This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 30 April 2015. It’s the second of our two editors’ columns, and this time the theme was ‘Censorship’. At the time, the whole Hugo controversy was still fresh, so I went with this even though, in hindsight, it didn’t entirely fit. Still, the whole Hugo controversy was a mess, and I can only hope we avoid a similar kerfuffle this year.
In order to talk about censorship, I am going to talk about a literary science fiction award. Bear with me on this one. You may have heard of the Hugo Awards, but just to get everyone up to speed, voted on by registered members of the annual convention WorldCon, the Hugos are the most prestigious and important awards in the relatively small world of sci-fi publishing.
This year, the Hugo Awards were hijacked by neofascists. The spearhead of this campaign was a man named Theodore Beale, who encouraged enough of his supporters to nominate a specific list of works chosen by him that he was effectively able to dominate this year’s award nominations, with 87% of the nominated works being chosen by him. Beale is a thoroughly odious man, who, among other things, has publicly expressed the view that the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai was “perfectly rational and scientifically justifiable.” I honestly wish that was the worst quote I could dredge up. And this is the man who has been allowed to choose the award-worthy works of last year’s sci-fi output. Now I don’t want to go into the whole drama surrounding the awards in too much detail, because frankly there are much better people out there who have covered it more thoroughly than I possibly could. Instead I want to talk specifically about Beale and his supporters’ stated motivation for doing this.
You see, Beale and his supporters mounted this campaign because they believed that the awards were being dominated by broadly left-wing fiction because of the censorship of a shadowy group of left-wing authors, rather than because the books they wanted to see nominated just weren’t any good. And so they decided to stuff the ballot. They reacted to an unfounded conspiracy of censorship by actively engaging in censorship themselves. What happens to the Hugos as a result of this still ongoing controversy remains to be seen, but we can learn a crucial lesson from it. Which is that the would-be censor can all too easily turn anti-censorship rhetoric to their advantage. We must be mindful of that, and remain vigilant if we want to see truly free and open artistic expression.