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May 04 2010

Belgian bid to ban book is bad… uh… bdecision

My alliteration has seen better days, it seems.

It’s tough sometimes to see how the disparate interests on this blog (religion, free speech, race and critical thinking) fit together into an overall picture. Religion and free speech are often at odds, so that’s an easy fit I suppose. Religion stands opposed to critical thinking, so again it’s not a major stretch to tie those two individual elements together. But where does race fit in? I often find myself scratching my head asking myself the same question: are my discussions on race simply an outlier to an otherwise pro-secularist blog? Does my ‘skeptic hat’ clash with my ‘black man waistcoat’?

Thankfully, sometimes I see things in the news that help tie the whole ball of wax together:

A Congolese man is trying to get a controversial Tintin book banned in the cartoon star’s home country of Belgium. A court is to rule on whether the book can be sold in Belgium and, if so, whether it should carry a warning.

The Tintin book in question concerns an incredibly-offensive depiction of African people as stupid and primitive, as the (white) main character does them a good turn by teaching them important things about the world. Of course, it’s the world from the point of view of the European colonizers, which brings up a whole host of auxiliary issues. This man, Bienvenu Mbutu, is seeking to have the book banned on grounds that it portrays an appallingly racist view of black Africans.

I was initially torn over this issue. As a victim of the negative portrayal of black people in popular media, I applaud any decision to ameliorate the damage done by such propaganda. However, while I am a black man, I am first and foremost a Canadian. One of the things that comes with the territory of living in an Enlightened democracy like Canada is defense of the right of free speech. Banning books is the infringement of free speech, which is wrong. It didn’t sit right with me, and the cognitive dissonance bothered me.

After giving it some serious thought, I arrived at a realization. Far from being a negative portrayal of black Africans (although it is that, too), this book is a shocking revelation about the history of white Europeans (I guess, in this case, Belgians). This is a real piece of history that shows how intellectually and morally bankrupt the paternalistic society of European colonial powers was. These types of images, which rightly shock and appall us today, were seen as either harmless entertainment (for children, no less) or as accurate depictions of reality. The colonial powers thought nothing of taking land from people who they saw as little more than human-like animals. The aftershocks of this perverse racist attitude are still felt today in Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and South America (to say nothing of the United States and Canada).

Banning this book would only serve to attempt to mask history. These types of publication are emblematic of a time in our world where everyone believed the lie of white supremacy. Now that we are trying to extricate ourselves (and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, white people included) from the deep entrenchment of this false ideology, we need to examine our own past to see how it affects our present. Sweeping the nasty parts of our history under the rug of contrived ignorance will only serve to prolong the issues of race and racism. Furthermore, we will lose the opportunity to use artifacts from our (recent) history to learn from our mistakes.

I think the book should be allowed to be sold, but with an introduction that highlights the context in which the book was written. Talk about the predominant attitudes of the day, admit that work still needs to be done, but while you’re at it, make mention of the amount of progress that has been made in a relatively short time. It’s only by acknowledging our past and incorporating it into our present that we can reach the long-sought future of racial integration.

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