Clean Reader and the Looming Problem of Censorship

Friday, April 10, 2015

I found out that a new app made the rounds in the reading community sometime in the past couple months called Clean Reader. This is what the official page says about the app:

Clean Reader prevents swear words in books from being displayed on your screen. You decide how clean your books should appear and Clean Reader does the rest.

I know many people might have different opinions on this topic, so before I begin stating mine, I want to recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and this should be a safe place to discuss things like this that affect the way readers and writers engage with texts.

My stance on Clean Reader is a very hesitant one. Though I'm sure this app was designed with people  (I'm assuming Christians--which I'm not downing! I am one, so I say this as fact; nothing else) who want to keep everything they internalize clean, I find this exceedingly problematic. By censoring (even of your own volition), you limit the writer's voice within the novel.

Honestly, curses have their place in our language, and I think it's a very important one. A well-placed curse word, changes the feel of dialogue and novel in general, so I think by censoring these words, you limit the power of the words being read. 

That brings me to the bigger idea of censorship in general. 

I think censorship is limiting people's voice, and a book is a form of a writer' voice. To take away those words or alter them, is taking away freedom of speech. In my opinion, if you don't want to read books with curses, then read books that don't have any, but don't limit the writer's voice by censoring words that offend you.

This kinda goes back to the censoring of major classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and taking out words because there are horrible connotations; however, that limits the power and meaning of the novel. 

Chuck Windig wrote an excellent article (with many curse words) that you might be interested in reading. 

What do you think about the Clean Reader app or censorship in general?

36 comments:

  1. I completely agree with you. This kind of censorship totally does scare me, actually. I mean FAIR ENOUGH if this you feel really beholden to never read swear words, but at the same time, (I'm totally with ya) it's also about voice and feel and style. Taking out the "offensive" bits can often totally change the book. I read this article by Maggie Stiefvater a while back and she said she picked every single word to use in her books with the UTMOST CARE. Even the curses. She always used words, for any scene/any chapter, to convey the best meaning. And I though, "omg so true". That's how writers should be writing. If they need to swear, just do it. I feel like I wouldn't ever try this app....

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    1. Oh I need to find the Stiefvater article. She's just amazing. She wrote a great post about literary rape that is really good too. She just explains her opinions so well! Yeah, this really worries me, even if it is just self-censorship.

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  2. Oh my goodness, this is fascinating! Because it is so different from other forms of censorship. Rather than overt censorship by another person, it's self-censorship, which is a more tricky beast. I'd group this with a lot of the discussions on trigger warnings because I do think those who want to avoid swear words are mildly triggered by them, in a way. What will be fascinating is how this app is actually used. Will it be used by people to self-censor parts of novels (which, I agree, is problematic) or will it be used by parents/teachers/etc to censor text for children? Fascinating!

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    1. Isn't it though? I thought the idea of self-censorship so odd though. I mean this kinda even goes back to the TV censoring cleaner that Christian book stores were promoting about 5 years ago, but for some reason, I find the idea of self-censoring books much more unsettling. I thought about the fact that teachers and parents could use it on their children, and that made me the most scared I think. To imagine that schools or parents forcing children to read through an app that censors what they are reading is very worrisome. *sigh* I really hope this app doesn't take off, if it does, I'm worried what people might do with it.

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  3. I don't think I would ever use something like Clean Reader. I am not bothered at all by swear words or anything like that in write -unless it is really excessive and for no reason. But it comes naturally to most of us in certain situations so I don't see the reason to censor it.

    On the other hand, when I write a blog post I almost never include swear words. I am always hesitant about using any word that might seem offensive. Even "hell", which I know is ridiculous. For me, it would never be necessary to take those words out but yet I do it because I am afraid others will be offended. I even feel weird about typing "thank god". It's such a common expression, but I feel weird about using it because I am not religious. You know?

    Anyway, I don't think I will ever use this. I do agree with your view, that it is sort of taking away the right to freedom. It's pretty much censorship.

    Great post! (And sorry for the long comment.)

