Should I Tell Writers What To Say?

January 2019

For those of us who believe that life is better when expression is open and inquisitive, 2018 proved a depressing year.

On the far side of the world (but not so far away) journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in what seems like retaliation for his writing. Rodrigo Duterte, president of The Philippines, continues his attacks on journalists by leveraging the tax code against them. Writers who speak against regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are more likely to find themselves imprisoned than feted.

Canada is a freer country by far, but as we saw in 2018, even here at home free expression is confounded, questioned and (if you’re a true cynic) imperiled.

The clearest danger to the long-standing understanding shared by democrats—that free expression is the clearest path to truth, knowledge, and the good life—emanates from a vocal group of academics and writers. These people tend to view free speech as a tool of right-wing fascists and a social construct that reinforces traditional power structures.

I am unconvinced that free speech is so dangerous it must be curtailed. Certainly, extremists on the left and right benefit from the freedom to speak. But so does everybody else. So should everybody else. As writers in publications like this one have concluded many times over, we cannot easily censor people we dislike without silencing others who pose little or no threat. An over-class of censors is not the answer. The better answer is still to meet speech with speech and to tune out what you don’t want to hear.

I teach writing. Naturally, freedom of expression is a primary concern. As I see it, if I want new writers to investigate and understand the world, I must let them express what they discover about the world in their own language. Once they can do that, then we can talk about how to sharpen their knowledge and their sentences.

The writing generated in my classes usually reinforces my views that censoring expression is a bad idea. When given freedom, most writers use it well. Last term, I taught several writing courses in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Professional Writing and Communication Program. I spent much of December reading and grading hundreds of stories and reports. Most of the reading was pleasurable. I had one student write about how his grandfather’s death—the first death this writer had experienced—forced him to consider what his life means. Another student questioned her religion and found it wanting. And another wrote a history of the impoverished neighbourhood where he grew up and concluded that where a person comes from influences a person more than who they are.

These classes succeed because inquiry is open and free. Students can take risks and take up important questions. But the one consequence of giving writers their freedom is that they might say things I don’t like.

In one class, an Asian writer wrote about her “hatred” of white people. She makes this confession in an essay about working as a host at an American-style bistro in Vancouver. After a long, hot day, she becomes frustrated with obtuse white customers who constantly ask if the restaurant serves Chinese food (the hostess is Asian, so they must serve Chinese food here, right?). In a moment of frustration, the writer admits to herself that she hates white people. The story turns on the prejudice: the white customers stereotype her; she responds with her own prejudice.

I read the story with a mild sense of alarm. I’m white. I wondered if the student hated me too. I considered calling her out for her views, but in the end, I did not. In the story she admits to feeling bad for feeling this way. Now that she had articulated her hatred, she’d have to deal with it. Writing the story was one way of dealing with the feelings.

And then there was the report about a sex club. The writer visited the club on Thanksgiving evening and produced a story that is as unsexy as anything I’ve ever read. I read the story and wondered if I should have told the writer he couldn’t explore that topic. But what would have happened if I had censored him and the other writers in my classes?

First, I’d probably handicap their investigations. For example, the writer who wrote about the sex club discovered that sex clubs—hangouts for lonely, mostly unattractive people who have anonymous sex—are nowhere near as titillating as a teenage boy’s fantasies. The narrative ably critiqued the club’s assertion that its patrons represent “a community.” A real community, the writer suggests, founds itself on something other than promiscuous sex. If I had told this writer, who I knew from other classes, to keep his mind out of the gutter, he might have gone to the club just to spite me. As uncomfortable as I felt with his topic and some of what he wrote, it turns out that the best way out of the gutter was through its bottom.

And second, if I had told writers which beliefs, topics, and language was off-limits, I’d inevitably shut out certain students who might need to be heard by me, their teacher. I’d also reinforce the ludicrous idea that we need a class of people—like privileged white men, perhaps—to tell us what we can and can’t say.

And that doesn’t make for good learning or good writing.