Thursday 12 February 2015

On Censorship: Raziel Reid, Steven Galloway, and the Teachable Moment

Before you go accusing people of censorship, you should know what it means. And when someone admits, after the fact, that he actually doesn't know the definition of the word--and he is acting director of one of the country’s most prominent creative writing programs—perhaps he should consider a new line of work.

The kerfuffle over the latest $25,000 Governor General Literary Award winner for children’s (text), When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid, illustrates a serious deficiency among Canada’s literati: despite the recent lessons of Charlie Hebdo, they apparently do not understand the definition of censorship. And perhaps even what “strong anti-gay sentiment” is. 

With its boatload of vulgar words, deeds, and images—a crack pipe doubles as an anal dildo, masturbation by crucifix, immortal lines like “His thick eyelashes were so dark that it looked like he bought them at the drugstore…I fantasized about gluing them on his eyes and then ripping them off when he climaxed,” or juicy lips that look “like she had just sucked on a tampon”--not to mention its pervasive cynicism and hopelessness--there’s little doubt Reid set out to ignite a minor Mapplethorpian sensation.

Well, he got it. It started with an article by Barbara Kay, the Montreal-based National Post opinion writer of a certain age; the headline says it all: “Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel”.

After that came criticism by Kathy Clark, an Ontario children’s writer who objected to the book’s vulgarity. A petition to the Canada Council to rescind the prize was created, with Clark the first signatory.

I am a strong supporter of the freedom of speech and the petition does not suggest censoring the book,” Clark said. “It states that this is not quality literature and should not be rewarded as such. Raziel Reid is free to write what he wants, and I actually commend him for his intentions…in writing the book. It is the manner in which those intentions are carried out and expressed for a young audience that is at issue here.”
Reaction was swift and scathing. Vancouver writer and international bestseller Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Confabulist) attacked Clark on social media, calling her position

“disgusting…If you don’t value free speech . . . then you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer…I am ashamed of you and ashamed to share a profession with you.” 

The statement has over 400 Facebook “likes.”

Incredible: Galloway, acting head of UBC’s creative writing program—and 400 of his like-minded, ostensibly freedom loving comrades--consider a petition to be censorship, an attack on freedom of speech.

Sorry, but NOT.

Here is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) on the subject (they define the noun, not the adverb):

Censor. noun. 1. an official authorized to examine printed matter, films, news, etc., before public release, and to suppress any parts on the grounds of obscenity, threats to security, etc. 2. Rom. hist. [means Roman History?] either of two annual magistrates responsible for holding censuses and empowered to supervise public morals. 3. Psych. an impulse which is said to prevent certain ideas and memories from emerging into consciousness.

So there you have it: censorship takes place when authorities—ie. those with real power-- issue fatwas, demand a book be withdrawn, remove it from schools/libraries, burn or otherwise prevent people from reading it. It would be censorship if Mr. Harper's Minister of literature turned around and said, “Take that sucker off the shelves. No one's gonna read about tampon lollipops on my watch!”  

No matter how hard Galloway et al. twists it, a petition to the Canada Council to reconsider an award just doesn’t qualifies as censorship in the real world. Just to be clear, despite his many other failings, Mr. Harper, of course does not have a Minister of literature.

In these “Je suis Charlie” times, how can Galloway possibly consider a petition censorship? In a long discussion cum argument on my Facebook page over the past 10 days—where he finally admitted that dissenters to a decision have the right of appeal (ie. that the petition is part of our right to free speech and dissent), Galloway wrote this (among other ageist and insulting comments) to Barbara Kay:

You have a newspaper column. I or any one of a number of other people I will see this week could also have such a thing with one phone call. We wouldn't even need our son to be on the editorial board…Asking the Canada Council to rescind a prize for the first time in its history because it has sexual content that you and others find distasteful is so retrograde it almost baffles the mind. You don't think it's harmful, but you're approaching this from the position of an entitled, privileged white woman who has a platform to have a voice in the world…When I suggested that we would collectively like to extract your head from your rectum, it was because you are resolutely unwilling to see the world from any perspective other than your own privileged position…. I feel sorry for you, and occasionally a slight bit ashamed at myself for speaking harshly to an elderly woman.
Apparently, individual white women are not entitled to their world view. What is it called when someone is considered part of a race/class of persons, and not an individual?

But it gets worse.

In a recent Guardian interview, author Raziel Reid, Governor General Award winner for the young adult novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies, characterized the tittle of negative reaction to his book as evidence of Canada’s “strong anti-gay sentiment.”

But Canada doesn’t have a “strong anti-gay sentiment.” In fact, it’s among the most gay-friendly places extant.

In 1967 (two years before Stonewall), then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously opined, “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” right before he initiated an update of the laws on abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. In 2004, Canada became the fourth nation in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain) to legalize same sex marriage. These days, Lonely Planet says our home and native land is “hands down the most advanced and progressive nation in the Americas for the gay community.” They single out Toronto, third on their list of “most gay friendly places on the planet…a beacon for the LGBTQ traveller in North America.”

So does a petition against the awarding of a prize to this book mean we’ve turned into a country of gay-bashers? Get a grip...

[Also on]

Friday 23 January 2015

Eugenie Bouchard's twirl should make us all mad

(Published in The Toronto Star, January 26th and The Montreal Gazette January 27th)

During a post-match interview a couple of days ago at the Australian Open, Eugenie Bouchard was asked by an interviewer working for the tourney, Ian Cohen, to “give us a twirl” to show off her outfit. In the clip I saw, Ms. Bouchard looks surprised and reluctant but, at the urging of Cohen and the crowd, performs her pirouette. Then she buries her face in her hand.

