‘Make Them Go Away’!
By Tony Candela
Let’s take a ride on the free-speech roller coaster and its arch-enemy, censorship.
Recently, Americans watched to see if the Supreme Court would side on the part of those that say social media platforms like Google, YouTube, and Twitter are responsible for content put on their sites by people like you and me. The Court didn’t resolve much, leaving in place Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which limits such platforms from liability for content placed on them by users. The complaint from a victim’s family was that the platforms allowed the terror-group ISIS to upload fund-raising and content designed to recruit soldiers and cause death. According to the minority opinion, a different set of facts might cause the Court to lay more responsibility on the platforms, so stay tuned.
There has always been a push and pull between freedom of speech and censorship. Suppose Facebook could take down our posts because of a liberal or conservative bias. Of course, we are not referring to posts that deliberately and explicitly promote violence or show explicit sexual acts to minors or unsuspecting adults, although many defend those too.
In the past, some royals, including Louis Carol’s Red Queen, have literally had the heads of those they disliked or who threatened them cut off in order to silence them. Today it is words that get the ax. When the censor determines certain utterances or portrayals are either inciteful or pornographic, content is excised or books are banned.
In 1873, the maturity-level of American culture was severely set back by Anthony Comstock and his Comstock Act. The law banned “the mailing, importation, and transportation” of a range of “obscene” paraphernalia and media through the postal service,” squelching almost all overt sexuality, not to mention contraception. It formed the substrate upon which much of the censorship of books and movies in the 20th century was based. It also spurred on the feminist revolution.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 has been only partly effective in balancing lawmakers’ desires to promote the growth of the internet and freedom of speech with caution about undue harm to people. Since 1996, while internet providers remain shielded from liability for the harm that might come from their content, they either have agreed to or have been forced to install safeguards to protect children and youth.
Lately, the China-based social media platform “TikTok” has been scrutinized not only for possible data leaks that the Chinese government and military might take advantage of, but like other social media, content that has led to mental health emergencies, including suicide, among young people. In fact, Montana just passed a law banning TikTok there; we can expect challenges on the basis of constitutionality and enforceability.
In the 1950s when the U.S. was in the throes of the “red scare” and Joe McCarthy fomented fear that Communists were lurking around every corner, several writers found themselves on blacklists. This added to the fear that crossing certain lines would either land one in jail or lose a job. It was during this period that James Jones published From Here To Eternity (1951), which portrayed life in the Army surrounding the time Pearl Harbor was bombed. Among the offshoots of the book was the 1953 film of the same name. Movie-watchers will remember the steamy sex scene on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Debra Kerr, also an act of infidelity on the part of the maritally mistreated Deborah Kerr character.
Almost forgotten is the role played by Frank Sinatra who won a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Pvt. Angelo Maggio. The book, originally censored by promoters like the Book of the Month Club which also caused authors like Ernest Hemingway to tone down his books, originally had the Maggio character disclosing he performed oral sex with male officers to make extra money. The uncensored book contains this material. In case Sinatra’s involvement in this film rings a bell, the (unsubstantiated) way he got the part is reflected in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather (1969). Devotees will remember the horse head scene which purportedly got Johnny Fontane (the Sinatra doppelganger) his role.
With such worry about decency and the resulting censorship, it is a wonder we ever made it to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. I for one am glad we did. Even as late as the mid-1960s, it was still considered indecent for a man and woman to be in the same bed on TV. Then things loosened up. Censorship began to drop and depictions of all sorts of previously banned words and deeds became more evident in open spaces. By the early 90’s, bare bottoms and side-views of breasts appeared on the TV show NYPD Blue. Around that time, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was passed by the Clinton Administration. It effectively banned openly LGBTQ service members from the military, but allowed them to serve if they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. The policy was repealed in 2011 in favor of openness and inclusion. In 2017 President Trump ordered it reinstated.
What appears to have transpired over the years is a liberalization of heterosexual behavior (witness the TV show “Sex and the City”) while less “traditional” modes of expression remain marginalized. Modern representations of these forms of censorship show up in race and transgender discrimination, reflected in book-bannings like those of Ron DeSantis in Florida (“don’t say gay”) and school library purges of ‘undesirable’ material. In sum, while we have had increases in some freedoms, others have faced the same degree of curtailment as things did more than a half-century ago.
Then there is disability. Except for a large number of books written by persons with disabilities (my own included), and the occasional depiction of a person with a disability on TV or in the movies, disability suffers from a covert form of censorship. To my way of thinking, it is parallel to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Back in 1990 when the ADA was passed, there was tacit acceptance in society of people with disabilities but no force majeure to make it real. That is why the ADA had to be passed, but not without years of advocacy and lots of compromise. However, in 2003, Mary Johnson felt so strongly about the continuing sad state of affairs for people with disabilities, she published Make Them Go Away, wherein she proceeded to berate Clint Eastwood for resisting lawsuits for architectural accessibility in his small town of Carmel, CA and Christopher Reeve (paralyzed a decade earlier from a horseback riding accident) for convincing many of what they always wanted to believe anyway that disability is something to be cured; that there is no need for disability rights; and that walking again was the primary and only goal.
While things are better today, few people, then and perhaps now, understood the ADA as a socio-political law, preferring instead to view it as a benefits law and not as a civil rights law. Resistance to people with disabilities via ADA cases has predominantly focused on whether a given entity is covered by the law or not. Avoiding “undue hardship” is a stand-in for saying we with disabilities have only limited value in society.
All this is to say that people with disabilities have not yet achieved the status needed for non-censorship. The public is still more likely than not to want to make them go away. How can we get to the level of visceral acceptance that eschews censorship in favor of acceptance and openness?
I propose we need something beyond public education and laws. We need exposure and neuro-accommodation, that state of affairs where the equivalent of men and women in the same bed and other depictions of things that would make Anthony Comstock roll over in his grave become commonplace. This includes overt acceptance not only in public, but in the media. It will come from lots of disability-exposure, enough that the average person will not want to push us away, but instead, feels comfortable around us. It will mean we show up everywhere in public and in the media. It would mean there are normalized accommodations for us as commonplace as the elevator is for everyone. They will know us for the human beings we are. It will mean the end of disability censorship.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.