VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Counting the Victims of Islamophobia

In recent weeks, political purveyors of “common sense” would have us believe that free speech itself is under threat by M-103, the Liberal parliamentary motion to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” There is a hard line, Conservatives suggest, between free speech and hate speech, and while they denounce the latter, Liberals claim that they nevertheless cross that line by refusing to condemn Islamophobia. Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has said that “by not denouncing Islamophobia, they are actually contributing to the problem.” Conservatives have countered that the Liberal motion would muzzle free speech and an individual’s right to “criticize” Islam.

Despite politicking from both camps, there is a more fundamental contest here over what speech is, what it does, and who is responsible for its effects. Is speech solely a matter of individual freedoms or is there something “systemic” in the ways speech acts within a society, when our words circulate? Is criticism of Islam necessarily Islamophobic? Or is criticism of Israel necessarily anti-Semitic, for that matter? Not necessarily. Indeed, within Islam and Judaism, as within Christianity, we find robust traditions of interpretation and critique.

Presiding at the funeral of three of the men killed at La Grande mosquée de Québec, Imam Hassan Guillet shocked some mourners on February 3 by counting Alexandre Bissonnette amongst the victims. “Before he was a killer, he was a victim,” Guillet said. “Before he shot our brothers, words more dangerous than bullets were planted in him.” The Imam’s own words neither excuse nor exonerate the young man charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. Nor do they simply betoken a religious gesture of compassion or forgiveness. Rather, they constitute criticism that is both timely and courageous.

Words are not merely descriptive: they do things, sometimes hurtful and hateful things, and sometimes wonderful things, too. With speech, the lines of cause-and-effect are almost never horizontal or rectilinear. “Certain politicians, certain media,” Guillet continued, “have poisoned the country and Alexandre Bissonnette with their words.” And, sadly, it is not difficult to find public speech that cultivates xenophobia and racism, even if it is not explicitly a call to arms. Such speech is often banal or innocuous in tone, yet it informs what passes as “common sense”; meanwhile, it is often uninformed, based in fear rather than critical reason, or fallaciously generalizes from particular and extreme cases.

Québec society has in the wake of the shooting embarked on some serious soul-searching, and ordinary people have emerged in critical numbers to stand in solidarity and support of the victims, their families, and communities. There has been fresh criticism of certain local radio stations known for their incendiary discourse. I listened to one broadcast dating back just a few months in which the announcer averred that Islam is “fundamentally incompatible” with “our” way of life. These are spoken as “our” words, in “our” name, defending “our” way of life. The words are hostile to all criticism and to truth in any meaningful sense, and yet they hold the power to galvanize the identity of some listeners and to settle on a common enemy.

Meanwhile, and more broadly, debates have raged for many years over the “neutrality” or “secularism” of the state, and whether conspicuous (ostentatoire) religious symbols—such as the hijab—ought to be banned for those who work in the public sector. Ironically, the crucifix and other Christian symbols are often considered “neutral” on the grounds of “cultural heritage.” But let’s not forget that this iconography also constitutes public speech. The philosopher Charles Taylor has recently reversed his earlier position on secular dress codes: “The debate had the effect of attenuating or eliminating … inhibitions, along with thickening the clouds of suspicion and concern around newcomers.” The debate itself proved toxic.

On the national stage, we might recall Stephen Harper’s legal contortions to ban the veil from the citizenship ceremony, or the hotline to report “Barbaric Cultural Practices” proposed by Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander—“for victims,” they said helpfully, “as well as for citizens” (a troubling binary). This was callous and strategic fear-mongering of the highest order by our parliamentary representatives, speaking in our name. And to what effects?

Together, this odious rhetoric fosters a climate—thick clouds of suspicion—in which fear and ignorance are naturalized, and hate becomes a permissible, ostensibly innate, response. We note the marked rise in anti-immigrant sentiments and petty hate crimes. And we bear witness, among others, to Donald Trump’s racist invectives and executive orders in the United States, and Marine Le Pen’s efforts in France—both of whom where followed, and “liked,” by Alexandre Bissonnette on social media. As Guillet remarked, Bissonnette was not born into a rhetorical vacuum. There are no Lone Wolves in society.

