*ALEX JAMES UPDATE: See additional comments at the end of this article addressing new developments*
Crisp autumn weather? Check. Tasty Irish Cream coffee? Check. Impending head cold due to barometric pressure change? Check. Healthy dose of righteous indignation courtesy of reading ten seconds of news? Double-fucking-check.
When I was in university, I enjoyed very few intellectual debates worth mentioning. Most of my fellow students, especially in first year, took obligatory English courses to fulfil degree requirements, not because they wanted to be there, so their input into class discussions was cursory at best. One particularly bright bulb caught my intention, however. During a discussion about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this student suggested the novel “trivialized the plight of black slaves” and that we shouldn’t read books that use racial epithets or deal with racial themes in anything but a progressive, liberal way.
I was thunderstruck to say the least. Here we were in a school of continuing education, in a class devoted to the breaking down and understanding of literary devices and content analysis, and this guy is spouting head-in-the-sand rhetoric about one of the most widely-acclaimed pieces of writing in Western canon. I couldn’t contain myself in the face of this terrifying ignorance, so I read the guy the riot act. I don’t remember exactly what I said anymore, but the two most prominent points in my argument were a) Heart of Darkness wasn’t a story about the “plight of black slaves”, so there was no logical reason for Conrad to highlight that element of his setting just because a bunch of politically-correct university students might castigate his choices a hundred years later, and b) banning books whose content we find offensive based on current sociopolitical trends is an open invitation to forget the mistakes of the past – a fundamentally dangerous move.
I stand by that statement today. Just because we (and by “we” I’m referring to guilty white middle-class liberals) might find certain parts of our history icky or otherwise unpleasant to reflect upon doesn’t mean they didn’t occur, and it’s irresponsible at best to ignore them, ban their representation in art, or in any other way pretend they didn’t happen.
Which is why I was so incredibly incensed this morning when my friend (and regular SOA) reader Dwayne sent me this article from Toronto’s CityNews website.
For those of you who don’t feel like reading anything other than my fabulous prose (and really, who could blame you?) the gist of the article is that a “concerned parent” at Malvern Collegiate out in the Beaches has decided Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird is offensive and not appropriate for student consumption, so for the ninety-billionth time in history, this parent is trying to get it banned from his or her child’s reading list.
Are we still this Neanderthalic in our day-to-day thinking? I mean, I’d expect this from the Americans – they’ve been burning books and rewriting history since 1776 – but this is Canada, and more to the point, Toronto is quite possibly the most multicultural, cosmopolitan city in the whole country. And still we have to deal with the plaintive whining of a bunch of back-woods, education-phobic troglodytes whose opinions we have no choice but to entertain because despite their best efforts we’re still a democratic nation.
It’s incredible to me that we are even contemplating this suggestion. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in high school, as most people in my generation did, and I was struck by the powerful moral message it delivers. It’s one thing to read a story like that as a piece of fiction – in fact, I’d go so far as to say if the so-called “n-word” was being used just for shock value in the story, I might lean more towards advocating its removal from the curriculum. But it isn’t fiction – the kind of discrimination depicted in the story actually took place. The whole idea that somebody could be tried and convicted with absolutely no evidence just because the colour of their skin denotes “shifty nigger who probably did something illegal anyway” to a bunch of inbred hicks is admittedly a portion of history most of us white folks would likely prefer to forget ever happened – but you know what happens when we do that?
Ever heard the old adage “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”?
This is only part of a larger issue in this country right now. Recently there was a case in Toronto in which the Turkish community took umbrage with Barbara Coloroso’s depiction of the Armenian genocide in her book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. The Toronto District School board bowed to pressure and removed the book from the Grade 11 curriculum, though the Armenian genocide would still be covered in that year. Publisher Patsy Aldana responded to this move in an open letter to the board and its trustees, in which she makes several outstanding points:
“What is offensive in your decision is that it reflects what seems to have become the TDSB’s habitual response to pressure – get rid of books that are “problematic.” This is a Grade 11 course – thus obviating the weasel words “age inappropriate” used in the THREE WISHES case. Is Barbara Coloroso’s argument unworthy of being considered, discussed, debated? Bernard Lewis is a noted Islamophobe and yet you seem to have included him in your course. Why not – isn’t the point of education to stimulate critical thinking? Or have you already decided what kids should think about this difficult topic in advance?”
Quite right Ms. Aldana. The point of education is to encourage critical thinking – or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. More and more, however, I’ve seen a trend that takes away from a child’s right to develop critical thinking skills – also known as thinking for yourself – in favour of towing the latest politically-correct line of thinking. Banning books like To Kill A Mockingbird in the interest of condemning racist thought is fundamentally Orwellian. Limiting language to “newspeak” didn’t stop Winston Smith from questioning Big Brother’s authority, and pulling award-winning books from the canon because they present the harsh reality of a morally bereft period of our history won’t stop kids from thinking about these issues. The problem is that if we don’t discuss them in a structured, educational environment, they’re free to come up with whatever opinions they can glean from their parents or the media at large, which ironically may not line up with the PC mindset the censors seem to advocate.
Think about it this way, since this is the hottest-button issue I can possibly use in this analogy. Imagine what would happen if we didn’t learn about something like the Holocaust. Imagine our educational institutions just ignored that entire portion of history, and kids had to learn about it from the so-called “streets”. I figure the result would go one of two ways. Either they would grow up wrongly believing the deniers who say it never happened, or they would go the other way and wrongly believe that German equals Nazi and every German on the planet is single-handedly responsible for genocide. There needs to be discussion and debate and informed conversation about these issues if we want to avoid our kids falling into extremist points of view.
Pretending something never happened doesn’t make it go away. Many of the touchy issues of the past are still relevant today, in different parts of the world: slavery, racism, bigotry – all of these issues are still very present. Even in North America, you have to look no farther than the continuing blight of homophobia to see that we haven’t outgrown our segregated mindsets of yesteryear.
In my opinion, if the Toronto District School Board is considering even tacitly supporting this kind of censorship, we have a very big problem on our hands. Because make no mistake – censorship is exactly what we’re discussing here. This from a culture that allows young children access to the cultural cesspool that is the internet – you’re telling me that horror movies, close-ups of hardcore bestiality and insane right-wing conspiracy theories are all okay, but a novel about racial injustice isn’t?
Alex James Edit
You’ll note if you read this earlier today, some of the text of this article has been changed. That’s because I misread a critical piece of information in my research — as it turns out, the Toronto Board has not yet made a decision about whether Mockingbird will be taken off the list. At this point a parent has brought it to their attention and that’s it. The issue in Brampton earlier this year, where the book actually was removed from the reading list, was a school governed by the Catholic board. CityNews didn’t make this clear in their article, so thanks to reader Mike for pointing this out.
We serve the truth around here, but not even I am perfect all the time. Hope this clears up the confusion.