Life in the Box: Thoughts on Self-Censoring
Long ago, someone told me that humor is based on anger. Maybe that’s why it’s so common for comedians to yell and use profanity. They let out the secret frustrations we all share and turn them into a comedy of errors, clearly stating what most of us would never say in polite company.
I think political and religious cartoonists have always chosen freedom of expression, and they must enjoy transforming our complex reactions to news headlines into one-punch visual frames. They depend on their editors and audiences to buffer them from the financial and political threats that could restrict publishing and distribution of their sometimes snide and consistently clever insights.
What has changed for them is that other threats, the physical threats, are no longer coming from an occasional enraged individual or heavy-handed politician, but now seem to be organized by an enraged and well-funded hit mob.
As a television journalist for much of my life, I know what it’s like to take risks, but in all reality, there were very few times my life was threatened. My work was behind the scenes. And, although I did interact with the public, I wasn’t required to take political stands.
Quite honestly, it was the other way around. All producers were required to hide their personal opinions. The idea was to be a blank slate, which would give us the freedom to interview anyone about anything.
If my political leanings were known, I would not be allowed to make television about the topics I felt most strongly about—it would look bad. I might at any point in my career be assigned to a documentary or interview or talk show that could be “compromised” if I was anything but “fair.” It was okay for me to be myself “off the record” with my co-workers, but it was not okay for me to give money to political causes or have campaign signs in my yard or on my car, nor was it okay for me to look anything but “mainstream” when I was working.
My stories were to be written with style and personality—as long as it was a middle-of-the-road, “reasonable person” type of personality. The “voice” of our writing was broad-minded and curious, but didn’t belong to any religious faith or political stripe.
Nothing sarcastic was okay. Sly was okay if it was funny. Funny was okay if it didn’t harm anyone’s reputation. Most of all, we would never say anything that would harm our organization’s reputation. Strange to say this, but in all reality, our funding was based on making people love us.
We didn’t ignore the big issues in the world, however. Among ourselves, we discussed overpopulation, rural migration, illegal immigration, farm crisis fall-out, social diseases like AIDS, illegal drugs and addictions, spousal abuse, homelessness, and all the “isms.” Our approach to all the big issues was to tell small stories; stories of people who had made a difference.
If one of the people we profiled took strong stands, so be it. Our Executive Producer was fond of saying that he wasn’t comfortable unless we got an equal amount of complaints on each side of controversial stories. He enjoyed stirring things up and squalling with people. So, like the cartoonists, we did have an editorial cushion, should we stick our necks out. Unlike the cartoonists, we were never killed for our publications.
Luckily—or unluckily, depending on your point of view—I’m the kind of person that sees a lot of good in framing my stories positively. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. I enjoy finding that common ground. Although I do find it interesting to compare and contrast what people feel, my personal preferences lean towards expressing compassion and multicultural understanding.
When I express strong opinions—of which I have many—I usually preach privately, to the choir. I don’t go out of my way to slap my opinions in the faces of people who disagree with me. I don’t like that confrontational style. I don’t like the backlash.
Now that I’m retired, and don’t have to worry so much about representing any specific organization, I have a choice of how to express my views. Last year, I flagrantly put two Democrat bumper stickers on my car and volunteered to help get out the vote. I tested my own voice by sending a few letters to the editor. So far I’ve found that I’m still most comfortable when I search for common sense and common ground. Putting out my stronger opinions definitely stretches my comfort zone.
I think that life would be poorer without those comedians and cartoonists who live on the edge. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of them, but writing for Escape into Life may help me find the humor in my old “Life Inside the Box” and is already breathing freedom into my new life, outside the box. Stay tuned!
Nancy Heather Brown has had the unique experience of producing, writing, and editing nonfiction television as part of a broadcasting career that spans four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process. She’s harvested these jewels in the Midwest, namely Iowa and Illinois. A little slide show of her career, prepared for a reunion with Illinois State University television students, is available on YouTube, and some videos from her favorite series, “Living in Iowa,” are posted online at Iowa Public Television.
Welcome to our new television columnist at Escape Into Life, Nancy Heather Brown! And for what our cartoonist columnist Phil Maish thinks on self-censorship and satire in journalism, click here: