The spirit of revolution is in the air. A dramatic, overdue uprising against racism is sweeping the world. Every institution is being forced to consider its biases. Good. The brutal killing of George Floyd revealed anew the enduring scar of racial inequality.
But revolutionary times can be dangerous times. A search for justice can become a campaign for revenge. An attempt to eradicate old ways of thinking can become a move to suppress free thought.
We are seeing unmistakable signs of that now. When a veteran CBC broadcaster, Wendy Mesley, carelessly uttered an unspeakable word, she was suspended from hosting her show and disciplined by her bosses. When The New York Times published a fierce opinion piece by a U.S. senator calling for authorities to use force against rioters, the paper’s opinion editor, James Bennet, was pushed out after a staff revolt.
Say the wrong thing and the clamouring crowd will set on you till you recant, as the head of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, was forced to do when she was unwise enough to say that she didn’t really understand what is meant by systemic racism. Proclaim your innocence and it will be taken as proof of your guilt. You say you’re not racist? That just shows that you are.
Those who find themselves in this impossible situation are forced to issue the most abject apologies, as Ms. Mesley did. It does them no good. In these unforgiving times, no one gets credit for heartfelt contrition. No one gets the benefit of the doubt. All context and complexity are banished. It didn’t matter that Ms. Mesley meant no harm to anyone. It didn’t matter that she has had a long career unblemished by any evidence of prejudice. She had to pay the price.
Even to complain about the censorious atmosphere of the times is to invite the wrath of the social-media mob. A group of thought leaders found that out when dozens of them put their name to an open letter in Harper’s magazine condemning what it called an “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The mob promptly condemned them as privileged whiners who were just standing in the way of progress.
Tough luck for them, some will say. A revolution is not a dinner party. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. What does it matter if a few comfortable individuals are sideswiped by the revolution, a few reputations sullied?
But a revolution that becomes an inquisition risks losing the hearts and minds of ordinary people. The movement for racial justice is one of the most important of our time. It has wide-based support. You can see it in the diverse crowds that turn out to all those demonstrations. Many of them will turn away if the movement veers further into extremes of rhetoric.
Suppressing dissent is bad not just for the dissenters but for everyone. An open society moves forward by testing ideas through constant argument and exchange. To move toward a fairer, more just society, we need a robust debate on all sorts of issues, from schooling to housing to policing. That process fails when people hesitate to utter incorrect thoughts for fear of being shouted down.
It should be possible to push back against some of the new dogmas arising out of the movement for racial equality without being deemed a moss-backed reactionary. It should be possible to say that Canada is not fundamentally a racist country without being called an enemy of progress. It should be possible to wonder aloud about the meaning of systemic racism without being corrected by the prime minister. It should still be possible to argue that the best way to combat racism is to be colour blind without being condemned as hopelessly out of step.
If those views strike you as wrong, don’t try to cancel them. Argue back. As the Harper’s letter puts it, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” A movement that keeps that in mind will have a much better chance of defeating racism.
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