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The Mob That Came After Me Is Turning on Itself. When Will This End? Who Does This Help?

I am in my third year of excommunication from Canadian culture. In the spring of 2017, I wrote a magazine article that my accusers claimed had flippantly dismissed the concept of cultural appropriation—a serious thoughtcrime. My lead accuser was writer and activist Alicia Elliott, though the narrative was quickly picked up by many others. Suddenly, I no longer received invitations to write articles, speak, teach, or publish. I’d been cancelled, and barely anyone said a public word in my defence. My 25 years of work supporting independent voices in the arts was erased in an instant. So be it.

I now see this same vicious mob spirit re-emerging on a larger cultural scale. And with the stakes higher than ever, I feel compelled to speak up. The climate of fear and censorship has become so endemic to the arts and media in North America that staying silent at this point would feel like an act of capitulation—even if, as my own experience shows, it would be the prudent path. If we don’t speak now, what happened to me will become the norm, if it hasn’t already. Anyone with a dissenting opinion will be pre-emptively cancelled, shamed, and fired.

One of the justifications offered by the cultural-appropriation mob that came after me is that you cannot speak for others unless you are the other. But before we get into the ridiculous extremes to which this argument has been taken, I should point out that I never did deny that cultural appropriation can do real harm. Rather, I objected to the way cultural appropriation was applied to free expression generally, and writing in particular, with the goal being to weaponize the concept as a means to curtail debate and homogenize opinion.

So I spoke up against that weaponization. The now infamous 2017 cultural-appropriation article I wrote appeared in a small magazine available only to the published authors who comprise the membership of the Writers’ Union of Canada. It was clearly meant for that audience. No matter. Elliott, without consulting me or anyone else at the organization (which promptly compelled my resignation, a profound betrayal that I’ll write about some other time), called out the article on Twitter in a way that completely stripped it of its original context and intention. She did not mention that the article praised the exciting new generation of Indigenous writers. Nor did she highlight its main point—that book authors “should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities” in their writing. Following Elliott’s lead in framing my remarks as attacking Indigenous writers (a total fiction), others took up the call. Within 24 hours, I was repeatedly being called a racist who, as poet Gwen Benaway wrote at the time (in the now defunct Winnipeg Review), “doesn’t see the humanity of Indigenous peoples.”

I specifically quote Benaway—described in her most recent book as a “trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent”—because her status sits at the heart of the latest (as of this writing) teapot tempest in Canadian literary circles. Last week, she was accused of not being Indigenous after all. This was revealed following an “investigation” conducted by a group led by none other than Elliott, Benaway’s former self-described “best friend.” The damning conclusion (the veracity of which I do not vouch for whatsoever) was released, of course, on Twitter.

It was accompanied by a long apology letter from Elliott, who had spent much of the last three years attacking anyone who strayed from her own suffocating dogmas—including me, a small author’s festival, supporters of due process for the beleaguered, cancelled author Steven Galloway, and anyone who dared question Benaway’s indigenous heritage. Hashtags in hand, Elliott would promptly leap to her friend’s defence, demanding retractions and promising to label the insufficiently contrite as forever transphobic. (I have no links to supply here: In the wake of her “investigation,” Elliot apologized for her previous association with Benaway and abruptly deleted her Twitter account.)

I guess I should be enjoying the irony of Benaway, my former inquisitor, being attacked and cast out—not to mention the possibility that Elliott herself will be excommunicated for her role in tirelessly promoting an allegedly fake Indigenous writer. But I don’t wish my fate to be visited upon anyone, even this pair. Instead, I’m angry and disgusted all over again. Whatever purge results from this latest outrage will only heighten the climate of fear and repression that artists already endure.

For years, Benaway has traded on her Indigenous bona fides, and this aspect of her claimed identity became inseparable from her brand. Will Benaway’s 2019 Governor-General award for poetry be repealed? Will Benaway’s publisher now pulp her books? This is, after all, the same publisher that promptly recalled a book of poetry about murdered and missing Indigenous women when complaints were raised that the author had not asked permission from the families to write about their lost loved ones.