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    1. I love long comments, so you are perfectly fine! Yeah, I can understand that! Many bloggers have talked about cursing on their blog.. some do, some don't, and some only curse a little. I think it all depends on the personality of the writer, and that is completely within their right. I curse sometimes, but it's generally very little. I am religious and I don't like superfluous curses, but I also think that cursing is a part of our language, and shouldn't be completely written off. It has its value and is important within society. I think the impact that Clean Reader and apps such as these can do is what is so threatening. In the hands of people who wish to censor what their children or students read, I feel like it can be really problematic. Thanks for your comment!

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  4. I totally agree with you Amanda. Words themselves are not bad, it's the context in which they are used. If a book has foul language, anything can be made into a bad word. Ex. House isn't a "bad" word, however if I say, "Your mother is a house", then that's a bad thing to say. How can an app censor all foul language out of a book? I don't like censorship like this. Think about a movie. You know it's rated R but you let your kids watch it and then every time certain scenes come about you have to let them leave the room or cover their eyes or whatever. Are they really experiencing the full story, if you are censoring parts? It's best, IMO, not to let them watch it at all. That's what I do with my son, when we're watching something with inappropriate scenes, I let him watch TV elsewhere.

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    1. Yeah, I definitely understand where you are coming from. Honestly, Clean Reader reminds me of the Christian movie censoring thing that was big about 5 years ago. When I was at a friend's house, we had to watch a movie using that censor and we lost so much of the plot because of it. It bleeped out swear word, inappropriate and crude dialogue, and obviously any sexual scene. It completely changed the movie. I feel like this is what Clean Reader can ultimately do to a book, and that's unsettling to me.

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  5. I guess people have a right to use Clean Reader. But, if they do, I don't think they should get to say they've read such-and-such book. They haven't. They've read Clean Reader's version of it. (It's sort of like trying to say you've read War and Peace when you only read the CliffsNotes version. Try using that excuse on your English teacher and see how far you get. We're asked to read the full version for a reason: because of the unique way that particular author chose words and put them together.)

    This app strikes me as almost uniquely American. Here in Canada, we're a little more laid-back about swearing (even though we like to think we're too polite to do it a lot). I've heard swears, unbleeped, on the six o'clock news. Movies on TV are often unedited for language after 9pm. Our children are not corrupted, potty-mouthed little freaks (well, no more than kids on the other side of the border). Sometimes, you need a good swear word to get the point across. When you censor language, you're also censoring ideas and emotions... neither of which are good things to start censoring.

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    1. Yeah, Canada can be a bit different from America. Even more so where I am because I'm in the Bible belt of the south--we seriously call it that. I think that's why i find this idea worrisome, because I know soooo many people who would use this app, and what happens when it is used in a classroom setting... God forbid that ever happen. I definitely think swear words are used within books to make a point. Sometimes the f-word is a better way of saying 'sex' if it's in the right context. That's just how it is.

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  6. From a writer's standpoint, I can see how it would be infuriating for someone to come by and censor what I wrote. I know that I would be extremely unhappy if someone did that to my writing. However, I think that if people want to censor what they're reading, then they can. I do think that censorship makes the novel lose some of itself because the offensive words are inherently part of the work, for better or for worse.

    That being said, if I knew that a novel contained an excessive amount of swear words, I just wouldn't read it. I wouldn't bother buying it or wasting my time reading it, even if the story itself was really good. I don't mind the occasional curse word to underscore a point or if a character stubs his pinky toe (that REALLY hurts). I do mind lots of pointless curse words included just to have them.

    This is a fascinating topic. I know that censorship is a huge issue in the classroom. It's going to be interesting to watch this unfold.

    Ardelia @ The Unplumbed Sea

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    1. Definitely! I think everyone has a right to decide what they want to internalize, but I think that it should just come down to deciding whether or not the book (as a whole) is for them or not. If it contains language that they don't want to internalize, there are probably other things that they don't want in there as well. I think the biggest thing that is the most unsettling is how this can be used in the classroom... I think that's what scares me most.

