In the first days after the horrible shootings at Littleton, Colo., and Taber, Alta., the experts spoke, the openline shows and letters-to-theeditor pages were deluged, and the following emerged as the things to blame for the tragedies: parents; copycats; the media; the Internet; guns; the free-love generation; gun control; the bombing of Serbia; large schools; the movie The Matrix-, permissiveness; conformity; the movie The Basketball Diaries-, the loss of family values; education cutbacks; the rocker Marilyn Manson; violence on television; bullying in school; the rock group KMFDM; the improper storage of firearms; the 40,000 killings children will see on television and in the movies by the time they are 18; cults; loners; the lack of counsellors in schools; the movie Natural Born Killers.
Not as many possible solutions were available, although some of them were creative, such as the repeated playing of a song called Drop Your Guns by the vintage Canadian rock group April Wine.
Merely listing the putative causes shows how broad and inescapable are the influences to which kids (as well as adults) are subjected in this complicated and violent age. And merely reading the list should demonstrate that no single factor can be blamed. Various influences come together, either to twist a mind, or to give an evil direction to a mind that is already twisted.
So the question is: what are we doing to drive people crazy? And how do we stop?
It is here that the question of censorship enters the discussion, sometimes raised by well-meaning citizens who fear the impact of strong lyrics, pornographic books and magazines, violent movies and TV programs, and sometimes raised by people who are simply uncomfortable with modern means of expression and will use any event as an excuse to roll back the clock.
But with the multitude of potential influences at work, it should be clear that no single book, no single song, no single movie can be shown to have caused an evil act. The other factors that cause the madness have to be present, too. Merely taking away the book, movie or song will not solve anything.
The censors are barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes, in fact, the most violent works can be shown to have social value, because they help us to understand violence. That is not to say that they all have value. The anti-censorship forces sometimes blunder into a trap of their own making by treating something as great art merely because an attempt is being made to suppress it. They then wind up having to defend the indefensible, rather than merely having to defend the principle.
There were walkouts and cries of protest during a reading from Lynn Crosbies novel Paul’s Case at a recent gala fund-raiser for PEN Canada, an organization devoted to defending freedom of expression around the world. The novel takes the form of a womans letters to the imprisoned Paul Bernardo, the letters improvising freely and often graphically on themes and details brought out in the trial of the sex murderer and multiple rapist. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders said that “true supporters of free speech, after all, must support most staunchly those works that they most detest.” Most people accept that thought, which has been reflected in most of the big freedom of expression cases in recent memory. To defend freedom of expression, it has been necessary to defend Ernst Zundel and Larry Flynt.
There’s another thought that you don’t hear often enough when the issue of freedom of expression arises. It is that those who defend freedom of expression have an obligation to promote quality of expression as well. Defending bad books may be necessary, but let’s not, in the process, kid ourselves that they are good books. Larry Flynt may have every right to publish Hustler, but the world is not necessarily a better place because he does. Readers can refuse to buy it and writers can refuse to write for it without anyone’s freedoms being compromised.
Back at the PEN gala, The Globe and Mail writer speculated that “even the people who walked out would fully support Lynn Crosbies right to publish and distribute her novel.” There’s no question about that. In a democracy, the right to publish and distribute is not seriously questioned and should be vigorously supported. But to assert that is not to say that every novel deserves publication, every song deserves recording or every movie deserves distribution.
Should Natural Born Killers have been suppressed? Of course not. Should it have been filmed in the first place? That’s a better question. The question applies to quite a bit of mass culture at this time in history. You don’t have to accept the argument that movies cause murders to agree that a lot of truly horrible movies are being made. The same goes for books and songs.
The publishers and studios and those who create the products they market cannot pretend that what they put out has no impact. Those who defend freedom of expression should also demand the production of works that are worthy of being defended. The line is not an easy one to draw, nor should the power to draw it be concentrated in a few hands. All artists should have it, and use it.
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