The topic we are about to approach is hard not only because of its bluntness, but because it poses more questions than answers.
Actually, there will be no answers here.
We are all familiar with the term. Censorship has been applied by governments at dark times of our history, in order to remove ‘dangerous or pernicious voices’. Lately, the issue of censorship reemerged in the public debate because of certain actions carried by online platforms. Particularly controversial was Spotify’s Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy, released over a year ago, which lead to the temporary banning of R. Kelly from the platform. The RnB singer was (and still is) facing allegations of sexual misconduct, and Spotify decided to remove Kelly’s music from the platform. It is worth mentioning that these actions took place within the context of a boycott campaign on social media, the #MuteRKelly movement.
“When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator,”
At this point, some precision is in order. We need to draw a line between two terms that are inherently different, but tend to get mixed up once put into practice – there is censorship, yes, and then there are editorial decisions. They are both one-sided, they both silence certain voices…but their motives are different. Censorship always obeys sinister intentions, whereas editorial decisions can be taken to improve the content media offers.
It is undeniable that some degree of control over Internet content is necessary. Hate, violence and inequality should not be encouraged or promoted. However, when it comes to regulation, there is an overabundance of gray areas that demand conscientious decisions. Above all, there should be a social consensus regarding the matters of content regulation. Why? Because we are witnessing kinds of content banning never seen before.
What is particular about this new wave of censorship? It is a kind of censorship that could be called ad hominem. In case you are not familiar with this latin term, an ad hominem argument is inherently invalid because it relies on personal attacks rather than reason or substance.
Traditionally, art has been removed from the market because of its content – not because of its creator’s deeds. The latter is the case today.
Think of Woody Allen, for instance. Woody Allen did not direct nor participate in any film in which statutory rape was promoted. Still, movie many movie theaters refuse to show his upcoming movie because of Allen’s history of sexual misconduct.
The overwhelming avalanche of sexual abuse reports involving celebrities and public figures surpasses the #MeToo movement, both in quantity and antiquity. All around the world, the old sex crimes of the rich and famous are being exposed – and that is a good thing, of course. As a result of this phenomenon, curious websites have mushroomed. In Argentina, a web page called Tu ídolo es un Forro (literally, your idol is an asshole) compiles hundreds of reports about the sexual misconduct of musicians, actors, athletes, authors and politicians of every gender.
They offer the facts, and links to articles that sustain the allegations. Seems like the place to visit before buying another band t-shirt…unless you want to be happy, that is.
People all over the world are actively boycotting artists accused of sexual misconduct, and they have every right to do so.
But still. The first (and main) ethical problem we face here is private companies acting like moral judges. Namely Spotify, or movie theaters, or social media platforms.
Back in late 2016, Facebook faced widespread criticism for censoring a historic photograph of a child running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam invasion.
The platform removed the Pulitzer-winning work because it was deemed ´child pornography’. Also, they banned the very author (Nick Ult) from its own site. Yes, this actually happened.
Facebook eventually backed down, but not without putting up a fight. Here´s an excerpt from the platform’s statement:
“While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others. We try to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community. Our solutions won’t always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them.”
If Facebook’s algorithm cannot tell the difference between child pornography and a work of art like Napalm Girl, well, that is understandable. But once the situation becomes subject of public debate, it is hard to emphatise with the human corporate heads who still support the algorithm’s actions. Anyhow, it is more likely that the picture was removed by a (human) Facebook’s community standards team member after being reported by a user.
I am sure this case will remind every good Simpsons fan of this episode:
Meanwhile, (some) singers are being banned but millions of songs with questionable lyrics are still available online. But here we face a second ethical problem: art is subjective, and can be subjected to multiple readings. More even so, one of the leit motives of art, one of its functions, is being provocative.
Can we be a hundred percent sure that Eminen is actually advocating for violence against women just by hearing this piece of lyrics?
“Grabbed that bitch by her hair, drug her across the ground/And took her up to the highest diving board/And tossed her down/ Sorry coach, it’s too late to tell me stop/While I drop this bitch face down and watch her belly flop.”
Eminem, As The World Turns
Art has its resources. Language resorts to metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony when it wants to be poetic. These four master tropes are figures of speech that substitute an image for another, the name of an attribute for the name of the thing, a part for the whole (and vice versa) a thing for its opposite. We use tropes every day, even unknowingly, because communication is never entirely literal. Art would suffer greatly if tropes were not allowed. And yes, tropes lead to multiple interpretations.
Some would say Eminem was being ironic, some would say he is a freaking misogynist. And maybe they are all right, because every interpretation is valid.
In times like ours, I guess it all comes down to one single question: is it possible to separate the art from the artist? I am not quite sure. In any case, every individual should be entitled to make this decision on their own. If companies want to make editorial decisions, they’d better be ready to justify themselves soundly.
Yes Mark Zuckerberg, we are talking about you.