is fucking amazeballs in that respect; that's how it works. You want to know what this Clean Reader app is like then, in terms of free fucking speech, far as I'm concerned?

This is everyone in the audience who gets those headphones having a choice between four interpreters: one who will translate us as is; one who will use euphemisms in place of any references to homosexuality that a homophobe might find disturbing; one who will do so more rigorously and thoroughly, to expunge anything that might constitute promotion of homosexuality, as the old Section 28 put it; and one who will actively twist the words coming out of our mouths so as to actively condemn homosexuality as sinful, referring to it with words like perversion, disorder, abomination, and so on, in line with the extreme stance of the homophobe listening.

I have no fucking idea how Cory could spin that sort of situation as a fucking exercise in fucking free speech. And that's a whole lot closer to Clean Reader than some capricious fancy of a website for readers to share trigger warnings. Cory can invoke the airy ideal of free speech and use racism as a theoretical example. I grew up under Section 28, and I know fine well that my cocksucking buttfucking sodomite sexuality and every word I might say to defend it as my fucking right and none of your fucking business is actually, literally, in one hundred percent real terms, facing an actual fucking threat from bullshit like this. Take the word cock out of the ears of anyone listening to Cory, and I imagine he'll get by. Take that word out of the ears of anyone listening to me and I'm gonna look at you as one scary motherfucking nazi fuck who I can't trust not to put a bullet in my fucking skull if you decide that silencing me in yours and other people's hearing isn't quite enough anymore.

Seriously.

I'd have to ask Cory if he'd agree to do that panel knowing that three of the four interpreters would actively skew both his words and mine for the benefit of any homophobes in the audience? Would he support the convention offering that service as an exercise of free speech? Would he seriously expect me to participate in similarly blithe support of the right of fans to abolish any positive impact he or I might have speaking on that platform? Would he defend their right to actually twist our words, via biased interpreters, to an impact we'd both, I'm sure, consider outright negative, and which I personally could find actively harmful in the long term?

Cause if so, how? How in the fucking high lord fuckety fuck of castle fuck and environs could he, in good faith, spin this as an exercise of free speech where it doesn't matter a fuck if I stand on a stage and say, "Hi, I'm THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!" because whatever the words coming out of my mouth are, the words going into the ears of those listening are fucking quotes from fucking Leviticus?

One might cavil over the fact that it's an audience choice in such a scenario, that my words would only be turned to homophobic agitprop in the ears of those bigots who choose the most extreme option, that since those who choose to actually hear me properly are quite capable of doing so, my free speech is not being restricted. Whoopy fucking doo.

Get fucking real.

The app in question is designed to impose its restrictions on the actual exercises of free speech--the fiction--so parents can feel secure that what their kiddies are reading is on-message, regardless of whether it was written that way or not. It's designed to make the adults feel secure themselves, to ensure that all their reading has any exercise of free speech rewritten to satisfy and reify their prejudices. It's designed to facilitate a culture in which this bowdlerisation is absolutely seen as a virtuous constraint that should be imposed by anyone with the authority to impose it, as a moral duty, a matter of propriety, upon anyone they have a responsibility to try and keep in line. It's designed to spread and be imposed as piety, as propriety, as a fucking default praxis for all but those willing to transgress standards of acceptability taken as read.

Those of us who find ourselves targets of prejudice entrenched as propriety... we know that the exercise of Strictured Hearing like this is a fucking crucial tool in perpetuating and outright propagating systemic prejudice.

Ensuring that the kids only get to hear a single message, misrepresenting challenges to that message to make the text seem to actually bolster it, getting those kids to swallow the notion--because this is a linchpin principle of the message--that it'll be a dire threat to the very fabric of society if such strictures aren't applied beyond childhood, upon adults, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, in the name of propriety... that's the vicious cycle of the bullshit we call bigotry fighting tooth and nail to stamp out the very thinking that supports free speech as an extension of free thought. And it's the system that came down as a fucking hammer on British gays in the 1980's with Section 28.

