On Self-Censorship As A Canadian Preoccupation

There are always going to be thin-skinned readers, but writers who self-censor for fear of offending said readers suck more. #canada

This was going to be a missive sent over Twitter. Then I thought, what if someone replies to me, calling me out? What if someone says:

@m_cahill Care to name names, or are you AFRAID OF OFFENDING SOMEONE? #jerk

Allow me to elaborate (and do it in an environment I can totally control without distorting my message due to a 140-character limit).

Two articles in the last week were sources of outrage among certain parts of the online world, particularly on Twitter, where it’s particularly easy to express outrage*. The first was Ian Brown’s essay on men gazing at women in the Globe & Mail. It elicited a lot of criticism, from feminists who were offended by the objectification of women to people who simply construed Brown’s perspective as creepy in a Lolita sorta way.

My partner and I began talking about some of the anger we saw in our respective Internet social circles. I felt a lot of it was overblown. Predictable, actually (sadly). And yet I agreed with Ingrid, who reminded me that there is something to be said about “the gaze” which women historically have been on the other end of. In other words, it was a complex issue. All said, something I found admirable in Brown’s piece (and his writing in general**) was his forthrightness. Unlike so many writers there was no effort made to allay the concerns of the entire reading public that he wasn’t trying to offend anyone.

Another example is a commentary published in The Grid by Liam Eagle. In it he deconstructs (albeit within a 200-word limit) the problems of poetry and how poetry always seems to fall beneath popular culture’s radar. It starts off a little sassy and posturing, but makes an interesting point about how to appreciate sincerity in an age of irony-soaked commentary. Well, if you read the comments, you would think he was setting fire to Robert Frost. And I must admit, I found the comments – many from poets – to be thin-skinned and precious. This wasn’t helped by Eagle going back and contextualizing his argument in the comments section, a move I thought totally unnecessary.

So many Canadian writers/intellectuals contort themselves like Beijing Circus acrobats to not offend anyone. What I admired about Brown’s style is that he puts his opinions on the table without the awkward socio-political qualification I’ve come to expect from so many others. His essay was many things to many people: to me, it was clear and unapologetic.

“This is not to say that I eat babies, but I liked this book.”

“First, I’m not arguing for drinking lighter fluid, but I don’t get LinkedIn.”

Part of this national reticence may have to do with our big-country/small-population make-up. We’ve all gotta get along, in other words. I get that. We don’t have room for a lot of the fractious, ridiculously partisan, divisive bullshit I see south of the border. Don’t get me wrong: we have it, but it’s small and easy to objectify. It may very well be proportionate to what’s in the U.S. (but I’m not exactly hoping, let’s put it that way). Canada is many things: it’s an idea-in-the-making, it’s uptight, it’s liberal in spite of its conservatism. What we are changes with the weather (and we have a lot of that, too) †.

It’s ok to be self-conscious, to wonder aloud if something you are doing may be taken the wrong way. But the fact is, you are only responsible for what you do and say. You are not responsible for how people react to it. I wish we would be more mindful of this.



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* Arguably, one of the strengths of Twitter as opposed to posting comments on websites is that it’s more difficult to post anonymously on Twitter than, say, your average newspaper’s comments section. If you piss someone off on Twitter, your name is right there and if you are hiding then people will diss you – trolls get ostracized quickly on Twitter (and alleluia to that).

** His book, The Boy In The Moon, won the Charles Taylor Prize.

† However, the absence of a singular culture does not mean we lack identity or a sense of being. Canada is not a Camus novel.


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