At this year’s Cooler Lumpur festival, the theme is “fast” and I’ve been invited to speak here about the quickest, most fluid stuff around: ideas.
Implicit in that invitation is a discussion of words, which are the tangible and sonic manifestation of thought, and the first draft of action. They’re the stuff to which writers, like myself, dedicate our lives. They’re the reason readers read books, and sometimes even create their own works in response. Words are how ideas are traded. How cultures define themselves. How individuals understand our own selves. Most importantly, they’re how we understand each other. Words are one way we can agree, and they are the best way we can agree to disagree.
To the powerless, words are all we have. That is why, to the powerful who seek absolute control, words are dangerous. The counterpoint to words should be, simply, more words. I say “should,” because in practice words are too often opposed by imposed silence. And with the new freedoms and connectivity of our contemporary wired world, we’re seeing, more and more, day by day, silence enforced through means grown increasingly desperate, defiant, and deadly.
Thus the title of tonight’s address. Because I’ve always found it curious that we ascribe such power to a terribly common, and undeniably useful, word – bleeping it out or masking it with asterisks, all while condoning, shamelessly, violence, injustice, and inequality. Don’t you think we have our priorities wrong? Don’t you think we should be unafraid to say: Fuck censorship!
Yeah, I said it. That powerful, despicable, bad word: Censorship.
I’ll say it again. Censorship. Instrument of inequality. Anathema to artists. Antithesis to public discourse. Tool of the powers that be. (Or power of the tools that be.)
Yet even its use engenders heated debate.
For example: the Columbia Encyclopedia defines censorship as the “official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order. It may be imposed by governmental authority, local or national, by a religious body, or occasionally by a powerful private group.”
On the other hand: the Catholic Encyclopedia, a less secular source, defines censorship as “a supervision of the press in order to prevent any abuse of it. In this sense, every lawful authority, whose duty it is to protect its subjects from the ravages of a pernicious press, has the right of exercising censorship.”
So: there’s censorship used by oppressors; and censorship used by protectors. And every society must grapple with these contradicting notions to determine the role of the government vis-a-vis the freedoms demanded by the citizenry.
But there’s a third variety that is even more complicated and insidious. I’ve experienced it myself. In fact, I often struggle with it. This censorship is hidden, Pavlovian. It is born less of responsibility than fear. It is the censorship of the self.
Let me explain. Last week I completed my second novel, “I Was the President’s Mistress!!” – a title replete with two exclamation points and the subtitle: “A celebrity tell-all memoir.” It’s the story of a starlet of humble background who rises in a familiar but fictional society through her wits, talents, and pluck. In her young life, she’s had her share of loves worthy of romance novels, including an allegedly abusive relationship with a Catholic bishop, a drug-fueled fling with an Australian DJ, an introduction into the pleasures of pornography-watching by a potheaded trust-fund baby, and a controversial courtship with the married Muslim leader of the opposition. All that sex, drugs, rock and religion is set against the backdrop of a political corruption scandal. A scandal, I should note, starring characters who do not, in any way, bear any resemblance, none whatsoever, to the esteemed, trustworthy, magnanimous, virtuous, gorgeous, witty, erudite, temperate statesmen who have selflessly run countries like yours and mine for generations.
Something interesting happened while I was writing that novel. My imagination was free, yes. Inspiration from current events was boundless, for sure. And I had trilobites of hard-drive space to fill, if I so wanted. Yet I found myself limited. Limited by, of all things, myself. I found myself afraid of my unlikeable characters and their radical views I sought to understand. I found that they could do all manner of reprehensible actions, except speak freely. I found myself worrying that someone a world away would throw a tantrum, storm an embassy, and silence someone through death to silence me in life. I found myself turning to pragmatism and self-preservation. I found myself invoking responsibility towards peace and harmony.
Then, finally, I found myself defiant: I am a writer, after all. And serious writers try to cast light not on what it is already lit, but on what remains in the shadows. You know – discuss the undiscussed, speak the unspeakable, find the edge of what is commonplace and peer over into the precipice. Artists should provoke rather than please – provoke thought, discourse, and even disagreement intended to reveal contradictions, humanity, hypocrisies, perfidy, impunity, and stupidity. Because in art, as in life, honesty’s as vital a virtue as courage, right? As I wrote my book, I took comfort in John Updike’s defense of Salman Rushdie: “If we are not willing to risk giving offense,” Updike said, “we have no claim to the title of artists.”
So I wrote on, secure in knowing that every book is part of an ongoing conversation spanning eras and crossing borders. Yet I was intrigued by my self-censorship, and I decided to write a novel that would, in part, examine, expose, and attempt to comprehend the complexities of this very important discussion on what we can and cannot say.
I decided: Fuck censorship!
