Freedom of expression versus white fragility
‘Write whatever you like, but you’re not free from criticism’
Judging from some of the commentary coming from various newspapers and pundits in the past week, we have a serious problem with freedom of speech and the press in Canada. I happen to agree, but perhaps for different reasons than most. On Tuesday, Hamilton police officers arrested two journalists who were covering an accident scene. The Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression stated that “Multiple eyewitness reports reference an extreme use of force by police in tackling (David) Ritchie and (Jeremy) Cohn to the ground.” The Hamilton police chief is currently reviewing the arrests.
In Quebec an inquiry has been struck to look at police surveillance after revelations that Montreal police and Quebec provincial police obtained warrants to collect data from the smartphones of several prominent journalists. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Canada slipped out of the Top 20 countries in the Freedom Index in the past year. Police spying, demands for reporters to hand over background material, as well as arrests, were all mentioned in the Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index report as causes for concern.
But this isn’t what some opinion writers are up in arms about right now. It’s that three editors lost their positions over comments made online and in print that were deemed culturally, and racially, inappropriate by many. This is where I’d like to bring up white fragility. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who created the phase, states “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from racebased stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as white fragility. White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
It’s interesting to see white fragility come into play around the cultural appropriation prize idea that resulted in Hal Niedzviecki stepping down as the editor of Write, the magazine of The Writer’s Union of Canada, though he’s still publisher at Broken Pencil; in Jonathan Kay stepping down from the Walrus, though Kay has been embroiled in much controversy at the Walrus and stated himself this was just the last thing; and Steve Ladurantaye being removed from his position as editor at “The National” and reassigned within the CBC. It gives us articles like Andrew Dreschel’s who rushes to the defence of these poor fellows who’ve lost their positions because they wrote editorials or tweeted ideas that damaged the position of their publications. If you had a staff person tweeting inappropriate comments and a member of the public asked “Do you remember who you represent?” and their answer was “Thanks, I got this,” would you leave them in charge of anything?
But these fellows’ comments were about cultural appropriation, which is racially charged and the public demand for accountability has made many white commentators panicky. They leap to absurd lengths in the defence of these people. Christie Blatchford, who can be counted on for hyperbole if nothing else, wrote “Ladurantaye, having been through a “struggle session” straight out of Mao’s China, is now off to re-education camp.” Looks like the poor fellow has to go through diversity training. This is white fragility for you. It focuses on the white person in the discussion. Clearly their rights are being trampled. Now they can’t ever write about that black lesbian character they dreamed up — when people point out the lack of connection between these ideas the defenders of freedom switch defensive moves.
They demand indigenous people explain over and over why cultural appropriation matters or what it is, ignoring all the articles already written on the topic, claiming they don’t understand. Toni Morrison wrote about this approach to racism “The function, the very serious function, of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again your reason for being.”
These three men did not lose their jobs over freedom of expression, they were found to not have the thoughtfulness necessary of someone in their position. They were held accountable for their words, which is an aspect of freedom of speech, not an infringement. Write whatever you like, but you’re not free from criticism.
Now, those reporters being bundled into the back of the police car? Those who had their cellphone conversations monitored in Quebec? They’re seeing our real freedoms slip away.
Author Toni Morrison on racism: “The function, the very serious function, of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again your reason for being.”