The pitfalls of policing what people say and think

To argue that writers may not write from the perspective of another culture limits the broader culture’s imagination and understanding

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Robert Price on free speechTORONTO, Ont., May 17, 2017 /Troy Media/ – It was a poorly lobbed joke that went off in Hal Niedzviecki’s hand.

Last week, Niedzviecki wrote in a column for Write magazine that he was “exhausted” by the immutable whiteness of white Canadian authors.

As a cure to this affliction, he proposed a contest to encourage writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

He called it the Cultural Appropriation Prize.

Battle lines quickly formed in the sewage of social media.

On one side, a phalanx of writers argued for freedom of expression. Some started fundraising for the appropriation prize.

On the other side, a contingent of critics, including many indigenous writers, accused Niedzviecki of encouraging whites to steal (i.e. appropriate) indigenous culture. First the settlers stole our land, they said, and now Niedzviecki is telling them to steal our stories.

As much as Niedzviecki’s friends wanted to defend him personally, they knew they couldn’t defend his idea. It was unseemly.

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But so too was the response of some indigenous writers who said Niedzviecki had threatened the existence of their cultures. These writers know as well as anybody that indigenous cultures are strong enough to withstand a dumb contest mused about in a magazine nobody reads. Indigenous cultures, despite what these writers implied, are not fragile.

(It should be said that Niedzviecki, a longtime prisoner of the CanLit scene, never specifically targeted indigenous people in his column.)

The historic injustices indigenous people have faced can’t be dismissed but with regards to storytelling, the facts have changed: What happened to indigenous storytellers in the past is not happening to them now.

With the range of low-cost print and digital publishing tools available, nobody is silenced unless they silence themselves. Whether a writer will be heard by fickle readers is another matter.

So if a writer wants to write from another cultural perspective, let her. If the story is respectful, accurate and acknowledges its origins, what harm can come? And if it’s badly written, say so. The correct response to offensive words: better words.

In an open society, people should be allowed to write badly – about their own culture or another, no matter what historical baggage the society may carry.

The alternative – policing what people can say – can’t in the long run benefit open societies. Canadians get along because we know each other’s cultures. To argue that writers may not write from the perspective of another culture limits the broader culture’s imagination and understanding.

There is a larger danger. If we say a culture’s stories are off-limits, we create conditions where a culture’s ideas can be placed off-limit.

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Call that a slippery slope if you like but it’s not an outrageous stretch. The antagonists among us want to silence discussion. They’ll be the first to place their cultures and practices off-limits to criticism.

Follow the logic. If we prohibit a writer from writing from another cultural perspective, we can prohibit him from criticizing that culture’s ideas. And so Palestinians cannot criticize Israel, non-Muslims cannot criticize Islam and so on, forever, as walls go up around every culture in our society.

One last note.

By the end of the week, Niedzviecki had quit his position at Write. He might have quit by choice or the mob might have got to him. Jonathan Kay, who took shrapnel defending Niedzviecki, quit his editorship of The Walrus.

The fact that writers in Canada are expelled from the public square for having opinions some consider gauche is unacceptable, particularly at a time when journalists in Turkey and China are jailed – or worse – for writing their opinions.

To writers who care about free discussion: let’s not let it happen here again.

Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. 

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