Declining to publish your opinion is not censoring you

Keeping in mind the readings on marginalia and annotations, and thinking more generally about the life of text online, should audiences be allowed to interact with and shape the text? Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? Should audiences be limited in their online socialization over a text?

In “Marginalia and Its Disruptions,” S. Brent Plate examines what it really means when readers write in the margins. He references an article by Laura Miller in which she writes, “Marginalia is a blow struck against the idea that reading is a one-way process, that readers simply open their minds and the great, unmediated thoughts of the author pour in.” Plate adds that marginalia “turn[s] readers into writers, and upset[s] the hierarchy of the author as authority.”

He also references Tim Parks who argues that “We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us.  . . . We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or ‘documentary,’ whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both. If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit.” Parks concludes, “What surprised me most when I first began publishing fiction myself was how much at every level a novelist can get away with.”

These are some of the arguments in favour of encouraging and facilitating marginalia on digital works by enabling comments as well as annotation plug-ins like Hypothes.is. But not everyone agrees. Audrey Watters writes, “I took comments off my websites in 2013 because I was sick of having to wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on my ideas.  . . . I’ve made this position fairly well known – if you have something to say in response, go ahead and write your own blog post on your own damn site.”

I find this position pretty unassailable. I don’t think writers have any obligation whatsoever to allow comments on their work. I think all writers deserve the right to decide, but it becomes clear in light of how women writers and other marginalized groups face harassment issues that can leak into offline threats and aggressions.

There is some anxiety that not allowing comments amounts to some kind of censorship. This is due to a misunderstanding of what censorship means. Being denied access to a specific platform to voice your views is nowhere near the same thing as being persecuted for voicing your views. Historica Canada defines censorship as “the exercise of prior governmental control over what can be printed, published, represented or broadcast.”

One might argue that even if it is not the legal definition of censorship, it’s still bad to ignore others’ viewpoints just because you disagree. But there are still plenty of other reasons not to force authors or publishers to allow comments or annotations on their work.

We can think of an analogy in print. How ridiculous would I sound if I insisted that the Vancouver Sun is censoring me by not publishing every letter I write in? The editors and publishers have a write to decide what is included in their publication. Comments and annotations are an act of publication, and it is no different when it is digital. The person who pays for the publication decides what gets in. As Watters writes, you can always write whatever you want about her work on your own damn blog. That’s what makes it not censorship. 

Forcing writers to allow comments directly on their work is not striking a blow in the name of free speech. Especially not in a context where hate speech and threats and trolls are par for the course. Hate speech is not a case of “disagreeing with someone’s opinion.” It’s part of a larger context in which certain groups suffer systematic oppression and violence. That’s why it’s not protected under free speech. Take a look at the comments sections under many news articles involving Indigenous people. You can see why many larger news outlets have disabled comments sections on some or all of their online articles. 

At the same time, you can always write a letter to the editor, publish your own free blog, start a social media account, make posters, write to other newspapers or blogs… This saves the author the work of having to read and mediate what could be a bunch of useless and/or hateful comments when all they ever signed up to do was write.

To sum up: Declining to publish something is not censorship; hate speech is not free speech; and we are not entitled to access to any platform we want for our opinion. I hope that we as future publishers can see that a writer has no obligation to allow comments or annotations on their work and that not allowing them  does not amount to censorship. Public discourse will benefit from leaving the choice up to the writer or publisher on their own platforms and giving writers the chance to opt in or out when they are published on other platforms.

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