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Ideas

Cancel Culture And Censorship, A Necessary Enemy Of Art

Readers can be unduly critical of authors for a range of reasons, from old-fashioned spite to the modern phenomenon of wokeness. But writers should not consider these people enemies, but rather guides to help dig deeper.

photo of people reading books on the floor of texas legislature

Parents protesting against the censorship of certain books in Austin, Texas

Héctor Abad Faciolince

-Essay-

BOGOTÁ — There are many types of readers. There is the grammatical one, for example (who chases the ghost of the comma, gerund or misuses of the relative clause), the hedonistic reader (who seeks nothing but pleasure), the studious or critical ones (who will make reading an academic profession).

There is the paranoid reader (who feels alluded to, persecuted and discriminated), the apprentice (for whom a book is a teaching instrument), the insomniac (who uses words to fall asleep or, indeed, stay awake) and the censorious or inquisitorial reader (seeing sins in every passage or an offense to their ideology).

The reader types abound and I have no intention of providing an exhaustive list.


But I would like to deal here with the inquisitorial reader.

Six lines to condemn the most honest man

This type of reader reads, quite simply, to detect sentences, indicators and evidence to show that the text offends or deviates from the supposed morals of our time or ethical doctrines approved by the state, Church or the inquisitor's own dogmas.

Such readers tend to be fanatics of some political or religious party, as nothing excites an inquisitor so much as joining a sect. Their motto could easily be the phrase attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, France's chief minister of the early 17th century, who said, "Give me six lines written by the most honest man in France and I shall find in them enough to have him hanged" ... though, truly, he probably never said it.

The writer who would offend nobody becomes insignificant.

At times, if a writer was previously attacked (and symbolically hung out to dry), they will be hesitant at the moment of writing. They will be fearful of uttering another "heresy." One is then tempted to engage in prior or self-censorship to avoid the flames of a verbal inquisition.

But even with these precautions, and when all due care is taken to nuance and qualify all propositions, the inquisitors will always find the detail that is construed as an attack on "correct thought."

They will point it out, emphatically, and take it out of context, shrilly calling for the author to be banished or strung up. That is when you realize you are not dealing with a merely censorious reader, but a devotee with dependable constancy. They will always read with hate — and see reading as a confirmation of their hate. Whatever you say, they will never absolve you.

In a Hong Kong library, where the government has initiated a move to ban all books that are considered by authority as detrimental to the Chinese Communist rule

Liau Chung-ren/ZUMA

Writing that is just white noise

A writer cautious to avoid all criticism could never write anything worth reading. If we stick to the prevailing attitudes of our time, never deviate from set cannons and become unable to question our own thoughts — or not dare face the wrath of the inquisitorial reader — we shall sink into blandness and cowardice. The writer who would offend nobody becomes insignificant. Their work is like white noise.

But the hateful readers suffer more than the suffering they cause. We should even be grateful to them, for the enemy is always more useful than the friend. The friend tolerates and pardons your flaws, while the hater points them out, admittedly at times with the cruelest accuracy.

So if you made a mistake, you learn to rectify, and if you exaggerated, you moderate yourself. If you were ambiguous, you clarify. If you initially saw one side of a story, you qualify your account. And if you see the criticisms as mere sectarian spite that clouds the judgement, well, just smile and carry on.

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