Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred: they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer #137 (Februrary 26, 1754)
One of my favourite activities when I was head of the library at Carleton University was our celebration of Freedom to Read Week. Every year we put on at least the two core activities – an exhibit about freedom of expression and anti-censorship, and a public event on the main floor of the library where people read passages from books that had been banned or challenged in Canada. I always thought of it as poking censors in the eye: here we are in reading aloud in public from this book you want banned. Yes, it’s the early 21st century and some books are still banned and more often are “challenged,” usually by a concerned parent of a child attending a school where the library has a book in its collection that they consider inappropriate for one narrow-minded reason of another. The same thing happens in public libraries – and, I can say from personal experience, even in university libraries. The challenger usually wants the book moved to a more appropriate section of the library (e.g., from the young adult section to the regular collection), or sometimes wants it removed entirely from the library. Freedom of expression was and is a principle that’s very important to me and so I made sure that, with the help of staff in my office and throughout the library, we put on a good event every year.
There’s been a lot written in the last few years about the developing conservatism among young people (let’s say the youngest Millennials or the oldest of Gen Z), and a recent offshoot of that has been what’s called wokeness. Definitions of “woke” vary widely. It depends to some extent on whether you support the concept or not. Some people (I’m one of them) think of it as political correctness gone amok, whereas others believe strongly in it as, according to Merriam-Webster, being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
There was an excellent (and very clearly written) article about it published anonymously earlier this week by “an American educator” in The Critic (and reposted by Zero Hedge). I found it scary and angering. Some excerpts:
- “Schools are obsessed with sophomoric and divisive notions of diversity, equality, and justice; increasingly hostile to freedom of expression; addicted to cancelling anything that offends the woke movement; and prioritising activism over understanding as the goal of education.”
- “White or Western students are told not to participate in cultural traditions of non-white, non-Western people – the oppressors cannot participate in the culture of the oppressed. For example, several white students who wore shirts with African designs were reprimanded and forced to change their clothes. The fact that the shirts were a gift from their teacher, a black African man, made no difference. The students wore the shirts to show affection for their teacher and to honour his gift, but that was still cultural appropriation. In another instance, a musician was reprimanded for blending a western and non-western musical style into a new artistic expression. The musician was accused of cultural imperialism.”
- “Faculty are frequently pressured to identify their pronouns. Failure to identify one’s pronouns is seen as transphobic or cis-centric or both. Students can reassign their own pronouns at will. If a teacher mistakenly does not use the student’s preferred pronoun, the teacher is accused of misgendering. Misgendering is a serious offence, even a kind of violence.” (Cis refers to a person whose gender is the same as their sex at birth – e.g., I’m cis because I was born male and I consider myself male.)
- “In place of free-thinking young scholars, you will begin turning out a generation of woke activists who believe that feelings matter more than facts, that perception is reality, and that it is more important to judge a text than to understand it – where ‘judging’ means anachronistically interpreting the author’s words in light of the most recent woke orthodoxy.”
For a person just trying to live their daily life, this is bad enough; if you are a writer or practice any other art (like that culturally imperialistic musician) it’s a zombie abyss. I attended by Zoom recently a reading by two young playwrights of works in progress. One was a young white Jewish woman who had written a piece featuring a Chinese woman who operated a Chinese restaurant. There was a Q&A at the end, and someone asked if she had had a Chinese person do a “cultural sensitivity reading” of the play. I cringed a little, thinking that of course she hadn’t, and was disheartened that she said that was a very good and important question, and yes, she had.
The idea is that if you write about or in the voice of someone whose race, gender, culture, or other aspect of their personhood you do not share, then you need it vetted.
As I write this, that kind of attitude feels like ridiculous parody to me, and the fact is that it is directly counter to the principle of freedom of expression. A writer writes, an artist expresses, and they do not require anyone’s permission in the choice of their subject matter or voice. As a cis white male (the worst of the worst, by the way) I believe that strongly. Free speech is more important than being insensitive to anyone’s culture.
The anonymous teacher writes a fair bit in the article about what they call “sleep-wokers,” that is, someone who goes along with all the crazy rules that woke true believers make or claim to make, but doesn’t really think about it too much. “They are like religious folk who say prayers without thinking,” says the teacher. The “sleep” part reminded me of another disheartening story that I read this week, about a visual artist whose contribution to Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival was billboards with photos of people caught sleeping in public. Sounds innocent, right? Sounds like fun. But no. There was a barrage of complaints from citizens saying that the people looked like they were dead, and – save me, Jesus, on this Good Friday – the festival was forced to take them down. That’s sad and shameful and angering and heart-breaking all wrapped up into one. (Here are some of the photos.)
And that’s one of the dangers of being too woke or too sensitive: you lose tolerance for anything that upsets you, that moves you, that goes against your supposed values. That is not a good thing.