Ms. Bouchard is ranked 7th in the world in her sport. Do they make these kinds of requests of male top seeds? We all know the answer to that one.

Apparently, CBC Sports’ called the incident, “very unexpected.” Other media types called it “strange” and “odd.” Egregious is more like it. Why don’t men get how awful this was?

Let me connect the dots between the disrespect shown world-class athlete Bouchard and offenses like those alleged of Jian Ghomeshi. What does the Eugenie Twirl have to do with Ghomeshi? Plenty: both events cut to the heart of our society’s unequal treatment of the sexes and of the way females are socialized in our society. We’re trained to be nice and agreeable, to “go along to get along,” rather than to be autonomous individuals with the (at times prickly) human right to draw lines in the sand, demur, and even retaliate when reasonable boundaries are crossed.

I don't condone violence, but maybe feminists have been going about the quest for equality the wrong way. Perhaps it’s time to give women the physical skills that will empower us to use a little negative reinforcement, if necessary. Knowing we’re capable of cleaning their clocks might make a big difference to the way we are treated, not to mention what we’ll put up with.

Consider the case of Jim Hounslow, according to The Toronto Star, an e-learning specialist at the Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. He was the guy who alleged his gonads were grabbed by Ghomeshi way back when Hounslow worked for Ghomeshi while they were both studying at York University:

“With no warning, he just reached over and grabbed my genitals (through Hounslow’s jeans) and started fondling them. I was completely shocked and I reacted,” Hounslow said.

Hounslow, who is roughly the same height and build as Ghomeshi (“I am built like a cyclist and I am a cyclist”), said he grabbed Ghomeshi’s arm, pulled it behind his back and then pushed Ghomeshi hard against the elevator doors.

“I told him, ‘You are never to do that again,’” Hounslow recalls.

Contrast that to Lucy DeCoutere’s account to CBC of her alleged 2003 assault:

They started kissing consensually, but, she said, Ghomeshi soon became violent.

“He did take me by the throat and press me against the wall and choke me,” DeCoutere said. “And he did slap me across the face a couple of times.”… She left within an hour and saw Ghomeshi two more times that weekend, but they did not discuss the incident, and no further violent incidents occurred.

My point is that we (as a society) still aren’t doing enough to ensure girls and women have personal autonomy. Instead of grooming them to be strong, we groom them to be nice, by-the-rule players. Compliant, agreeable, and decorative.

No wonder we so often end up beaten and raped. I believe many people, men and even  women, scoffed at reports that half of all Canadian women have been physically or sexually assaulted. But the virality of #beenrapedneverreported demonstrates that police charges truly are the tip of the iceberg.

Would the risk of being beaten up have deterred the activities of Dalhousie dental student “gentlemen’s club”?

What I want is a world where a small, cute woman is treated with as much respect as The Rock. I want a small, cute woman to be treated with respect because everyone deserves respect. But I'll take being treated with respect because of fear of a punch in the nose if that's all I (we) can get.

Women need to become more powerful as well as more empowered, and part of that means changing our approach to physical fitness, starting with youngsters. We need a revolution, the equivalent of the USA’s Title IX, here in Canada. Among other things, Title IX required American schools receiving federal funds to provide equal funds to both male and female athletic programs. We need self-defence courses, boxing, you name it. Whatever it takes to make us physically more powerful. Because the ability to write strongly worded letters clearly isn’t enough.

Most women understand why Ms. Bouchard pirouetted. Even Lucy DeCoutere’s behaviour is comprehensible, given Ghomeshi’s rainmaker status in the entertainment industry. But I think we can do more as a society to help women just say no to sexism and abuse.

Training women to be physically powerful—and aggressive as necessary—will hopefully create benefits beyond greater health and wellbeing. Done right, it will give women the confidence to say no—to the sexist treatment Ms. Bouchard experienced this week (though she, persists in calling it “funny”), to the attacks of abusers. Just say no to weak women. It’s time to go beyond slogans, and make sure our girls and women have the muscle that will make men think twice before mistreating us.

Friday 9 January 2015

What a difference an (almost) decade makes: PEN Canada on Charlie Hebdo & the Danish cartoons

I'm glad to see that PEN Canada has finally decided to stop speaking out of both sides of its mouth with respect to editorial/satirical cartoons. Contrast this excerpt from their January 2015 statement to the one below on the 2005 so-called Danish cartoon controversy.

Freedom of expression is now "a fundamental human right," and presumably remains such even when it is actually exercised:

Maybe PEN should recall the words of that noted french writer Voltaire:

"I do not agree with what you 
have to say, but I'll defend to 
the death your right to say it."

What he actually said was, "What a fuss about an omelette!" But you can see why that didn't exactly catch on...

Well, PEN Canada, all I can say is better late than never.
From 2006: "PEN Canada supports the right of a free press to publish these cartoons, but also believes that a wise consideration of the principle of “voluntary restraint” would have led to better decisions."

Meaning, perhaps, "I'll defend your right to say anything you want, but hope to god you'll never exercise it..."

The 2006 PEN Canada statement, in its breathtaking Canadian niceness, is reproduced below.


Thursday 8 January 2015

When cartoons aren't funny (from the archives)

Originally published in Toronto's now-defunct The Jewish Magazine, March 2006, at the time of the  Danish cartoon controversy.  I re-run it here in memory of those killed in Paris yesterday.