The attack shocked and horrified me. I am not a religious person and I have no interest in tolerating religious extremism of any kind. (This is probably an oxymoron but I support reason and scientific thought, and oppose religious dogma). But what really upset me was the response of people working in the journalism and media professions.
One media personality here in Canada argued that everyone should be more “sensitive” to others’ beliefs. I took this to mean not openly challenging any kind of religious or cultural belief. Now, I don’t think we should be insensitive for the sake of being insensitive, but I think we should be free to challenge ideas and beliefs without fear of being harmed or killed.
Canada has government-sanctioned multiculturalism that is defined as inclusive citizenship where all Canadians are able to live together in mutual respect. Of course, there is government policy and then there is reality.
What does mutual respect mean when individuals take up assault rifles and kill unarmed journalists in a newsroom, or kill an unarmed soldier standing guard at a war memorial? Words and cartoons challenge and mock beliefs but they don’t kill.
Another writer declared – in an online group for writers – that we writers should strive not to “offend” people. Really? The whole point of having freedom of expression is to be able to write and say things that challenge the status quo and current beliefs.
If Galileo was afraid of “offending” the Church he would never have turned his telescope to the sky and used scientific evidence to prove that the earth was not the centre of the universe.
If Nellie McClung and other suffragettes worried about “offending” men, women would never have earned the right to vote in Canada.
If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worried about “offending” the Washington political elite they would never have exposed Watergate and the criminal actions that were used to elect Nixon to the White House.
And just so you can’t accuse me of bashing America, there is increasing evidence that the current Prime Minister of Canada has been muzzling government scientists, especially in regards to climate change and the dangers of the oil sands projects. The current Canadian government also loves to use so-called “omnibus” budget bills that slam through a huge number of government policy changes that most Canadians know nothing about and certainly don’t have any say in.
A free and democratic society requires freedom of expression and this means taking the good with the bad. I have the right to express my research, thoughts and opinions that just might offend you. But you have the same right to express yourself and possibly offend me. Modern society requires some give and take, some bad along with the good. The freedom to offend and be offended, but not to kill.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about how we censor ourselves or allow ourselves to be censored in our personal lives. Last week, I started reading The Warrior Woman by Maxine Hong Kingston. This loosely defined memoir begins with an imagined account of the author’s aunt, who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage and committed suicide by throwing herself down a well. The aunt’s behaviour had brought shame to the family and the family responded by attempting to erase her from their collective memory, so Kingston had to use fiction to try to imagine what her aunt’s life had been like.
It is possible that Maxine Hong Kingston offended her family by publicly sharing the aunt’s story, even if it was somewhat fictionalized. But I think by sharing the aunt’s story, Kingston did more to help countless immigrant women and their daughters challenge traditional cultural and gender roles, thereby achieving personal freedom. And yes, these women likely “offended” their families and communities by wanting to break free of traditional roles.
This brings up the whole issue of challenging patriarchy – a whole blog post, or many – all on its own.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve been slogging away on a memoir about the time I spent living aboard a sailboat with my family as a teenager. Last summer, I discovered that several of my family members didn’t want to read the book. I was really hurt by this and it threw me into a tailspin. My family members weren’t blocking the publication of the book, but their lack of support put a wedge in our relationship.
After some thought, I decided to rewrite the book as a young adult novel. At first I thought this would appease them, but in the same way Maxine Hong Kingston used fiction to reclaim the memory of her aunt, I realized that fiction would allow me to tell a deeper truth. By fictionalizing the characters and events, I am free to explore what truly motivated a father to pull his two teenage daughters out of school and isolate them on a tiny sailboat.
Last week, I read excerpts from the diaries I kept during the sailing trip to a packed house at Dear Diary 3. It was an incredible feeling to tell complete strangers exactly how my teenage self felt about being squashed onto a sailboat. I’m going to make a video of my reading to share here in the next day or two, but I’ll summarize the experience by saying that living on a sailboat is more struggle and hard work than glamour.
We must all write what others think we should not write – whether we make that writing public or not. Maybe we will come off as insensitive or offensive to some, but we will set ourselves free.