Aurora Citizen

News & Views from the Citizens of Aurora Ontario

Intimidation Breeds Intimidation

Posted by auroracitizen on November 29, 2010

Council Watch #18 – by Richard Johnson

I had to share a posting from tvo’s website. It sure does make you think… where do we draw the line and who should decide ?

Salman Rushdie: When censorship is mislabelled respect

Posted on: 25 November 2010 by Allison Buchan-Terrell

In the fourth chapter of Salman Rushdie’s new book Luka and the Fire of Life, Luka – the main character, a young man on a quest to save his father from eternal sleep by bringing the fire of life back from the World of Magic – comes across “a strange, sad land.”

And our hero is greeted by a rather ominous sign on the O-Fence (a large barbed wire barrier) that surrounds this land, “YOU ARE AT THE FRONTIER OF THE RESPECTORATE OF I. MIND YOUR MANNERS.” It is home to very thin-skinned rats who “take Offense very sharply indeed.”

It is here in this children’s novel that adult themes emerge. Perhaps because Rushdie hopes his works, like the Harry Potter series, will appeal to adults as well. In his first children’s novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories — written for his eldest son Zalaf immediately after Rusdhie went into hiding after the fatwa – Haroun struggles against forces within the world of magic determined to silence storytelling, which is very clearly connected to Rushdie’s real-life battle to speak freely.

In Luka and the Fire of Life, and particularly in the passage on the Respectorate of I, takes on what he sees as a grave threat to free speech: political correctness and censorship under the moniker of respect. A bit of pet topic for Rushdie.

In a BBC interview about this chapter, Rushdie said:

I think we live in a very timid age and a part of our timidity arises from our unwillingness to offend people. And, as a result, there are whole tribes of people now who define themselves by their offendedness. You know, I mean, who are you if you are not offended by anything? Nobody, or even worse, you are a liberal. And I just think this whole business of defining yourself by anger is very problematic and the idea that we all sort of bend over backwards not to induce that anger also becomes a problem and a kind of cowardice, if you like. And I think we just need to live in a more robust society in which people say things that other people don’t like and the answer to that is not to throw a bomb at them, you know, but to say “You know, I don’t like that much,” and get on with the next business.

Rushdie is particularly concerned about a new climate of censorship emerging where people are afraid to name things and call them what they are. Something he feels is happening not just in Muslim countries, but in the secular West as well.

He sees it in a bill put forward by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and in the furor over the Danish cartoons and Random House’s (his own publisher’s) decision to cancel The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Muhammad and his child bride, Aisha, over fear of Islamic reprisals.

In 2005, Blair put forward a controversial bill that sought to combat racial and religious hatred. He argued the new law was necessary in the post-9/11 world where Muslims, as a group, have been the target of racial attacks.

But Rushdie, and a rather unlikely counterpart – Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean, helped defeat it by one vote (as Rushdie points out, Blair went home early that day and missed the vote).

Rushdie recounts how Atkinson asked, quite politely, whether a sketch that aired on his program would be considered a hate crime under the new law. The sketch includes stock footage of Muslims praying at an Iranian mosque with Atkinson saying in a voiceover, “And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens.”

They were defending the right to shock, outrage and offend, which they feel is a fundamental part of the right to free speech and a legitimate form of creative expression.

Also in this spirit, Rushdie signed on to a manifesto in support of the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. He, and a dozen co-signers, argued that the violent response to the cartoons signaled a new tyranny hiding in the cloak of religion and that it should be called by its true name.

The question Rushdie wants us to consider is: how do we respond to intimidation? We must be careful he says not to confuse not printing or publishing something out of fear of protest and violence with respect. The problem with giving in to intimidation, he says, is that there will be more intimidation in the future.

In a democracy, he says, there is no absolute view of right and wrong. We argue about it all the time. At one time, we believed slavery was acceptable and later, as the argument developed (and included some bloodshed), we decided slavery is wrong. The argument, Rushdie says, is freedom. The argument is the end — not winning.

Are you concerned, like Rushdie, about a growing climate of censorship? If so, what can be done to stop it? Do you agree argument is at the heart of democracy?

