During my first tours of campus, I was bombarded with promotional leaflets and explanations of U of T’s significance as a breeding ground for ideas. I came away with the impression that these intellectual grounds were sacred, and that it was our job as students to analyze and question, in order to dispel ignorance.
And so I continue to question: lately, the question has been how some elements of our courses can be allowed to be investigated within the ethical framework of our university.
Namely, why are students taught pieces of literature with depictions of morality that directly contradict the code of ethics enforced on our campus? In these circumstances, I find it difficult to reconcile our responsibilities as students with our moral duties as human beings.
As an English major, one of the most formative experiences of my university education occurred when I encountered the infamous Vladimir Nabokov text Lolita, which centres on a man who preys on a young girl after becoming her stepfather. Prior to entering university, I was aware of the novel but felt my experience with it had been compromised because of how I first encountered it in the 1997 film adaptation of the same name.
However, I still found the subject matter intriguing, and English 101 seemed my chance at last. What was disconcerting, however, was that instead of dealing with the moral implications of the novel’s content, I was told instead to respect its aims and the quality of its prose. My professor briefly concluded that the subject matter of the novel was indeed controversial, but could still be appreciated for its risqué nature.
As part of a course on postcolonial literature, I also read J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. In the book, the character of Lucy, a rape survivor, expresses the view that she deserved to be violated, because she feels responsible for what she perceives as historical colonial injustices.
She and her father argue over the incident and whether or not Lucy’s rapist should be reported. Lucy’s father begs, “Lucy, Lucy, I plead with you! You want to make up for the past, but this is not the way you do it.”
Lucy muses in reply, “What if… what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something… Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?”
A postcolonial reading of this text allows us to examine whether Lucy’s rape might be perceived as deserved in some way because of the atrocities committed by her ancestors. This question is able to be explored in a classroom because the crime takes place within a work of literature that is rife with complex themes and ideas.
But I cannot help but question how out of place this discussion seems, given the degree of sensitivity with which issues surrounding rape culture are handled in every other aspect of university life.
Should real victims of crimes such as these also intellectualize and rationalize their experiences in this way? Certainly we would not expect this. Perhaps it is dangerous to even entertain the idea that we are able to find any rationale for these acts of violence, even within the context of a novel.
Contextualizing art and morals
I spoke to U of T Philosophy Professor Dr. Devlin Russell about considerations surrounding ethics in literature. “The view that ethical flaws in an artwork can actually produce aesthetic merit shows the importance and consideration in participating in these kind of discussions about art,” Russell said. “If it is true that ethical flaws have aesthetic benefits than they should be read and considered in spite of them,” he added.
Russell argued that there must be a way to “contextualize” this kind of work, at least within a classroom, by giving proper warnings and discussing the issues inherent with the work in question.
Still, what I found problematic about my experiences with Lolita and Disgrace was that both novels contain content that contradicts the values and ethics taught by our university. The lewd acts, expressions, and modes of behaviour that are explored in these books would undoubtedly be deemed unacceptable by the Code of Student Behaviour.
The content of Lolita, especially, was regarded as ‘artistic,’ because it had been bestowed upon us by Nabokov, who is considered a true literary force.
I asked myself what my own moral responsibilities were as a student, especially when dealing with literature in murky moral ground.
A few years ago, a publishing company in Alabama made headlines by replacing all instances of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn with the word ‘slave.’ If this epithet shouldn’t be used in teaching of the novel, why should the actions of Humbert Humbert of Lolita be given a free pass? I did not understand who was responsible for this arbitration and where the lines should be drawn.
We must ask ourselves where the boundaries of acceptability are for texts that contain this morally questionable content. To investigate, I examined the kinds of literature that are not being taught in classrooms, in order to gain an understanding of how far is too far and who or what has the final say.
I consulted the Canadian Border Service Agency’s Policy on the Classification of Hate, Propaganda, Sedition, and Treason, the only legal guideline I could find regarding ethically inflammatory works of art. The policy is designed to limit potentially harmful, obscene, or seditious written properties from entering or being supported by our country.
The policy states that “expressive” materials have been found to be protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of freedom of expression. However, infringement on this guarantee can be justified, because “the overriding objective of the law is the avoidance of harm to society… a sufficiently substantial concern to warrant a restriction on freedom of expression.
Among the literature currently prohibited by the CBSA’s policy is The Turner Diaries, a radical novel by William Luther Pierce that espouses a white supremacist ideology. The book presents an alternative future in which racial tensions in America have caused geographic divides, leading to a revolution that plunges the United States into a race war.
The book’s status is tainted, and it is considered abhorrent because it was used by domestic terrorists in order to ideologically justify racially motivated attacks and bombings. A copy of The Turner Diaries was found in the possession of Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing attacks of 1995. David Copeland, a British neo-Nazi responsible for a racially motivated bombing campaign in 1999 that killed three, cited the book as inspiration.
Moreover, the policy also prohibited this book’s import to Canada, because of its blatant advocacy for illegal hate crimes, which was predicated upon the perspectives of its morally twisted main characters.
And while it seems reasonable to ban this work, the question becomes: why stop there? If it is justifiable to censor some potentially harmful literature, we must return to the previous question and ask whether or not this policy should apply to other controversial works of literature, including books like Lolita and Disgrace.
Is it the quality of the latter books’ prose that sets them apart and nullifies any immoral content contained in them? It is troubling to think that if something is well written, it becomes exempt from charges of immorality.
Whatever the reason, these texts seem immune to the prohibitive effects of the CBSA’s policy, and teaching them in a classroom is considered justified. Even if we can view ‘dangerous’ literature within a certain context in order to confront or bypass their immoral aspects, ought the university to teach them?
While Professor Russell’s view offers a reasonable way to engage with ethically flawed literary works, this approach would still directly conflict with the CBSA’s policy. If we allow works like The Turner Diaries to be taught according to this contextualized approach, we risk breaking the law and endangering the safety of students that is protected by the university’s Code of Student Behaviour.
The reality is that books like The Turner Diaries will probably never be taught in schools because they’re already prohibited. Despite whatever context or disclaimer is applied, the reality is that The Turner Diaries itself will not be released and will never be contextualized like Lolita or Disgrace.
Here, distinguishing between art and life becomes murky. If we accept some forms of expression that propagate rape culture and otherwise offensive subject matter, how can we be as active in fighting these offences on campus? And if everyone recognizes that it’s wrong to support abusive or racist words and actions, we must reckon with the ability of writers to use this unacceptable language and behavior freely in a fictional setting.
When entering university, we’re taught to engage with challenging material by questioning its intentions. At the same time we ourselves are being carefully instructed as to how we ourselves are allowed to speak, write and behave. It is my opinion that we need consistency in the way that we address the characters of our literary texts, and the characters in our own student body. We should at least attempt to recognize, and perhaps even reconcile, the disparity between the theory and practice in these matters.