3 min

The necessary agony of free expression

Protecting the exchange of ideas on an individual level

Last September, the Danish conservative newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a dozen satirical cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As news of the shocking reaction from Muslim communities around the world continues to blare from every mainstream news outlet, I’m bewildered by the fury of the protests, the senseless destruction and waste of life.

I’m also bewildered that Western news services are so hesitant to show the cartoons that supposedly catalyzed this madness. When the mainstream news preposterously takes it upon itself to protect me from reality by failing to show the meat of a story-and these cartoons are key-as a child of the information age, I naturally turn to the internet.

The cartoons are easy to find in cyberspace and everyone should see them for themselves.

Queer people, especially, should seek out these images because there are parallels to be seen in them with the ongoing battle for simple queer expression here in Canada.

Once you’ve had a look at the Muhammad cartoons, you might drop by Little Sister’s and ask to see some of the queer cartoons that have been censored over the years by the Canada Border Services Agency, formerly Canada Customs. Buy something while you’re there, anything, and leave your change as a donation to the Little Sister’s Defense Fund.

Clashes in moral and cultural values aside, informed public discourse is a fundamental prerequisite for any kind of personal or societal growth. It’s also critical to the development of free and inclusive societies.

When ideas are censored, the effect, regardless of the intent, is that discussion ends. When discussion ends, tyrants have free reign.

We need only look to other countries around the world to see that we, especially as queers, have got it pretty good here in Canada. Nevertheless, the responsibility rests with us as individuals to protect, and build on, our own free expression at home and to promote it abroad.

Individually, we can protect our free expression by demanding the highest level of accountability and transparency from our elected officials. We can demand the whole story from a diversity of voices and interests in the media and in entertainment. We can search out diverse and alternative sources of information from around our communities and the world, and we can work to cultivate our own ideas and express ourselves completely on a person-to-person level.

The backlash to the Muhammad cartoons around the world and the ongoing struggle for queer expression in Canada are clearly agonizing but absolutely necessary.

There are two quotes I want to share with you before you go shopping at Little Sister’s. The first is from Flemming Rose, the editor who originally commissioned and ran the Muhammad cartoons, who wrote on the Jyllands-Posten website, Feb 19:

“When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy… The lesson of the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow.”

The second quote comes from Claire Trevena, NDP North Island MLA, speaking in the BC Legislature, Feb 22:

“We’re afraid to offend. We want to be inclusive. But if we live in a society where books are banned, are we far from a society in which books are burned? Are we far from a society where there are riots, where people are killed because people do not have freedom of expression?

“We cannot be smug,” she continued. “Here in BC we have our own ongoing debate, public arguments and court battles over Little Sister’s, the gay and lesbian bookstore in Vancouver, and their right to import books and magazines.

“We live in a world today where governments often try to govern through paranoia, by creating a sense of fear. That fear, that paranoia, leads to censorship and to self-censorship. Democracy should be treasured. Our democracy depends on free speech, on a free press, on the freedom to read and, with it, the freedom to challenge the accepted order.”