This morning I stumbled upon an article in the Charleston City Paper about the Facebook group Writers Speaking Out Loud. It was a fortuitous find given my post yesterday about censorship. Outrage over insensitive material (whether it’s universally insensitive or simply insensitive to a specific belief system) leads even normally rational human beings to make bad decisions. That’s what yesterday’s post was about. As abhorrent as rape and sexism are, to declare a book offensive that contain such elements without the aid of context is an abhorrent response.
To give you an example where such blind indignation can lead, I give you the situation that is currently taking place in my home state of South Carolina. Critical thinking is under siege in our state’s public universities. Now granted, the Palmetto State is not a bedrock of progressive ideas and institutions. We are under the thumb of an extremist political ideology that struggles to extinguish its own gas light dogma and usher in the 21st century. And, that’s the problem. The leaders of this group have inflamed their supporters and bullied politicians into cutting funding to colleges and universities that include what the group deems as offensive material on the educational institutions’ required reading lists. The works they find objectionable are gay and lesbian themed books. Slice it any way you wish, a move to cut funding for presenting ideas that go against your belief system is censorship. It cannot be allowed. That’s what Writers Speaking Out Loud is about. It’s a group of writers across the globe coming together to protest this move to silence and shame those in the gay and lesbian community.
Beyond the gay and lesbian themed material that’s raised the ire of South Carolinians, Clemson University was embroiled in controversy when it invited author Ann Patchett to speak at the university. Parents got wind that freshman at the school were being required to read Patchett’s book Truth & Beauty, and they protested because they considered it so pornographic that no 18-year-old should be forced to read it. Patchett’s response? To put it succinctly, perfect. She accepted the invitation and told the group of students the following:
If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades, all represent such staggering acts of human depravity and perversion that I could see the virtue of never looking at them at all … If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.
Her statement echoes what I said in my post yesterday. Out of context, the parents were under the assumption that Patchett’s book is a string of sexually depraved acts punctuated by the glorification of drug use. Put into context it’s not that at all. It’s a book about how society casts out those that are different and forces them to survive in a world that does not want them.
Context. Context. Context. It always matters.
The only idea that is necessary to shut down is the idea that only a singular idea need exist and guide society, and that all other ideas should be vanquished. If you’re a writer reading this, I urge you to join Writers Speaking Out Loud. I’ve ordered my t-shirt and will be posting a picture of me wearing it soon to show my support.