On Censorship

On Censorship

Last New Moon, Marcin and I made a small ritual together. We then talked about our intentions for this moon cycle, which began a new family tradition. Something I said to him surprised me because I didn't expect it or plan to do it. I explained how I wanted us to find more ways to speak freely and sincerely between ourselves. I acknowledged how easy it is for me to say: "don't speak like that!" And "don't say that!" Especially shutting him down when he says things that I deem inappropriate in front of the children.

This past week, I remembered that I was born in the same year the dictatorship in Brazil ended. I reflected on how silencing others and self-censorship became second nature in the country and how I was born into a family that unintentionally cultivated silence in many ways. At a certain point, I remembered my father describing the times of the dictatorship to me. We were sitting together with my young brother at a bakery in my hometown in Brazil. I was visiting the country for my Ph.D. research and telling him what I was learning about the dictatorship. He stopped me and started whispering, with his eyes wide open like when trying to see in the dark, his mouth moving less than usual while he muttered: "During dictatorship, we could never sit together talking like this, the three of us. Whenever more than two people were together, others inside a bakery like this or any other public place would denounce us, and we would then be watched closely. The most difficult thing wasn't only that the military had power, but that everyone was policing each other."

My father's sentiment was then echoed by Antonio Dias, the Brazilian artist whose work I studied in my Ph.D. dissertation. Dias told me a story of events that preceded his self-exile from Brazil to France. For a couple of weeks, every time he entered his apartment in Rio, his phone would ring. When he picked it up, no one would answer. The message was that someone was following him closely and knew when he left and arrived home. After some time, he mustered the courage to ask the person who was calling to meet with him. They left him a note with the address of a hotel, and when he entered the hotel room, waiting for him was the sister of a neighbor, a civilian who had been tasked with the role of watching him and who was doing it out of (a very misguided) care for him.*

I bring up these two stories and my own experience with my own words and my family to say: if you are reaching out to people to tell them to be careful with what they say (even if it is to "protect their career"), or if you are directly requesting an artist not to express their political perspectives, you are, most likely, already contributing to a culture of censorship. Censorship only really works when civilians practice it against each other. Even in these highly digitized and already monitored times that we live in, no government alone can control everybody.

Notice yourself: are you participating in an art market that censors artists? Are you strengthening a system of control and silencing others? Are you, like me, afraid of bringing up the subject of Palestine with friends and co-workers? This means we are already self-censoring and censoring each other. It still feels challenging to speak up, and I don't have the solutions, emotional bandwidth, or even the time to be open and transparent about everything I think. But I needed to add my two cents with these stories that I know, and that move my body now.

As I exercise letting my family speak freely with me, I also want to be someone who can hear dissenting voices and answer them carefully. Last week, I might have burned some bridges that didn't even exist when writing about Pablo Helguera's Substack. This week, I plan to continue walking on my path of facilitating and opening space for honest conversations of every kind.

*I can vouch for my father's story, but I don't have the historical documents for Dias's story as I should because I foolishly didn't record our conversations. So, I take responsibility for any inaccuracy in recounting it as a "historical fact."