Saturday, November 22, 2008

The values of free speech

Multiculturalism and free speech are often at odds, but free speech can provide the best protection for minorities if they can tolerate those with whom they disagree

Barbara Julian
Special to the Sun
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Can a country reconcile the two ideals of multiculturalism and free speech, given that some of the cultures concerned not only do not value, but actively oppose, free speech?

This question received a full airing this year after the Canadian Islamic Congress lodged a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal against Maclean's magazine. Maclean's had published online an excerpt from Mark Steyn's book, America Alone, which alleges that the global ambitions of Muslim youth, plus the West's lack of "the will to rebuff those who would supplant it," constitute a threat to liberty and democracy.

The tribunal ruled that Steyn's writings "did not violate anti-hate laws" and that his were "legitimate subjects for public discussion."

Most people in the communications professions argue that freedom of speech is the best protection minorities have and that multiculturalism succeeds only when people learn to live in peaceful proximity to those with whom they disagree.

Some religious and cultural bodies in Canada see things differently, however. Canadian children's writer Deborah Ellis, for example, examined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in her book, Three Wishes, by asking young people on both sides three questions that adroitly teased out ideas from the dense underlying tangle of emotions that have been built into that standoff, generation after generation.

The Canadian Jewish Congress objected to a pro-Palestinian bias, which no careful reader could deny that Ellis displays. The question, however, is not whether writers have biases (of course they do), but whether they should be allowed to put them out there for others courteously to refute, should they care to take up the conversation.

Isn't that conversation what literature is for?

It was the Canadian Turkish Society that challenged U.S. writer Barbara Coloroso. In Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, she included the 1915 killing and deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as an example of genocide.

Neither of these authors is a professional historian, but a culture that values free speech defends their right to research a subject and publish their conclusions. A sophisticated reader can be trusted to understand that authors' conclusions are coloured by personal preconceptions, whether acquired as a result of, or in reaction to, past conditioning.

Readers in turn bring their own attitudes, knowledge and assumptions to a text and are understood in some ways to "co-create" it with the writer. (That no two readers read the same book is a truism of postmodern reading theory.) This is precisely the skill which schools and libraries set out to teach the young.

Philip Pullman, whose book The Golden Compass was banned from school libraries by a number of Canadian Catholic school boards, is particularly unimpressed with attempts to check a book-hungry child's exploratory progress through the world of literature. "Tell your children they are not to read this book under any circumstances. What is more likely to make them go to the shelf and take it down and read it?" he asked Eleanor Wachtel in a radio interview this summer.

We must remember, however, that when it comes to books purchased by school libraries, there is a difference between censorship and selection. Budget and space limitations mean that only a fraction of available titles will be selected for acquisition in any year, and librarians have to base their choices on something. How surprised can we be if a school embracing the values of a stated world view chooses books that conform to it? The obverse of the "freedom to read" is the freedom not to read. This was the freedom the Calgary, Burlington and Peterborough Catholic school boards exercised when it came to Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, but the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver took a different path.

"We did not recommend an outright banning of the books, as done in other dioceses," says associate superintendent John van der Pauw. "We took the tack that Pullman has presented us with a 'teachable moment'."

A teachers' lesson guide was produced and the administration recommended to librarians that in elementary schools the books be borrowed only by children whose parents gave signed permission.

How appropriate is it, though, to treat the adult reader like a child? Who has the right to keep The Peaceful Pill Handbook or The Da Vinci Code or America Alone out of someone else's hands?

It seems obvious that adults must discuss public affairs if democracy is to flourish, but according to the Freedom of Expression Committee of Canada's Book and Periodical Council, the quiet removal of challenged fictional works from public library circulation often goes unnoticed.

In 2007, 42 challenges were reported in a survey, but "most library challenges go undocumented," according to the Canadian Library Association's Committee on Intellectual Freedom.

Perhaps fiction seems particularly dangerous because, as novelist Anita Desai puts it, "fiction is a way to tell the truth." That it is a subjective truth makes it more powerful and shareable.

By encompassing opposing points of view, fictional worlds force us, in George Eliot's phrase, to expand our sympathies (and explore our ambivalence).

What, then, if some historical subjects are considered no-go areas, as has happened with The Jewel of Medina, U.S. writer Sherry Jones's novel about Mohammed's wife? In a pre-publication review, a university lecturer in Texas opined that some history is "sacred history" and shouldn't be discussed or reflected in fiction.

Setting some areas of the past outside discussion is certainly censorship, and all too often the firebombs will not be far behind -- as was the case when the office of Jones's British publisher was firebombed Sept. 28. On Oct. 6, she told Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "I would urge the British public to stand up for your right to freedom of speech and not be bullied. We can't allow a small minority to dictate to the majority what we can read, write, think, say."

By Oct. 10, however, Jones had pulled out of her British tour and the novel's release in Britain was postponed, although publication went ahead in the U.S. (by Beaufort Books after the original publisher, Random House, withdrew).

When some called references to Mohammed's marriage in The Jewel of Medina "soft porn," one British journalist interpreted the controversy as being about writers' "right to offend."

Liberal MP Keith Martin used the same phrase when he filed a private member's bill in Parliament for the removal of Section 13(1) from the Canadian Human Rights Act soon after Maclean's was accused of inciting hatred with writings some considered offensive.

"We already have laws that protect citizens against slander, libel, discrimination and hate crimes," Martin said in a letter to constituents. "However, we do not have the right to not be offended."

He plans to re-introduce the bill and has also requested that the Justice Committee hold public hearings on the workings of the Human Rights Act.

Individuals and representatives of free speech and human rights groups would testify before the committee (made up of about 11 people representing the four parties) in televised hearings that would fill an educational, as well as a policy-recommending, role.

"Canadians are sensitive about offending people, and that's a good thing about us," says Martin, "but people have died fighting for freedom of conscience."

New fronts are always opening in the war against provocative utterances, and although they produce tragic casualties along the way, they eventually fail.

"In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost," Alfred Whitney Griswold wrote in the New York Times in 1959. "The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas."

But that's not the last word, either, for someone will disagree. That's the point of free speech -- there can never be a last word.

Although his own party has been loathe to offend ethnic groups by supporting Martin's cause, most editorial boards and publishers' groups do support him, as did the Conservative Party when delegates at their policy convention on Nov. 15 passed a resolution stating that "The Conservative Party supports legislation to remove authority from the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Tribunal to regulate, receive, investigate or adjudicate complaints related to Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act."

A Victoria writer and former librarian, Barbara Julian last wrote about age labelling on children's books.