Why I joined Writers Speaking Out Loud

Bestselling author Dennis Lehane is a member of Writers Speaking Out Loud.  Why aren't you?

Bestselling author Dennis Lehane is a member of Writers Speaking Out Loud. Why aren’t you?

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.

Replacing political rhetoric with blame rhetoric

I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to comment on the horrible events in Arizona this past Saturday because I hate getting too serious, but I now feel compelled to comment because there are some who want to use the shooting to limit free speech..  A gunman walked into a public event hosted by a congresswoman, Gabrille Giffords and opened fire.  In the end, six were killed and as many as 15 were wounded.  The congresswoman was shot through the head, but thankfully, as of this writing, is still alive. Early indications are the congresswoman was his main target. Why she was his target is murky, but I am of the belief it wasn’t because of her political ideology.

The gunman was a mentally ill kid who demonstrated highly volatile behavior on more than one occasion.  His community college even tried to kick him out of school.  How do I know he’s mentally ill?  Because I watched a video where he claimed the government was using grammar as a mind control weapon.  He also was angry because he wasn’t allowed to introduce a new symbol into the English language and numeric system.  He showed classic signs of schizophrenia.  My guess is he targeted Congresswoman Giffords because of her job not because of her political party.  She was the highest profile person that worked for the government in his area.

Some say that political rhetoric is to blame for this tragedy, that this kid was somehow influenced by right wing hate speech.  I say the following as someone who has left wing views on most social issues, that’s a bit of a stretch. The kid was influenced by his mental illness. I’m concerned that we are looking for someone to blame here other than the boy and his mental illness.  Congress has taken the opportunity to create a bill that would make it illegal to threaten a member of congress.  It sounds like a sensible bill, but the word “threat” will be open to interpretation, and history has shown us when a law is open to interpretation it can and will be abused.  For instance, the now infamous cross hair images of members of congress on Sarah Palin’s website could be interpreted as threats.  I am no fan of the former Governor of Alaska, but the images are not threats.  They were in bad taste, and we shouldn’t be surprised that she didn’t have the common sense to not use the images on her website, but they are not the reason Congresswoman Giffords lay in a hospital bed right now with a bullet wound to her head.

We should all feel angry over what this young man did, but we shouldn’t let our anger get the best of us. This was not an example of “free speech” run amuck.  This was an example of what a diseased mind can accomplish given the right (or wrong) tools.  Giving our lawmakers the power to interpret what qualifies as free speech opens a dangerous door that we may not be able close.  It’s not the answer.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but we can all start by not replacing political rhetoric with blame rhetoric.

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