And so there is something dangerous and disingenuous, we might say, when we are so quick to identify and disown the “Lone Wolf,” to morally distance ourselves from him, as if we and our words were innocent and apart. Our silence also speaks. Guillet’s statement was, then, a call of conscience—for us to imagine that every life is in a relation of care and entrusted to others, and that we share a responsibility not just for what we say but for what our words do. To resolutely condemn hate crimes and violence, as we must, is not incompatible with owning, in small part, those words that aggrieve us, and the terrors that they propagate.

Stuart J. Murray
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Rhetoric and Ethics
Carleton University

“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Engaging the Media in Troubled Times

To invite sociologists to engage with the media at this particular moment in history hardly appears propitious. The proliferation of populist nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms around the world is emboldening politicians and celebrities—the line between the two being increasingly blurred in our infotainment era—to openly profess hostility towards or ignorance of expertise of all kinds. To this extent, sociologists risk facing either political animus or popular indifference, for we reveal certain inconvenient truths that puncture, undermine, or squarely contradict the cherished dogma of naturalized, profanely or theologically sacred, and seemingly self-evident common sense about the social world.

Adding to the untimely character of this call for media engagement is the belief amongst certain members of the sociological community that media organizations are reducible to instruments of corporate or state power, or yet again, that sociologists who work with news outlets are craven, shallow, and publicity-seeking dilettantes uncommitted to serious scholarly work. Furthermore, the last few years have witnessed the multiplication of “how-to” guides for academics interested in public outreach via social media platforms, inadvertently fostering the perception that conventional media is sliding into the waste bin of cultural and technological obsolescence.

While some of these arguments may be convincing to varying extents, wholeheartedly accepting their conclusions can only produce disengagement from the media and deprive sociologists of means of mass communication. The reach of mass media remains unrivalled—and this, at the very time that sociological perspectives on crucial social, political, cultural, and economic debates need to be heard more broadly. Moreover, engaging with the media makes for better public and professional sociologists. It simultaneously enables us to encounter a wider range of ideas, opinions, and experiences than would be available to us otherwise and compels us to reflect upon, frame, and present our work to audiences unaccustomed to academic discourse, rituals, and norms.

Why, then, turn to Canada? From a global perspective, the Canadian experience is a valuable case study because the duality of its two dominant, linguistically-based public spheres encompasses and mirrors the two most common ways in which media organizations view sociologists around the world and, conversely, the two strategies through which sociologists participate in public debates via news outlets: as professional specialists, or as public intellectuals.

In English-speaking Canada, as in the rest of Anglo-American world where professional sociology is a more prevalent mode of disciplinary practice, news outlets primarily solicit sociologists as specialists on a precise topic receiving coverage (say, the settlement of Syrian refugees or social media-fuelled bullying in high schools). At the same time, consistent with American and British tendencies, Anglo-Canadian sociology has a relatively subordinate public standing vis-à-vis some of its social scientific counterparts—notably, economics, psychology, and political science, whose practitioners traditionally have enjoyed a greater foothold on prestigious, nationally broadcasted television and radio panels as well as in newspapers of record.

In French-speaking Québec, much like in Latin America and continental Europe where sociology benefits from a relatively high degree of socio-cultural esteem and intellectual prestige, the discipline occupies a public role that rivals, and often surpasses, its professional one. This is so because sociologists have contributed in significant ways to the articulation of the social and cultural foundations of francophone Québécois collective identity and nationhood since the anti-clerical and modernizing “Révolution tranquille” of the 1960s. As a result, sociologists in Québec tend to be viewed as public intellectuals and generalists whom the media approaches to opine on broad social and political questions; a journalist or host frequently asks “what do you, as a sociologist, think” of a given topic?

Although the above observations are derived from the Canadian context, the dual character of sociology’s positioning—either as a specialized profession or a public intellectual pursuit—is generalizable to many other settings. Accordingly, because their risks and rewards differ, each of these modes of practice benefits from learning from the other while calling for a distinct set of strategies of media engagement.