For this is a discussion as important as any other. In fact, it’s a discussion that is more urgent than we dare admit. At its heart, it’s about equality. When the state mandates what you cannot say, they are privileging those who are allowed to say it. At its core, it’s about control. When the state defines good speech versus bad speech, they are defining right thought versus wrong thought. In truth, they are dictating more than words; they are telling us what to think, and who’s in charge of our thinking.
This happens in my country, the Philippines. Does it happen here in Malaysia, too?
Yeah? I guess our countries have much in common. After all, we look alike. Our languages share words. It’s believed we’re descended from the same ancestors. For centuries, as neighbors, we traded goods and ideas. We worshipped under the same religion. We were colonized in tandem – you with the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Japanese; us with the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese. Indeed, both our nations are proud melting pots – though you cleverly came up with that catchy advert: “Malaysia, truly Asia!” Which always made me feel both jealous and affectionate towards you. Many of those images of white tourists enjoying your cultural bounties could well have been photographed in the Philippines. We are that kindred.
In fact, our social problems are probably quite similar. But as a respectful guest, as a peaceful cousin from across the much-disputed South China Sea, I wouldn’t think of criticizing what you’ve got going on here. So I respectfully decline to say anything about kangkong and blocked BBC websites. Or the dissent that earned sedition charges for Karpal Singh and others like him. Or outdated sodomy laws trotted out only against the opposition. I also refuse to discuss your sexy Prime Minister Najib’s warning against human rights, liberalism, and tolerance. Or handsome Dr. Mahathir’s belief that freedom of speech, press, and demonstration must be limited to preserve democracy. And I will certainly not talk about studly Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s stance on LGBT rights as, quote: “deviant” “poisons.” Or noble Abdul Kadir, of the Islamic Affairs Department, who reminded us that homosexuality is, quote: “worse than murder.” And I have no comment whatsoever about who gets to use the word Allah, as if a trademarked brand, as if we’re from the house Gryphindor discussing he who must not be named.
To your saintly leaders I would never dare say: Fuck censorship!
Instead, let me tell you about my homeland, one related to yours. See if anything sounds similar.
My country is ruled by an untouchable elite who have pillaged our human and natural resources, and consolidated power among themselves for generations. Dynastic politicians act with shameless impunity. For example: top senators have been linked to alleged massive theft from funds meant for post-typhoon reconstruction. An iron-fisted mayor is lauded for keeping peace and order by acting outside the law. A congressman who raped a child won re-election from prison, twice, before being pardoned by an administration who needed his electoral influence. A president was ousted for plundering billions yet was similarly pardoned and is now mayor of our nation’s capital. And a senate majority leader shrugged off revelations that he plagiarized repeatedly in his parliamentary speeches, casting as cyberbullies those who exposed and criticized him, and pushing a cyber-defamation law that can punish even tweets and comments with six to 12 years in prison.
My country is also ruled by a religious majority imposing itself upon a religious minority who for decades have lived among hardship, underdevelopment, and warfare. As a great writer once wrote, “From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable,” and our clergy have used their influence to deny reproductive education, access to health care, and efforts to control a runaway birth rate in an impoverished, overpopulated nation. Our holy men have continuously protected each other, while supporting politicians renowned for their corruption, to maintain the Church’s dogmatic control over state affairs. Nothing’s too large or small for them. Bishops backed one of our most crooked presidents in recent history in exchange for luxury SUVs and access and influence. They cast Lady Gaga as demonic, for her gay-rights sympathies. They slandered women’s activists as abortionists, for their advocacy of reproductive health. And they’ve rallied to successfully censor artists who make work the Church finds offensive.
My country also has a press that is not really free. Traditional media monopolies play partisan politics. Too many journalists are bought by the highest bidder. Actors turned politicians use the entertainment pages for their agendas. The cyber-defamation law threatens to muzzle bloggers. Dozens of journalists are jailed or murdered each year. And countless politicians harass reporters with libel charges filed in far-flung and unsafe jurisdictions, forcing legal and travel expenses on underpaid news-hounds who were simply doing their jobs.
As with many disreputable governments, much is done in the name of peace and order, decency and harmony, cultural respect and national security. The movie Schindler’s List was almost not shown in the Philippines, not because of the obscene horror of the gas chamber, but because of the double-breasted nudity of the women. More recently, a professor of constitutional law came under fire for screening that Youtube trailer of that abominable film, The Innocence of Muslims, so that his students could discuss the legal and social questions of an important current controversy. While last year, public figures who supported a reproductive rights and education bill had their livelihoods threatened by the influential Catholic bishops. And last week, a 19-year-old student was arrested for making politically critical statements while our president delivered a speech that celebrated our country’s, yes, independence.
