Monday, July 1, 2013

Building Metropolises of Self-Censorship

[Part of the series: 2013 = 1984?]

 "He could not help feeling a twinge of panic. It was absurd, since the writing of those particular words was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary." (George Orwell, 1984 - p. 16)

I've been thinking a lot about the description in 1984 of Winston writing in his diary. I've been wondering if it's really true that in the United States today -- as in Winston's world -- the very act of free expression, itself, has become so hazardous, what you say hardly matters.

My journal
. . . where I can say anything . . . .

It can be confusing because we engage in so much public expression -- lots and lots of self-disclosure on Facebook, for instance -- that it may not seem true to say that there are limitations on free expression.

However, I realize that I actually have two tiers to my thinking and expression. There is a "public" tier that I recognize will be seen by everyone, and from the moment I turn the idea into written words, I assume everyone in the world may sooner or later have the opportunity to see them. Sure, there's a slight frisson of excitement putting something slightly risque or personal up on Facebook or on my blog; in reality I know that only a tiny number of people will see it, but there's always the possibility that everyone will see it, right?

And . . . as we know now . . . there is the certainty the the government will have it at its fingertips when it wants to use it.

Which brings me to the second tier of thinking and expression -- the part that's "not ready for prime time." This is the stuff that ordinarily I might entrust to a diary or journal. It includes ideas that I'm not even clear about as the words are flowing onto the page -- the act of putting the ideas into words is intended to help me think about them.

In the old days, people like me used to go through a thought process sort of like this: "Do I dare write about this embarrassing or unconventional thought in my journal? What if I'm run over by a bus and people are going through my things and they see this? Oh . . . but I'd be dead . . . so I guess it doesn't matter . . . . (Still . . . ?)

Now that the FBI has taken to raiding people's homes -- people who haven't been run over by a bus, I might add -- and seizing every last scrap of paper they possess, the act of keeping a diary really does seem too dangerous to contemplate. After all, the whole point of keeping a diary would be to think freely. If no risks are taken -- if there's no potential thoughtcrime -- what would be the point of writing in the diary in the first place?

I've been having trouble reconciling my apparently rich intellectual and expressive life, on the one hand, with these feelings of fear and paranoia and self-censoring on the other. Then something that Andre Gregory said in "My Dinner with Andre" struck a chord.


Gregory spoke of the way in which many people in New York City felt they ought to "get out of New York," but never seemed to do so. And then he described one of the participants in Findhorn who told him that he had come to believe that New York City -- and our cities in general -- had become the model of the concentration camp of the future: places where the inmates build the camp themselves and convince themselves that they are free. (He might well have added, "And they crow about how much fun they're having on their Facebook pages!")

It seems like an ironic and/or crazy notion. But clever. Yes, there's something to think about there.

Perhaps it would be amusing to write about it in my journal. If I dare.

(More thoughts on 1984 here . . . .)
(1984 page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.) 

Related posts

One of the biggest areas of self-censorship in American life is criticism of the state of Israel.

(See "What good is a tweet?" (The Packing and Unpacking of Meaning and the Steven Salaita Case) )

Sometimes we hold back in the very settings -- and on the very issues -- where open discussion is most needed. ("Don't rock the boat!")

(See What Happens When People Talk With Each Other (My Graeme Reid Moment) )

Years later, in the days when I traveled frequently to China and brought home picture books for my children depicting the adventures of Monkey battling all manner of demons, I began to take seriously the importance of demons and demon-quelling as a metaphor.

(See Channeling Zhong Kui (the Demon Queller)