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  7. I think this is a really interesting post because, honestly, the first thing I thought when I read this was that people would want to use it for their kids. And I guess I'm not QUITE as opposed to that idea as everyone else seems to be. This is actually really timely for me because I was just talking to my twelve-year-old son about something similar today. We are both reading The Maze Runner right now and we were talking about how the character use made up swears (like "krunk"). I told him that's basically so that you can get the idea or feeling that the characters are swearing (which is probably realistic in the situation the teens are in), but the author didn't use real swears, so it doesn't seem so offensive. I have to confess that if the kids in the book were using the f-word instead of "shuck" I would probably think twice about letting my son read the book - and this would be the only reason why, which would be kind of sad. Now, is this silly? After all, the meaning is the same, right? Yes, but I guess it's a personal hang-up when it comes to my kids. I'm not stupid - I know they hear swears and I don't try to completely shield them from them (I know my kids use their own judgment in the words they use, and it's not like hearing a swear is going to make them start swearing themselves), but I would definitely shy away from a book that used A LOT of them - especially certain words. Then again, books with a lot of swears probably wouldn't be appropriate for my son in other ways too, so ...

    ANYWAY, that is a really long-winded way of saying that I'm actually a little bit torn about this. I don't actually think I would ever use it, but I could see how some people might. If reading the f-word jars you out of the experience of reading a book, and you know this, I guess I'd be okay with you taking that word out for yourself (and maybe even for your kids).

    Does it change the experience of reading the book, though? Yeah, it probably does. And let's face it, if a book has a LOT of swears and you find that offensive, it's probably not a book for you anyway. And then there's that censorship word - ugh! I hate to even think about censoring, but I guess I might be okay with each person deciding if that's what this is for themselves (or even for their own kids). But I could also see how it could get out of hand ... Wow, so I guess I just don't have a really solid opinion on this, and I'd need to think about it for a good long time. You've definitely got me thinking, though!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. I can understand your situation. Guarding your kids is always important, especially when you're a parent. I think it all depends on what books you allow your children to read in general though. Most of YA books stay away from the f-word--though I will admit it's becoming more prevalent--but I worry what Clean Reader may snowball into. It may start out with censoring f-words and the like, but when is it too much? Consider this: what if teachers begin applying this app to the classroom? It's no longer parents deciding what is good for their own children, but the administration deciding what they should or should not internalize, and I think that's where it can get even more tricky. Granted, I have not heard of any cases of this happening specifically with the Clean Reader app, but you see it when parents or teachers or administrators challenge a book that the school library provides. I can't tell you how many times I heard about parents wanting Harry Potter and The Hunger Games banned from their school library. I think that's what worries me the most.

      Thank you for jumping in on the discussion. It's good to have a parent put in their two cents about this kind of thing. :)

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  8. Honestly, I NEVER understand the whole "swear words suck" thing. I get that it looks really bad in certain professional situations but people curse all the time! The trick is knowing WHEN to do it and so it doesn't look too bad.

    And just saying, but if someone is reading a book where there's cursing, odds are there are a lot of other heavy topics that can't be censored out so easy. Someone who doesn't like reading books with cursing should probably NOT read the book at all! What are the odds that a book will ONLY have cursing as a mature topic? Please.

    This actually really annoys me because just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there. And there's a purpose. Can you imagine if two people were fighting and they were having a conversation like "you're such a HORRIBLE PERSON!" or "SON OF A BISCUIT!" sounds pretty ridiculous to me.

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    1. I don't know. While I certainly agree that swearing can lend a particular desired tone to a book, I think it's misleading to say you can't write, for example, an argument that's "realistic" without having characters curse at each other. I actually know lots of people who don't personally use swear words and, yeah, their arguments wouldn't include a "cleaner version" of a swear word like "son of a biscuit," but they would certainly be full of statements like. "You're a horrible, selfish person!!!"

      I guess I'm against the general argument I see in the comments that "swearing is realistic and you can't avoid it anyway, so why bother trying?" As I said, I know lots of people who don't personally choose to use such language, and I don't really have a problem with people limiting/decreasing their exposure to something they don't really like, even if they can never avoid that thing completely.

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    2. I can see where you are coming from. I do think that cursing has become so ingrained in our language that it is very hard to ignore it or censor it completely. Or even worse... substitute it for cleaner versions (though I don't think that's what Clean Reader does; I think it just blanks out the word). However, I think there are points where language can be realistic without cursing. I wrote an entire book without one single curse, and I didn't mean to until I realized that I was finished and it didn't require any. That was just the feel of the book. It didn't require it. But I think all authors know their books, and they can decide whether there should or shouldn't be cursing and how cursing can or won't fit into their narrative. Thanks for jumping in on the discussion.

