During past Freedom to Read weeks, I’ve noticed that everything starts to look like a Freedom of Expression issue. (That’s probably a good thing that we should keep in mind year-round anyhow.) For example, we’re only halfway through the week and I’ve had three distinct experiences that weren’t official FTRW events but which brought forward freedom of expression/censorship issues in a variety of ways.
The Oscars (aka “Boob-gate”)
And specifically, the hosting job of Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy who is either did a great job or was horribly offensive. Probably no surprise that I’m on the “he was fine” band wagon.
One of the things I always point out at FTRW time is that censorship comes from both the right and the left and some of the reaction to MacFarlane is a perfect example – many are saying how dare he objectify women by making jokes about their boobs! How dare he make light of domestic violence by joking about Chris Brown and Rhianna! How dare he joke about foreigners having difficult-to-understand accents? Guess what folks? These are all *jokes* and not making the jokes doesn’t change the fact that actresses do go topless in movies, Chris Brown *did* pop Rhianna in the nose and sometimes, foreigners (yes, even Oscar-calibre actors) have strong accents.
It goes back to the ultimate point of believing in freedom of expression – people have the right to say what they want, you have the right to be offended but you do not have the right *not* to be offended. Trying to tell people which jokes are “appropriate” and which are offensive is just as problematic behaviour as you ascribe to the person making the joke in my mind.
(Of course, it gets more complicated when somebody says something incredibly offensive and later apologies for it – or at least his boss does. Do I still defend that expression? Ultimately, I do defend the person’s right to say what they did, even if I don’t agree with the original sentiment at all.)
Anyhow, back to MacFarlane… here’s a great defense of his choice not to take the Seinfeld route of “lowest common denominator/no foul language/offend no one” comedy that sums up what I’m trying to say better than I can.
Comedy, like art in general, is incredibly personal and subjective. We have a right to voice our opinions (key word “opinions”) as to what’s funny and what isn’t. But the criticism becomes dangerous, and takes on a whole new ugliness, when entertainers are attacked for being “offensive, sexist and racist” simply because some folks may dislike the content and/or fail to see the humor. That sort of mass condemnation typically leads to censorship. Are we going back to the days when Lenny Bruce was arrested for using “obscenities” on-stage? Has our culture not evolved in fifty years? Or are we simply witnessing the PC-ification of America? What one person finds “offensive” another finds brilliant art (see Pryor, Carlin, Elvis, The Beatles, Mapplethorpe, Bertolucci, et al.).
Happened to see on Facebook that Marcello di Cintio, a writer I knew from Calgary was going to be in Regina launching his new book, “Walls: Travels Along the Barricades” on Tuesday. I’d gotten his book from the library when it first came out as Marcello is one of the best non-fiction writers going. But I only got a chapter or two into it before I had to take it back – not because it wasn’t any good but pretty much all of my personal time is spent on Meili campaign-related reading/work these days. :-(
Anyhow, I went to the launch and it was great. Arrived early and got to catch up with Marcello a bit about Calgary, the Writers Guld of Alberta where I used to work (and which is how I first met him. Funny coincidence – the in-laws of the person who got my job at the WGA when I left were also in the audience!), Calgary politics and how his career is going.
His book, where he visits various “walls” around the world from those in Belfast to Israel/Palestine to the walls along the US-Mexico border, speak obviously and enormously to the issue of freedom of expression and censorship – not just of words but indeed of people’s *lives* being censored.
The reading and Q&A that followed were so good, I wished I’d recorded the audio of the whole thing (ah, he’s got a TEDxCalgary talk – that’ll give a summary anyhow!) to put online so everyone could hear what he said. But I did take a couple video clips including the following where Marcello was talking about how we in Canada are often defined by our smugness and don’t think of things like this happening here. So he specifically found a Canadian barricade – true, not a wall like the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall, but nonetheless a fence in Montreal that divides rich from poor (or “other from other” whether ethnicity, wealth, religion or whatever difference is being separated and maintained) just as other walls and fences do around the world.
The Book Thief
The Outreach Unit where I currently work at RPL has had a “Book Club for the Blind & Visually Impaired” for just over a year. Every couple months, approximately 4-8 members of the group come together to read and discuss a book (some people might put “read” in quotes but for me – and for these patrons – reading an audio book is as legitimate a form of reading as what you do with a printed book).
All group members are provided with a spoken word CD version of that month’s title to read before the meeting and Outreach’s Library Assistant who runs the program uses the Book Club Guides that are already created for RPL’s very popular “Book Club in a Bag” service to guide the discussion. Obviously, this group speaks to censorship in a different way than we tend to think of it – partly because of how the participants’ disabilities might limit their ability to read/absorb material in various ways and partly due to the simple fact that the world of spoken word CD’s and MP3 audiobooks is much smaller than what is available to a fully-sighted person so these people don’t have full access to the thousands of books that most people do (there’s a huge lack of Canadian content. Such a small example but the RPL Book Club in a Bag might add Marcello di Cintio’s “Walls” to their collection but it’s doubtful that we’d ever be able to get an audio version.)
My library assistant and I might now tell you that it was intentional but quite coincidentally, this month’s book, taken up by the group earlier today, was “The Book Thief” which is a novel that explores issues of censorship through the actions of a book-loving protagonist in the book-burning time of Nazi Germany. Although unintentional, this book was a perfect choice given that the group was meeting during Freedom to Read Week!
The week’s only half over – I can’t wait to see what other freedom of expression and censorship issues I’ll happen upon during the rest of the week!