Instead of the creative, risk-taking cultural scene one would expect from a country with a generous network of support for the arts, not to mention a tradition of democracy and free expression, Canada is plagued by the opposite. After I was cancelled, writers emailed me to tell me that they’d originally included Indigenous and/or people of colour as characters in their novels, but had subsequently struck those characters out. They did not want to go through what happened to me (and others). At one point, I even got an email through an anonymous server. The sender was someone who said they wanted me to know they were a person of colour who worked at a major news organization and they completely agreed with me. But they were too afraid to use their name or say where they worked.

The latest dustup is, I hope, the beginning of the end for the ridiculous idea that only DNA can grant us the right to tell certain stories or create certain characters. Yes, such situations call for sensitivity and nuance. But taken to its extreme, a puritanical approach to cultural appropriation leads us to endless accusations and counter-accusations. Consider, to pick just one of many recent cases, the attack on Cree singer Connie LeGrande, accused by Inuit artists of appropriating their style of throat singing. Even though everyone involved was Indigenous, these accusations led three acts to withdraw from the annual Indigenous Music Awards, splintering the small, well-intentioned organization and turning the event from a celebration into a near farce.

“Who gave this group the authority to operate as cultural police?” exasperatedly tweeted Lee Maracle, an estimable elder of Indigenous literature, about Elliot’s latest “investigation.” And in another tweet: “A handful of people are setting themselves up to dismember our nations, be mindful that a small group becomes a dictatorship if we support them.”

Maracle seems to have had enough of the culture of fear and denunciation swirling around Elliott and her followers. And rightly so: We are grappling with problems that are life-and-death serious: a global pandemic and its devastating economic aftermath, systemic overuse of police force against Black and Indigenous citizens, not to mention the underlying socioeconomic inequities that leave those communities impoverished and uniquely vulnerable to mistreatment.

I’m not an expert on race or inequity, even if I seek to bring attention to these issues. I do, however, have some hard-won expertise around free expression. And when I see people leveraging Black Lives Matter and related issues to stifle legitimate discussion and debate, I am, as the college kids say these days, triggered. In May, a New York Times editor “resigned” after running an op-ed by a conservative lawmaker advocating for the use of military troops to quell violent unrest in American cities. The logic—we do not agree with this, and so it should never have been allowed to have been said!—is analogous to anti-appropriation logic. Apparently, only those who have been vetted and approved should be given a voice.

The episode was chilling. It was also a distraction. These mobbings divert readers from real problems, and push authors into a wormhole of authenticity, blood quantum, heresy-hunting, and excommunication.

While native communities across North America were battling for their survival in the midst of a pandemic, Elliot and her faction were skulking around the family of a poet, looking for dirt on a trans woman whom they’d once promoted and befriended. While Indigenous nations were protesting the disproportionate use of force by police, Elliot was scrubbing away her association with her near constant artistic companion. As complicated and fraught as the issue of Indigenous identity surely is, it’s hard to see how such witch hunts help any marginalized group.

To those who would perpetuate censorship and fear under the auspices of fighting appropriation or other thoughtcrimes, I point you to Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie and her finely crafted 2012 essay in Guernica, The Storytellers of Empire: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.” All the noise and nonsense makes it easy for many to just look away. Why should we get involved if, as has been made clear to us, we have no stake in the state of the other.

I have spent a significant part of my career developing spaces where people can express themselves as they see fit, especially those who feel shut out from the mainstream conversation. My conviction is that when we create venues in which people can speak to each other without censure or fear of repercussion, we engender a sense of connection and mutual understanding. I lament that this idea is now as much under assault by the rigid forces of progressive correct-think as by the (once) intertwined forces of capital and puritanism.

