I've been really quite disturbed since I heard about Catherine Deveny's sacking from her position as an Age columnist yesterday. I'm not sure why it's left me so unsettled – well, I am, but it's the number of issues that overlap here which is getting to me. I'm going to offer some thoughts on just two of these.
One of the debates being played out right now has very little to do with Catherine Deveny and everything to do with Twitter. We're seeing arguments play out over the meanings of new forms of media, and it's murky, murky territory.
Is Twitter, as Deveny has claimed, like passing notes in class? Or is it closer to Gordon Farrer's description: “the equivalent of talking loudly while waiting in line at the bank, or at a film festival, or on a crowded train”? Well, neither. Twitter isn't either of those things. Twitter is Twitter, and while it can play analogous roles it also has a specificity we're struggling to grasp.
It is public, true (unless tweets are protected). But as a form of media (rather than private conversation) it's being held to the standards of a particular kind of social expression: journalism. Deveny's 140 character text burps are being treated as honest reflections of her opinion or character. They're not being discussed as creative expressions, and there's certainly been no examination of the notion of “voice” which I think is central here. Deveny, like many comedians, deploys a carefully constructed voice that should be instantly recognisable to anyone with even the simplest conception of how writing works.
This is what troubles me (part one): Deveny's tweets weren't reportage. They weren't op-ed print columns. They were attempts at comedy – not very funny, to me, but situated within that mode of expression. This should be blindingly obvious. It's why, if they were ever taken to court as vilification or defamation or whatever, Deveny would have almost airtight defences on the grounds of satire.
A lot more offensive things were said in public at this year's Comedy Festival. On any given night you could have paid to hear comics promoting rape, incest, murder, paedophilia and infanticide. As outrageous as these exhortations might be (and believe me, I'm surprisingly thin-skinned when it comes to comedy), the social context within which they appear is implicitly understood by almost all audiences – comedy is a culturally demarcated space in which certain topics can be raised that would take on very different significances in other realms of public exchange. That these gags can often be articulations of a deep cultural conservatism is another issue, but you can't really deny that one of the benefits of comedy is its ability to prod at social mores in ways unthinkable elsewhere.
Twitter takes us elsewhere, however – unlike the relative safety of a late night comedy club or edited television special, a statement intended as humour can suddenly be read as something quite other. This isn't a categorical mistake, since Twitter isn't a comedy club. But any utterance only takes on meaning within specific generic contexts, and the context within which Deveny's tweets are being read is one of authentic opinion writing or, at best, mainstream media commentary.
So what's the problem? Well, I like to think that online writing offers interesting possibilities not available to the mainstream media. First up, I often lie online – well, perhaps not lie, but employ voices which aren't my own, express opinions I don't hold, and deliver facts intended to be tested rather than trusted.
For this reason I've always been deeply suspicious of journalism which puts any stock in Facebook updates, blog comments or, hey, tweets. These things are so shallow as to be almost worthless – citing a comment made on an online forum is as reliable as simply making it up yourself, and suggesting that the creation of a Facebook fan page with 1,000 members means anything at all is fundamentally misrepresenting the technology. 1,000 clicks on “become a fan” doesn't equal 1,000 letters to the editor or 1,000 people turning up to a rally. And while traditional media decries the encroachment of “citizen journalism” onto its territory, it also furthers that invasion by treating social media with a seriousness it simply doesn't warrant.
"THIS MONKEY IS TIRED"
I'm pro-censorship. This statement sometimes sets off alarm bells but when framed properly becomes less startling. What needs to be kept in mind is the distinction between different forms of censorship.
In most liberal democracies there's a certain desire to keep state censorship to a safe minimum – if government steps in too quickly and too often to declare things off limits, the old freedom of speech flag gets pulled out of the cupboard. Fair enough.
But very few people have problems with the alternatives – self-censorship, by which individual citizens choose what to say and what to keep mum when engaging with the social sphere, and community censorship, which acts as a kind of unofficial but highly effective form of policing what can and can't be said in public. These permeable forms of censorship regulate the character of society far more heavily than state censorship.
The reasoning behind this state of affairs is this: if too much censorial power is taken up by one person or a very small group of individuals (government, for example), then the standards of a tiny minority may be imposed on society at large. Preferable, then, to have attitudes of decency and propriety and morality played out within communities, whether this be through radio talkback, foyer conversation, in churches or mosques or temples, parent-teacher nights, public petitions and protests, you get the drift. That's why I'm pro-censorship - I don't think Deveny's comments about Bindi Irwin or Rove's partner deserved to be aired but I'd like that anyone with an opinion on the matter be given a chance to stake their claim.
Deveny's sacking upsets this process, though, or at least seems to. Those who found fault with her writing are free to take up the cause against her, and there's been no shortage of anti-Deveny rants across the mediasphere in recent years. That's good – it shows that Australian society possesses the certain level of freedom required to accommodate conflicting and incommensurate values without serious social disruption. Deveny could make people livid with rage, but I like to think that nobody was reduced to a state of complete helplessness as a result.
For Deveny to be effectively censored – which is what the sacking amounts to – involves an editor (or committee) stepping into that process of argument and exercising an inordinate amount of power. This has, justifiably, resulted in a fair degree of outrage from supporters (and also, I suspect, has been the thing to drive non-fans such as myself to defend her right to write what I don't like).
The Age is a company and it is entirely within the rights of its editors to terminate Deveny's employment. I'm actually not arguing with that at all – just fascinated by the way it puts into definition the competing forms of censorship and opportunity available to different voices in our culture.
The overwhelming majority of these voices, in every form of media available to Melbourne, come from a very specific social demographic (which includes me) and which grows up in our culture expecting that people will care what it has to say about anything. For too many, though, this isn't the case.
Because – and this is where my interest in censorship really lies – the most potent and lethal form of censorship is simply to convince somebody that they don't deserve to be heard.