So, no, Cory is dead wrong here. He's seeing this, it seems, through a rather American* lens with a rosy tint when it comes to Individualism and Liberty and Free Speech and all that constitutional rhetoric. In treating this as a reader's right, it seems perhaps he'd imagine this app more comparable simply to any homophobic audience member at that convention panel in France shouting FAGGOT! in their head to themselves every time I speak, to drown out anything that might challenge their worldview. As an individual liberty, civil right, whatever.

Sure, that would certainly be any audience member's prerogative--not to listen to a word I say, even to actively misrepresent it to themself. But such an individual choice on the part of each and every audience member is not the fucking issue. The issue is the systematic erasure of my ability to make myself heard, the systematic overwriting of our words--both Cory's and mine--to defuse and potentially reverse any stance he or I might take against homophobia--as one very fucking personal example--and the issue is this being done as a fucking for-profit venture parasitically piggybacking off the sales of our books, producing illicit derivative works based on our authorised texts, and passing them off as more fucking pious "versions" of our works.

I don't even fucking care if the reality is--as it surely is--that none of the cuntfuckers using that app will be buying my work. The whole thing is not just a fucking abomination in principle, but a fucking threat of a fucking shallow grave a few decades down the fucking line because fucking moralistic pigskinned cuntfucker dickheads bought into the same fucking bullshit prejudice and propriety they've proven themselves to be fucking murderously susceptible to over centuries, and at alarmingly frequent intervals.

No, thanks, I'm not going to fucking approve of my words and the profits from them going toward the promulgation of a mindset that would burn me at the fucking stake. I'm not going to see the exploitation of my articulacy twisted toward my fucking extermination in terms of some cosily idealised notion that readers are somehow exercising free speech here in filtering and warping what they hear. And if you think I'm being hyperbolic to talk in terms of actual physical peril, then you--yes, you personally--are exactly the fucking denialist fuck who convinces me that wilful ignorance is every bit as pervasive a resource now as it ever was for those who'd exploit it to deadly ends. You are my cause for concern, because that blindness is how the bullshit takes root every time.

No, thanks, I'm not going to shrug this off as simply a few "silly bluenoses." Do not underestimate the truly pernicious nature of the propriety in play here. Do not minimise the very real impacts born of a vicious cycle supporting and actively stoking reactions of disgust and shock at the obscene, the profane. The attitude to Sodomites often a good barometer of how fucked-up that propriety is at any given time, there's a reason Wilde spoke of the love that dare not speak its name. And here we're talking of the hate that will not hear love name itself. The hate that thrives only by enforcing that restraint. And we're talking about that hate focused into a fucking systematic tool for an entire culture of conservatives to entrench that restraint as cultural norm.

Note: systematic tool.

Ultimately, Cory says: "It's one thing for a publisher or retailer to send out copies of your books in which words are changed around without your permission. It's another thing altogether for the reader themself to decide to read their legally acquired books in such a way as to change the text."

Yes. Exactly. My understanding is that the Clean Reader app is in part working as a retailer here. They are producing and selling unauthorised bowdlerised editions along with the authorised copies they source from a distributor. They are indeed sending out copies changed without the writer's permission, sending these derivative, expurgated, bowdlerised, travesties of the authorised texts to be printed on the screen of the reader's device. It is not the end reader choosing to convert that ebook to a raw text file, take it into Word and run a Find-and-Replace on every naughty word before they read it. It's a retailer setting themselves up as purveyor of alternative prude-friendly editions they do not have a license to produce. And in the hard realities of conservative morality, prude-friendly means bigot-friendly.

If any nutjob of a reader wants to buy a copy of Vellum, convert it to a Word doc and perform a radical détournement on the text, replacing key words to warp and flip the meaning, render it a work of pietistic misanthropic bigoted hate, that's up to them. If they're sufficiently transformative about it, riffing off my work to produce something sufficiently original, then I might hate what they've done but can only acknowledge that they have the right--not only to do that but to sell what is, regardless of its inspiration, their original work.

This do not mean they have some all-encompassing Creative Commons super-license to make these derivative works and sell them without the correct attribution, not as Johnny Fuckhead's adaptation of Hal Duncan's Vellum, but simply as Hal Duncan's Vellum, as my novel not changed in any substantial way purportedly, not shafted to fucking fuck, just... tweaked slightly for the sake of decorum, improved in only the subtlest way, made to conform with propriety.