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  9. I just found your blog and I'm glad to say that I completely agree with you on this. I'm Irish, and we have a long tradition of Christians (well, Catholics specifically because Ireland) censoring media, film and books. In fact, if you look at some of the literature that was banned here not too long ago it's really depressing. Thankfully, I was born after all of that so I'm pretty open minded when it comes to swearing (again, because Ireland). The Clean Reader app is a bit of a joke to be honest. It's just like the debate that happened in the music industry back in the 80's when musicians were taken to court over inappropriate lyrics. It diminishes artistic integrity and shields people from the real world. In life, people swear. Get over it. If you can't stand a single 'fuck' or 'shit', you'll find it pretty hard to have conversations with a lot of people. Going back to artistic integrity, a lot of the time, authors have their characters swear for a reason. It may be to show the type of character that they are or that they are in emotional turmoil. Swearing can actually be used to show a lot of things, and removing curses demeans the work the writer has done.

    Basically, I think that the Clean Reader app is a bit of a joke and also diminishes artistic integrity. If you want to have some fun, just read all the one star reviews it got, it's brilliant: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.inktera.cleanreader.

    Thanks for raising this issue because I think it's very important and relevant. I have a blog too, and I promise I'm not as angry as I appear in this comment! Here's a link if you're interested: http://leaf-on-the-breeze.blogspot.ie/

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    1. Killian, I completely agree with you. I do feel like the hesitancy around cursing is very American, especially around southern America where we have the Bible Belt (as we like to call it). Ireland and the UK are very different. You're right, you can barely have a conversation with anyone without hearing a curse word. That's your culture. And I completely agree censoring does diminish artistic integrity. I know, as a writer, I would be severely frustrated if I heard about people censoring my work just because they don't like my word choice. Thanks for jumping in on the discussion!

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  10. I understand people not wanting to use them, but they're a part of life, and you can't make people on the streets stop saying them, and they are important to a literary work. An author is using it for a reason. I actually had a commenter tell me that they would not be reading my blog anymore after I wrote a post on swearing in books.

    And I did some more research, and it turns out they had a whole site and a list for books this person thought no one should read and were terrible (including things like Eleanor & Park) solely because of a few curses. Sigh.... I've never been more frustrated.

    Cassie @ Happy Book Lovers

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    1. Woooahhh.. Are you serious? Eleanor & Park? That frustrates me. Sooo hypothetically... I read a book and I don't agree with with what some of the characters say or do (morally), I can still give the book 5 stars because I see it as a piece of art and the message it is trying to get across. So just because I don't like some things that the characters do, doesn't mean that I can't respect it. Dang... that's so frustrating!

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  11. I'd never use anything like that to censor what I read, but I'm a somewhat vulgar person and it takes a lot to actually offend me.

    Anyway, I think censorship just takes so much away from the text and plot and that it shouldn't be done. What's the point in reading an edited version of a book? Nothing. It's like reading a book with holes in it.

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    1. I sooooo agree with you!! Censorship just plants holes in the book and takes away the author's right to say what he or she wants to say.

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  12. I don't particularly have a problem with this concept. If people are determined to avoid curse words, they will find ways to do so. I know some people for whom this is very important, and their current methods involve seeing only movies of a certain rating and probably looking for content reviews online; there are definitely sites that will tell you if/how much swearing is in a particular novel. So, right now, if one of these readers would like to avoid swear words, they will simply not read certain books at all. I think this app could open a lot of options for them, and that means the author's voice is less limited.

    I agree the issue might be slightly different if the app is used by parents or teachers. Choosing the books you personally read, and being aware that you are censoring parts, is an informed-decision. And though parents and educators of course ALEADY guide children's reading habits (again, often by not allowing a child to read a book at all), I think it would be disingenuous to give someone a "cleaned up" version of a book without at least telling them it's a clean version.

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    1. Here's my thing though, what are the chances that the only thing worth censoring in a book is the language? Most of the time, if there's language, there are other mature topics too like violence, sex, rape, etc. Most of the time, it's not just language, so what is using the app really worth if you are censoring entire sections of books just because you don't want to internalize that material? I think the reader might be better off not reading said book at all.

