“I am continually fascinated at the difficultly people have in distinguishing what is controversial and what is merely offensive.” Nora Ephron
A few years ago I was in Toronto doing a reading at McNally’s bookstore with authors, Mary Hagey, Ailsa Kay and Cordelia Strube. During the question and answer period someone in the back row asked (and I’m paraphrasing): “as authors do you write to garner controversy?” Because I tend to be opinionated (I know, I know, it barely shows), and have a big mouth, I said, “Controversial issues are the only ones I write about”. Basically, I want to write stories that provide new insight and make people think. And if some of what I write is considered controversial, that’s okay as long as it promotes discussion. I like discussion and positive action too.
I’ve had cause to think about this question again because of the recent attacks in Paris and the firebombing in Germany. And again, I came to the same conclusion. Yes, I do want my writing to get people talking and contacting me about the things they liked and didn’t like about my work. How do we learn from each other, take action to make positive change, if we don’t explore issues that are uncomfortable?
In pondering this question of controversy, I had to also define for myself the difference between controversy and offense. I’m not sure I have it figured out. But, in my opinion, work that inflames a situation and does nothing more than that is likely a work that has the potential to offend. And frankly I don’t understand it. For me, there has to be a higher purpose, a nobler reason. Call me naïve (it won’t be the first time), but I don’t believe in provoking simply to provoke.
In making an assessment of what I will watch or read, and even more importantly what I will write, I ask myself: does the work provide a different point of view, raise awareness about some new aspect, challenge me and others, encourage dialogue, promote discussion and constitute a positive call to action? If it does these things, it’s worth pursing and to hell with the controversy that might arise.
Furthermore, I think we have to question the purpose of printing images that serve no other purpose than to insult and incite. We already outlaw material produced by holocaust deniers as hate propaganda. No one cries foul play, raises the specter of loss of freedom and the erosion of democracy. So why should we treat images, such as those of a compromised Prophet Muhammad any differently? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s an important one to ask rationally.
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