By Dominique Blain
When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed its now-infamous Muhammad cartoons on Sept. 20, 2005, the world went into an uproar.
By February, the inchoate frustrations of an individual made it to the world-stage forefront and opinions (and some firebombs) started going off in all directions. A million different people sat alone in a million different chairs having conversations with no one, but giving their advice and opinion to everyone.
Many of them used their right to free expression to express that that right should be capped — surely not including their own opinions in the expendable mass of voices they sought to silence. And during the turbulent and violent roaring of the armchair experts around the world, important details were lost. I wonder if the implications of the events that unfolded closer to home during the first week of February will ever come to haunt us.
That week, all issues of student newspaper The Cadre were pulled from the stands for republishing the cartoons at the University of Prince Edward Island. At the same time, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax was being reprimanded by administration for posting the cartoons on his door. By the end of the week, the Canadian University Press sent out an e-mail to its members, including the Eyeopener, warning that based on a legal opinion, publishing the cartoon would be imprudent.
In the United States, as a result of publishing the same comics that same week, the editor of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois was fired in mid-March. On the campuses of bastions of higher learning throughout North America, repercussions for this deemed insubordination were swift and excuses abounded. Excuses, but not conversation.
The Eyeopener never published the cartoons, but I did start posting random historical images in our office windows to test whether all exercises in free speech are considered offensive in university settings. The images were historic and propagandist in nature. They were memories of eras when mentalities that are unpopular today prevailed, such as Aryanism and slavery.
The images were meant to promote discussion of the themes and how they apply today. I did discuss them with some students and the conversations were stimulating and intelligent. And yet within a week I was asked to pull down two of the images. I had insulted people, and someone at a desk in the Office of Discrimination and Harassment played the trump card: I had infringed on the people’s apparently inalienable right not to be offended or hurt.
Nevermind that, the images were meant to ensure that past wrongs were redressed; that the mentalities did not settle back into mainstream society. Nevermind that, I posted them on the premises of a so-called institution of higher and critical thought. Nevermind that, the collection of posters was prefaced with a message urging observers to think and discuss, rather than react and complain. Nevermind that, I was trying to get us to sit together on the great chesterfield of life and have a conversation.
It didn’t matter that freedom of expression was meant for incendiary and controversial opinions – not for stories about firemen saving kittens stuck in trees. In this case, my exercise in freedom of expression, despite its clearly stated critical objectives, was unwelcome on campus. I probably should have just gone ahead and put up the prophet cartoons.
I had deemed them anti-intellectual as social commentary about the Muslim faith, but they are most relevant as social commentary on the state of freedom of expression: Denying their existence or the opinions that created them is irresponsible and counters all arguments that we must cap our right to freedom of speech in order to protect ourselves.
Communication is absolutely integral to tolerance. Dogmatism will only cause backlash — such as the creation of culturally ignorant “political” cartoons — in the long run. Freedom of expression is the extension of freedom of thought. Unfortunately, as Soren Kierkegaard said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
I wonder what Kierkegaard would have thought of my accusers. I posted evidence of the seminal moments in history on the Eyeopener door, and the Office of Discrimination and Harassment wanted me to take it down. I shudder to think what the repercussions might have been had I actually used my freedom of expression to criticize, rather than remember. No wonder so many students this year have refused to speak to the Eyeopener on the record; they fear social and professional repercussions.
If freedom means the right to be unpopular, as American politician Adlai Stevenson said in 1952, then freedom certainly does not exist at universities. By extension, if the right to exercise your freedoms is not possible on a university campus in Canada, then our entire country is in a sorry state of affairs.
The current trend prevailing, freedom of expression will become the domain of the pseudonymous writer, ranting in her blog and propagating opinions for which she cannot be held accountable. It may as well be dead.
Freedoms were created so that we need not work in the shadows of society.