They Did Not Die Defending Censorship

The fifth guideline from symmentropy focuses on the many different media forms that make storytelling something for everyone with many different talents.

Fifth rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling in words, pictures, dance, music and everything you can think of.

By Lee McGavin

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Peary Street never had to mourn a soldier lost in battle. We can count our blessings again this Memorial Day and remember the neighbors who endured that loss. My story today honors those who died defending our right to speak freely, to disagree with each other without fear of censorship and recrimination. We can tell our stories of heroism and cowardice to accent the values that so many have lost their lives to protect, but each of those lives have a story and a family with a story like Peary Street's.

My sense of twisted irony has been thoroughly taxed with thoughts of people dying to protect my ability to tell stories and the news of institutions trying to inhibit those freedoms. My sample for this week includes the State of Virginia considering legislation to make it a crime to bully someone. The University of West Alabama has secured the resignation of the President and the Provost after they among other things ordered the IT department to permit them to monitor email accounts. Students at the University of California, Santa Barbara have called for “trigger warnings” on course syllabi so that students can avoid selected topics. Finally, the governing board of Capilano University in British Columbia have confiscated a sculpture of University President Kris Bulcroft because it is “bullying”.

Sculpture Censored
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“Blathering on in Krisendom” from Inside Higher Ed

Each of these news items reminds us of the power of storytelling and the lengths that some will go to control how others tell stories and what stories get told. Each has a different approach to censoring storytelling. Each focuses on a different form of communication media because the power of storytelling is enhanced by our ability to see things in different forms. Three dimensional art tells stories that contain tactile power that eludes other forms, so the response at Capilano University provides little surprise. In fact, confiscating undesirable messages was a fact of life growing up.

My first encounter with Peary Street censorship starred Tom Lehrer, who would gain some reknown for writing songs like “Silent E” for the Electric Company. He once said "If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while." Success! Somehow a copy of one of his albums made it into Peary Street while I was still in elementary school. After many playings, my mother decided that she did not need to hear another rendition of “Be Prepared” and hid the disk. She did not hide it well so we got it out at every opportunity and carefully returned to its hiding place in the laundry room.


Peary Street continued to cherish its tradition of censorship right up until the day we all left it for the last time. We all learned the lesson of the “Baboozlers” in the storytelling black hole where ideas went to die. Only two of the seven children ventured into expressive interests. Holidays were jammed with emotionless rituals that never became personalized by stories that marked the occasion.

This Memorial Day, my thanks to all the men and women who gave their lives for all of the principles that make the US us. We know that writing, singing, dancing, sculpting and every form of expressing stories caused the battles and cost them their lives so that we could continue to tell our stories. They are that important.

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