White students union rejects tolerance
“Don’t read the comments” is a directive as vital to a person’s health (especially if that person happens to be a columnist) as “wear sunscreen” and “don’t go to bed angry.”
Nothing good comes, we are told, from reading the comments sections beneath news stories online — where millions of rhetorical wars are waged but seldom won by people who don’t know each other from Adam, yet despise one another with the passion of a thousand raging suns.
Some writers — the Guardian’s resident scold, Jessica Valenti, for example — are in favour of doing away with comments sections altogether, because, Valenti says, they serve as bastions of “sexism, racism, and homophobia.” The problem with getting rid of them, though, is that comments sections are also bastions of that inconvenient thing we call reality. Crude as they may be, they often jar us from the comfort of our preconceptions, letting us know that the obviously “correct” stance isn’t as widely held as we previously thought.
Take this week’s story about the white students union (WSU), a controversial group whose posters began popping up recently at Toronto universities, among them Ryerson, York and U of T. The group’s posters portray two strong-jawed Caucasian men in expensivelooking winter parkas, standing stern and proud in the sun — the CN tower piercing the blue sky behind them. Below the men, written in (what else?) white capital letters, is the group’s name: “White Students Union!”
The exclamation mark kind of says it all. The WSU has the unmistakable feel of a satirical sketch (the posters look more like ads for Canada Goose apparel than white supremacist literature), representing as it does a group of majority students who are apparently so threatened by their non-white minority compatriots they feel the need to organize.
Or the need, in their own words, on their website, studentsofwesterncivilization.com, “to advance the interests of Western peoples,” and “promote and celebrate western civilization.”
No mention is made of cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches, watching reruns of Frasier, and dancing badly, but it’s still early days for these palest of fringe revolutionaries. The schools where the posters appear, for instance, say the group is not sanctioned and was denied permission to advertise.
Which is all well and good for a laugh, but for one disquieting reality. When this story made the news, I ignored Valenti’s no-comment-reading directive and dove into the lengthy threads below the WSU stories — as well as some of the tweets on the topic. And what I found in the comments sections were not predominantly the voices of neo-Nazi basement dwellers or incensed liberal arts students, but voices of ostensibly regular Canadians who see themselves as fairminded and pluralistic, but who just can’t figure out what the big deal is about a Caucasian-only club on campus. The prevailing attitude is summed up by one plain-spoken commenter under a Blog TO story: “There is nothing wrong with this, so unless you condemn black groups or Islamic groups, hell even LGBT groups, this should be treated equally.” (Ryerson, like many Canadian universities, has groups dedicated to members of other races, such as United Black Students Ryerson).
But there is something wrong with this. Minority clubs on campus — minority clubs anywhere really — were borne out of necessity, in retaliation to prejudice.
The white students union, on the other hand, was born in retaliation to tolerance. The direst problem facing a black students union or a Jewish students union is racism and anti-Semitism. The direst problem facing the white students union is, presumably, that they can’t get through a single liberal arts tutorial without being told to “check their privilege.”
As annoying as this increasingly popular request may be, it is not discriminatory, nor will it follow the WSU-ites outside the plush walls of academia, where most people are too busy to memorize the lexicon of campus political correctness, and where any racial slurs that are hurled will almost assuredly not be aimed at white guys.
I tried to contact the white students union on their Facebook page, to get their side of the story, but to no avail. This suggests that despite their multi-campus branding and call to champion western superiority, the WS Unionists would rather stay home to stew in their disaffection than face what they perceive to be the liberal mob outside.
And though this may be convenient for those of us who would like to be spared their version of Portnoy’s Complaint, it’s also a disappointment. Uncomfortable truths may be best collected in the shadows of the comments section, but false analogies are best contested in the public light.