I accept that, in many ways, I come from a privileged position — male, white, middle-aged, non-precarious employment, and the list goes on. But there are other things involved in my makeup as well: an upbringing of broad acceptance of others, years spent covering legal cases and judgments, 30 years of observing and analyzing the politics of this province and the nation. I have particular skills and experience; I’m not part of any great generalization, any more than anyone else is.
Strange, then, to see more and more people argue that there are those among us who no longer have a right to speak.
Clearly, the public acceptability of a position may well define how it is received.
But that acceptability doesn’t change the value or accuracy of your words, nor does it change your right to put them forward. I watched the outcry following the Snelgrove trial verdict, where an RNC officer was charged with committing sexual assault while he was on duty. He was found not guilty.
I listened to the responses — heart-wrenching responses from women who could clearly see themselves in the complainant’s shoes. People who felt unsupported by the justice system, and more at risk than they had been before the verdict.
I also heard a more troubling message, more than once: your input is not welcome.
It’s not unique to that case. In social media and even in most established mainstream press, people are willing to say that, depending on your sex or ethnicity, you are actually allowed no engagement in an argument.
It’s made me wonder if we’re now in a world of acceptable and unacceptable positions.
If we are, I think that’s dangerous.
Take these two examples.
First, the case of Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk protester who was jailed after she refused to promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls construction site.
Hunter is doing exactly what an activist should; believing in her cause, she’s taken a stand, knowing that her stand had particular ramifications.
It’s worth pointing out that, if she wasn’t in jail, her stand would have nowhere near the strength or value that it does now. Accepting the risk of going to prison is actually an integral piece of the peaceful protest lexicon. It’s also part of how things change.
Now, think about this: an anti-abortion protester, sure of their own convictions, might well decide that because of their honestly held beliefs, they should defy this province’s new Access to Abortion Services Act and protest on a clinic’s front steps. That protester would probably expect to be arrested and, if defiant enough about continuing their protest, could expect jail time. They might feel that their activism was legitimate, that the end justifies the means.
This province’s Justice minister said this to the Globe and Mail: “If an individual chooses to contravene the Act, just as if they choose to contravene any Act, there are repercussions that are clearly laid out if a person decides to contravene this legislation.”
He actually said it about the Access to Abortion Services Act. He could just as easily have said it about protesters obeying court injunctions in Labrador.
The thing is, you can agree with either one of those stands. You can agree with one and not the other.
But you put yourself in a strange position if you argue that one person who is standing up for what they believe in is taking part in an acceptable protest that should not carry consequences, while the other one should be punished.
It’s the same with freedom of expression.
To be absolutely blunt, to say that, by virtue of who I am, I have no right to voice an opinion is no different from the work world I lived in 30 years ago when I was told that my female boss couldn’t take over the newspaper where I worked because “women tend to get hysterical” — even though my boss was the most dependable person on the entire staff.
Disagree with me? Absolutely. We can talk about that.
But to say that I, or anyone else, have no right to speak because of race, sex or ethnicity?
Wow. I had a problem with that concept three decades ago, and I have a problem with it now. Imagine if someone were to say, “You can’t speak on this because you are a woman,” or “because you’re not white”? That’s offensive in the extreme.
The message might be that I have to listen — fair enough.
But if the message is that I have no right to speak at all? All that’s going to do is to build solitudes. And that’s going backwards. By decades.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.