This month, it was announced that the largest newspaper in Canada, the Toronto Star, was taking applications for summer internships aimed primarily at developing minority journalists. I wonder: What sort of training will these fledgling writers get at the Star, the newspaper that repeatedly trumpeted Elliott’s tweets about my supposed transgression on its front page? Their zeal for shaming suspected ideological offenders was so intense that when I ran into a senior Star editor in my neighborhood, he shook his head sorrowfully and simply said, “There’s nothing I can do.”

If your core values are censorship and mobbing, your hiring decisions are beside the point. Free expression and a plurality of diverse voices in our arts and media are not separate goals. To move forward, we must stand up for both.

 

Hal Niedzviecki’s books have been published in Canada, the United States, Turkey, China, and Taiwan. He is the founder and publisher of Broken Pencil: The Magazine of Zine Culture and the Independent Arts. He has spent the last three years writing a novel titled The Lost Expert.

Featured image: The author. photographed in 2015.

Comments

  1. The author asks: Will Gwen Benaway’s Governor-General’s award for poetry be repealed? Really, who cares if it is? I looked up his poems. Guess what he writes about? Being indigenous and trans. That’s what got him his award: his identity, not his talent. Yeah, I’m against cancel culture, but if the library is burning I’m grabbing the books ofMark Twain, not Gwen Benaway’s poems. The future will forgive me.

  2. Well, if he faked being Indigenous for the victim points, who’s to say he’s not faking being trans?

    I for one am delighted that Benaway has gotten cancelled, because his only apparent contribution to the world has been spreading bile on Twitter. Let the circular firing squad of the left claim all of these people eventually.

    As for the author… It seems three years isn’t long enough to deprogram all that propaganda. It’s hard to have sympathy when he throws in so many leftist talking points. I am certain he did not vote Conservative, and so voted for this woke nonsense. It seems unreasonable to complain about getting what you voted for.

  3. “We are grappling with problems that are life-and-death serious… systemic overuse of police force against Black and Indigenous citizens, not to mention the underlying socioeconomic inequities that leave those communities impoverished and uniquely vulnerable to mistreatment.”

    This framing is more of the dishonesty we see with BLM, etc. The author says, as a matter of fact, “overuse” of police “against” black and indigenous communities. Not: the appropriate allocation of greater resources to the communities most victimized by crime.

    It’s perfectly reasonable for police to focus on the communities with the most crime and the greatest number of victims of crime. To do otherwise would be malpractice on the part of the police or the authorities directing them.

  4. A difference between boys and girls is that boys tend to achieve social dominance by rough play and fighting and girls by undermining each others reputations.

    It’s becoming clear to me that this movement is fueled primarily by young females who are -and I hate to say it- neurotic to the bone. In 2004 Facebook came on line, Twitter in 2006. One year later the I-phone was released.
    This means that young and college-aged women lived all their formative years immersed in social media.
    Prior to 2004, bullying was restricted to the classroom and the playground, now you can seek status (and be tormented) non-stop 24/7.
    If you think I’m pulling this out of my ass, look up the trends on female depression and suicide over the last two decades.
    When I see a picture or video of one of these professional protesters chances are that they are young, female and hysterical.

    Where this all ends I do not know. But I do have a small solution by anecdote.
    I’m writing a novel whose two major charters are both biracial; a half-black, half-white man and a half-Asian half-white woman. In the unlikely event that the book will ever be published and someone comes up to me and criticizes my choice of characters I’ll give them the only answer appropriate to someone playing the social status game and that is to go fuck themselves.

  5. The author correctly describes in his article the important realization that the whole movement has been sailing in an unfortunate direction for some time. But:

    @quillette I should point out that I never did deny that cultural appropriation can do real harm.

    Desirable next insight: It is not only the wrong course - you are on the wrong ship!

    @quillette The mob that came after me is turning on itself. When will this end? Who does this help?

    To answer your question: Hopefully not before all the SJW wackos involved have devoured each other. And it will help everyone else.