In the Anglo-American world, given that the legitimacy of sociology is less well established and principally grounded in professional specialization, I want to put forth three proposals of publicization of the discipline:

Understand your positioning: Study the ideological and professional terrain of your national media fields to grasp the role that you will be asked to play. Why are producers or journalists soliciting you, to what ends is your expertise being requested, and how will your statements be framed in an article or during an appearance?

Embrace a varied diet: Apply media sociology’s analytical principle of representative sampling to the interviews that you grant by speaking with less prestigious or consecrated news sources such as community radio stations, smaller newspapers, and so forth. You will thereby reach an audience that may not be as familiar with, and may be intrigued by, a sociological vantage-point on a particular topic.

Opinions are cheap, but (sociological) facts are hard earned: In the age of social media, everyone has an opinion and a platform to broadcast it. Your differentia specifica as a professional specialist, then, stems from the ability to draw upon your research findings and cite facts to counter popular misconceptions, as well as locate a particular event within its broader socio-historical and comparative context.

For places such as Latin America, continental Europe, and francophone Québec, where sociologists regularly perform the role of public intellectuals and media engagement veers toward professional specialization, I offer two proposals:

Shape the encounter: Since journalists or producers normally will conduct a pre-interview with you and value your advice highly, take the opportunity to mold the angle that the story will take. Suggest alternative lines of inquiry, recommend another person to be interviewed, or follow up by sending reports, data, or even (hark!) a refereed journal article or book on the subject being covered.

Keep your eyes on the prize: Given that you will be constituted as a public intellectual, it will be tempting to speculate by making sweeping pronouncements about the state of the world or establishing reductive causal ties. Instead, steer the interview back to matters that touch upon your research interests and areas of expertise. Do so in a concise manner that focuses on your key points of analysis, one that is accessible yet neither diluted nor “dumbed down”.

A final point applies across all settings: timing is everything. Tight deadlines and fleeting newsworthiness are sacrosanct for the media. You need to find a just medium between accommodating their last-minute requests and your own schedule. Reporters, producers, and editors cannot and will not wait for you to find the time to grant them an interview or publish your op-ed piece once their story is filed or has faded from public consciousness.

Rather than turning sociologists into bloviating windbags or tiresome pundits, these proposals make a case for renewed collaboration with the media, for it behooves us to cultivate sociology’s twin purpose as a public vocation and a professional discipline that serves as an alternative to the kind of public relations spin, entrepreneurial platitudes, or cynical opportunism that passes as wisdom in too many public spaces in these troubled times.

Fuyuki Kurasawa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University and is York Research Chair in Global Digital Citizenship.

“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: the intersectionality of the Women’s March on January 21, 2017

Seeing the images of women and men around the world marching on January 21st in the collective defense of human rights is uplifting. If only Thomas Jefferson could see, for it was he who wrote in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These ideals were picked up shortly after by the authors of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, expanded to “all citizens” and “every society” and they were considered “natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man” (Article 2) derived not from kings nor from a supreme being, but made from the relationship between human beings. By 1948, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoed the first article of the French Declaration in stating that “All human beings are born free and equal in the dignity of rights.” The problem, of course, is that none of these documents were binding and that these rights only hold concrete meaning in the local context and mainly come into question upon their abuse. That it took time, and more importantly hard work, reason and contestation to expand “man” to include the non-propertied, non-white, non-male, and non-Protestant and Catholic—reminds us that human rights are the product of history. As historian Lynn Hunt argued it also took “imagined empathy” (that is, “imagining that someone else is like you”) for the human rights revolution to occur. In the 2017 Women’s March, we see the broadening and intersectionality of these rights: women and men defending the rights of others for whom they are able to imagine and empathize with (a white woman carrying a sign “black lives matters” or a father who brings his two young sons in support of women’s right). These rights were gained through history. They have to be maintained and expanded in our present and beyond. Human rights (collective and individual; social, political, economic and environmental) are still the cultural battleground of our societies. We cannot assume their universality nor their inalienability. They must be protected, as so passionately understood by those who marched on January 21st.

Cynthia E. Milton
President, College of New Scholars, Scientist and Artists of the Royal Society of Canada, Canada Research Chair in Latin American History, Université de Montréal

“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.