Here’s a snapshot of my life, taken when my stroke-afflicted mother lived with me. I’d returned from errands and was just shutting the front door when I saw her in her wheelchair. The back of it was pitched forward at a steep angle and when she shifted slightly, I knew what was coming. I ran toward her, fell to my knees, and caught her just as she started sliding down.
Because of her almost total paralysis, her fall would have gone unbroken. Her head would have hit the seat of the chair first, then the metal foot brace, then the floor. Either she would have suffered a head injury or broken bones, likely in one of her hips. When I shouted for the personal support worker, I was panicked. Paralysed bodies are like dead weight — they are heavy and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold my mother up.
The worker, a visible minority and recent immigrant, was sitting on the couch behind my mother and couldn’t see what was happening. She slowly and deliberately put aside her homework — an open binder and some textbooks — and came to help me. Her annoyance at being interrupted was obvious. The emergency was taking her away from her real goal in life, becoming someone in her adopted country of Canada.
As academics will tell you, relying on one anecdote to prove a theory is unwise, but I’m going to do it anyway because this experience, which was only one of many, is emblematic of a deeper problem. There’s a disconnect between what many social justice warriors are doing — whipping up racial, gender and class tensions — and the real-life consequences they’re creating for those living off campus. In my panic, I’d spoken sharply to the young woman. I’d told her the angle at which she’d poised my mother was dangerous.
Her attitude became insouciant and knowing, and I realised that if I pursued the matter with the government agency that employed her, her race and immigrant status would likely become factors in my complaint, factors that would obscure the real problems, which were her lack of competency and interest in the job. In the Canadian version of the Biggest Victim Stakes, my mother, even with her age, disability and long-ago immigrant status, would lose.
Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, has been making waves in the academic world over the issue of free speech. Among other things, he’s unhappy with the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s sloppy wording on issues involving the rights of those who wish to be addressed by gendered pronouns of their choice. Although Peterson is sympathetic to minorities (contrary to many incorrect reports circulating in the media), he says that making “unintentional” word choices deemed offensive equal to “intentional” word choices designed to offend, means that even innocent uses of these words can be treated as legal transgressions. It’s this distinction, and the potential it has to silence individuals, like professors, that concerns him.
Peterson and I are close in age, which means our experience of academic life exceeds 60 years. Both of us have seen two waves of political correctness create campuses where only two modes of discourse, if they can even be called that, come to dominate: paralysis and protest, with not much in between. Vigorous debates, where delicate matters can be decided democratically, have been replaced by hysterics, hashtag slacktivism, and fearsome, menacing mobs.
How did this start? Peterson’s belief that much of the trouble started in various Women’s Studies departments resonates. The shift from second to third wave feminism started on university campuses and was particularly fraught with ideological extremes, the confusions of which are still with us. Canadian writer and Nobel prize-winner, Alice Munro, sums up that shift in one of her stories. Her academic hero suffers an unsubstantiated accusation of sexual harassment and is forced into early retirement:
The shame he felt then was the shame of being duped, of not having noticed the change that was going on. And not one woman had made him aware of it. There had been the change in the past when so many women so suddenly became available — or it seemed that way to him — and now this new change, when they were saying that what happened was not what they had had in mind at all. They had collaborated because they were helpless and bewildered, and they had been injured by the whole thing, rather than delighted. Even when they had taken the initiative they had done so only because the cards were stacked against them.
I love this passage because it captures that window in the late 1980s when sexual politics on campus were especially turbulent. However, I quoted Munro for another reason: a second axis cuts through this ideological jungle, but is rarely acknowledged. That’s the ideological distance between those of us raised in rural areas, where the division of labour is relatively equal, and those raised in urban centres. (Munro, Peterson and I were all raised in less populated areas.)
If the vigour with which feminism was espoused by my urban peers was any indication, how they perceived the division of labour and other gender issues seemed to differ profoundly and cause significantly more bitterness among them. To this day I wonder if their bitterness wouldn’t have been eased if they’d taken even a minimal interest in rural life and the built-in equality that comes with it. Of course, neuroticism happens in the hinterlands too, and Munro frequently writes about it, but I’ve yet to hear a farmer’s wife complain about the gendered unfairness of her work.
So when it came to 80s feminism, the shift in focus from sexual freedom to sexual victimhood didn’t suit all of us and, for me, that was down to the narcissistic direction it was taking. My memory of my undergraduate years starts one way and ends in another accordingly. When I was a child, my father took our family to the building site of a new, local university. As we peered into the deep holes and concrete foundations that would become its library tower, my father’s sense of awe told me that attending university was hard work. The idea stuck and when I started my first degree, at 25, I worked slavishly because of it. My first year went by in a blur, as did my second. But by the third, in 1988, I had gained enough confidence to look up from my books once in a while, enough to realise that something seismic was going on.
