What happened to respectful debate in Canada? Erna Paris

Great commentary by Erna Paris, notably regarding the Writers Union of Canada and the more recent Dalhousie controversies:

Will Trumpism come to Canada? When asked over the past year, I’ve said no. Canadian respect for diversity, an economy that has stayed afloat and our reputed politeness have made such an evolution improbable – at least in the near term.

That’s still true, but we’re seeing ground-level challenges.

Yes, Ezra Levant’s hateful website, The Rebel, fell into disrepute after its coverage of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. Yes, the federal NDP has elected a Sikh man as its leader. And yes, the recent outing of men with a history of predation may actually kick-start change to the oldest status quo in history: the demeaning of uppity women who think they’re equal.

But, starting with the kerfuffle at The Writers’ Union of Canada last May, there have been troubling signs – not because the concerns being raised are inappropriate, but because of the way they’re being handled.

In an issue devoted to Indigenous writing, the editor of the house magazine, Write, said provocatively that he believed in cultural appropriation. Writers must be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities, he explained, before flippantly calling for an “appropriation prize.”

Those of us who hope to build a new relationship with First Nations peoples recoiled at his insensitivity, but the brouhaha that followed, including his immediate firing and a public apology on the part of the union erased his central point: that it is the work of writers to imagine and interpret the world.

This used to be self-evident. Was E.M. Forster appropriating Indian culture when he wrote A Passage to India? Did this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, appropriate British culture in The Remains of the Day because he happened to be born in Japan? Was I wrong to circle the globe to write Long Shadows, a comparative look at how different cultures re-imagine their history after times of crisis? Limitless vision used to be the hallmark of good writing. If this is now being contested, the editor’s remarks ought to have triggered a serious public discussion about the nature of writing itself. This didn’t happen. The Writers’ Union correctly took action, but it simultaneously curtailed the conversation.

Another distracting development has been the self-serving effort to redefine common words, such as the term “racist.” According to a teenager of my acquaintance, some Ontario teachers are using the word to apply uniquely to those who are presumed to hold power, meaning that only white people can exhibit the flaw. It has been a near-universal understanding that anyone, regardless of skin colour, can harbour hatred and hold racist views. How will children learn to think with nuance about difficult questions if their teachers eschew history, context and moral complexity?

Last month, another indication of the emerging zeitgeist took place at Dalhousie University when its student union condemned Canada 150 celebrations because of the country’s exploitative history with Indigenous people. After a student launched an obscenity-laden tweet in support, engendering a complaint, the university decided to investigate, but withdrew when mounting anger seemed to preclude a mediated solution.

There was much that was disturbing about the Dalhousie affair. The student motion was certainly open to debate, but the tweet was not. It was, on the contrary, an attempt to silence speech in the name of free speech. The second problem was the capitulation of authority when faced with intimidation. The retreat of the university leadership sent a message that balanced discourse on a sensitive matter would not be possible, leaving everyone without recourse. The third concern was gross incivility in the public sphere. How many will risk engaging publicly if their interlocutors are more likely to hurl insults rather than debate the issue?

Because Canada is a diverse society largely sustained by historical compromise and the goodwill of its citizens, it will always be a fragile place, one that needs vigilant oversight. We must accept the anger that has been released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and listen with respect to unpleasant truths. We must also have a respectful national debate on the complex historical issues being brought to light. At the same time, we cannot lose sight of the larger picture – the flawed beneficent country that sustains us.

via What happened to respectful debate in Canada? – The Globe and Mail

Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it? – Liz Renzetti

I find this one of the best commentaries I have read yet on the issue of cultural appropriation and writers. Renzetti quotes extensively from the article in question, showing the depth and nuance in Hal Niedzviecki’s article.

More sophisticated than Christie Blatchford: Magazine editor the latest to be silenced for the sin of free speech but with the same underlying message: have the debate and discussion, don’t just try to shut it down and shun:

Yet the great works of literature are great leaps of imagination, sometimes so much so that they seem impossible, from a distance. When it was revealed that Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, long after the novel was published, readers were aghast – how could a woman have conceived something so abominable!

That was 200 years ago. Should modern artists try to inhabit the fictional lives of people whose history and cultural experiences are completely different from their own? It’s fraught territory: Academics and writers have grappled with the concept of cultural appropriation, its proper definition, limits and boundaries, for years. It’s a subject discussed at length in books and conferences. It should at least be something we can discuss, without fear of censure.

That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. This week, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write Magazine (the publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada) resigned from his post after his short essay about Indigenous writing prompted heated criticism.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” Mr. Niedzviecki wrote. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He goes on to counter the old teaching chestnut “write what you know”: “Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.”

Some people found this an ill-conceived way to preface an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing, and Mr. Niedzviecki acknowledges in his subsequent apology that he wrote “glibly.” But do glibness and even insensitivity require that he lose his job? Would it not be better if he stayed at the helm of the magazine and commissioned pieces that provided robust counter-arguments?

Mr. Niedzviecki’s essay goes on to say: “Indigenous writing is the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today. And this is because, in large part, Indigenous writers, buffeted by history and circumstance, so often must write from what they don’t know. What at first seems like a disadvantage also pushes many Indigenous writers into the spotlight. They are on the vanguard, taking risks, bravely forging ahead into the unknown, seeking just the right formula to reclaim the other as their own.”

The entire spring issue of the magazine is worth reading for its exploration of Indigenous writing and publishing, from shaping queer narratives to questioning the limits of fictional empathy. Mr. Niedzviecki’s interview with publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm of Kegedonce Press illuminates the challenges facing writers who have traditionally not been seated at the CanLit table: “We still see many beautifully written books by Indigenous writers struggling to fully achieve the sales and wide acceptance that they deserve.” Maybe this issue of Write will cause people to think about how widely they cast their nets when they choose what to read.

Instead of the focus falling on the important content of the magazine, it is now all on one essay written by Mr. Niedzviecki, who has long been a supporter of independent voices in Canadian publishing (he also runs Broken Pencil magazine.) The Writers’ Union of Canada, which you would think would be interested in the free and frank exchange of opinions about the content and quality of writing in this country, has failed to support him.

Even if you think Mr. Niedzviecki is wrong, and his opinions misguided and hurtful – and many people do, and have argued this case strongly – it’s alarming to say that he shouldn’t hold them. Ideas that incite violence or hatred deserve condemnation. But what about ideas that are uncomfortable or provocative or even (to some readers) ignorant? We have lost the appetite for confronting those ideas, for sharpening different, resonant arguments to counter them.

In a statement, the Equity Task Force of the Writers’ Union argues that there are “racist systemic barriers faced by indigenous writers and other racialized writers.” I think this is largely true. The task force writes that Mr. Niedzviecki “dismisses” those barriers. I don’t think that is true, based on the content of his essay. It also calls for the retraction of the essay, among other demands. That would be a mistake: to ask for an unpopular idea to be dismissed from the record is a dangerous precedent.

What I’ve written here is likely to be contentious, which is fine. There will be other arguments (different, more resonant), and I hope we’ll listen to them all. Those are the benefits of writing, and reading.

Source: Cultural appropriation: Why can’t we debate it? – The Globe and Mail