Censorship is Bullshit

A little while ago, the Goblin Slayer anime came out, and the internet lost its collective mind. Having read the source light novels, I was looking forward to viewer reaction when everybody found out that this wasn’t going to be the lighthearted fantasy romp it sells itself as on the tin.

What I got was not the “Oh my goodness, that tone shift took me by surprise” I was expecting. Instead, people kinda went, “This is totally unacceptable, worst anime ever!!” and then a shitstorm followed, which I avoided at all costs, because I have better things to do with my time than to argue with people reacting emotionally to something they dislike. If you’re one of the seven anime fans who doesn’t know what’s up with Goblin Slayer, a minor character gets raped within the first ten minutes of the first episode. Rape, from what I understand, is also present in Berserk, Shimoneta, Future Diary, and Garden of Sinners 3, but I guess some rape is acceptable but others aren’t.

Fast-forward to now, and The Rising of the Shield Hero, another anime based on a light novel series I’ve been keeping up with, has come out. And with it is yet another shitstorm of controversy, this time around a scene where one of the female characters falsely accuses the male protagonist of raping her. Personally, I never took issue with this plot point, and I suspect the only reason anybody does take issue with it is due to the recent American climate of trying to make false accusations a thing when they aren’t. I should be quick to remind you that the anime is based on a light novel series first published in 2013, and the novels themselves are based on the web novel, which first appeared on the Japanese site 小説家になろう (Let’s Become Authors) back in 2012, so the anime’s release to current political tensions is purely coincidental. Had this anime had been released before 2016, or even before the Kavanaugh hearings, I doubt anyone would’ve made a big hooplah over it.

Now, you astute readers may have noticed how I said I remained in my backyard bunker while the rest of the community endured the fallout of Goblin Slayer’s release, but here I am, geared up for all the shit flying around. But why now? Does that mean I like Shield Hero more than Goblin Slayer? I do enjoy the former more than the latter, but that’s irreverent. I’m coming out now because outrage over the content of works of fiction is setting a dangerous trend, one that cannot be allowed to continue. Some saying that the rape scene in Goblin Slayer is horribly done is one thing. Others saying they didn’t like that there was a false accusation in Shield Hero is another. But for people to look at either series and make arguments, passionate or otherwise, that essentially boil down to “this should not be in the story because it’s offensive” is a dangerous card they’re playing, because what they’re advocating for is censorship.

Leaping off that argument, censoring due to “offensive content,” let me posit one question: What is offensive?

Rape?

False accusations?

Blood?

Murder?

The words fuck or shit?

How about talking talking animals?

That last one sounds silly, right? One 1930s Chinese governor didn’t think so. In the Hunan province, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned. Why? Talking animals. Ho Chien, the hotshot at the time, believed that animals were beneath humans, and he felt so strongly about this that he feared the book’s talking animals would lead children to believe that animals and humans were on equal footing. So, he banned the book.

“Oh, but that’s China,” I hear you saying. “They ban and censor everything.” That’s kind of the point I’m getting at, not letting us become China, but let’s move on with a few more examples of the types of things that have offended certain individuals and led to books getting banned. Let me throw a random term out there and you decide if it’s offensive or not, okay?

Anti-slavery.

Good, right? Generally, we agree that slavery’s bad, so anything calling slavery bad is good.

Right?

Not according to the Confederate States, which thought slavery was the bee’s knees. Uncle Tom’s Cabin released in 1852 and had a message something to the tune of “slavery’s bad.” So, they banned it. They didn’t want anyone suggesting that what they were doing was, get this, bad. That’d make them look like the bad guys, and nobody wants to be the bad guy. Russia also banned it, though for completely different reasons (reasons like equality being good).

How about we cover one more example of literature being banned before moving on to the point of these examples? What I’m gonna reference next has been banned for a number of things. And it’s not just one book, it’s an entire series filled with all sorts of despicable depictions. Depictions of witchcraft.

Violence.

Darkness.

Religious viewpoint.

An anti-family message.

Content not suitable to the target audience.

And overall, it sets a bad example for any youth who come across it.

Now, what sort of book series is filled with so many controversial themes and content that banning it seems like the common sense thing to do?

Harry Potter.