  6. There’s no end to this madness. Comedian Jenny Slate (who’s white) was recently shamed into leaving her role as the voice actor for an interracial character on the animated show Big Mouth. She published this groveling mea culpa:

    “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play ‘Missy’ because her mom is Jewish and White — as am I,” Slate wrote. “But ‘Missy’ is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black actors. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of social white supremacy, and that in me playing ‘Missy’, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”

    The character is half white. Is it permissible for a Black actor to take over the role or would that amount to an “erasure” of Jewishness? Can Missy only be played by an actor who reflects her exact ethnic background? Lots of female animated characters (e.g., on Bob’s Burgers) are played by male voice actors, and some male characters (including, famously, Bart Simpson) are played by women. Will this be condemned? (If so, it would be hard to square that denunciation with the reigning ideology about the malleability of gender.)

    Recently, Hank Azaria (who’s white – and of Jewish descent, if that matters) announced that he would no longer portray the Indian character Apu. Now, the show’s producers have decided that white actors will not be used to portray any non-white characters. What moral harm is this meant to correct? I can think of three possibilities:

    (1) Hiring white actors to play non-white characters deprives non-whites of economic opportunities.
    (2) White actors may portray non-white characters in stereotypical ways.
    (3) It’s intrinsically wrong for actors from an historically advantaged group to portray characters who belong to historically disadvantaged groups.

    #1 may be true, but it seems trivial given the explosion of scripted shows in the current media environment (532 in 2019 alone). #2 may also be true – that was the main reason Azaria left his role as Apu – but (a) white actors can also portray non-white characters in non-stereotypical ways (e.g., Missy) and (b) non-white actors can perpetuate stereotypes as well. What should matter is the quality of the performance, not the color of the actor’s skin.

    That leave us with #3, which is more of an assertion than an argument. It’s not clear to me what harm this causes. Acting – like fiction writing – involves the use of one’s imagination to understand the perspectives of others and play different roles. Do we serve the cause of diversity by forbidding authors and actors from exploring identities across racial and ethnic lines? I don’t see how. This kind of inquisitorial approach contributes to an “essentialist” understanding of race, implying that Blacks and Whites are fundamentally different from one another. The fact that the character in Slate’s case is interracial demonstrates how misguided this attitude is. It’s also self-defeating if our goal is to ever move beyond our society’s fixation on race. Of course, radical anti-racists regard color-blindness as another form of racism, that multi-headed hydra which must never die.

  7. I ran into a senior Star editor in my neighborhood, he shook his head sorrowfully and simply said, “There’s nothing I can do.”

    Well, he could resign so that his position can be filled by an indigenous transexual. Did he even consider doing that?

  8. I want so much to empathize with the author and whatever travails he is now embroiled in… but it seems to me that leftists are now suddenly stunned by the viciousness and ferocity of leftist ideologies that they have likely spent decades of their lives supporting and lending credence to…

    Was this author similarly saddened as conservative voices were cancelled and otherwise marginalized for so many years? Likely not. The left is engaged in a circular firing squad of purity testing that will lead them to a typical and predictable Maoist conclusion…

    To answer the author’s question: When will this end? It is simple really: When leftists begin taking an honest look at the depth of hypocrisy that they espouse and begin to engage with others in good faith and not in the hysterics of accusation, suspicion and censoriousness.

    To the second question: Who does this help? It should be plainly obvious that this cancel culture helps whichever group/person/cult is in the ascendant and that it is, was, always has been and always will be, a crass effort to manipulate the levers of power and control for nothing more noble than prestige, power and a claim to elite status.

    The left has spent decades building ivory towers in major institutions worldwide and now they are terrified at the mob that they created and empowered because the mob has seen that these “theories” and ideologies hold the keys to coveted positions at prestigious universities and professional sinecures.