      As to yoru second point, yes, teachers and parents already GUIDE children's reading. That will never go away, and I don't think it should. guiding is going, but creating strict boundaries, I think, can really hinder a reader and their growth. I think that even if you do give children "cleaned up" versions of texts and even tell them it's a cleaned up version, that is also problematic. That action is telling you readers that their voice can be easily erased and that their view is nonessential.

      Thanks for getting in on the discussion! It's good to have varying sides of the argument! :)

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  13. I'm in complete agreement. I understand censoring, and I believe there are times and places where it's appropriate. But as someone who writes, the swear words that I choose to use are there for a reason --- 90% of the time, I'm trying to convey something about the character or the tension or something like that. Censoring those out changes the meaning of that scene. I think it should be possible to read a book with swear words and not "internalize" the vulgarity.

    It's just a word, people, and while I won't want my children using such words when I get to that point, I'm not going to act like their souls will burn if they hear such language --- it's a natural part of dialog.

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    1. I agree with you, Liza! It's definitely something people tend to feel strongly about, especially concerning their children, but I do think that we put a lot less faith in children's ability to censor for themselves. Like you said, you can read vulgarity without internalizing it. I think children do that all the time and way more often than parents and teachers might think. :)

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  14. I feel so bad that I haven't been around lately to read and comment on everyone's blogs or even post on mine. I am back now though I promise!

    This post is fantastic! You addressed it so politely yet powerfully! I agree 100% and I regularly have this discussion with people, not just in written word, but in other media forms and just in daily speech. Not only is it part of the author's voice, but it makes up characters and gives them personality. If you have some hardened criminal and he never once uses even a mild curse word even when he is extremely angry, is it going to feel as realistic?

    I am also a firm believer in the idea that words have power, but part of that power is what the person hearing or reading the words gives them. So if you read a curse word but don't pay extra attention to it it isn't as shocking/vile/important ect. The same idea kind of applies with raising kids, if you make a big deal about it some day saying that is going to be rebellious and the perfect thing to pull out when they want to make you angry or get a reaction, but if you remain calm and politely and logically explain why you'd rather they didn't use that word, they are less likely to use it like that. Your reactions and how much power you give the words can make it so that a word is just a word, or so that a word is this evil corruptive practically living thing.

    Cursing is part of life and humanity. We need to learn how to objectively study society and cultural elements like cursing or religion and learn from them. We don't necessarily have to agree with everything we see, but we can still gain insight and knowledge from things like this.

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    1. Briana, that was so eloquently put! I agree with you! We as readers give the author's words power because it all depends on our position as a reader. I could go in major depth about Fish's reader response theory, but I'll tap down my English major tendencies and leave it with the fact that I completely agree with you!

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  15. Oh my goodness, YES. I can't stress enough how important it is that we bring instances like these to the light, because they are incredibly problematic. Human beings have been using curse words for centuries, and they hold an important, if controversial, part in our society. By censoring those words, you're not only demeaning readers' intelligence, but also insulting authors, who've made the choice to use swear words of their own volition and for a reason.

    As readers, I think all of us can agree that words have power - but the very nature of books is that they challenge the way we think and the way we look at the world. Literature, like life, never promised us justice; the Clean Reader app is not only unfair, but also rather degrading to both authors and readers.

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    1. Wow. I can't tell you how much I love every word you just said. Yes. Yes to it ALL! :)

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  16. Very interesting to read.
    I kind of guess this is more an subject for the american market, since I assume that most europeans do not have those strong feelings about curse words at all. But I do agree, it takes out so much of the novels, and what the authors intentions are.
    It is quite sad to see that people in our times feel the need for clean reading.

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  17. I don't like the idea of an author's creation being censured in such a way. They created it to read a certain way and their creation should be left alone. If a book has curse words that offend people, they have the option not to read it. Bottom line, in my view. I have read some books that were littered curse words and they just seemed to be there for shock factor. But then there are other books where it assists in characterization. Sometimes there's a place for it.

    New follower, btw!

