For months now the debate over the Danish cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban has taken over newspaper columns and talk shows on radio and television. Typically, most people have started ranting about how freedom of speech and democracy must be protected in Europe and North America, and that while the message of the cartoons is clearly a racist one, these sentiments should still be allowed in the press. The message of the cartoons is by no means an isolated one in the larger context of the European and North American press: numerous books and articles have been published comparing the religion of Islam to fascism, but the cartoons, being as disturbingly derisive as they are, have had the acute ability to spark violence throughout the Muslim world.
Those who defend the right of the cartoonist to have his work published must bear in mind that freedom of speech in its radically pure form exists nowhere in the world: citizens of Canada and virtually every other western country are legally prohibited from inciting violence against a certain ethnic group.
Extremists on both sides of the argument are supporting each other’s racist claims: a handful of Muslims are reacting at a near-maniacal level, by throwing gas bombs at embassies, and so forth, and in doing so are spawning more and more stereotyping and discrimination amongst Europeans and North Americans. The purpose of checks on freedom of speech, which in this case have clearly failed us, is to ensure that this kind of downward spiral does not degenerate into such divisive conflict.
When I was in Grade 8, 9 and 10, I had the opportunity to participate in a number of summer canoe trips in Northern Ontario. Some of these trips lasted 2-3 weeks and were in terrain that was extremely beautiful and very remote. There is one trip that stands out in my mind until this day. It was not that it was the hardest route or the most exciting scenery that makes it so memorable, rather one personal challenge that I met on that trip.
As we paddled down the Mattawa River, we came upon a series of cliffs above the river. The cliffs were totally vertical in places and were about 50-60 feet high. Our group decided that we would hike up the path on the side of the cliff to see the view from the top. When we reached the summit, it was breathtaking. As we looked back at the river, we realized that it was a straight drop back to the water and one of the members of our group suggested that it would be an incredible experience to try “cliff jumping.” Although I was an avid swimmer, heights were never my thing; but I thought,“Why not?”
Although the whole plunge lasted only seconds, I remember the distinct feelings of anxiety as I looked over the edge of the cliff, the fear as I free-fell towards the water, the exhilaration as I first made contact with the river, and finally the smile on my face and pride (probably some relief too) as I came back to the surface of the water. I climbed up the cliff 4 more times that day, and each time I risked another jump, I had those same feelings over and over again.
My article in this issue is not meant to be an autobiography or to encourage cliff jumping. It has actually been a number of different Jarvis students that have made me remember that wonderful experience. Over the past few months I have seen students participating in French speaking contests, performing in a school play, auditioning for a Fashion Show or a Talent show, asking a teacher for help in a topic where they were struggling. In all of these situations, as I looked at the facial expressions and body language of the students involved, it reminded me of the same feelings I described previously. I could noticeably see hesitation and fear, followed by worry, followed by a calm look, followed by pride. It didn’t matter if the students had passed the audition or won the contest that brought the pride; it was the recognition that they had tried and had done a great job. As the saying goes, “risk nothing, gain nothing.”
There are still 3 months left in this school year and I would like to encourage all students to tackle one area that seems undoable to you. Remember that you have a huge safety net around you in this building – friends, staff, wonderful programs. Try something different and even if you do not reach every goal you set, I hope you will experience the same feeling of pride from having taken the risk.