Where Cory defends the reader's ability to fuck around with his texts to their heart's content, I'm right there with him, but to defend that right here is to wholly miss the point. This is a commercial enterprise offering a service to mechanically produce derivative works based on the originals, selling these packaged with the originals as substitutes for them. It's not facilitating the individual reader's casual personal fuckery with the text, whether for good or ill. It's offering the normative community of readers a standardised screening/filtration system that can and will only disempower the abject--not least those of us whose love that hate will silence everywhere it can--in one of the few domains where they have any capacity to directly tackle the protocols of disgust and denial that put their lives in fucking danger when they run amok.

And if the ethics of that sail over the heads of anyone who doesn't count as a fucking taboo word in and of themselves, if it seems just a few silly bluenoses being harmlessly silly to someone who hasn't faced the realities of abjection as propriety, prejudice as a community norm enforced by shit like Section 28... the defence of this app as reader right remains absolutely, as far as I'm concerned, actually a defence of a retailer's rights grab. Cory may see himself as defending the end user's right to arse about with his or my work to their heart's content. But what he's functionally defending is the right of a commercial company to produce derivative works from his fiction and mine, variant editions of the texts mechanically customised and packaged with the original text.

He's defending the commercial exploitation of our works by some random third party he seems to think should be entitled to step into the supply chain as licensed retailer, buy ebook editions of our work for sale to the end users, and perform whatever amount of jiggery pokery the end-user buying the copy might like performed on it before purchase. Because it's the end user's right to do that themself, the retailer has he right to offer this as a service? Really? That's a stance that would seem to license any distributor out there to sell an ebook of Little Brother jiggery-pokeried into a limited edition leatherbound hardback.

Any reader is quite entitled to get their virtual copy of the text printed and bound into such a luxury item. More power to them if they do! But if Clean Reader's approach is to be considered legitimate as a middleman service to the reader, there's absolutely no argument against them doing that physical work for any reader who wants a limited edition leatherbound hardback as their preferred way of reading the book. Cory's essentially giving the A-OK, as far as I'm concerned, to any retailer to act as publisher of their own editions of his work or mine. Clean Reader selling three variant texts along with each authorised text of Cory's novel or mine is little different to me, in commercial terms, than Amazon producing its own luxury hardback print editions of our novels as ebooks with knobs on.

If a reader can draw illustrations in the margins, Amazon can produce unauthorised illustrated editions of ebooks and sell them with a concomitant hike in price that's not passed back to the publisher and writer. No licensing agreement, no recompense beyond the single standard ebook sale they class it as. If it's fine for Clean Reader to offer extra "custom" editions of your work along with the authorised edition, to do to it as an added service anything that the reader might want done, because the reader has a right to read their copy however they want, then expurgation, illustration, translation, printing, binding... everything is fair game on that obliviously crude principle.

So, yeah, I think Cory is dead wrong here--way off the mark in looking at this as a reader right when it might as well be fucking Amazon pandering to the massive market of racists, misogynists and homophobes by employing editors to butcher every work they sell so they can punt a special Luxury Bigot's Package of every single ebook--the original included, sure, but lumped in with hate-loaded travesties of it, those alternative editions all produced with no agreement from the writer, and the whole thing sold at half the price of the standard edition just to whip up interest, get those bigots on the hook, yanno, to get the readers expecting and demanding these debasements of the original as par for the course. This is a company out to exploit fiction in ways that surely to fuck require the writer's consent as much as any derivative work does, a company steamrollering over that consent to pander to the most intellectually and ethically bankrupt fuckery ever to pass itself off as moral: propriety.

I don't give a fuck what any individual reader does with my work. I do give a fuck about a fucking retailer setting itself up as fucking publisher of expurgated editions I did not agree to.

*UPDATE: It's only fair to note, as Cory pointed out to me on Twitter, that he's a Canadian-born Brit, so "American lens" is misleading at best, inaccurate at worst. I knew Britain was his home, but blanked on the facts of his origins, which I probably knew and forgot, projecting USian cultural norms into his free speech arguemnt where it was quite wrong and misrepresentative to do so. Mea culpa.

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