    Shannon @ The Tale Temptress

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  18. (PART ONE - yes, excuse the rant. The comment wouldn't fit as one.)
    I completely agree with you. I generally believe that censorship should not be implemented, but then I think of the concept of free speech and how far some societies are taking it.
    Everyone should have a right to express their opinions freely. But what when that opinion is harmful to others? And this is where I start disagreeing with the American notion of free speech above all.
    Propaganda is free speech. Printing books supporting far right nationalistic tendencies is free speech. Publishing books shaming all races but the Arian is free speech. Insulting someone - even if it is a true statement - is free speech.
    So should free speech include everything to really be free?
    Does it not matter that what I consider freedom of speech someone else considers a violation of their rights?
    I think it should, and in most European countries it has been recognised as such, concluding that your right of free speech ends where the right of someone else to another good that your freedom of speech is offending begins.
    I do believe we need a balance. I don't agree with people going around lying. I don't agree with people judging me in front of me under the guise of free speech, when what I am doing or how I am doing it doesn't affect them in the slightest and they are simply doing it to be hurtful.
    I do think that people should be able to express themselves. And even freely. But even that in measure. And I understand that this is a very controversial opinion, but someone else's freedom of speech should not have the right to govern how I or anyone for that matter lives their life.
    To give another example: Yes, people have a right to be homophobic. And they have the right to voice those opinions. But do they have the right to start screaming at a person in the middle of a store that they are a homosexual and for that reason should not be shopping at xyz store but should instead prepare to rot in hell? If we truly had utter freedom of speech, they would be able to do so without any repercussions, because that is what freedom means. It is the right to do anything and everything whenever one wants and to the extent they want without having to take into consideration the reaction of other people. See, with that freedom of speech I disagree.

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  19. (PART TWO)

    Now, in relation to book censorship, I don't think that this app should even exist when it comes to books. Yes, one had the right to decide what they want to consume. But if they don't like the language used in a book, they shouldn't read it in the first place. Them choosing to selectively black out parts of the book, using an app, IS a violation of the freedom of art and freedom of speech of the artist who wrote that book. No matter how one looks at it. If I were the author whose words were being blacked out, I would sue. They have absolutely no right to do that. Yes, they do buy the books so the books are their property. BUT the text in them isn't. The text remains the intellectual property of the author and as such can not be alternated and reproduced. And isn't having an app that blackens out all the swear words an alternation of the text the author produced? After all, they put the swear words in there to give the text a specific meaning, there is a certain connotation to it... The readers can choose not to read a book that doesn't fit the mold of what they want to read. However, I don't see how they can have the right to alter someone else's book like that. A book is art. It's not a random post in a forum littered with foul language that I would understand if someone didn't want to read.

    Also, and I am not judging here, and I know I am taking this in a completely different direction, but I just need to express how frustrated I am with this... I cannot understand this notion of some people to have to consume only "pure" things because they are Christians. What a LOAD OF BULL. I grew up in a strictly catholic and very religious environment. As a Christian one is encouraged to accept their surroundings, respect others and try to better circumstances to the best of their capabilities. How is censoring others in order to stay "pure" acceptable? How does one respect others by doing so? Isn't it putting one's own selfish needs in front of others? Does that also mean that a man should lock a beautiful woman in a basement to never be looked at again, because it might cause him to have impure thoughts? And that's a purely hypothetical and sarcastic question and an extreme example at that, but how on earth will people learn to understand otherwise? Things like this simply make me mad, because the close mindedness and illiterateness of some people (and yes, again, it is their right to be so, but DAMN does it bother me to "allow" them to have that right) puts a whole community in a bad light.

    Aaaand I think I've ranted and rambled enough. I hope I didn't offend anyone by this, ahahaha.

    Great post! Great topic!

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  20. Very interesting topic and I think you raise a really good point with censorship limiting someone's voice. I hadn't thought about it like that before but I think I agree with you. Censorship is really saying "You can't say that" and for the most part I don't think people should be censored, though I do think they should have to take responsibility for their words when appropriate (you can slander someone but you have to pay the penalty for it).

    The other side of the coin is what we choose to expose ourselves to - you can say whatever you want but I don't have to listen to it - which I think is fair. If someone decides to read a book then you've chosen to expose yourself to that author and whatever words they choose to use in that story. You can put the book down whenever you want if you disagree with the language or subject matter. But I don't know that I agree with a sort of stance that says, "I want to read this author but I want to be in control of what they say and only half read the story." I don't know that it's fair to the author - who as you said used those words (hopefully) for a specific purpose to elicit an emotional reaction or create a very specific feel to the scene.

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