Artistic Freedom vs. Crowdsourcing, Censorship, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

by Anne R. Allen

Ruth and I often get requests to censor our posts when a word or link or piece of news has offended somebody. We usually comply. We don't want a minor distraction to interfere with our purpose—which is to share information about the writing business in a straightforward, lighthearted, encouraging way.

But the complaints are getting more frequent, and we're beginning to feel a little battered.

I'm not talking about our helpful readers who point out typos, errors and broken links—we're sincerely grateful for that kind of help, and we never pretend to be infallible. Keep it up. We really appreciate our watchdogs!

But I'm kind of scared by the number of permanently "offended" groups who think their needs trump all others. They seem to believe that one offended person—whether or not an offense has actually been committed—is more important than our creative freedom, or indeed, the creative freedom of the entire artistic community.

I fear we're moving to a sort of neo-Darwinism: survival of the whiniest.

Self-pity and self-righteous rage have become the drugs of choice in the Internet age. (And both ends of the political spectrum use them to maintain government gridlock and fill their coffers.)

This week I had to remind myself that self-righteousness doesn't make a person actually right. And self-pity is a bully's most potent weapon. Most abusers feel sorry for themselves.

Our complainers come from all points of the sociopolitical spectrum, and they contact us by email, Tweet, DM, G+, FB, etc. but they all have one thing in common: they advocate censorship.

But personally, I'm not a fan of censorship and I feel the need to take a stand. This post is probably going to lose us a few readers and I'm sorry about that.

But enough is enough.

It's not as if this blog is particularly edgy or pushes a political or religious agenda. (Ruth and I have never discussed our political or religious affiliations, even with each other.) But we think we (and our guests) have a right to our own unique voices.

Unfortunately, a handful of people find reasons to object to pretty much everything we  do:

It struck me recently that a lot of these complaints are examples of something called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning and Kruger are scientists at Cornell University who proved that people who are the most confident and vocal are generally the most ignorant and incompetent.

In other words, the loudest complaints usually come from the least-informed people.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being uninformed. We were all born uninformed. But some of us are more open to absorbing information as we move along in life.

Yes, of course we need guardians and watchdogs and whistleblowers. The Internet can feel like the wild west and people who work to keep the general discourse respectful are doing everybody a favor. But there are others who go way beyond this. They want everything censored to reflect their own world view...even if that view is not based on facts or infringes on the personal freedom of others.

Does Censorship Improve a Community?

As far as I know, America's morals weren't improved by banning Lady Chatterley's Lover; teen angst wasn't eradicated by banning Catcher in the Rye; and Islam didn't get a PR boost from the psychopaths who slaughtered the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and murdered a free speech advocate in Denmark.

Here's a list of the most commonly banned books in the US. From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it looks like a reading list for a basic course in American literature.

Yes, people should be allowed to choose what they put in front of their eyeballs. I thoroughly dislike ultra-violent books and movies. I lasted about 45 minutes into Game of Thrones before I wanted to throw up. But do I think George R. R. Martin should be banned? Of course not! I think he's probably a genius.

I don't know of any instance in which censorship and suppression of the arts has made a society safer, more prosperous, and/or content.

I get it. Art is scary. Art is messy. Art is diverse...and its diversity may not fit into your sociopolitical comfort zone. But consider the alternative.

Do you really want to be like those thugs from ISIS who destroyed the 2500 year-old artifacts in the Mosul museum?

Physician, Heal Thyself

The Political Correctness Police have always seemed pretty silly to me, even when I agree with their intentions. Usually the people most in need of  political correction are the ones trying to "correct" others.

I remember a time—at the height of the 1970s women's movement—when a male friend turned on me in fury for calling his 3-year-old "a bright little girl".

"She's not a girl, she's a woman!" said he. "The word 'girl' is insulting."

I told him no, the word "girl" is not insulting unless you believe that being a girl is a bad thing.

This was the same era when a boyfriend ordered me not to wear a bra because otherwise people might think he wasn't a feminist. He wouldn't appear in public with me if I wore anything to support my 36 C chest.

My health and comfort didn't matter. His ego did. Talk about unclear on the concept. (No, the relationship didn't last.) 