Beyond the specifics, do these plot points ring familiar? Yet it all seems to worsen, everywhere, every week. From Manila to Moscow, tradition is used to justify bigotry. From KL to Kansas, morality is a means to manipulate. From Quebec to Zimbabwe, nationalism rationalizes oppression. From left-wing to right-wing, censorship prevails. Salman Rushdie was in hiding for years because people got upset over a book most of them probably didn’t read or understand. Wendy Doniger’s study on Hinduism was pulped. Julian Assange was forced to seek asylum for forcing transparency. Edward Snowden was left stateless for revealing how states have been secretly surveilling millions of us. Ai Wei Wei was expunged from the online record by China. Conservative commenter Anne Coulter gets chased away from liberal college campuses. And Saudi blogger Raef Bedawi was sentenced to 600 lashes and imprisonment for 7 years for “adopting liberal thought” and “insulting” the country’s religion; his charges have now been increased to include apostasy, which carries the penalty of death.
These are just a few examples. Across the world, we are increasingly using legal, commercial, or physical force to silence those views with which we disagree. This is evidence that none of us is free. As George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
And that includes: Fuck censorship!
Don’t let anyone tell you this is a Western concept. The communitarian spirit we’re so proud of here in Asia means nothing without individual altruism. The essence of equality is its aspiration towards the universal. And freedom of speech is the foundation for all other freedoms. With it, everyone can discuss, debate, demand, and democratize. Without it, words are formed from fear, responsibility becomes pageantry, temperance tyranny, and respect rote.
We refuse to admit it’s simply about power. We see this every day, on TV, in the news: power over bloggers exposing the misdeeds of our leaders. Power over writers studying the roots of a religion. Power over women daring to demand equal treatment. Power over activists trying to better the community. Power over lovers wishing to love openly. Power over teens questioning their sexuality. Power over boys who have been abused. Power over girls who are kidnapped by the hundreds, or simply shot in the head, for wanting to go to school.
Evil is always convinced of its own good, that’s what makes it so evil. So many of us have become blind to how commonplace persecution and damnation have become. Tolerance gets flipped as intolerant of religious freedom. The march of progress is cast as liberal media bias. Xenophobia is masked as nationalist pride. Human rights is painted as imperialism. Dissent, the highest form of patriotism, as has been said, gets slapped instead with sedition. School syllabi are sanitized by the state. Shrinking libraries are kept full of innocuous volumes. History textbooks are revised by subsequent rulers. Commerce reigns. Lobbyists influence. Tradition justifies the unjustifiable. And violence scares us into silence.
I’ve been told: You have a responsibility. Don’t provoke for the sake of provoking. Never shout fire in a crowded theater. But what about our responsibility to fairness? What if the reactions now far outweigh any provocations? What if the theater’s actually on fire?
Ladies and gentlemen, the theater is on fire. We’ve been told to stay in our seats. To turn off our cellphones. To keep our voices quiet. To watch and accept. And applaud at the end.
Fuck censorship! The theater’s on fire.
Freedom is not transactional, granted us by the government for our good behavior. That’s not freedom. That’s control. Us serving them, not them serving us. In truth, Government should exist to ensure our rights, to educate rather than restrict. To cultivate a citizenry with independent thought and socially engaged autonomy. Instead, we have dictatorial democracies, where the opposition is jailed on sanctimony and arcane law, or sued into bankruptcy. We have feudal dynasties, where voters sell ballots because hunger and groceries are a certainty while fair elections have long become a myth. We have religious leadership who use authority and fear to treat us like children. Fuck censorship.
The theater’s on fire. Common rights are far more important than individual faith, no matter how if your congregation makes up a majority. If your faith says women should be oppressed under the guise of protection, then your religion is a crock of shit. If you believe homosexuals should be killed, then you’re stupid. If kids are gunned down at schools or the movies each week, then your constitution is shitty and has been hijacked by rednecks. If you protect the innocence of priests over the lost innocence of their child victims, then you are dingleberries. If you believe thrown acid asserts male familial authority, then you’re a dickhead. Fuck censorship.
The theater’s on fire. For women across the world, one in three will be beaten or raped in her lifetime – that’s every third female you know, or every third woman in this room – and most will suffer in silence so as not to be victims who are blamed. Around the planet, 125 million females have suffered genital mutilation. Marital rape is legal in dozens of countries. Sixty million girls are denied education. More than three million are slaves to the global sex trade. A thousand Pakistani women are killed each year for family honor. And in the Philippines, divorce is illegal and marriages are terminal sentences where wives must honor and obey their philandering husbands. In many countries, we aren’t allowed to talk about all that. Fuck censorship.
The theater’s on fire. Eighty-one countries in the world have declared homosexuality illegal, and that number is rising. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender human beings are publicly humiliated, beaten, or murdered under state-sanctioned violence. Laws are being passed to institutionalize discrimination. Effeminate children are forced into camps for so-called reparative therapy. In many countries, we aren’t allowed to talk about that. Fuck censorship.
