Social Justice Language and Free Speech

Language matters. This is a value that comes right near the top of my list of most important values in how I live in the world. The words I use have impacts and I want my words to reflect my desires, beliefs, and intentions as much as I can muster. To do this I have to acknowledge not only the context in which I am speaking but the contexts in which I have lived and spoken. I am a white queer settler Canadian and I have, without any doubt in my heart, contributed to settler colonialism, institutionalized racism, and hetero-normative misogyny numerous times in my life through speech I knew was wrong, should have known was wrong, and could have known was wrong.

“Why the confession?” you may be asking. Well, it has to do with the hoopla around the “appropriation prize” controversy that emerged last week. Specifically, I want to quote Jonathan Kay’s editorial in the National Post and explain why he completely misses the point of the language social justice warriors (like myself) use in regards to social justice and equity issues.

“What I (and other Canadian writers and editors) am angry about is the effort by TWUC and its Equity Task Force (which released its own statement) to shame Niedzviecki, and to suggest that his liberal approach to speech is somehow outside the bounds of respectable discourse. TWUC’s over-the-top apology describes the “pain” that the article allegedly caused. It’s part of what may be described as the medicalization of the marketplace of ideas: It is no longer enough to say that you merely disagree with something. Rather, the author must be stigmatized as a sort of dangerous thought criminal. Indeed, the Equity Task Force situates Niedzviecki as an apologist for “cultural genocide,” and accuses him of peddling “a long-debunked false universalism.” The Task Force also claims that the publication of his article is a symptom of “structural racism,” or possibly even “brazen malice.”

This is extraordinary language coming from an organization that represents the interests of “professionally published book authors.” Their mandate should be to seek the broadest possible range of opportunities for their constituents—not act as a chorus for the most restrictive views on acceptable speech.”

What he calls extraordinary language is not extraordinary at all. In fact, it is the most common and daily language among people who work for social justice. You’ll note above that I used some of that language in reference to myself and yet I call myself a social justice warrior and ally to lots of groups of which I am not a part. I am a part of social justice networks and communities that accept me and, more importantly, hold me accountable. I have worked hard to raise myself not only to the base level of common decency to the human beings I share these spaces with, but to actively work for their liberation where I can. And I fail all the time. I can list many moments in the past year where I had reactions that were undeniably racist. I still have a lot of work to do to overcome that deeply cultural training I have been living with my whole life, and I will very likely never overcome it.

When someone calls me out for saying something racist, they are not shaming me or calling me a member of the klan who intrinsically and intentionally desires the elimination of entire cultures. They are holding me accountable for my words and actions and how those contribute to systems that I do not have control over. At their most stringent they are calling me tacitly complicit in those systems that do see the elimination of entire cultures. That’s because I don’t have the power to stop settler colonialism or any form of racist imperialism on my own. And yet it is incredibly easy for me to contribute to the narratives and policies and make them stronger and when I do that there is no way for me to take that momentum back. I don’t get kicked out of those spaces or communities when I slip up. Maybe I’m told to take a back seat and shut up for a while, but literally every group that has a set of rules governing debate has a way to temporarily censure a member. In these cases I feel bad, because I should feel bad; but I don’t hold on to those bad feelings and make the slip up about me. I reflect, change, and move on to do better.

So what Jonathan Kay was reacting to in the TWUC equity report is a gross mischaracterization of what they were saying. Describing the context of a situation and using the words “colonialism,” “cultural genocide” and “racism” do not equate to shaming Niedzviecki, nor are they some form of extreme hyperbole. They were holding a powerful person responsible for his words, and his words were ignorant, glib, and consequently contributing to settler colonialism and racism. We all know that’s not what he intended, but that doesn’t matter. Niedzviecki wrote what he wrote and people reacted accordingly. That’s how free and open discourse works. Someone says something and other people are allowed and encouraged to respond until the group in question comes to a decision of some kind. If the freedom of speech you are constructing and defending does not allow for criticism of that speech, then you are only defending the freedom to speak and not the open exchange of ideas you also talk about so fervently. So, finally, it is ironic to see Kay, the great defender of free speech in Canada, get so uppity about someone else’s freedom to use the language they see fit to describe a situation. It’s almost like the only free speech he cares about is his own.

And finally, since I can already see that some people will call me out for having a double standard about who’s speech deserves to be interpreted graciously, Niedzviecki’s words were interpreted graciously. His words, in every context, contribute to harm the discourse around cultural appropriation by invalidating the concerns of those who care about cultural appropriation. Authors around the internet were not criticizing the message of his piece, except perhaps to say that he was creating a strawman. Rather, they were criticizing the words themselves and how the glib and ignorant use of those words undermined not only the message of his piece, but also the wider discourse around settler colonialism in Canada that that issue of Write Magazine was attempting to address.  The TWUC Equity Task Force’s words on the other hand were not interpreted graciously. People saw the words “racism,” “colonialism,” and “cultural genocide” and assumed that the TWUC’s Equity Task Force was calling Niedzviecki evil and beyond repair.

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