Most religions and philosophies teach a version of what the Gospels say about how it's better to ignore the dust mote in your neighbor's eye and deal with the big old log in  your own eye. I think the world would be a better place if more people—religious or not—could get their brains around that.

Humor vs. Censorship: Which is More Effective?

I think the original Saturday Night Live did more to raise awareness of gender bias when Dan Aykroyd used the opener, "Jane, you ignorant slut" than anybody who wants to ban the words slut, broad, chippie, hussy, minx, ho, tart, skank, bimbo, tramp, floozie, demimondiane, streetwalker, hussy, trollop, doxy, bawd, jade, harlot, strumpet, and all their disrespectful cousins. (Did I forget any?)

Making fun of people who use words to hurt takes away the power of those words. But burying the words under taboos makes them stronger.

I used to be upset when people called me fat. Now I own it. I quit smoking and slowly became a fat lady, in spite of strict diet and exercise. (The high-carb "low-fat" diet may be the greatest cause of obesity every invented.) But I'm strong and healthy and I've outlived most of my skinny boyfriends. If you have trouble with fat people, you can stay out of my way. And if you're skinny, you do NOT tell me what I can call myself.

Dealing with insults can be like a game of whack-a-mole. Get rid of one and a nastier one will pop up somewhere else. What we need to change is not the way other people talk, but the way we think about ourselves.

I believe the great Richard Pryor gave a stronger message about dignity for all races in his iconic 1975 Saturday Night Live sketch when he delivered the line "dead honky" than all the censorship in the world.

I believe humor, not censorship, is the more powerful weapon for change. And laughter has been proved to be good medicine.

Censorship in the Age of CrowdSourcing

But the Internet age has brought a whole new kind of censorship. As Kathleen Parker said in her column this week, we now must obey a collective "Twitter Conscience."

She asked "will our uber-sensitivity eventually render us humorless robots uttering pre-approved giblets of meaningless verbiage?"

It has already started. Technology has liberated us in many ways, but it also invites the general public to provide input for creative work and shape that work according to their own opinions, tastes, prejudices, and level of (in)competence.

This can be through "enhanced ebooks" that allow a reader to contact an author directly through the reading device. (This is supposed to be coming soon. Maybe it already has. I still have a second generation Kindle, so I'm behind the curve on this.) 

They also do it with comments on blogs, news stories, forums and in customer reviews.

There are also communities created for the purpose of giving feedback. These communities, like Wattpad, Readwave, Readership and many others, allow writers to post work as they write it and get immediate feedback.

These communities seem good for newer writers who don't have an in-person critique group, and I've recommended them.

But veteran publishing industry journalist Porter Anderson wrote a warning about these writing communities recently at Thought Catalog, and his piece struck a chord with me.

He asks "if it takes a village to write your book, is it your book?"

Some people take to these sites and enjoy using them for critique, and that's great. For writers who are able to cherry-pick useful comments, and don't feel forced to make changes by the crowd (or the most vocal members of the crowd), it's an inexpensive way to learn to write, and I still endorse them.

But I fear all this has created a sense of entitlement in the general public, who now think they have the right to change and mold the work of professional artists to their own tastes and world view.

And of course the Dunning-Kruger Effect people are the most likely to feel that entitlement.

So there are two things to consider here:

1) Do We Really Want Our Art to be Created by Consensus?

What immediately pleases the most number of people is not necessarily the best or even the highest-earning work over time. Yes, of course we have examples of authors like Shakespeare and Dickens who created great art that instantly appealed to the masses, but they are exceptions, not the rule.

How many people remember the bestselling novel of 1903, Lady Rose's Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward? Books that were also published in 1903, but didn't sell so well were: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, The Ambassadors by Henry James, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Nathan Bransford had a great post on the subject last year.  He provided a list of bestsellers of the last century or so. It seems the bestselling novel for 1933 AND '34 was something called Anthony Adverse, by Hervey Allen, and in 1972 through '73 the bestseller was Richard Bach's immortal Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (What? You don't have a copy on your nightstand?)

How many people are still reading Lloyd C. Douglas or James Gould Cozzens, sales-toppers of mid-20th century America?

These authors were popular at a particular time, but they didn't prove to be more popular in the long run than slower-selling authors who were more innovative or had individual vision.

In other words: instant mass appeal doesn't mean long-term success.