    It’s time for Black Lives Matter to win a collective Nobel Peace Prize… victory for mob rule

  9. Blockquote
    I should point out that I never did deny that cultural appropriation can do real harm*

    That’s the fundamental mistake right there. Cultural appropriation does not produce harm. It’s merely an invented device to allow one group to exercise power over another. When you realise that these new PC values are not created to protect anyone, but merely to exercise power and control you are freed from the need to obey, and the power is disarmed. Someone once said it: if you know the truth, the truth will set you free.

  10. Astute observation and great comment generally. I commented about this the other day. The education system had allowed concept creep to gradually push the definition of bullying to include having a best friend, or excluding a peer who has been a pain during previous social events outside school. This denies kids the normal system of negotiation, compromise and status jostling which creates the reciprocal environment for true friendship, whilst making the only real avenues for status gains victimhood, or the type of virtue signalling which involves beating up on anyone not sufficiently socially aware and manipulative enough to frame their worldview with the moral ascendancy of a broader knowledge of how to help victims.

    At the same time, girls in particular live their entire life online, and can’t get away from it even when they are in the seclusion of their own bedroom- because they are simply too addicted to their phones. It’s a contest of preening empathy on display, with narcissism at its root- where those who fail to constantly reinvent their virtue or victimhood with sufficient avant guarde creativity, face social censure and peer exclusion.

    In this environment of social surveillance, with every word indelibly recorded and every phrase subject to scrutiny and deliberate misinterpretation, is it any wonder that they are ripe for the social justice movement? They have lived their entire life watched and recorded, so it seems perfectly natural to them. They are so miserable, anxious and depressed- they have no conception that there is a better way to live. We have allowed our children to be Stasi to each other, and now they’re coming for us…

  11. Yeah, the craziness never stops. Might as well go with flow. I think it’s important that the next time they make a movie about retard, they should only get a retard to play the role. Also serial killers should only be played serial killers, and the role of deceased celebrities should only be played by their exhumed corpses. Explosions should be real and not culturally appropriated by CGI. Brie Larson should also do her own stunts, starting with flying off a building.

  12. Reap meet sow. For those not familiar with the Toronto literary scene, Niedzviecki is a long-standing member of the CBC worshiping, NDP/Liberal-voting, Annex-dwelling, bike riding, government grant-grabbing clerisy elite of cultural gatekeepers in downtown Toronto. This clique has, for decades, systematically disparaged, ignored, actively suppressed and denounced any voice even slightly to the right of their Overton Window for many of the crimes he is now being accused of. Karma in a nutshell.

    And if anything, articles like this provide a useful window into the gaping void of the crushing mediocrity and artistic retardation of much of what passes for current Canadian “thought” and “art”, at least in English Canada (Quebec may be as bad or worse with an added dose of peripheral cultural tribalism added to the mix). Most of the product churned out by these government-supported cultural widget-stampers is essentially a parody of state-sanctioned, CanCon committee drivel designed to appeal mostly to itself, its grant-givers, its incestuous media hawkers and government-approved publishing houses mostly being a tiny group living in the above-mentioned neighbourhood (or similar ones like it in Canada’s cities) whose number - and audience - is such that you can fit them all into a Toronto Transit Commission streetcar with plenty of room to spare.

    The cowardice, cravenness, timidity and overall rat-faced finkness of the “artists” he mentioned are emblematic of their artistic ability matching their moral and ethical standing. I can’t figure out if spending a quarter century devoting his efforts to these people and their causes with the end result still being thrown under the proverbial bus is hilarious or pathetic. Oh wait, it’s both.

    All this is useful though. The more woke checkboxes and artistic debasement equivalent to the kneeling being done in Woke’s name sure as hell saves me a lot of time not having to wade through this bilge.

  13. Is there a GoFundMe for this? I would donate…heavily.

    Because I support the arts.

  14. I should point out that I never did deny that cultural appropriation can do real harm.

    Yes you should point that out. God forbid you don’t virtual signal even after being canceled. Why it could have been a disaster. And what harm is that precisely? Is it a real harm? Or one of the many make-believe injuries that do nothing but allow for more victimized preening?

