Comments on freedom of expression by Alan Cumyn

Alan has very kindly agreed to let us post the speech he was prepared to give last night. Here it is, in full.

Thanks for inviting me to speak tonight; freedom of expression is a topic close to my heart. I have been thinking about it and working on the issue in a professional capacity for almost 20 years now. For most of the 1990s I was a human rights researcher at the Immigration and Refugee Board; for six years after I left the government I chaired the Writers in Prison Committee for PEN Canada (working to get writers out of prison around the world), and more recently I am sitting on the board of the Writers’ Union of Canada which has an ongoing interest in freedom of expression among other issues.

I would like to open my remarks by talking about China, and most particularly about Deng Xiaoping, who is remembered now in China as a great leader and especially a great pragmatist. He lived a long life; he was at various times at the top of the heap and at the very bottom, in jail for holding the wrong position when the political winds changed. In the late 1970s he rose to ultimate power a few years after Mao Zedong died, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. One of the sayings that is most closely associated with Deng is, “Seek truth from facts.” From a Canadian perspective this can seem both obvious and simplistic; basically Deng was saying, “Deal with reality.” This was in fact a radical proposal after the insane politicization of everything during the Cultural Revolution, when, for example school principals were forced to sweep the streets, and peasants from the fields were brought in to teach at whatever universities weren’t shut down yet. Deng rode the popular wave of the Democracy Wall Movement, led by an electrician named Wei Jingsheng, all the way to power. Then he slapped Wei into prison and threw away the key for nearly 20 years.

Deng was brilliant at talking out of both sides of his mouth — riding a democracy wave into power, then cracking down on Tiananmen, then opening the floodgates of capitalism. “Seek truth from facts” recognizes a fundamental truth about life for humans. For us there is the event and there is the story of the event, and the story of the event quickly becomes more important than the event itself. At the same time, we don’t entirely live in constructed reality — there is an objective reality out there, and every so often it cracks us over the head and we have to remind ourselves to seek truth from facts.

When I was growing up one of the sayings adults taught us was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Anyone who has ever spent time in the playground knows of course that this saying is quite untrue — words can hurt tremendously, and are extremely important.

That is why our parliament is currently shut down. The word “parliament,” of course, comes from “parler”, to talk, only our parliamentarians are not talking at the moment because the government does not want certain words to be spoken or read about the treatment of Afghan detainees. The fear of certain words has closed our parliament.

Rights and Democracy, our government-funded, arm’s-length human rights organization centered in Montréal, is currently in chaos over fear of words. Who knows what the true story is — I suspect a lot more is happening behind the scenes than what gets reported in the press — but it appears that the Rights and Democracy board has been stacked by the Canadian government in order to stop certain criticisms of the state of Israel’s human rights practices from being voiced. The staff is in open revolt; the battle over the story is ongoing.

In late 2009 US broadcaster and journalist Amy Goodman was detained at the border by Canadian officials, had her laptop confiscated, and was grilled over what she planned to say at the Vancouver Public Library later that evening at an event probably a lot like this one. She told them she was going to talk about climate change, the Copenhagen conference, the Iraq war, Afghanistan. What else? she was asked. Was she going to talk about the Olympics? She was confused. She said — do you mean whether President Obama should’ve pressed harder to get the Olympics for Chicago? No, the border officials said, about the Vancouver Olympics. Are you going to criticize the Vancouver Olympics? She had no idea what they were on about. Should I? she asked. It was clear to her that if she had said she was going to speak about the Vancouver Olympics at the Vancouver Public Library she would not be allowed into the country.

That was just a couple of months ago. This is Canada, not China, but the same dynamic is at play — words are important; there is a constant battle being played out over how to tell the story of a given event. We still need to seek truth from facts, because reality will crack us over the head if we don’t. Even with a relatively open society and relatively strong culture of debate, it can still take  generations after the scientific facts are clear for us to publicly recognize the health dangers of smoking. We have big brains; we are really smart. Our ability to lie to ourselves and to each other is profound. Yet we suffer even more when we don’t have free and open debate.

I’ll end with a personal story. The issue of freedom of expression of course is not just about politics, it’s not just about world events. Some years ago I was invited to a children’s literature conference in Lethbridge, Alberta. Many in the audience were teachers and librarians. I read from my first book for children, The Secret Life of Owen Skye, which is about young boys growing up a little wild in the olden days of the 1960s. At lunch I was seated with several teachers and librarians and was enjoying the chitchat when the woman next to me said, “I run a little school near here and reading is extraordinarily important to us. Every year we have our own contest in which the children get to vote for their favorite book. I would’ve loved to have put The Secret Life of Owen Skye on the list for the prize, but of course, I couldn’t.” Full stop. I chewed my chicken a little more, and then I said, “Why not?”

“It’s the Halloween story,” she said, “when they start to talk about… where babies come from.”

I couldn’t believe it. “In that story the boys have no idea where babies come from! They haven’t a clue what they’re talking about!”

“But they asked the question,” this woman said. “Children who read that story might ask the question.”

Words are important. Kids do ask questions. I know from personal experience as a father, and as someone who used to be a kid, that the birds and the bees discussion between parents and their children can be excruciatingly embarrassing for all involved. Sometimes the very best thing is just to leave certain books lying around. But if the books don’t get written, if they’re not published, if they aren’t on the shelves, if no one has access… then we’re taking a terrible risk that reality is going to crack us over the head before we knew what hit us.

© 2010 Alan Cumyn, http://www3.sympatico.ca/alan.cumyn

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