Shadow censorship

Thinking about libraries and the Patriot Act got me to thinking about censorship.

This is how I learned how censorship works.

A decade or so ago, I was a marketing writer working on copy for a high school correspondence catalog. I was interviewing former students for quotes, and one of the quotes I got, from a seventeen-year-old young woman, was along the lines of, “Correspondence classes let me have my baby and still stay in school.”

I loved this quote, yet I hesitated. I was new at this job. Would the director of the correspondence program have issues with it? Should I delete the text? I didn’t know the director well enough to know her preferences one way or the other.

But I hated the idea of deleting the quote–it was a good quote, pointing up a valuable benefit of the program. So I left it in. I figured the director could take it out, if she had concerns.

My editor reviewed the copy before we passed it on. “Do you think this quote is okay?” she asked me uneasily.

“I don’t know,” I said, hesitating again. “Can we leave it in and see what happens?”

My editor agreed. We passed the copy on, and we waited.

And the director didn’t say a word. All her edits were about other matters.

I realized something, then. If I’d taken that quote out, the director of the program wouldn’t have been the one censoring it–I would have been.

Blatant censorship is simple. But this sort of shadow censorship is sneakier. Because it happens out of fear of what might happen, rather than in response to something that actually has happened.

And because we’re all capable of it, without even realizing it, and no one will ever know but us.

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