3 min

What can’t be said

If you're scared to talk, government censorship doesn't make much difference

Your best friend walks into a party dressed in the most horrible shirt you have ever seen. He runs over to you, exclaiming, “Don’t you love it?”

You don’t want to embarrass or offend or hurt your friend’s feelings, so you mutter something like, “It’s fabulous,” or perhaps being somewhat more honest, “Where ever did you get it?”

You don’t tell the truth. You censor yourself. And there’s no harm done. It arguably makes you a better friend.

But there are plenty of ways that self-censorship does do harm, particularly if the folks doing the censoring wield some power.

It’s easy to see the appalling nature of government censorship, especially in such clearcut cases like the police charging organizers of the Pussy Palace women’s bathhouse or the Ontario Film Review Board banning Glad Day Bookshop from selling certain videos.

It’s more difficult to see how we censor ourselves all the time in conversations with each other and in the media we rely on to be uncensored.

When writer Timothy Findley died last month, many major dailies and TV networks didn’t mention that he was survived by his long-time partner, Bill Whitehead. A similar omission would have been unimaginable if Findley had been married. Within a day or so, The Globe And Mail had corrected its apparent oversight, and eventually even ran a photo of Whitehead kissing the Governor General at an event honouring Findley’s life.

In making A Beautiful Mind, this year’s Academy Award blockbuster about Nobel prize-winning (and slightly schizophrenic) mathematician John Nash, director Ron Howard choose not to mention Nash’s many affairs with men – he also choose not to mention that Nash’s wife left him – in an effort, probably, to make it a better love story. He wouldn’t want to offend anyone by telling the truth about Nash, would he?

Writers and directors must always pick and choose what part of a story gets told, but funny how it’s the gay stuff that gets edited out. It’s not so much an outright lie, as an oversight, an omission, a decision to not say something. It’s about sanitizing. To some, references to homosexuality are lurid details, erased before someone can find offence.

Then there’s what happens when folks do speak out. Look what happened to Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae when he denounced the police raid on the Pussy Palace as an act by “rogue cops” and “cowboys.” Not only did the cops sue him for defamation, but in a shocking jury decision, the cops won.

The cops won despite the fact that it was the outrageous conduct by the police that resulted in the charges against the Pussy Palace being dismissed. (A judge in an earlier case ruled that their conduct was unconstitutional.)

Rae’s jury concluded that the police officers’ reputation had been tarnished by Rae’s comments, sending a profoundly troubling message: Public officials should not speak out against what they perceive to be outrageous conduct. Or if they do, they better be cautious. They better choose their words carefully. They better sanitize their version of events.

In other words, they better censor themselves before any possible offence can be taken, like Ron Howard did with John Nash.

And people do. Kyle Rae, an outspoken advocate, has been severely reprimanded. And maybe muzzled. He will have to think carefully about what he can and can’t say next time the cops raid a bar or bathhouse. Other politicians and advocates will also have to think carefully about what they can say when police misbehave. Because we wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings – we could end up being sued.

Canadian defamation laws are particularly draconian, resulting in a lot of perfectly legitimate speech being stifled. They produce a world of self censorship in which we have to talk to our lawyers before deciding whether we can say something as obvious as denounce an outrageous act.

The threat of a lawsuit causes us to censor ourselves even before government itself steps in as censor. Freedom of expression is also about what we choose to say and what we choose not to say. It’s about what can be said, and what can’t be said.

I’m not suggesting that you march back to your best friend and publicly denounce his shirt. But when larger issues are involved – issues that politicians, filmmakers and journalists deal with – it’s another more insidious story.

And when we do it ourselves in the name of not offending anyone, it brings that insidious story home. Like when we don’t speak out about bad conduct, because someone is going to call us sexist, racist or homophobic.

Or when we try to tell others that they can’t say something because it’s offensive to us. It might be. But the threat of being called offensive stops people from speaking.

Most of the time, at least someone is going to be offended. Like when we say that Timothy Findley is gay, or that Jonathan Nash had relationships with men. Someone is going to be offended. So who cares? They can have their rant about being offended, and move on.

Self censorship may not carry the jail time and fines of government censorship. But it’s every bit as scary.

It might even be scarier, because it’s so pervasive and so invisible. Because we don’t know what you didn’t say.