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When Disagreement Becomes Trauma

How does one deal with those who claim that debate itself represents an agony beyond human endurance?

· 7 min read
When Disagreement Becomes Trauma
Photo by Kristina Flour / Unsplash

On April 22nd, the University of British Columbia released its Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force report, which contains 54 recommendations aimed at confronting “systemic racism against Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) within the UBC community.” Though it’s two years in the making, and almost 300 pages in length, the report contains surprisingly scant evidence that UBC is a racist institution. Instead, the authors mostly indict UBC on the basis of their own “reflections of lived experiences”—an “integrative” anti-racist fact-finding method described as “truthing.”

Like the report as a whole, the supplied definition of “truthing” contained within is written in a way that makes dissent impossible: It is “the act of stating truths on subject matter considered difficult and/or dangerous knowledge, in contexts of hyper policing, surveilling, and micro-managing of racialized bodies … while simultaneously addressing power relations and injustices which actively interrogate the discomfort, denial, disavowal, erasure, and censure that accompanies truthing the subject-matter.” In other words, to refute a truthing isn’t an act of mere disagreement, but rather a symptom of the truth-denier’s bigotry and intellectual dishonesty.

Numerous Canadian institutions have published similar long-form mea culpas in recent years, all of them generally heavy on the kind of circular logic and faddish terminology contained in the UBC report (to offer a quote picked at random from page 128: “Supports of safe environments for students require evidence of significant praxis employing theoretical, empirical and critical Indigenous anti-racism praxis at the critical intersection of Indigenous women, Two-Spirit, trans, Indigi-queer, GLBTQIA, anti-colonial histories”). In all cases, what concerns me more than the actual content of this tedious propaganda is the accompanying demand that we all treat it as unfalsifiable. The whole mission of a university is based around the practice of gathering (real) evidence and evaluating it by means of observation, objective analysis, and intellectual disputation. The Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force report, on the other hand, sets out IBPOC testimonials as sacred forms of revealed truthery, without allowing the possibility (or even legitimacy) of counterargument.

This allergy to disagreement is now a growing feature of intellectual life all across Canada. At Mount Royal University in Alberta, for instance, the faculty union recently sent out two pages of detailed instructions about how professors were expected to communicate with one another at an upcoming spring retreat. In the email message, leaked to me by an exasperated faculty member, the union warned members that discussions at the retreat “may involve engaging in brave, though not entirely safe, spaces.” In order to “minimize harm,” attendees were advised to “speak from our own experience and not invalidate others’ experiences.” They were assured that moderators would eject anyone who willfully violated these rules, and comfort those who’d fled “harmful” discussions. There were also detailed instructions about how to snitch on fellow union members who’d engaged in wrongspeak—including by anonymous complaint. Taken as a whole, the document is a warning to one and all that anyone disagreeing with anyone about anything might be at risk of public shaming and official sanction.

Mount Royal University has been in the news for other reasons of late, having fired a professor named Frances Widdowson for questioning institutionally approved truthings in a number of areas—including, most explosively, the issue of unmarked graves at the site of former residential schools.

This month will mark the one-year anniversary of the shocking announcement that the location of 215 suspected graves had been identified with ground-penetrating radar in Kamloops, British Columbia—graves that Indigenous knowledge keepers had foretold as containing the remains of First Nations children. The entire country treated this preliminary information as incontrovertible proof of mass murder, not only because doing otherwise was deemed scandalously disrespectful, but also because many of us (including me) assumed that these sites would immediately be searched by police and forensic investigators (as one would normally expect in regard to any other alleged murder scene). But almost a year has passed, and no human remains have yet been unearthed at the Kamloops site—an awkward fact with politically radioactive implications. Widdowson was one of the few Canadian academics who dared speak about these facts candidly.

Another was Quebec academic Jacques Rouillard, author of a Dorchester Review article titled, “In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found.” As far as I know, everything Rouillard wrote was true. But on this kind of issue, truth and truthing lead in opposite directions. In a long Twitter thread responding to Rouillard (though not by name), the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, denounced any request for evidence of bodies as “ghoulish,” “retraumatizing for survivors,” and “part of a pattern of denialism”—the latter phrase being clearly intended to place skeptics such as Widdowson and Rouillard on the same moral plane as holocaust deniers.