The book series that every child who’s ever existed ever has read and loved and gushed about on Twitter and gotten tattoos of has had groups of concerned parents and religious chapters attempting to ban the books due to their “offensive content.” (Also, this comes as no surprise to anyone who bothered checking the source for Alice in Wonderland’s ban.)

I’ve referenced banned books, but, really, you can replace “book” with “story” in any medium. T.v. shows, films, video games, anime. Doesn’t matter which. A story is a story. And when we allow our outrage to strip a story of its narrative tools such as gore, assault, harassment, harsh language, themes of sexuality, and so on, what we are doing is keeping ourselves from having a conversation on the matter. Goblin Slayer has rape.

Okay.

What can we say about it? How can we look at what it, from a storytelling perspective, accomplishes, or doesn’t, and what it adds overall to the narrative?

Constructively.

That’s the keyword there, because logging in to Twitter or Facebook or whatever other social media app that’s eating your life away to rage about how Goblin Slayer can’t and shouldn’t contain even a hint of rape says nothing. It leads to nothing. It doesn’t discuss the implications or rape, or allow actual rape victims to share their stories on how the show’s portrayal is or isn’t similar to their own traumatic experience, or allow us to deconstruct the scene and scrutinize which parts do and don’t work so that budding authors can learn to use that very tool to much greater effect. It shuts down the conversation before anyone has the chance to speak up, and to do so is the antithesis of freedom of expression.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, maybe you have, but we as a society have fucked up views on rape. Rape is bad. We generally do agree on that statement. But this is what I mean when I say we have a skewed opinion on rape:

“I was raped, and I am a man.”

Have you ever heard a man say that and respond, “Bullshit”? Know someone who has? If a man came up to you and said that, how would you respond? Would you believe him? Or would you basically say that’s impossible. Can’t happen. Can’t happen, because there’s no way a man can be caught inebriated, knocked unconscious via drugs, guilted into sex, or generally be forced into a sexual act that doesn’t involve his penis. There’s absolutely no way that can happen, because the only times a man has sex is when he wants it. If he’s having it, must mean he wants it.

There’s a double standard for rape, absolutely, but know what else there is? This precise image of what a rape victim is. A scared, shivering woman so hurt by her experience that just recalling it is enough to bring her to tears. “Poor girl. It’s all right. The danger’s passed. You’re in good hands now, Alice.”

That’s what we say.

Then one day, a friend of Alice comes up to her a few weeks after the assault and tells her a funny little lighthearted joke. Alice laughs. “If Alice got raped but is laughing some while after the fact, must mean the rape was no big deal.

That’s what we say.

Let’s consider a minute a hypothetical book with a young woman for the protagonist, and we’ll call her Alice, because I’m extraordinarily lazy at coming up with character names. Very first scene of our book, she gets raped. Terrible. Tragic. Sets up a dreary mood for the rest or its 200-300 pages. But then something happens. The focus shifts, and the tone lightens.

Alice moves on with her life.

She never forgets her rape, and it comes back to haunt her with no small frequency, but she’s able to live her life how she wants to live it and not how others think it should be. Rape happens to Alice, but she doesn’t let it define her.

I don’t know about you, but I think a book like that could open a few eyes and have us reconsider how we view rape and its victims, and if the book itself doesn’t do that, the discussions around it might. Outright banning the book won’t let us have that potential change in perspective, and plucking out the rape scene but leaving the remainder of the book removes its entire message, and without that message, minds won’t change.

But what say we have ourselves another hypothetical book, this one with less of an inspiring message and more of a disturbing one. Hell, it might have no message, because it’s just an endless series of rape scenes. Brutal. Horrific. Offends literally everyone who so much as hears about it. Should we allow that book to roam freely without ban or censor?

Yes.

Once we ban one book with rape, all of a sudden, it’s not fair to not ban other books with rape. Some books have something to say, like our above hypothetical paperback. Others, however, might contain rape that doesn’t seem as meaningful, such as Goblin Slayer. Which begs the question of where we draw the line. Stories that use rape meaningfully? Stories that are tasteful? What is tasteful?

Subjective.

We can’t start drawing lines for what’s “acceptable” and what’s “unacceptable,” because those lines are gonna be drawn arbitrarily, and without objectivity.

