Stepping Out of Line

One of my favorite songs is For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. A classic of the mid 1960s, it’s last verse has a dead-on take of paranoia, how it worms its way into our thinking, and how it comes of constant fear of stepping out of line. The Litany Against Fear in Frank Herbert’s Dune hit’s close to the mark, but For What It’s Worth hits closer. For while panic can essentially shut down your mind, not all fear is panic. More insidious is the small fear, nothing more than the uncomfortable feeling that if you say or write the “wrong” thing, it will tick someone off and maybe jeopardize friendships and even employment. It’s not panic; it’s not even full-blown fear. Yet it can create far more havoc because it can bring us to the point where we become inactive lest we cause someone offense.

This is particularly insidious for writers in that it can lead to aggresive self-censorship and complete shutdown if we aren’t careful. This can happen with fiction, non-fiction, and even blog posts. So it is that of all the blog topics that’s come to mind this year, only three have made it through to posting. Worse, even when we’re aware we’ve let self-censorship shut us down, we do so, anyway. “Oh, I can’t say that. It’s true, but too controversial.” The end result is that nothing gets done. Or, when it does, it’s nothing more than bland pablum.

Of course, the reason we self-censor is that we’ve learned from experience that there’s a time and place for everything. When an adoring mother shows you her little darlings, it is not the time to ask if they escaped from the zoo. We all know this. We learn self-censorship in order to be tactful, to stay out of trouble, and to simply show a little compassion. It only gets to be a problem when we take it too far.

So it was that observations on the dismissal of Dr. Larycia Hawkins from Wheaton College; the misinformation surrounding it; and how the statement that got her fired isn’t supported by either Christianity or Islam; ended up in the bit bin. I really should pull it out. There are other half-attempts, ranging from observation on politics to the difference between Anthropomorphic Global Warning hyperbole and calculated effects. All discarded lest some take offense or have the wrong impression.

The problem is that given enough people, someone is bound to take offense at anything. The only way for someone not to take offense at your writing is to write nothing at all. That’s not a good thing if you want to be a writer.

Unfortunately, we can’t ditch our self-censor. That runs the risk of deliberately trying to be offensive. That’s not good, either.

Some writers take a middle ground approach: write pretty much what comes to mind and deal with basic self-censoring during edit. This may work better with fiction, where we’re imagining characters and how they interact. With non-fiction, trying not to be insulting, even when pointing out unpleasant truths, might be the best option. There’s a difference in writing why flurple badisthrops make poor pets, and calling flurple bandisthrop owners idiots.

Frankly, I don’t know what’s a good solution. The only thing I do know is that if you’re going to be a writer, you have to write. And you can’t do that if you’re always looking over your shoulder.