And remember Fox cancelled Firefly after only 11 episodes because it "didn't have an audience". Yeah.

2) Almost all Innovative Art is Initially Rejected.

Here's the thing: our most popular art was generally disliked by the public when it first appeared.

Everybody hated the Sound of Music when it came out. It got terrible reviews everywhere.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town—the most-produced play in U.S. history—was initially hated so much the audience walked out on opening night.

Edouard Manet's paintings were considered ridiculous by his peers.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was universally panned, banned and burned  across the U.S., even in Steinbeck's own hometown.

In a crowdsourced, market- and consensus-dominated world, we might squelch the Thornton Wilders, Manets, and Steinbecks...and end up with nothing but Sharknado #27, paintings of big-eyed kids, and Fifty Shades of Boring.

Right now, we are living in a golden era of television. From Breaking Bad to Downton Abbey to Orange is the New Black and How to Get Away with Murder, we have amazing art being made for the small screen. And what makes these shows so brilliant?

Because of the smaller audience of cable TV and streaming services, the writer-creator has been allowed more artistic control. Writers like Vince Gilligan, Julian Fellows, Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes are bankable, star-power names because their shows reflect their own unique artistic vision.

Do we really want to give those up for endless reruns of  Real Housewives Dancing with the Biggest Loser?

Your Loudest Critic May be the Least Competent.

Being offended has become a competitive sport in many areas of the Internet. You can see whine-offs happening on book review sites, forums, and comment threads everywhere.

There is no way to please people like this. And now I realize I've been wrong to try.

Why? Because they LOVE being offended. It's what they live for.

In trying to please them, I've been robbing them of their source of joy.

I was being cruel and heartless.

Ruth and I don't want to water down our posts for a handful of readers. We average about 90-100K hits a month. There's no way that every post can appeal to every single one of those people.

If you have something different to say, please chime in with a comment. We welcome respectful discussion. (But if it's bullying or spammy or contains ad hominem attacks, we'll delete.)

It's our blog and we reserve the right to express opinions, keep discussion civil, and occasionally laugh at ourselves.

My advice to all of our readers is to do the same: follow your own muse, no matter where it takes you. Listen to criticism, but don't let yourself be bullied by it.

The world needs unique voices!

And most of all: don't censor yourself because a few complainers high on self-righteous rage think the world should revolve around their personal belief system or unresolved psychological issues.

I've written before about how taking too much advice from beta readers or a critique group can lead to some pretty awful writing.

But when I wrote that piece last summer, I hadn't yet learned about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I didn't take into account that, although it may seem as if the whole group wants you to do this or that, the negative critique may only come from one or two confident, but less-than-informed persons.

The wiser readers may be afraid to speak up. That's the Dunning-Kruger Effect, too: The more you know, the more you're likely to hesitate or question yourself.

Learn the basics, listen to criticism, then follow your instincts and ignore the noisy incompetents. It's your work. Don't let anybody bully you out of your right to follow your own artistic path.

Some people think there is only one path: right in back of them, with your lips firmly attached to their behinds.

Those people do not matter. Your art does.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you prefer that your book reflect your own vision, or that of a group or community? Do you think humor is dangerous? Do you think people should be allowed to decide what to call themselves even if somebody disapproves? How much input should other people have in an artist's work? Have you felt pressured to censor your work? How did you react? Do you have an attack of the vapors when you hear the word "strumpet"?



from March 1st to March 4th! 

"Anne R. Allen’s book of short stories explores womanhood in all seasons. I’ve read this book twice and get something new to appreciate each time. It is the kind of book one returns to periodically, just to revisit characters and stories like old friends that help clarify ages and stages of life and the changing world. Her poems are timely, tying stories together with theme, grace, and humor.",,,Mary J. Caffrey

Why Grandma Bought that Car 

a short book of short stories


Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…

Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel


The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

CANADIANS! The Kobo First Book Contest is for you! Did you publish your first book in 2014? Do you have a Canadian passport? You could win $10,000! Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non-Fiction categories. Winners will be announced in June. Deadline March 31.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

Looking for a cover designer? A fantastic new designer has just opened up shop. His name is  Daniel Steiminger  His designs are fabulous and really original. Reasonable prices. Grab him before he's booked solid.

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