My oddest experience with Freedom to Read Week, the annual anti-censorship campaign observed in Canada from February 20 to February 26 this year, came during my stint in a Vancouver book shop. I was enlisted to collect a stack of titles to put in the storefront display along with a poster and other bumf announcing the festivities, and so I went around the shelves to scoop up all the usual suspects the bien-pensant classes rush to defend whenever some jerkwater school trustee finds a dirty word: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher In the Rye, The Diviners, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, et cetera. This was in 1997, though, so I also threw in a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the novelist still a target of a fatwa order which, at the time, was the most notorious manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism yet to outrage Western sensibility. Surely they couldn’t sink any lower! But my manager disapproved. “I don’t think we should put this one in here,” she cautioned gently.
“Well, Freedom to Read Week…” I shrugged.
“Yeah, but some people might get a little offended.”
I wish I could write that I immediately threw down my staff ID badge and resigned in the name of tolerance, liberty, and Freedom to Read, but instead I mumbled my acquiescence and got back to setting up the display. The Satanic Verses was censored out of the anti-censorship tableau, and there were no complaints from the Oakridge Mall’s community of Islamic fundamentalists.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the way free speech is celebrated in societies that supposedly enshrine it. It’s easy to defend statements that don’t bother us, even more so when the people they do bother are small-town yahoos we can safely ignore. So, yeah, absolutely, I stand for the freedom to read Heather Has Two Mommies, The Grapes of Wrath, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Lolita – only ignorant hicks wouldn’t. It’s a little trickier, though, when the speech is more likely to upset nice educated urbanites like ourselves. Would you act on the right to open up an issue of Hustler on a crowded bus? Can you check out the white-nationalist novel The Turner Diaries from your local library? Chapters-Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, has a policy of not stocking Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Who’s coming out in favor of Freedom to Read now? And let’s not even start on the, uh, controversies around cultural appropriation, Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, and Charlie Hebdo magazine.
Many commentators, ranging from legal scholar Alan Dershowitz to Salman Rushdie himself, have pointed out that the ideal of free speech is meaningless when it’s painlessly applied. We’re all for it when our personal sensibilities aren’t affronted or our personal security isn’t at stake, but we tend to equivocate when the words or images hit a political or cultural nerve. Literary masterpieces, progressive children’s books, and gay erotica – yeah, Freedom to Read! But racist propaganda, critical takes on fashionable causes, and blatant blasphemy – well, you know, it’s complicated.
This same bet-hedging, to be sure, is manifested in other contexts. Freedom of conscience lets us fly the Canadian flag at half-mast in the name of social justice, but the same flag flown high to protest vaccine mandates is shamed as a hate symbol. Freedom of assembly permits large gatherings to stand against climate change, but gathering to oppose mask restrictions is a national emergency. In each case, a supposedly universal right turns out to be pretty selective, depending on who’s invoking it. And so my issue with Freedom to Read Week goes to the unwritten codicil implied by what the program, as promoted by governments, schools, libraries, and squeamish book store managers, does and doesn’t endorse: maybe it should be renamed Freedom to Read (What Offends Nobody But Uptight Rednecks), or Freedom to Read (What Hopefully Won’t Provoke Violent Fanatics), or Freedom to Read (What Couldn’t Possibly Be Interpreted as Radical Extremism). I’m fine with freedom to read; it’s the Week dedicated to it I’m not sure about.
Oh, and the Prophet Muhammad? A big-time asshole, although I totally applaud his homophobia and his inspiration of suicidal jihadists. Let’s see who wants to freely read that.