After Market Censorship

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March 27, 2015 by T. Gregory Argall

Many years ago, the options to be found on the North American television landscape were not nearly as diverse and random as they are today. In the time before specialty premium cable channels viewers in the US had their choice of the three big networks (yes, only three; there was no Fox network then) and a scattering of local independent stations. Here in Canada we only had two and a half networks, but we also had Moses Znaimer.

For many, the most exciting yet disappointing broadcast television in those days was when a Hollywood movie was shown on television. (It still happens today, but with the prevalence of DVDs, downloads, and channels dedicated solely to showing movies, it’s a rare even when one of the (now four) major networks broadcasts a cinematic film.) At 8:00 on a Sunday night, you could turn the dial to your local ABC or NBC affiliate and watch a movie that only a year and a half early had been playing in the big double-screen cinema at the mall.
Before the movie started, there was always a disclaimer shown on the screen. “The film has been edited for broadcast.” That meant basically that the swearing had been removed, and those five frames with a blurry view of sideboob were cut completely. The removal of the swearing was often clumsily done, simply covering the audio with a gap of silence to cover the specific word (or more often, just a specific syllable). Pragmatically, I understood why this was done. It was 8:00 on a Sunday night and the family was gathered around the television. If they left the word in, they’d get angry letters, and back then angry letters could cost someone their job. (The modern equivalent would be three mis-informed Twitter comments.) But understanding and agreeing were entirely different things.
Throwing in random mid-sentence silent moments into dialogue had a stunting effect on the movement and flow of the story. It also led to distracting attempts to translate what has actually been said and intended.

“Hey, we’re gonna get those {silence}kin’ guys!”
Kin guys? So they’re family? What are they, your cousins? Nephews? Why are you shooting at your cousins? This movie makes no sense.

Eventually the art of hiding “bad” words evolved to include over-dubbing other words in their place. In those instances, finding a matching, or even vaguely similar, voice was rarely attempted. Generally this led to unintended comedy that, again, detracted from the story. Who could forget an angry Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction screaming, “English, butter muffin! Do you speak it?” or Bruce Willis’s classic Die Hard line, “Yippee ki yay, Marshall Tucker.”

As much as I enjoy movies, I would generally avoid them if they’d been altered in that way. I’d go off and read a book instead.

There is now an app available for download to e-readers that will block specific words from the display screen. It’s called Clean Reader, and it pisses me off. Clean Reader not only blanks out words that people have chosen to find offensive, it offers alternative words to be used in their place. For instance, in this screenshot from the Clean Reader website, the word “darn” is offered as a substitute for “damn” because, well, I’m not sure, but apparently the people behind the app feel that a wholesome family-oriented book about an assassin is no place for words like “damn.”

There are those who would make the argument that this sort of thing is no different from what was done to films for network broadcast, but they would be wrong.

When the distributors representing the filmmakers asked the television networks if they wanted to broadcast the movies, the networks said, “Only if we can do something about the words that might offend some viewers, and the distributors representing the filmmakers said, “OK, you can do that, but you’ll have to pay us this much,” and everyone involved agreed and payment was exchanged.
With Clean Reader, the author, the publisher, and the distributor are all left out of the equation, the makers of the app empower the reader to make edits as they see fit. No permission (or forgiveness) is asked.

With the sense of entitlement imparted by the internet through YouTube and Instagram, and video piracy, it’s easy to fall into the belief and expectation that everyone owns everything simply by wanting it.
But that’s not how the real world works. Anyone over the age of five should have a basic grasp on that fact.

On their Frequently Asked Questions page, the Clean Reader people say that their lawyers told them “…Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book.  All Clean Reader does is change the way the content is displayed on the screen.  The user has the option of turning off the profanity filtering tool if desired.  No changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book.”
This has not yet been challenged in court, but I’m sure it will be soon.

I’m a playwright. When someone is granted the production rights to one of my plays, it includes the stipulation that the dialogue is performed as written. They can’t change a word. What I wrote is what the audience hears.
It is not unreasonable to have a similar expectation for novels.

Writing is not a whim-based activity. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word serves a specific purpose within the story, and they were chosen with that purpose in mind. The author assessed the options for phrasing a sentence, presenting and idea, setting a tone, and from all of the possibilities open to them, they chose to use these particular words. That is the book they wrote. Removing words that you personally don’t like leaves the book with all the narrative flow of a redacted CIA report.

For example, here is a screenshot of a posting on the Clean Reader blog. I have removed and left gaps in place of various words that I arbitrarily decided I don’t like, with no rational justification.

Cleaner Reader Blog - cleaned

Kind of difficult to follow, isn’t it?
Basically, the writer of that blog, one of the moral compasses behind Clean Reader, equates a novel that an author has devoted years to crafting with a salad she ordered at a restaurant and she picked out the bits of blue cheese because she doesn’t like it. She then goes on to say that she doesn’t care that the author (or the chef) is offended.

And that’s what it comes down to. They don’t care.

(Although if she is actually in the habit of regularly offending the people who prepare her food, then I think accidentally ingesting blue cheese should be the least of her worries.)

The simple solution to the whole situation, and one that the blogger conveniently ignored in her analogy, is to simply not order a salad that contains blue cheese. There are other items on the menu. I often make menu choices based on not eating what I don’t want to eat.

If someone has decided to be offended by particular words, to the irrational point of being unable to stand seeing the words written, and if a book contains some of those words, then that person can choose not to read that book. They do not have the right to selfishly alter someone else’s creation based solely on their own prejudices.

Try to be nice to each other.


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