    The dumbest irony of all is that people who are against “Cultural Appropriation” are doing nothing but arguing for white supremacy.

    You think I am wrong? Pay attention to the rules. White people may not…

    • Dress in the manner of the non-white peoples.
    • Sings the songs of the non-white peoples.
    • Prepare the foods of the non-white peoples.
    • Or indeed engage in any cultural tradition of the non-white peoples.

    In fact, if we see a white person doing any of these things we must CONFRONT them! We must make it clear that they have white skin! As such they have privileges and responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to not engage in anything belonging to the non-white cultures. Sounds like something I would hear at a Klan rally.

    They literally believe we whites must remain culturally pure.

    And this is the primary reason I HATE people who believe in “cultural appropriation”. I hate them because I hate anyone who believes in white racial supremacy. We fought the Nazis once, and we won. And now we have to fight them again. Bravo Progressive Heroes! You are what you pretend to hate.

    So take your cultural appropriation and shove it up your multicultural rear-end!

  15. Perhaps. But I don’t really think so. For example, the claim that the “right” outlawed gay marriage is not really accurate. But it is accurate to say that the right was slower in coming to the recognition that it should be allowable (no longer outlawed; it was outlawed by the default positions of BOTH political parties for decades). I agree that the right is often willing to use/abuse the power of the state. And in my reply to the other comment, I did not condemn the use of the state in all cases. So, for example, I am content with the notion that certain forms of drug use remain illegal or that some forms of pornography (such as child pornography) are fully censored and that the coercive power of the state is applied in those cases. I think that the claim that Christian conservatives form the backbone of the Republican Party is an accurate claim., But of course, I would never endorse the Republican Party!
    I don’t think this a common “rhetorical ploy” to conflate libertarian ideas with conservative ones. On the contrary, I think that your observation highlights something which I think is very true: conservative thoughts are almost reflexively thrown into a basket of Republican Party-think ideas. So much so, that “libertarian” becomes a safe haven for anyone who doesn’t want to appear “left” and at the same time is not a “Republican”.
    My response was to highlight a true dichotomy between left and right. That the right-wing is equally capable and often culpable of the misuse of state power is not in dispute. But the argument is not a question of two competing ideas. In this case, leftism has been in the cultural ascendant for decades and finally, their chickens have come home to roost.

    Christians, as a group (I am definitely NOT one) have come under such routine and casual condemnation in popular culture that it should come as no surprise that they have found common cause with a political party that will give voice and power to their concerns. What is often disregarded in arguments against the “Christian right” is that the maxim of “separation of church and state” only applies to the state. Churches are free to be supportive of whatever group they see as best representing their interests. This may be why so many black Christians will gleefully support Democrats. Opposition to abortion is an issue that is easily misrepresented in this regard. For many Christians, the notion is not that abortion is merely wrong but that it represents a true, moral abomination. While I may disagree with their reasoning, I am not about to condemn their considerations outright as is done so often by the denizens of left-wing ideology.

    As for other points you make, these are not all positions that necessarily require a conservative defense. For example, restricting the power of unions may be an abuse of state prerogative however, one could easily argue that unions themselves quickly become tools of state power and so we have a real argument. I am a permanent opponent of unions and most “public” initiatives. That may make me a “libertarian” of a sort but the truth is that I am definitely a conservative one.

    Foreign wars are themselves something that conservatives disagree about considerably. However, it is certainly true that the militarization of American society has been cynically abused by rightist ideologues. Oddly enough however, I don’t recall significant efforts by left-leaning politicians to reign in the this military might once it is in their hands… cynical abuse of power seems to be the mainstay for both sides.

    But the author of this article is instead lamenting cancel-culture. And so, once again, the plain fact is that this is largely a creation of the extreme left. And it will be up to the more reasonable left to reign-in their extremist elements.

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