A little while ago, I put an article on the Fine Line Editorial Consultancy site about swear words and whether they still have the power to shock. A few days later, I sent an update to fans of the site’s facebook page.
Rather proving the point of the article, within moments, facebook had blacklisted the site, citing its ‘abusive content’, and barring anyone from visiting it. I rewrote the article, replacing all the rude words with nice euphemisms and, lo, the ban was lifted. It made me laugh – prettifying the language so it wouldn’t make the poor facebook employees faint with horror – but it worried me slightly, too.
At last count, facebook had over 500 million users, every one of whom was denied access to my site and informed that it was abusive and could put their computer at risk if they visited it. I realise only a fraction of those 500 million people even know I exist, but it’s not the point. Though the commercial issue is irritating, more troubling is the fact that facebook appears to have posited itself as moral compass for those 500 million users.
Bad language is, apparently, not something to which precious users should be exposed. Nor are adverts by the Just Say Now marijuana legalization campaign, designed to encourage debate on a politically significant issue. Adverts by The Sun – a British newspaper notorious for its misogyny and racism – on the other hand, are fine. Swearing and discussion are out, facebook says, misogyny and racism are in.
As is censorship. Facebook may argue that it’s just making its social networking facilities a nice, family-friendly place to be. Keeping it clean. Maybe it is. Maybe its intentions really are as sweet and pure as that, but when you start cutting words – deciding what people can and can’t read – no matter what you call it or how you bill it, you’re censoring.
Keeping it clean – ‘cleansing’ texts – is a practice as old as the ability to write. (Actually, it probably predates that – there were bound to be some dirty grunts no one was supposed to utter in polite society.) It has had some well-known practitioners. Thomas Bowdler, for one, most noteworthy for the fact that, while removing all rude words from Shakespeare’s plays for his 1818 Family Shakespeare, ironically enough, had the word ‘bowdlerise’ (to remove offensive or indecent material) made just for him. He had quite a time of it: Ophelia drowned by accident, Henry IV lost Doll Tearsheet and her hussy ways, no one took the lord’s name in vain (they were allowed to cry ‘Heavens!’, though, thank god), and Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, damned spot!’ is but a crimson one. Not till ‘those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’ was Bowdler’s Shakespeare published. It would be pretty difficult to find a copy of Family Shakespeare, but its author lives on in his namesake.
Bowdlerise a text and you begin with words and quickly move to the entire text. Facebook objected to the use of the four-letters-beginning-with-f and four-letters-beginning-with-c words in the article. On the basis of those words, if they tried to access it via facebook, users were denied access to the entire site. Apparently, we can’t talk about sex – or, rather, we can on the condition that we use so many euphemisms it makes it nigh on impossible to understand what we’re talking about. That’s one subject down. Where does it go from there? Refusing to run adverts for Just Say Now encroaches on political debate. Perhaps religion is next. They could just go straight to entire texts, draw up The Facebook Catalogue of Banned Books. That would save having to check sites, discussion groups, and adverts for specific content – just ban the whole book along with its filthy words.
Morals are subjective – it’s a right and a luxury. They’re influenced by myriad things. A single entity with the ability to influence – even determine – the morals of many, is the stuff of which we believe history textbooks to be made. Not the 21st century. 500 million is an awful lot of people.