Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In 2008, the Toronto District School Board removed Barbara Coloroso’s book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide from its list of recommended readings for Grade 11 history students. The TDSB’s action resulted from complaints on the part of Turkish Canadians, who objected to Coloroso’s characterization of the Armenian massacre of 1915–1918 as genocide. (This is the same “crime” that got Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk charged with “insulting Turkishness” in 2005: the charges were later dropped.) For its part, the TDSB stated that the decision to drop the book was made because of a determination that it “was a far from a scrupulous text and should not be on a History course although it might be included in a course on the social psychology of genocide because of [the author’s] posited thesis that genocide is merely the extreme extension of bullying.” Responding to the TDSB’s decision, Susan Swan wrote an open letter on behalf of The Writers’ Union of Canada condemning the action. Swan’s letter read in part:

You claim your reason for banning the book is that Ms. Coloroso is not a professional historian. This feels like a thinly disguised attempt to hide the truth that you have been pressured into banning her book by a politically motivated interest group. Ms. Coloroso is a highly respected and well-established professional writer and public speaker on social justice and child raising; her books are published around the world. Her book on genocide is meticulously researched and extremely appropriate for a course such as yours on the Holocaust.

It is completely unacceptable for those responsible for educating the citizens of tomorrow to remove valuable titles every time an interest group brings forth a complaint. If so, your library shelves would be bare indeed.

The TDSB eventually reversed its decision and restored the book to its recommended reading list. This reversal, however, resulted in Turkish Canadians protesting to the provincial government and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

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From Extraordinary Evil:

In a 1999 research project conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, subjects were asked to view a seventy-five-second video titled Gorilla in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events. On the video, two teams – one dressed in white, one dressed in black – passed two basketballs around. The subjects were to count the number of passes between players wearing the same color. About forty-five seconds into the video a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks through the group of players, stops briefly to pound her chest, and then continues walking out of the video frame – spending a total of nine seconds on the screen. Subjects who were counting the passes were then asked if they had seen the gorilla. Only 36 percent reported that they had. The other 64 percent experienced what is known as “inattentional blindness,” the inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren’t paying attention.

As Samantha Power notes, acts of war, and even just the rhetoric of war, can have the effect of masking genocide. In this sense, the “eliminationist campaigns” are the unexpected objects, the “gorilla in our midst” to which “outsiders” aren’t paying attention.

Those who instigate and perpetrate the eliminationist campaigns actually use war as a tool of genocide. Wartime conditions heighten the threat level and create a polarized world view in which the “enemy” is objectified and dehumanized; those targeted for extermination are thus easily subsumed into the category of enemy and measures are allowed that would not be tolerated in peacetime. As well, the perpetrators are provided with the necessary cover to carry out their ugly deeds. Genocide is not the cause or the consequence of war.