Susanna J. Sturgis    


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The Drive to Protect: Thoughts on Censorship

I've been thinking about censorship. It's more complicated than we like to think. More complicated than railing against the National Endowment for the Arts, Jesse Helms, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, or the Dworkin-MacKinnon anti-pornography ordinance.

Several women stand around talking as a meeting breaks up and we get on to the subject of how our parents shut us up when we were kids. My parents told me to stop "acting theatrical" or "being melodramatic." (My mother once aspired to the stage.) The metaphor seems to have been popular with all of our parents. One woman's parents called her "Sarah Heartburn.")[1]

Introducing the subject of Mussolini's Italy, my favorite college history professor surveyed his mostly left-of-center Modern European History students and asked, "What is a fascist . . . besides someone you don't like?"

Years ago, when I took getting published much less for granted, a member of a lesbian editorial collective called to request a change in an essay they had already accepted: I had described a crowd of people as looking "white," and the (all-white) editorial collective thought this was racist. I thought this was ridiculous. We settled on pale.

A woman appeared in a feminist bookstore on a frantic Saturday afternoon during the December holiday rush to tell the store owner that encouraging Christmas gift-giving was anti-Semitic. After the owner suggested talking at a quieter time and place, the woman left, returned, and posted flyers on the store windows, accusing the owner of anti-Semitism.

Same town, different bookstore, about seven years later. A local writer-editor told me this story. Her writers group wanted to arrange a reading at the local women's bookstore. The store owners stipulated that they had to review in advance anything that would be read. My acquaintance had no problem with this; "it's their store," she said.

I was scheduled to read that night at that store but had not been asked to clear my program with the owners. Perhaps out-of-town writers were exempt? As I browsed through the store later, I quickly noted that anti-pornography books were prominently displayed, and books by Pat Califia, Samois, Dorothy Allison, Joan Nestle, et al., were nowhere to be found.

After a panel at a science fiction convention, two women approach me and we get into conversation. They are lovers. One is a transsexual. The other is a diagnosed multiple personality. They both practice s/m sex. I realize later that I would not have had this conversation at a feminist conference or a lesbian music festival. I remind myself that in theory I don't think male-to-female transsexuals are women.

Speaking of science fiction, several feminist and gay publishers are telling writers they won't publish it, period, no matter how good it is.

One thing science fiction likes to do is take a current technological or political development and extrapolate into the future: if this or that trend continues, what kind of society will human beings be living in a century or a millennium from now?

A friend of mine who once managed a feminist bookstore (different town) wrote her war story in Trivia 16/17.[2] The store's board of directors assumed the obligation to protect the store's actual and potential customers from (a) an exemplary employee whose style they didn't like, and (b) any s/m material, even though the store's customers had made Pat Califia's Macho Sluts a best-seller that winter. My friend calls this drive to protect "right wing feminism."

"Right wing," like "fascist," is one of those phrases I prefer to identify with people I don't like. I suspect I would like most of the women on that board of directors.

At least a dozen years ago I occasionally led rap groups at an urban women's center. Group participants included both heterosexual and lesbian women. Most weeks we continued the discussion after the center closed for the night, alternating between a quiet neighborhood pub and a nearby gay restaurant. I noticed after a few weeks that all of us went to the pub, but only the lesbians went to the restaurant. To keep the group together, we had to go to the pub. After a while, some of the lesbians got pissed.

A stated goal of that women's center was to provide a "comfortable place for all women." Is there any such place? Even at our most inclusive, we weren't especially interested in making right-to-life women feel comfortable. Right-to-life women knew enough not to come to a "women's center" anyway.

In recent issues of Feminist Bookstore News booksellers have discussed the ethics of carrying Lynn Andrews' books --- Lynn Andrews is not the whole problem, but she is a visible symbol of it: some white people, including feminist women, are appropriating Indian spiritual practices while ignoring their own traditions.

At a feminist bookstore meeting in June 1990, one bookseller said, "Censorship is refusing to let something be published or removing it from circulation. Buying decisions are quite different. We make buying decisions every day and buy the work we want to promote and don't buy things that are in conflict with our values."

Censors, like fascists and right-wingers, have to be the other guys, the bad guys.

Over the centuries, I believe, women have been stopped less often by someone "refusing to let something be published or removing it from circulation" than by illiteracy, poverty, lack of privacy, death in childbirth, terror, overwork, laughter . . . The work of Tillie Olsen, Joanna Russ, Dale Spender, Gloria Hull and others bears daunting witness to the ways in which women have been stopped, without official censorship.[3] Feminists need to pay closer attention to what we are doing.

In the U.S. we are educated to recognize political restrictions more readily than economic ones. Even my liberal, conscientious member of Congress believes that there were "free" elections in Nicaragua last winter, as if the U.S.-backed war and sanctions didn't shape the results as surely as any legislation or vote fraud.

The essence of censorship is not legislation or the act of removing something from circulation. The essence of censorship is one person or group imposing its values on another. Whether the goal is to hasten change that would not come otherwise or to enforce the status quo, censorship pressures people to do what the censors want.

In mid-December I read a long article in the Boston Globe about a male literature professor fighting a contract renewal battle at Hampshire College. He believes his troubles are largely due to not being "politically correct" enough, meaning that he doesn't adhere dogmatically to a certain line that combines feminist, socialist, and anti-imperialist ideas. A few years ago I would have assumed he was just a white man whining about loss of privilege. No longer.

