I grew up working class, and proud. My father was a Marxist who was active in the labour movement, campaigned for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and educated me about the harms of capitalism. Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I never questioned which side I was on. To this day, I remain steadfast in my belief that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, free health care, and advanced education. I believe that poverty is unacceptable and that wealth is unethical. I believe racism and sexism are embedded within our society. I’m pink, through and through.
But politics aren’t just about words and ideas. They’re also about ethics and action—both personal and political. And though I remain a leftist in my principles, I can no longer stand in solidarity with former fellow travellers whose ethics are dictated by social convenience, who prioritize retweets over free inquiry, democracy, and debate, and who respond to disagreement with calls for censorship (or worse). These feelings aren’t new for me. But they’ve recently come into sharper focus.
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On April 6, a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos—a Canadian junior hockey team—collided with a tractor trailer at a road intersection in rural Saskatchewan. The 16 dead included 10 players, aged between 16 and 21, as well as the driver, the coach, his assistant, the radio commentator, a teenage statistician, and the team’s athletic therapist. In response, a Quebec-based left-wing activist named Nora Loreto tweeted, “Brutal,” alongside a link to a news story about the event. And then: “The Humboldt tragedy is so terrible. I know that[’s] obvious, but there’s not much more to say.”
Amid the national expressions of grief and the outpouring of support for the affected families and community, a GoFundMe campaign raised over $15-million for the newly created Humboldt Broncos Memorial Fund. It ranks at the largest GoFundMe campaign in Canadian history.
On April 8, Loreto tweeted a link to an article about the campaign, saying “This is a lot of money,” and then, “I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy, but the maleness, the youthfulness, and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.” She added: “I don’t want less for the families and survivors of this tragedy. I want justice and more for so many other grieving parents and communities.”
I'm trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.
— Nora Loreto (@NoLore) April 9, 2018
The timing of Loreto’s commentary arguably reflected poor judgment on her part. Canadian emotions were still raw—in part because so many of the victims were young.
Loreto received a torrent of outraged responses, many of them obscenely misogynist and violent. Her critics bitterly resented that she’d seemed to inject identity politics into a national tragedy. She received threats. And trolls called for Loreto to be “fired” from Maclean’s, a venerable Canadian news magazine for which Loreto once wrote as a freelancer; and from rabble.ca, a small, leftist online news and commentary site that Loreto has worked at periodically over the years. It might rank as one of the most epic trolling marathons in the history of Canadian Twitter.
As a feminist writer and activist with a relatively large online following, I know all too well what it feels like to be on the receiving end of these attacks. I’ve experienced it many times. Twitter is not a generous medium. And I can see why a writer such as Loreto—whose commentary usually isn’t read and critiqued by readers outside her own somewhat narrow, supportive silo; and who therefore may not have experienced Twitter at its most vicious extremes—would find it unnerving.
In the midst of calls to have Loreto fired, she tweeted: “The attack on my employment is a good remind[er] of the need for strong unions. If I had nearly any other kind of job, the harassment of my employer would probably be enough to fire me. This is un-fucking-real.” When Maclean’s distanced themselves from Loreto in a statement, calling Loreto’s tweet about the Humboldt Broncos “extraordinarily inappropriate,” she responded by tweeting, “Thanks @macleans for feeding this. Your women staff should be horrified and afraid to tackle anything that’s even slightly controversial.”
Throughout Loreto’s mobbing, she maintained a corps of public supporters—some of whom argued that Loreto was being punished for advancing progressive politics. But while much can and should be said about whose lives are treated as valuable and whose are not, Loreto’s Tweets about the Humboldt Broncos didn’t really “tackle” anything particularly controversial. This kind of commentary isn’t well-suited for a medium like Twitter, where analysis is necessarily limited and decontextualized, so her tweets read as an effort to signal her own virtue, in part through the trite debating trick of “whataboutery.”