The theater’s on fire. Science is being denied while species go extinct and the planet heats up to alarming proportions. Money is spent less on solutions than on marketing campaigns to exonerate the companies that get fat on the earth’s abundance. Evidence is based on faith rather than faith based on evidence. Superstition is eroding general education. Myth is taught as science in public schools. We are losing touch with the realities of the planet that hosts our very existence. The science TV series Cosmos, hosted by Niel Degrasse Tyson, was censored by a station in Oklahoma during an episode discussing evolution, while Kansas lawmakers said they’d ban the show entirely unless the TV network developed a series about intelligent design, hosted by young-Earth Creationist Ken Ham, to be aired on prime time before Cosmos. That’s censorship. Fuck that.
That’s right, the theater is on fire. The 796 infants and children whose skeletons were recently found in an Irish convent’s septic tank died of neglect because they were considered sinful and out of God’s grace. Recently, Meriam Ibrahim, a pregnant Sudanese woman raised in her mother’s Christian tradition instead of her father’s Islam, was sentenced to death by stoning for marrying a Christian man. 11-year old Rimsha Masih, who suffers from Downs Syndrome, was beaten, jailed, and faced death for blasphemy, for allegedly burning pages of a book some people consider sacred – until it was discovered the local imam planted the pages. And 65-year-old Khalil Ahmad asked shopkeepers to take down inflammatory signs calling for violence against Ahmad’s sect, and was jailed for blasphemy before a devout high school student visited him and shot him dead; the second blasphemy-related murder in that region in a week. In fact, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws, many carrying the verdict of death. And a tenth of the world’s countries violently punish apostasy. Yet we can’t criticize faiths that are not ours even when they lead to injustice and murder. Fuck censorship.
Because the theater’s on fire. Our pundits shout at each other from partisan news networks, while we cheer ours and jeer theirs. But without civil conversation, we will never understand those we disagree with. Without conversation, our opponents become even less human, like faceless targets in modern warfare seen on cameras from those drones that are bombing from high above. Without conversation, our growing online life is ghettoized by algorithms that sort us according to our interests, lumping us in an echo chamber of the like-minded, excising for us worlds we hardly even know. Without conversation, we will continue to read and watch only what affirms our own opinions. Without conversation, we will seek to be right rather than learn why others think we are wrong. Without conversation, we will feel righteous in shutting down those who challenge our opinions. Fuck censorship.
The theater is on fire. And we don’t know how to douse it.
What is to be done? Fucked if I know. But at a festival such as this, we ask the question: can art help us figure out any of that? I have faith it can. But it would have to be honest, and patient, and courageous. I turn often to a quote by David Simon, creator of the TV program The Wire: “The ultimate act of reportage,” he says, “would be to really surround something that is endemic and complex, and to make it understandable so that more people could address themselves to solving that problem than ever before.”
Censorship, fear, violence, the tyranny of thought – these simple bludgeons are endemic and surprisingly complex. So how do we surround them, address ourselves to solving them, if we cannot debate, or discuss publicly, or doubt the prevailing orthodoxy?
Maybe the answer’s simple. We must debate what cannot be debated. Discuss what is forbidden. Consider openly what is blasphemous. If words are all we have left against our entrenched leaders, then perhaps we should wield words as creatively and daringly as possible – through satire or parody, in novels or on the Internet, over Twitter and on the streets, in songs and poetry that prove our minds still independent. Let them know we are watching. That we will not be disrespected and infantilized. That we own our own thoughts, because we own our words.
As Rushdie said: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
Wake up! That’s why we come together for festivals like these. To talk and hear dissenting views. To seek to understand those with whom we disagree. To practice the virtue taught by all faiths: patience. To appeal, as a great emancipator of slaves once said, “to the better angels of our nature.” Because, as another emancipator added a hundred years later, “there can be no tyrants where there are no slaves.”
We come together to this festival to speak freely about using ideas, art, and politics to fight against the ongoing enslavement of men over other men, of women by those who claim to love them, of superstition over free thought, of the poor by the rich, and violence over those who are scared into silence.
When it comes down to it, the only way to combat threats to our freedom of speech is to simply speak freely. To stand together and raise our fists. A hashtag’s a chant, so start one now: #fuckcensorship.
Because this goddamned theater’s on fire. And it’s burning fast. – Rappler.com
Miguel Syjuco delivered this keynote at the opening of Cooler Lumpur festival of ideas in Malaysia on June 20, 2014. Get to know more about the festival here.
Syjuco is a freelance writer. He has written for the New York Times, theInternational Herald Tribune, the Globe & Mail, the CBC, and various international publications. His critically acclaimed novel Illustrado earned the Palanca Award and the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.