Friday, July 11, 2014

Learning the Art of Self-Censorship

Freedom from Free Speech

Something happened yesterday I really want to tell you about. Really. It was abasing and humiliating while at the same time troubling and interesting. It was an incident - or, rather, a series of them - that made for a miserable day but would make for a compelling blog post. Now that I've whet your appetite it's time to let you down gently: I'm very sorry, but I can't - or should I say won't? - go there. Why, you may ask, have I suddenly tucked my tail? Me, your intrepid chronicler of life behind bars? Read on and you shall learn.

Back when I lived in Russia in the early years of Putin's reign I used to take a holier than thou attitude when it came to journalists and the press. I knew some of them from my journalistic days and always gave them an earful. Why are you such cowards, refusing to report what's really happening based upon some vague threat of a crackdown? Stand up, speak up, I used to say, in imitation of Bob Marley. A few brave souls did, with incresingly tragic results: prison, exile, even death. As time went on, more and more writers began to toe the line until only a few incredibly brave men and women remained, some of them forced, like Masha Gessen, to write from exile. 

By the time I fled Russia I fully understood the insidious power of self censorship. But I never really thought I'd experience such repression for myself. Or succumb to self censorship. And then, suddenly, I did understand and I did succumb - right here in the United States of all places. And I'll bet you can guess where.

A popular saying amongst the more enlightened prisoners is that you check your rights at the door when you enter this place. I guess you could say that I'm learning this lesson through some firsthand experience. The sad truth is that in prison you have no right to write, no right to communicate with the outside world, no right to tell it as you see it. Rights are not rights around here, but privileges. And privileges can be easily taken away. Just like in Russia, the vague, unclear rules give vast authority to the powers that be to interpret regulations as they see fit. The result is a writer - me - who feels compelled to self censor.

Maybe this is all as it should be. I'm torn on the issue but would like to see a real debate. What rights should prisoners enjoy in a modern, progressive society? Should they enjoy freedom of speech (with certain clearly defined limits)? Should they have the right to communicate as they wish with the outside world? To publish their thoughts from behind bars? Or does their criminality preclude this, make them ineligible while incarcerated to enjoy basic constitutional rights? Are our prisons little islands of censorship (and, self censorship) in our flawed sea of democracy?

In any event, in my own self-interested, craven case, I'm learning to practice the art of self censorship. I'm finding that, just like most Russian journalists, the same journalists I used to consider cowards, when it comes right down to it, I'll side with self preservation over free speech almost every time. I don't want to go to the hole, I don't want to become the focus of undue attention, I don't want to risk anything that might lengthen my stay. I owe that much to my family. I'd like to think that this is my only rational choice. But if I'm being perfectly honest, it's also a cowardly one.

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