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...

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