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In my experience, it isn’t the threats, insults, smears and verbal abuse you get from random trolls online that is most upsetting. Rather, it’s the betrayal from those who you thought were on your side: colleagues, friends, community members, political allies. If Men’s-Rights Activists tell me I’m a “man-hating,” “anti-sex,” “cunt”—that’s just another day at the office. But what may surprise some readers is that the bulk of the abuse I receive online—lurid demands that I should be variously guillotined, curb stomped, drowned, or bludgeoned—comes from those who claim to be leftists.
By way of background: I am sometimes smeared as a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (or “TERF”) because, as a feminist, I believe that gender is imposed on people through socialization, rather than innate factors; that trans-identified males have different life experiences than those of females; and that people who were born male, and have spent most of their lives as men, should not automatically be admitted to every space that is otherwise reserved for women. And unlike the many young gender studies apostates one often finds at the vanguard of trans activism, I regard the sex trade as an inherently misogynistic and exploitative industry (which is why I support the so-called Nordic model, under which pimps, johns, sex traffickers, and brothel-owners are criminalized).
In May 2015, Maggie’s Toronto—a lobby group that supports the legalization of prostitution—launched a petition against me, with the intended audience being my bosses at rabble.ca. The petition claimed (falsely) that I had published “material that dehumanizes and disrespects women with different experiences and perspectives…in particular Black women, women in the sex industry, and trans women.” I also was accused of “racism, whorephobia and transmisogyny.”
A review performed by rabble editors and board members concluded that the claims of racism and transphobia were false, and that the allegations were rooted principally in the petitioners’ disagreement with my views about the sex industry. In other words, this was a political argument that my detractors had transformed into a personal campaign against my livelihood as an editor and writer.
Those who don’t inhabit the subculture of online Canadian leftism will regard all of this as obscure. But it wasn’t obscure to me: My career and reputation hung in the balance—all because of ideological disputes that had nothing to do with challenging the violent men and oppressive systems we were all supposed to be fighting.
While the initial petition against me received more than a thousand signatures, a counter-petition garnered almost twice as many. Various women and feminist organizations published articles and letters in support of my work. Yet, for the most part, mainstream Canadian leftists and media either remained silent, or threw their hat in with the smear campaign. Notwithstanding the formal conclusions of the rabble.ca report, I was shunned by my rabble colleagues, and it became clear that most of the staff wanted me gone. These ex-friends and ex-allies made it apparent that they saw me as politically inconvenient—a liability to both the rabble.ca brand, and to their own personal brands. My presence was hurting their personal friendships, and they didn’t want to risk being ostracized or smeared themselves just so they could defend my right to free speech.
The stress of dealing with this betrayal was substantial, and continues to impact me today. As I write all this, three years later, I still feel the old anxiety reflexes. It is, as the so-called social-justice warriors like to say, “triggering.”
Though I was not technically fired from rabble.ca, I was subjected to a silent bullying campaign and ostracized. For obvious reasons, it was difficult to work with people who wouldn’t speak to me. Meanwhile, rabble.ca continued to work with, and commission writing from, many of the same writers and activists who’d slandered me by means of a petition that the outlet itself had concluded was baseless.
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In a 2000 book, Imagine Democracy, veteran grass-roots Canadian leftist organizer Judy Rebick argued for participatory democracy and processes, wherein “all voices are heard and a diversity of experience is brought to bear on a problem.” According to Rebick, many socialist and communist systems around the world failed in large part because they were insufficiently democratic: “Patriarchal political parties have produced top-down versions of socialism that exclude the very people who should have been shaping the policies of a socialist regime.”
When I re-read those words, I’m struck by the irony that rabble.ca was Rebick’s own creation: She co-founded it with Vancouver writer, and former political science professor, Duncan Cameron, in 2001.