This conflation of disagreement with personal “trauma” takes equally lurid expression in the ongoing debate about whether self-declared gender identity should trump biological reality when it comes to the boundaries demarcating protected female spaces. Among many activists, it is now taken for granted not only that biological sex is a transphobic mirage, but also that arguing otherwise puts transgender people at mortal risk by “denying their very existence.” When feminist Meghan Murphy came to a Toronto library in 2019 to argue for protected spaces, a CBC radio host compared her event to an evening of—yup, you guessed it—holocaust denial.

Just a few months ago, trans activist Grace Lavery abruptly pulled out of a debate with gender-critical book author Helen Joyce, on similarly spurious claims that the event would somehow “harm” transgender people. (For good measure, Lavery added that Joyce—a gentle and patient soul whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with here at Quillette—is a bigot and “fascist.”) At Oxford University Press, a group of staff took the campaign against gender dissent a step further last month, with a petition launched against one of OUP’s own books. That petition advanced the extraordinary claim that a gender-critical (i.e., biologically rooted) understanding of womanhood shouldn’t even qualify as a legitimate scholarly premise, being a mere “polemical intervention, unsubstantiated in the fields of gender, sexuality, queer, and trans studies, that promotes itself by the deliberate sowing of public controversy without being held accountable for very real and dangerous consequences.” There’s no indication that the petitioners had even read the book in question. But they had a duty to denounce it anyway, they insisted, in order to protect trans people from “terrorization.”

Harm. Trauma. Terrorization. Holocaust denial. Fascism. In every example I’ve supplied, this kind of apocalyptic language has been used to describe mere discourse: classroom content at UBC, dialogue among colleagues at an MRU faculty retreat, a magazine article, a feminist speaking at a library, a debate between two authors, the contents of an as-yet-non-existent book. In any normal era, this casual equation of discussion with physical torture would be treated as a symptom of severe neurosis. But times being what they are, we’re all supposed to pretend that this is a normal way for humans to respond to disagreement. And as a matter of political tactics, it’s proven an effective means for activists to insulate their claims from criticism: After all, how can anyone prevail against an opponent who claims that discussion itself represents an agony beyond endurance?

This phobic attitude toward debate in progressive circles explains why reasoned advocacy aimed at persuading others is increasingly being replaced by one-note sloganeering aimed at fellow travellers. An entire page of UBC’s new report, for instance, consists of nothing more than a list of large-print slogans instructing black people that, “You are beautiful,” “You are brilliant,” ”You are seen”; and exhorting them to “be unapologetically Black.” (Nowhere is it explained how the apologetic and unapologetic varieties of blackness manifest themselves in day-to-day scholastic life. But one presumes that the unapologetic strain is associated with a more militantly expressed rejection of “whiteness”—a word that appears more than 30 times.)

In the wider world beyond the campus gates, fortunately, things are very different: While many profs and activists are wont to pretend that each debate has only one legitimate side, the rest of us have the freedom to defy their edicts, and even to broadcast our heresies on social media (or in Quillette articles). And when we talk about the “culture war,” to some extent we’re talking about which of these two models of discourse moderation—neurotic versus normal—eventually will hold sway over society at large.

Twitter is where much of this battle takes place, a fact that helps explain the agitation that developed in progressive circles following news that Elon Musk was buying the social-media company. Even before Musk made his move, Twitter was already seen as problematic by the Left, insofar as its (largely) free-for-all ethos served as a standing rebuke to their growing hostility toward ideological pluralism. This is why so many of the most active social-justice accounts devote much of their bandwidth to questions of whom to mute, block, report, or ignore, and often toggle back and forth frenetically between protected and non-protected modes, all with the purpose of curating the same kind of perfectly orthodox, dissent-free milieu they’ve constructed for themselves within real-life social and professional silos.

In the back of social-justice puritans’ collective imagination, there was always the dim hope that the lords of Twitter would someday see the light, and tighten moderation standards so severely that any kind of vigorously stated conservative anti-truthery would be classified as hate speech or harassment. Musk’s takeover killed that dream—because while no one knows his exact plans for Twitter, we can be fairly certain that “the unsettling and interrogation of hegemonic belief systems” (another wonderful gem from the UBC report) isn’t on his to-do list.

In recent days, numerous progressives have pledged to abandon Twitter now that Musk owns it. And I believe that many of them really will leave—if only because they’ve forgotten how to defend their viewpoints in any kind of free marketplace of ideas. It seems never to have dawned on them that truthings that can’t hold up to scrutiny or dissent probably were never all that truthy to begin with.

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