Bad guys censor; what we do is exercise good judgment, make ethical buying decisions, participate in a boycott. Our very language reflects ambivalence. The ability to discriminate between different textures or sounds is an asset, but practicing discrimination is not. "Good judgment" is a valued trait, but "[being] judgmental" is a defect.

So we fight not over the ethics of censorship but over who's "we" and who isn't.

The decision before each group, the whole feminist movement, is to decide whether to be for all women, and if so, what are we prepared to do about it, and if not, then for whom are we. This is a sort of triage, and something very few of us find easy, or even thinkable. At the same time, liberalism, or tolerance in principle, is suspect in some feminist circles.

I start to say, "If the choice is between taking Lynn Andrews books off the shelves and alienating Indian women, I would choose the former." Then I remember that last week I took exception to a statement by the Women's Recovery Network: "in support of recovering debtors, we do not accept credit cards except from subscribers outside the U.S." I am a recovering binge-eater who would be (at the very least) annoyed if someone took it upon herself to discourage me from having dessert.

But the bookstore that culled from its stock every title to which significant objections were raised would not be left with many books. One feminist chorus stopped singing "Spring of Vietnam" (which talks of being inspired by the struggles of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong women) because one member, who worked with anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees, objected. My reaction was, "Well, if you're going to be that way, you'll have to dump most of the repertoire."

It all begins to look like efforts to remove Huckleberry Finn from high school English classes and Our Bodies Ourselves from general bookstores and any mention of evolution from textbooks.

I envy the absolutists their easy answers, their belief in the will of God or their own undivine Rightness. We are, however, a pluralistic movement in a pluralistic world.

In the early drafts of this essay I quoted Sun Bear: "If your theory doesn't grow corn, I don't want to hear about it." Then I read in Z Magazine that the American Indian Movement (AIM) considers him an exploiter of native peoples' religions, an Indian equivalent of Lynn Andrews, so I figured I'd take it out and avoid trouble. But that's what this essay is about, so I put it back in, because whatever his political and personal failings, his point is a good one.

I go through anti-theory periods, mostly when one of them is strangling me, but most of the time I find certain theories very useful. They are eyeglasses that bring blurry scenes into focus. They are blueprints that tell me where to apply pressure for maximum effect. But if it doesn't grow corn, I don't want to hear about it either.

If it poisons the soil, if it tells us things are so hopeless that we might as well not bother to plant crops this year, I don't want to hear about it. If it creates a community where women are afraid to tell their stories, I reject it.

What has happened to the work of Salman Rushdie and Robert Mapplethorpe is less frightening to me as a feminist than the example made of Dianne Davidson. Dianne Davidson is a white singer-songwriter who talked about her love for the black woman who raised her, and some women, both black and white, thought she was trivializing racism. I wish she had left out the part about being black in a previous life, but as I listened to her critics, I knew: this is not the movement I want to be in.

Feminist friends often ask why I live where I live, in an island summer tourist trap with a year-round population of less than 15,000, a subsistence economy, and no feminist movement. Here you call something sexist or racist and someone is likely to say, "How do you figure that?" or "I don't think so."* This place makes me ask myself, "What is sexist or racist . . . other than something I don't like?" This place makes me ask, "Am I trying to impose my will on this person, or to share what I know?"

My truth may make you uncomfortable. Your anger may terrify me, and what you do in your spare time may disturb my sleep. Straight women think a feminist [news]paper is too lesbian, and lesbians think the same paper is too straight. No, I don't believe that "anything goes," but I want a movement, and eventually a world, where women can speak their experiences, and articulate their reflections on those experiences, and "politically correct" and "politically incorrect" are archaic expressions that only historians and linguists remember the meaning of.

[1] "Sarah Heartburn" is a play on the name of Sarah Bernhardt, the 19th and early 20th century French actress who became a household world in the European and U.S. theater world.

[2] Shirley Hartwell, "The Lie of the Feminist Right-Wing Ethic," Trivia 16/17 (Fall 1990).

[3] For some overviews, see for instance Tillie Olsen's Silences and Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing. Examples about in women's autobiographical writings, for example: Gloria T. Hull's essay on poet Angelina Weld Grimke in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology; Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

* Note from 2006: This is no longer true of public discourse. These days you can pretty well redirect a discussion, or shut it down, by calling someone or something "racist." The demographics have changed in the last 15 years: the year-round population is richer, more liberal, and more urban/suburban. They, like just about everyone else, like to define issues in ways that make them the good guys without costing them more than a little ritual breast-beating. They are generally quick to identify racism; true, most of them are white, but in the north being anti-racist doesn't cost white people much, especially if they're affluent enough to choose where they live. Anti-sexism makes them queasier, and don't even think of bringing up economics, money, or class. The result is that a lot of genuinely racist sentiments are directed at the Brazilian immigrants who have become much more visible, and much more important to the island economy, than they were 10 years ago. These sentiments are not voiced, in public at least, by the affluent liberals; no, no, no. They are most often voiced by working islanders who've lived here a long time, maybe all their lives. The Brazilians haven't caused the painful dislocation that has made our lives so much harder and caused so many to leave the island; they're symptoms, and all-too-visible symbols. The affluent liberals, the ones who can afford to buy houses costing $800K and up, whose income comes from high-paying off-island jobs or family trust funds, have more to answer for, but you can bet they're not eager to direct our attention to that.


Published in Lesbian Contradiction (Spring 1991)

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