20 Responses to “Intimidation Breeds Intimidation”

  1. Matt Maddocks said

    Great post RJ. The right of free speech is one I personally hold very dear. It is a fundamental Charter right for all Canadians. When Canadian author, speaker, and free-speech advocate Ezra Levant re-printed the Danish cartoons while he was publisher of the Western Standard magazine in 2006, he was hauled up in front of several Human Rights tribunals to face accusations of promoting hate speech (all “charges” were subsequently dismissed). There was at that time, a growing fear by the West of saying or publishing anything that would insult Islam. Their fears were warranted; embassies were torched and bombed, and by the end of 2006, more than 100 people had been killed in the name of protecting Islam. However, the cartoons were no longer the issue, but rather how the Western world would protect its fundamental free-speech rights when faced with radical Islamic violence. Journalists around the world took up the fight, decrying the West’s hesitance to stand up against the violence and intimidation as “cowardice masquerading as sensitivity”.
    But back to issues here at home, where a “chill-based” lawsuit has clenched its cold grasp around our town. Public debate and criticism of government has been active and accepted throughout history. The Aurora Citizen didn’t start this discussion, but is simply the latest tool people are using to share their opinions with each other. Articles, blogs, comments, and posts that are critical of governments and politicians are taking place right now around the world, every minute. In Chris Watts’ letter in this week’s Auroran, he cites a passage from Phyllis Morris’ election night speech from 4 years ago. On that night, Morris challenged the citizens of Aurora to be involved in, and to scrutinize council, to ensure delivery of good government. So it puzzles me, how she can now pursue a lawsuit that punishes 3 innocent Aurora families for doing exactly what she challenged all of us to do on the night she was elected.
    Winston Churchill said, “We shall never surrender”. The allies were fighting against Nazi invasion. We must also continue to fight, this time against litigious and vindictive attacks against our fundamental right of free speech.

  2. Anonymoose said

    “takes on what he sees as a grave threat to free speech: political correctness and censorship under the moniker of respect.”

    Richard, there is little chance of this in Aurora, or on any of the local political blogs. Our problem is the grave threat of offensiveness and rudeness under the moniker of free speech.

    Honestly. People here should ask themselves one simple question before posting anything. “Is this something I would feel comfortable saying to the persons face?” If it is not, then you might consider finding a another way to express yourself. I’m sure if people did this there would be a lot fewer posts on this site.

    I have to admit I am totally dumbfounded regarding how you found yourself on the short end of a law suit while some of the other “ass-hat” commentors here escaped that fate.

    • Kelli said

      Free speech can at times be offensive and rude – that is the reality of free speech. It is peoples opinions whether right or wrong – it is what they feel (and if they feel that way then it is not wrong to them). We live in Canada, one of the greatest countries in this world – go speak to a newly landed immigrant from Iraq, or Columbia, they will tell you how wonderful it is here, and how they are not afraid to live their lives the way they choose to do. Much like PM and GSK and others on this site (myself included)we have all been “judged”, and analyzed, and commented about – even insulted (GSK’s response to my most recent opinion about him) – but the beauty of it all is that we are allowed too, we can be different, we can speak our minds, and we can agree to disagree – but we have all these wonderful rights to do so.

      These are opinions and perspectives, just like you have the freedom to call our comments “ass-hat” – totally your opinion of which you are entilted to. This site has allowed you to do so – and you express your opinions for this site and us bloggers quite often so while I can see in many of your posts this site frustrates you and angers you, you keep coming back so this site, so it must be benefitting you, and your continued usuage of it continues to keep it alive – so thank you for helping all the rest of us bloggers contiune to have a forum that is diverse and interesting – we could’nt do it without you Anonymoose.

    • Having the Vapours? said

      “Our problem is the grave threat of offensiveness and rudeness under the moniker of free speech.”

      Rudeness is a “grave threat”?! Really? My, what delicate sensibilities you must possess – particularly for a moose. (Can one live such a sheltered life out in the wild?)

      Perhaps the moderators can provide a divan over in a corner of this blog so you can regain your composure. Maybe they’ll even throw in a Victorian lady’s fan.

    • Anonymous said

      Where is it written or guaranteed that we will never be offended by what people think, feel or say about us? If you are offended by someone, walk away and grow up. Here in Canada we have the opportunity to discuss, debate and rebut anything anyone says to us. That’s the beauty of this country with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms and yet all we seem to try to do is limit and channel it into something much more restrictive.

    • Richard Johnson said

      To Anonymoose said, November 30, 2010 at 1:07 am

      While I understand and fully respect anyone’s aversion to “colourful” language, I also have to admit that I personally think that Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce were often very funny and along those lines Chris Watts has something valuable to offer our community dialog even if one’s natural reaction may be to wince at times. In fact, I highly suspect that Chris’ communication style is a large part of why his readership is growing all of the time. It’s challenging and entertaining, even if you may not agree on every point being made.

      In general I hear what you are saying but I also personally find it amazing that we live in a society that values and protects freedom of thought and freedom of speech. If anyone doesn’t like what is shared on the AC or any other blog for that matter, then they are always welcome to look elsewhere for their commentary.

      If anyone wants to take a more broad look at larger freedom of speech issues stemming from Aurora Council then they may want to seek out the opinion of Grace Marsh, Alison Collins-Mrakas, Bob McRoberts, Evelyn Buck, Mr. Nitkin, and the town’s departed senior staff for more input in order to round out the picture beyond the version presented by some outgoing members of council who seem to think they treated others with due respect. The very fact that the Mayor and town are suing residents in the fashion they are also seems to me to justify some very strong feelings on the part of many, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as well as my wife.

      Having said all of the above, I too hope that we can all take the poison out of our clearly polarised political discussions which I can only conclude have been the direct result of two terms of highly dysfunction and sometimes unprofessional behaviour stemming from our town hall. In that regard, the changing of the guard tomorrow is one giant leap in the right direction, if you ask me !!!