Harry Potter was constantly denigrated for themes of “witchcraft” by the devout religious, but at the same while, other Christians were praising the series, perceiving Potter’s journey as an allegory for Christ’s redemption. When you have conflicting opinions like this, whose do you listen to?

Coming back to our arguably offensive second hypothetical book, if we can’t censor or ban it, what do we do? How do we say it’s unacceptable without picking it from store shelves and tossing it onto a bonfire? The short and simple answer is, we ignore it. We don’t make a big deal about it. Some authors intentionally stir up controversy specifically for marketing purposes of their new releases, and when we feed into that, we’re playing into their hands. If we want to hold debates about it, we do so calmly and intelligently. We sit down and talk over why we don’t like the subject matter or how it’s handled. Doing so will most likely require having read the book, but if you don’t want to support the author, buy a used copy. You’ll support a small-time seller, and the author won’t get royalties from that particular sale.

I’m well aware that this is all great on paper but not so much in practice, and also boring as all hell. Human beings are fickle creatures resistant to change, and not every single one of them is going to read this essay, is going to read this essay and take it into consideration, or is going to read this essay and like what it has to say. But to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them is hurting us more than it’s helping us. Even if you’re right, that a controversial scene in a book or a movie or an anime is horrendous for a large number of reasons and shouldn’t exist, shouting about it on the internet like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum doesn’t make you a knight an undecided individual in the debate would want to ally with.

When you start censoring material such as rape or sexuality or violence or harsh language, you have to eventually ask yourself, “Where do we stop?” Do you we stop at the above examples, or do we keep going whenever a new face pops up claiming something else offends them? What if somebody says pineapples offend them? Should we prohibit any media with a pineapple in it or edit them out so that that one individual can enjoy those stories without being offended?

The 1977 Pink Floyd song Pigs (Three Different Ones) has a verse devoted to criticizing a political figure at the time by the name of Mary Whitehouse. What if she had the power to say to Pink Floyd, “I don’t like that this song is about me, so I’m banning it”? Not only would the band not have been able to spread a message, we wouldn’t have an amazing song to listen to. (Mary Whitehouse, by the way, devoted her career to censoring sex and other “offensive” content from television.) So when you censor a piece of entertainment because it contains content or subject matter that others take offense to or find discomfort with, you’re also being unfair to those who are fine with that material or enjoy it. If someone only listens to Marilyn Manson and other similar artists, who are you to say they can’t listen to it because you don’t like the dark imagery of their music videos or their coarse lyrics?

The beautiful thing about literature and movies and music and video games and any other type of creative work is that if you don’t like it, you’re under no obligation to continue reading it or watching it or listening to it or playing it or whatever. Don’t like it? Find something new.

Picked up a book with a gratuitous decapitation scene from your local library? Exchange it for something different.

Bought a video game that treats women like sexual objects? Return it and get your money back.

Bought a movie ticket for a film that has the word nigger in it? Leave the theater. If management is nice enough, they may refund your money if you ask politely.

Art is everywhere, and people are talking about it all the time. Writing reviews, posting thoughts on the latest episode. It’s practically impossible to find a new book, show, etc., and not find out if it contains material that’ll make you uncomfortable. The distribution services themselves for these works frequently post upfront when something has graphic content (though I’m personally against these, since they steal a creator’s ability to surprise the audience for whatever narrative purpose, though that’s its own can of worms). If something has blood and you don’t like blood, you can move on. No point in wasting your time attempting to change things you can’t change.

But there lies the real beauty of freedom. The artist has the freedom to make what they want, and you have the freedom to choose what you read, to choose what you watch, to choose what you play.

Now, I have one last hypothetical for you, this one a scenario rather than a single book. A young woman goes to the bookstore, buys a book that catches her eye, and takes it home to read. What she doesn’t know is that that book contains “offensive” material. Now, consider the impact that book’s going to have on her. She opens it up, is reading is, but then halfway through, there’s an out-of-nowhere rape scene which reminds her of her own traumatic experience. She grows fearful and feels as though she’s reliving that moment from her college years she wishes she could forget. Would banning that book from store shelves have kept her from having this panic? Arguably, yes. But preventing her from reading that book only slaps a band-aid on her problem. Underneath, she’s still troubled, she’s still in pain, and no amount of book bans is gonna help that hurt. How to help these sort of people goes beyond the scope of this essay, but learning how to do so is only a Google search away.

