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Why David Gilmour’s Sexism Matters (And Criticizing it is Valuable Free Speech)

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I’ve been annoyed that David Gilmour was using the real David Gilmour’s name since he was a mediocre yet smug film critic for CBC in the 80s, so I was interested to see that he has annoyed a whole new group of people. Fortunately, the controversy did produce this definitive post by Anne Thériault, which you should read now if you haven’t already.

One of the striking things about his comments is that Gilmour’s class wasn’t “Masculinity in American Literature” or “Fiction That Might Help us to Understand Hugo Schwyzer” but “Modern Short Fiction.” The failure to include any Canadian or female authors at this point becomes particularly odd since the most accomplished author of short fiction since Chekhov happens to be both Canadian and a woman. Isn’t there something odd about teaching modern short fiction with a syllabus that includes Henry Miller but not actual major writers of short fiction like, say, Munro or Moore?

Wait — a columnist professionally butthurt on behalf of Gilmour has an answer!

One of the Twitterati tweeted: “How can you idolize Anton Chekhov and not even be ‘interested’ in Alice Munro?” Uh, what’s one got to do with the other? Chekhov’s stories actually had plots, unlike Munro’s, which are just vague sketches of rather boring incidents in the lives of her uninteresting characters.

I find the idea that Munro’s stories are characterized by “boring incidents” and “uninteresting characters” unfathomable, but de gustibus etc. etc. Munro plotless, however? Vague? I suspect the particular Canadian twist on right-wing identity politics in which the idea that interesting literature could be written by either women or Canadians is considered absurd may be at work here.

But this is a free country, and nobody has to take Gilmour’s course if they don’t like his approach.

Well, in fact, “I acknowledge that his entry level course is part of the Vic One program and is therefore mandatory if a student wants to complete the program.” But moving right along:

Far more troubling than Gilmour’s literary preferences, which aren’t actually troubling at all, is the prevailing attitude that he must be demonized for his tastes. Why they matter to anyone but himself and to the students who choose to take his class is a mystery. The intolerance with which they have been greeted makes me wonder if the critics think we should be a nation of Stepford readers, all thinking alike, all liking the same things, all dutifully expressing our adulation to whomever is deemed to be the literary lion of the day. You don’t like Alice Munro? Call the Mounties! A crime has been committed. Have that dissenter put in the stocks, or at least the modern-day cyber-version thereof — having streams of vile epithets hurled at him by the trolls.

Heavens to betsy, an affluent white gut be subject to angry criticism online for making sexist remarks! You might be cursed by someone in the privacy of their own home unheard by you, or in the very worst cited incident, be called a “prick” and “dinosaur” by a single person on Twitter.  Truly, free speech is dead. Lakritz at least does not refer to criticism of Gilmour as a “lynching” (perhaps he’s not rich enough.) Alas, the previously linked defender of Gilmour does in fact immediately leap to comparing people in positions of authority being criticized on the internets to people being tortured and killed to uphold a system of white supremacy, and can we please stop that?

No, actually, people are not that sensitive; they are that insensitive — to the idea of respect for other people’s opinions, to the need for good manners and basic decency, to the concept of free speech, to the notion of civil discourse, and to the appreciation of a clash of ideas as essential for cultural and societal vibrancy.

If anything characterizes free speech and a vibrant cultural discourse it’s the idea that certain ideas should be exempt from criticism.

We’ve encountered this kind of bad argument many times before. One thing that apparently needs to be added is that Gilmour is a teacher. His intellectual laziness and parochialism would not be of any particular interest if they were merely influencing what books he was choosing to read on the subway. But a good teacher will generally consider such factors as “what students can reasonably expect to know” and “what students might find particularly interesting or worthy of engagement.” In part, this means some measure of critical distance, and ability to transcend one’s hobbyhorses. To spend fourteen weeks attacking people who believe that presidential rhetoric is the most important force shaping American politics and calling the resulting course “Introduction to American Government” would be grossly irresponsible. Spending a whole semester reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s gender discrimination opinions is fine if the course is “The 14th Amendment Jurisprudence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” but not if the course is “American Constitutional Development.”

Which returns us to one of the points Thériault makes so effectively. Gilmour says he can only “passionately” teach writers whose particular obsessions and perspectives mirror his own. But he never seems to doubt the universality of the Important Male Novelists he teaches and that his students will be able to engage with them. I mean, what 20-year-old woman hasn’t experienced an existential crisis of such elephantine masculine self-pity that she becomes obsessed with sexually exploiting students 30 years her junior? Among its other problems, Gilmour’s theory of education and literature is self-refuting.

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