Censorship Rant

Originally published in Elder Gods Rave #1 for Gothik APA
January, 1995

Censorship. Ha.

Most people seem to be in the position of worrying about what the New Congress From the Abyss is going to do about your personal rights to free expression, and I say that this is looking in the wrong direction. We have already engaged the enemy, and it is the private sector. Yes, the private sector—you know those great big corporations that William Gibson and other Cyberpunk writers warn us about—well, they’re the ones who are going to clamp down on your ability to say the word 'fuck.' Oh, the New Congress isn't going to be passive in this, but the American People really are attached to the First amendment, so an overt action will be shot down. Sure they may get a little chip here, but the important stuff will be done by people like Sony.

Examples. How many of you remember the Dead Kennedys? Ok—a few of you—that's good. For those who don’t remember, the DKs were a tremendously excellent punk band from San Francisco in the late '70s and '80s. Around 1986, they vanished. They were being prosecuted by the State of California for the Distribution of Literature Harmful to Minors. In their album, Frankenchrist, the DK’s included a poster by the very weird artist, H.R. Giger—the same guy who created the Alien from the Alien films. Anyway, the record company was being prosecuted because a 14 year-old bought the album for her 9 year old brother for his birthday. The store owner was also prosecuted but the charges were dropped and he vanished from the scene. the real target was the Dead Kennedys and their self-owned Alternative Tentacles record label. It was a pretty small case, theoretically.

But the PMRC got involved. The Parents' Music Resource Center was a group of wealthy senator’s wives (is there any other kind?) who crusaded for good, wholesome music that didn't upset them. Never mind that they had the chance to upset their parents when they were adolescents. The PMRC moved money and publicity to the case, and brought Jell-O Biafra (lead singer for the DK's) to Congress to discuss obscenity. They even went on the record as saying that this case would be a "cost-effective" way to send our their message of   "anti-obscenity." Alternative Tentacles was a very small record label—Biafra had to go on a lecture tour (which I attended—he was an excellent speaker) to pay for his legal bills.

Biafra won. And he lost. He won the legal case—he was acquitted. He lost—the band split up. He won—Alternative Tentacles managed to stay afloat but Biafra himself hasn't been the same since the trial. But Biafra lost in another very important way—the PMRC's message was heard far and wide by the record industry. Go pick up a Nine Inch Nails or a Tool CD and you'll see that little "warning, explicit lyrics" label. The enormous record labels caved in and they are now labeling their records.

This is reminiscent of the Comics Code Authority scandal of the 1950s except for one thing. When the CCA was established, it was perceived as the way to differentiate between "good" comics and "bad" comics. And distributors just didn't want to take the risk of handling non-CCA books. If it didn’t have the seal, it didn’t get sold. The same cannot be said for recordings, however. The Record Industry is large enough that most (and I do mean most) stores cannot afford to go without "explicit lyrics" records. Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana are very popular and not to carry these groups will lose most people money.

But the Record Industry isn't the only place that this sort of bullshit has taken place. It seems that if any industry gets large enough, it tries to set "industry standards" and control what you think. At GenCon/Origins, the people from Pagan Publishing were pressured to censor the cover of one of their products. Now, I will freely admit that the cover was extreme—a (very good, I might add) drawing of a woman possessed by a demonic Great Old One, developing sets of teeth on her breasts and in her vagina. The TSR thought police noticed this and informed Pagan that their cover violated convention guidelines, and there were no such rules. And this was pretty much the only offensive thing at the Fantasy Con—you could sell pictures of people with their arms getting chopped off (The Unspeakable Oath #4) or pretty much semi-nude women (the Women of Fantasy calendar). Again, Pagan Publishing was a small firm without much clout and they were being beaten over the head by the Big Boys.

Fortunately Tynes is smart. He ran out to Kinko's and photocopied a bunch of  "censored" labels and placed them over the "offensive" parts of the poster and book cover. Sales improved. I find this impressive—TSR, whose AD&D game is about 90% chopping evil races into small bits, finds something offensive. Uh-huh. (For the full report of this lovely incident find a copy of The Unspeakable Oath #7.)

Last of all, is the lovely little controversy I was part of. When I was doing my Student Teaching, I didn’t have a lot to work with. I was the teacher's second student teacher that year (although college rules state that a given teacher should take only one student teacher every two years), and my 'Cooperating Teacher,' Mrs. Smith, had no idea what the last student teacher had  used from the official book. Great. So I photocopied a number of short stories that I thought would be interesting: a lesser known story by Edgar Allen Poe, a ghost story by William Hope Hodgeson and William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. I submitted Johnny Mnemonic to Mrs. Smith and asked her what she thought of it. She came back the next day and said she liked it. Incidentally it contained the words "shit" and "bitch." Looking back, I don’t think she actually read it.

We're cruising along—some of the students were slightly offended by the words involved in the stories but they expressed this by not saying them as we read the stories aloud. Some students took a positive pleasure in reading "bitch" in a classroom—it was scandalous. No big deal. Mrs. Smith was out of the room and I was pretty sure the students were learning something.

Later the students write their own stories. I made a small error and allowed them to use profanity in the stories but not in the classroom. No big deal again. Most of the students did not take me up on the offer.

But some did. Instead of actually writing a story a small number of my more talented students made a movie. In execution and themes it was a very advanced piece and quite well done. I gave them an A because they have obviously worked hard on it and the finished product was good. The plot line involved a transvestite, child abuse, and a ghostly clown that killed people that hurt a small child, and the use of a condom (not shown). Pretty advanced stuff.

I made the mistake of letting Mrs. Smith, who I saw every morning but who never actually did much observation of me in the classroom, see it. She hit the roof. The students had used the words "asshole" and 'fuck." This was offensive—not the child abuse, not the murders, not the non-judgmental portrayal of transvestitism. The condom scene really irritated her too. She confiscated the tape and called the parents involved and the principal. The meeting was set early in the morning and everyone relevant was there. Mrs. Smith showed the tape to the parents and principal and they agreed that it was a bit out of schoolroom boundaries. The Principal was afraid that if the tape got out it would get to other parents and make the school look bad—an understandable fear. The parents offered to have a lawyer call in and promise not to release the tape to the kids until they were out of high school. It wasn’t good enough for Mrs. Smith. She HAD to censor the tape. Unfortunately at this point I had to go off and teach a class so I had to find out how the meeting ended later from the students involved. I had input in this—just all the responsibility. Damn it burned my butt, but what could I do? If I stood up to Mrs. Smith I would probably get a bad review from her and that would shoot two years of graduate school down the toilet. I kept my mouth shut but later apologized to the students. It was all I could do.

But you can see my point. Congress and the legal system aren't the ones trying to control what you read, hear and think. It’s the conservative corporations and individuals who are afraid of the backlash from the (supposedly) Moral (supposedly) Majority. Why? The word Fuck isn’t intrinsically more offensive than any other word I can think of. Kids in my class used fuck, shit and bitch a good deal. And yet half of my class made "eeeew!" noises when they looked up the definition of the word "smegma" on a record album—it’s not one of the "offensive five."

So what the fuck is going on out there? How do these people think? Do they?