    • Anonymoose said

      “Having the Vapour” the words I used were chosen specifically to mirror the opinion of the original post. It’s a literary effect. The core point I was trying to get across I stand behind, though you shouldn’t take the precise words I used completely literally.

      To the other commentators. I am certainly not speaking against anyone’s right to free speech. What I am saying is that people are using their right to free speech as an excuse to be a dork. You have to understand that these are two entirely separate and unrelated rights, and while free speech, allows people to contribute important viewpoints, being a dork rarely does.

    • Wisely said

      But the problem is one person’s “dork” is another persons Shakespeare – who are we to judge – free speech means each person can decide for themselves…

    • Christopher Watts said

      to follow on Wisely’s train of thought:

    • KA-NON said

      I get the dork thing. People CAN be dorks. Not always, but often, dorknicity is universally recognized, and not, therefore, confused with Shakespeare.

      That said, the way to deal with a dork is to say “you, sir/madam, are a dork”. The way NOT to deal with a dork is to run to the authorities to say “please silence the dork”.

      In the (para) words of John Stuart Mill, “The Dork will out!”.

  3. Mr. Spock said

    From the BBC intervieww… “I think we live in a very timid age and a part of our timidity arises from our unwillingness to offend people.”

    I guess ol’ Salmon ain’t never read the Aurora Citizen.

    Sounds pretty frishy to me…

    • Richard Johnson said

      You’re entitled to your views Mr. Spock and I highly doubt that anyone from this blog plans to sue you for holding those views.

      If you honestly believe that the outgoing Aurora council demonstrated the highest possible level of civility and respect for diverse views then I suspect that there is not much that anyone can likely do to convince you otherwise.

      I’m just thankful that a vast majority (i.e. 79%) of voters sent strong message, even if the message was clearly not heard by some.

    • Mr. Spock said

      Dick Johnson,

      My point was that not a whole lot of the people on this blog diplay much timidity at all. Many of them are unwilling to stand up for what they say, posting anonymously and all…but timid, in my view, not so much.

      And no, I’m not afraid of being sued. I’m not sure where you get that from.

      Not much point in anyone trying really, I don’t resort to name calling or insults, and everything I do post is either a verifiable fact or an opinion, and usually described as such, so I’m not worried at all.

      And no I don’t believe that the outgoing Council always “…demonstrated the highest possible level of civility and respect for diverse views…”
      Far from it. And as such I don’t need convincing either way.
      And besides, if you don’t get the point, there is less hope for you than I feared.

      You and Broderick need to get out more.

    • Richard Johnson said

      “Not much point in anyone trying really, I don’t resort to name calling or insults, and everything I do post is either a verifiable fact or an opinion, and usually described as such, so I’m not worried at all.”

      FYI… I once said the same thing Mr. Spock.

    • Kelli said

      Mr. Spock – don’t you get tired of being a hypocrite??? Your points always bite you back – do you do that on purpose? because the way in which you deliver your points do not resinate as you attack others for a certain behaviour and then display the exact same behaviour you have just attacked – just curious about your reasoning?

    • Broderick epps said

      Mr. Spock wrote “I don’t resort to name calling or insults, and everything I do post is either a verifiable fact or an opinion, and usually described as such, so I’m not worried at all.”

      So its okay for you to have an opinion, but nobody else. Kelli’s response (Dec1)puts it best
      look up the word hypocrite.Thats you!

    • Mr. Spock said

      Now now everyone, take a deep breath and relax.

      It’s time you all started to look for something you seem to have lost*…

      …your sense of humour.

      Please do your best to reaquire it, life will be a whole lot more pleasant. For everyone.

      *…for some lost, for others, never seemingly to ever have had…

    • Wisely said

      Oh now I get it Spock you’re the court jester

  4. Publish and be damned said

    The majority of us are responsible for our individual acts. We should exclude those adults who are mentally impaired, for whatever reason or circumstance.

    We can only act in a responsible fashion if we respect and treat others as we would have them respect and treat us.

    Once we deviate from this approach to life we open the door wide to all sorts of abnormal behaviour. Mr. Rushdie has been the victim of his own creative success. Censorship is a form of deviant behaviour, as are intimidation and violence.

    Unfortunately we are all guilty of some abnormal acts during our lives, some quite insignificant, others not, and thus no one of us is free of blemish so as to be able to judge our fellows impartially.

    We cannot rely on our neighbours or our law enforcers or our politicians to act with total responsibility. I am not sure anymore if even the clergy is qualified.

    Thus we are left with our judges, but as we all know, even some of these, though elevated to high position, can be morally corrupt.

    So how do we embrace and practice democracy and creative expression? Is it by argument or by constant discussion, or…?

    Good questions, ones to which we consistently strive to find a satisfactory answer, one that continues to elude us.

    But we must continue to seek that answer.

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