This is Freedom to Read week, which is an important time because it’s when we get to talk about how crappy censorship is. It’s about intellectual freedom and the rights we all have as Canadians to read what we want to read, and, perhaps more importantly, to say what we want to say. This is probably the most important right we have in democratic societies. We have the freedom – the *right* to criticize our government. We have the right to disagree with the church, or indeed to not have to observe any specific religion or any religion at all. This is huge. This is a lot of power.
Intellectual freedom is the right to have whatever ideas you want. To express those ideas. To disagree with others’ ideas. It’s the right to have access to information, even if it’s information your government or your parents or your church doesn’t like. It’s integral to any free and democratic society.
Lots of folks say they think censorship is bad, but then they start qualifying it. Like they say, “well, sure, you have the right to say what you want but there have to be rules; children shouldn’t be exposed to pornography”. Dear God won’t someone please think of the children. I can think of at least a dozen things that a kid could see that’s worse than boobs and schlongs and pussy. People will say “you shouldn’t be allowed to say things that are offensive”, and they’re wrong.
We already have laws to protect children from boobs and schlongs and pussy. You know, the really DANGEROUS things. We have laws to protect people from exploiting children, so we have, I assure you, already thought of the children.
When it comes to what you should and should not be “allowed” to say, the only thing you shouldn’t be allowed to do is to advocate violence. And guess what!? In Canada, you *aren’t* allowed to advocate violence! You’re also not allowed to promote hate! But, like, let’s look at all the things you ARE allowed to say!
…actually, that’s a lot of things. If you take advocating violence and promoting hate out of the equation, you can actually say ALL OF THE OTHER THINGS. That’s pretty cool, when you think about it.
All of that is pretty straightforward, and if you’ve been around here for any length of time, you’re probably tired of hearing me go on and on about the importance of free speech and intellectual freedom. So I’m going to throw a wrench in the gears. Let’s talk about publishing.
Saying things is one thing. Being able to read what you want is one thing. But what if you’re a publisher, and you’re making a business decision about the commercial viability of a book? Publishers aren’t in the business of publishing just for the sake of being able to see a book with a cover on it. Publishers do what they do because that’s their business. Every book that’s out there is out there because someone thought it would sell.
So why would a publisher produce a book with offensive or distasteful content? Why would a publisher choose to produce something like Colin Thatcher’s account of how he didn’t murder his wife (Colin Thatcher was found guilty of murdering his wife in 1983; after his parole in 2006, he wrote a book proclaiming his innocence. That book was published by Canadian publisher ECW Press in 2009, prompting the Saskatchewan government to enact legislation similar to laws in several other provinces making it illegal for someone to profit from talking about their crime. Thatcher relinquished the advance he’d received from his publisher to the Saskatchewan government, and the publisher forwards all royalties from the sales of the book to the Saskatchewan government.
Currently there’s hullaballoo about convicted serial killer Wassisname Picton in BC writing a book professing his innocence, which was published by someone in the States who claims not to have known anything about the crime. The rumour is that Wassisname penned the book while in prison, and *smuggled the manuscript out* (I don’t know why he’d have to do this, since it’s not illegal to send mail from prison, and it’s not illegal to write books about what you did, and it’s not illegal to write fiction (such as “I didn’t do the thing I’ve been convicted on several counts of doing”). I’m not sure if I believe the whole espionage/smuggling a manuscript out of prison angle, but I also don’t really care. I’ve heard people are up in arms about why this book was “allowed” to be published. Why Colin Thatcher was “allowed” to publish his fictional account of his own innocence.
They’re ALLOWED to write what they want because they have rights. Their publishers are ALLOWED to publish those manuscripts because it’s not illegal to publish offensive stuff. It’s not illegal for people who have done horrid things to write about those things. Why would someone publish that? Because people will buy it. Because people want to read it. Because we sensationalize crime. 2/3 of the programs on cable television are true crime or serialized crime fictions. People want it, so businesses capitalize on that demand. You might find it distasteful or even morally wrong (but don’t lecture me on the morals or ethics of business practice if you’re also going to lecture me on how there’s nothing unethical about exploiting your employees and refusing to let them unionize), but that’s business. If someone will buy something, someone will sell it.
Should convicted criminals be able to write about their crimes? Absolutely. Should publishers be able to publish those books? They must be able to. Should they profit from the proceeds of the books?
That’s a question I can’t answer. Or rather, that’s a discussion for another time.
The point I’m making is that yes, people should write what they want, and there’s nothing wrong with publishing anything that isn’t promoting violence or hate.