What do you do as a writer if you are asked to substantially edit a piece you have written? To change its nuance, remove paragraphs, and substitute them with anodyne words to which no one could possibly object? Do you comply so that you can be published, or stand firm at the risk of not adding to your writing credits?
This was my dilemma recently. While trying to publish a piece of non-fiction, I walked into a minefield. It was a strange experience, because the handful of words to which objections were raised seemed so innocuous to me. Here is what I wrote:
“While there are excellent foreign-trained practitioners, my overall experience has been that UK-trained general practitioners are more thorough than foreign general practitioners.”
The editors didn’t like that sentence. A British friend argued that what I wrote could be regarded as inflammatory. I read and re-read the piece many, many times, and failed to see what could have been inflamed. The sentiments conveyed seemed to me to be pretty innocuous. After all, I did not mention race, colour or religion, diminish anyone or incite hatred and violence.
If we cannot say something as mild as this in the United Kingdom, just what can we say? It seemed crazy, especially since I am also a foreigner (a point I made in the article).
For twenty four hours, I thought very hard about complying with the suggested editorial changes. The possibility of adding another publication credit was tempting. It would have been so simple…all that was needed was for me to change a single paragraph in the middle of the piece. The prose already flowed well and few adjustments would have been necessary.
But whenever I returned to the sentence above, the idea that such harmless sentiments had to be wiped away always made me choke.
Now, if the editors of the journal concerned ever read this blog-post, they will protest that I have not provided enough context. They will say that they had good reasons for recommending their changes. And of course they did: we humans can rationalise anything we wish. But equally, there is no denying that what I faced was censorship. And it felt wrong.
It’s not that I believe in the right to absolute freedom of speech. Words create our reality, and when we use them carelessly, there should be consequences, especially in this age of bite-sized concentration and click-of-the-button diffusion. Freedom of expression should not extend to protecting the arrogant young men who threaten women on Twitter with rape and other abuse. Freedom of speech should not protect the Front National candidate who last week compared France’s sitting Minister of Justice, a black woman, to a monkey.
But when all that you are doing is relating your own experience in as thoughtful a way as you possibly could; when you have taken great care not to insult – are you not entitled to share your view?
Granted, there could have been someone somewhere who may have taken offence at what I wrote. A lot of what we say has the potential to cause offence, rightly or wrongly. But, aside from making sure that we are not abusive, slurring anyone or inciting violence and hatred, do we really have a duty to protect everyone on this planet from being offended? Where do we stop – should we also avoid speaking what we believe is the truth? And who do we really protect in the end – others from being offended, or ourselves from being attacked?
I kept imagining the article the editors wanted to see, versus the one which I had wanted to write. If I compromised on such a simple point, what hope was there that I would ever be able to stand up for any principle?
“The body can endure compromise and the mind can be seduced by it. Only the heart protests.”
It was my heart which protested. My eyes looked at what I was told I had to cut out, and my heart would not let me rest. If I had to choose again, I know I would make the same choice, even if it means another opportunity forgone.