My experience at rabble.ca, and with the Canadian Left more generally, does not stand in isolation. In the UK, working-class women have been forced out of the Labour Party for questioning new gender-identity legislation and its potential impact on women’s rights. In Vancouver, the Vice President of the provincial New Democratic Party, Morgane Oger, participated in the targeting of a woman holding a sign challenging transgender ideology at the 2018 Women’s March. At its 2016 convention, the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted to blacklist Canada’s longest-standing rape-crisis centre, founded on the very principles Rebick advocates—collective decision-making and a rejection of “the hierarchical command model of the public service”—on account of a peer-counselling policy based on the belief that women share a common experience as a result of being born female under patriarchy. Heather Brunskell-Evans, an academic and author, was removed from her position as Spokeswoman for the UK Women’s Equality Party after appearing on Moral Maze—a BBC Radio 4 series—to discuss the issue of transgender children. She also was deplatformed by a student group at her own university, where she had been scheduled to do a talk about pornography and the sexualization of girls.
These are all cases of self-identified leftists excommunicating other leftists—silencing those who fail to heed the maximalist demands of trans activists.
As my own experience shows, it has become common to simply smear and misrepresent a fellow leftist’s position, even to accuse her of “hate speech,” based on differences arising from matters of policy or ideology. All of this is defended under the guise of creating a ‘safe space’ to protect the marginalized from hurtful perspectives. But who decides who is and who is not ‘marginalized,’ or which perspectives are worth listening to, and which must be dismissed out of hand as hateful? As in all movements, those with the most power tend to identify contrary opinions as dangerous heresies that must be silenced. This pattern has played out countless times, in countless places, throughout history. In its most general form, it’s called ‘political persecution.’
To be fair, dishonesty and hypocrisy exist at all points on the political spectrum. But because of my own principles and politics, I expected more from the left. We can no longer claim the Left to be a radical social movement so long as its adherents abet the silencing and censorship of those who offer their own radical analyses of oppressive social systems. Certainly, we cannot claim the Left as a friend of labour given how easily its dissenters are dispatched.
All of which brings me back to Nora Loreto, that supposed devotee of leftist solidarity, unions and labour rights.
Needless to say, she absolutely does not deserve the violent threats she’s received. But the calls to silence and no-platform Loreto come right out of her very own playbook. When the shoe was on the other foot last year, she supported the smear campaign against me; and she gloated publicly after I finally walked away from rabble.ca. To top it off, she even misrepresented the terms of my departure, false claiming on Twitter that I’d been fired.
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Having endured my share of slings and arrows, I’ve become a more jaded leftist. But in the important respects, my politics haven’t changed. I still oppose capitalism and wealth inequality. I still support universal access to the necessities of life. And I still fight for social justice—a project that includes fighting sexism, classism, and racism.
What has changed is that I now find myself more willing to question the orthodoxies I see spouted by other leftists. Unlike a younger version of myself, I no longer believe that the positions taken by leftist parties and groups should be taken as automatically correct—nor that positions argued by centrists (or even conservatives) should be immediately rejected, without due consideration. Experience has taught me to value independent thought more than blind allegiance.
To put it bluntly, the Left has become cowardly—though you wouldn’t know it from the heroic postures and hashtags that activists adopt on social media.
The fear of dissent has made many progressives utterly incapable of self-critique or critical thought. Clannish and gutless, too many betray so-called brothers and sisters in order to preserve their own reputations and political connections. They bleat the same empty mantras back and forth to one another; a game of call-and-response in which everyone is afraid to admit they might not believe—or even understand—the words they’re saying or tweeting. It all helps explain why America’s Left has disintegrated, and Canada’s is moving in the same direction.
The Judy Rebick of 18 years ago was correct, even if the project she created now has become part of the problem: People seek to join political movements in which they are respected and heard, and in which discussions take place in a humane and intellectually honest manner. But that’s not today’s Left. The glaring hypocrisy of a movement that defends only the fashionably doctrinaire is not what I signed up for. When those around you are afraid to stand up for principled discussion and debate, knowing that they themselves are always just one misstep away from becoming a pariah, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re running with the right crowd.
Featured image: “The Inquisition Tribunal,” by Francisco Goya. Image appears courtesy of Google Art Project.