Complaining about sexual content in our media is doing the same as politicians who complain about violent video games and priests who complain about heavy metal. We didn’t like it when they did it, so why are we doing it? Because our concerns are “legitimate”? Conceivably so. But targeting these mediums ignores the underlying problems that our concerns stem from. Don’t like that women are getting raped? Start with educating women on how they can protect themselves and men on how they can act like real men who act with honor, integrity, and respect. You want to usher in change? Start with the root of the problem. Not some piece of fiction typed up in someone’s personal study.

And that paragraph right there is a prime example of what can happen when media’s controversial, when media’s offensive. It gets people talking, and when it gets people talking, it gets people acting, hopefully smartly and for the betterment of society. I know I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing this article if Goblin Slayer and Shield Hero hadn’t come out and anime fans made a big hubbub over it. Shows like these, as well as books and movies and t.v. shows and songs and video games that rub some the wrong way, you know what they do? They challenge social norms. They go against conventional thinking. They bring up topics that most of us, quite frankly, are too scared to talk about. Or they put our flaws on full display for full examination so that we can realize and fix them. Stories, you see, have this ability to open up eyes and effect change in society.

The aforementioned Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed attitudes on slavery and laid the groundwork for the Civil War. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inspired the career of Elon Musk. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince had a profound impact on western leaders in the centuries after. For better or for worse, books have changed history, but they don’t need to shake up the world. They can help guide us through tough times. Books like Thirteen Reasons Why, George, Sex is a Funny Word, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, discuss suicide, transgenderism, sex education, and the female menstrual cycle, respectively, all serious topics that every teen should be learning about.

Each of them has also been banned or challenged.

There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable with something, in case you’ve thought that at some point. But continuously shelter yourself from that something and you’ll cringe every time it crops up in the streets. The best way to become more comfortable with something is to expose yourself to it. You won’t overcome your fear of spiders if you make for your bomb shelter every time one drops in to say what’s up. As briefly mentioned in the book How to Be Miserable by Randy J. Paterson, constantly running from things that make you uncomfortable only reinforces that discomfort. You might find yourself anxious if driving to a movie theater in the , but make that same trip a few times and you won’t have a heart attack just thinking about it.

While researching for this essay, I sought out prime examples of individuals crying foul at Goblin Slayer’s rape scene or Shield Hero’s false accusation. I thought they would be common, but I found that most people didn’t seem to mind or care. They enjoyed the shows regardless. Even if, say, 85% of anime fans are okay with rape depictions or false accusations of sexual misconduct, the fact that we’ve given so much sway to a very vocal 15% isn’t good. If we let their voices be the only ones heard and their voices are the ones that lead to a negative change in our media, we’re letting a minority dictate the content of the majority. It’s autocratical.

We’re at a crossroads in our society. The one path is the path of censorship. Down that path, any body of artwork deemed offensive or morally reprehensible is either ground down to dust or striped of its unsavory bits until it’s an unrecognizable product. We act as moral crusaders and pat ourselves on the back when we stand up for the little guy, when in reality we’ve swept dust under the rug and told the artist that she has limited freedoms and strict rights.

The other path is the opposite. It’s a path where the writer can write what he wants, and the reader can read what they want, without being limited in choices. Where films with distasteful content can teach budding filmmakers to take that same content and win acclaim with it. Where the video game can teach us to take an inside look at ourselves and consider who we are deep down and why we do the things we do. It’s a path where the expressor is free to express, and the enjoyer is free to enjoy.

I may be naive. No, I’m almost certain I am. To some people—perhaps to most people—stories are just that: stories. Ways to pass the time on the local commute or fill in the hours between waking and sleeping. But know what? That’s okay. Not all stories need a profound message about the meaning of life or the way of the world. Stories can just be fun rumps where the hero beats the bad guy and gets the girl. Or the days of a couple of high school teens joking and playing around after school. Or thrilling space adventures where all of humanity is doomed, and their only hope is an aging space ship. Nothing wrong with that. But even those sorts of stories, the ones we read to escape into better worlds, shouldn’t be censored, because to censor even them takes away from what the author is trying to say, and the author might have to say a lot.

If there’s no topic, there’s no conversation, and if there’s no conversation, nothing changes.

And that is why censorship is bullshit.

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