It started with exhortations to explore my own history when I took a Women’s Studies course. The personal is political became the mantra of the time and, given my surname, I was encouraged, in a parallel fashion, to study Slavic writers instead of the ones I did want to study. That’s when the outward-facing perspective I had taken to my education — I wanted to absorb as much as I could from other people — started to feel like dissent.
That’s because my choice not to put myself at the centre of my own studies set me apart and not always in a good way. I was miffed at many aspects of the Zeitgeist, at what I divined was a hive mind bent on self-absorption. Worse, it made me look aloof; when I turned away from the kind of touchy-feely revelations my more tuned-in friends favoured, I was called arrogant. But for me, education was meant to feel like hard work with occasional bursts of fun; it was not supposed to feel like a long groping session with my own psyche. I didn’t come here to study myself, I remember thinking, confounded by yet another exhortation to do just that.
So I survived that complex shift in the ground, the one that had my hackles rising with skepticism. I resisted the temptation to make my life the focus of my degree, and that’s because I suspected a subtle form of recruitment was afoot, the draw being that personal and experiential university classes would be less challenging. That suspicion has receded and advanced over the years, but lately, it’s advanced and morphed into a string of memes I like to think of as Ph.D.s say the Darndest Things.
To wit: a law student wrote to a professor, politely arguing that the professor’s choice to wear a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt was inappropriate for a law class. That private message was made public — not a choice I would have made — and some academic friends of mine joined in with lambasting the student online. I know a potential flame-war when I see one, so I stayed out of it, but did wonder if any of them had thought about Themis, Goddess of Justice, that Titan who wears a blindfold and holds scales to indicate absolute impartiality.
Another wrote an open letter, widely disseminated, about how a certain music festival in Canada didn’t have enough female acts. The letter was addressed to the organisers, arguing that more were needed. That the music festival is for hardcore rock bands— which explains the dearth of female musicians— escaped her, as did the idea that splitting the world down the middle, by gender, would mean an awful lot of nurses and grade school teachers would have to be fired, and a multitude of four-year-olds, of both genders, disinvited from a lot of birthday parties. Why this obsession with a 50-50 world, I wondered? When did gross over-simplification take the place of actual thinking?
I started with an anecdote about my mother’s care because the practical (and troubling) effects of social justice warfare aren’t discussed often enough. That young woman who was careless with my mother knew she could use an accusation of racism to complicate any complaint I made. Home care — and I hope you’ll bear with me as I use another example — is a sphere where ethical hostage-taking is common. When I hired a live-in caregiver, through Canada’s live-in caregiver program, I was warned I could be hit with a nuisance suit worth several thousand dollars when his employment ended. Apparently, instructions for initiating nuisance suits is often promulgated at ethnic community centres and carried out by affiliated social justice lawyers, the kind of lawyers who specialise in narratives where families who can afford caregivers are naturally abusive.
Because they are often first generation Canadians or immigrants themselves, these lawyers get their zeal from a variation of that rags-to-riches narrative, that of the downtrodden immigrant done good. My caregiver did attempt to wrest several thousand dollars from my disabled mother (through me) by claiming he’d been underpaid, but because I’d taken precautions, his attempt at extortion failed. What struck me then were two things: one, that the narrative of an abused immigrant is powerful enough to eclipse even the clearest and simplest of truths; and two, that despite their self-styled halos, lawyers who fight for minority rights are, at times, the most dishonest lawyers out there.
If Canadians who believe that gender exists on a spectrum are free to choose their words and reality, Jordan Peterson, as someone who interacts with them, has a right to choose his words and reality too, however objectionable that concept of equality might seem. For my part, if I want to call a certain caregiver incompetent or dishonest, then I should be free to do so without having to hire a lawyer to protect me from zealously conceived and poorly articulated human rights laws. After all, my mother and other disabled and elderly Canadians have a right to safety too.
The image of Themis should stay with us as we consider Peterson’s actions, remembering that the principle of equity is a template into which values are supplied; it should not be about content, per se. What he is doing is encouraging us to see things at a meta-level, to pull back the lens through which we view these conflicts to allow us to see the battlefield of ideas in its entirety. His argument is that changing the rules of the battlefield — by making even thoughts and unintentional slights illegal — has the potential to convict us all. I agree. It’s alarming that so many students and academics frame their worldview with poorly informed ideas about social justice and consistently fail to question their value and veracity. Being unaware of that frame, and of its distorting powers, is a form of ignorance, one that I would argue is inexcusable in those who consider themselves enlightened. Following that timeline back to the 1980s, however, shows us exactly how ignorance on this scale happened.
Allowing one group to use freighted words like homophobe or racist or rapist to tarnish an individual’s reputation without proof violates a principle of fairness that some of us hold dear. If hate-speech is to be expanded in our criminal codes, and in Canada that seems inevitable, I suggest we include the egregious misuse of these accusations too. If we are to take the idea of diversity seriously, we can do no less for those who are falsely maligned.
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