When I look at the state of public discourse these days, the phrase that comes to mind is “dumpster fire.”
My theory is that our society hasn’t had time to adapt to rapidly changing technology (i.e. social media). These days, anyone can tweet or post anything. Some of those opinions are insightful and worth exploring. Some… are not.
The Canadian Literature (Canlit) dumpster fire is one of the most toxic ones you’ll find. It’s a good case study of how not to handle a contentious issue within a community.
The Canlit community starts to feel like a small town once you know a few people. It is similar to agriculture in that way. But since this is not a dumpster fire within the ag community, I think it’s easier to look at it more dispassionately.
It all began when Steven Galloway was accused of having an abusive relationship with a student. Galloway is an author and was the head of the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, which is one of the top jobs in the Canadian writing industry. He did have a relationship with a student, but few details have been made public because of confidentiality agreements, etc. Whatever happened, it was investigated by a third party, and he was fired. He protested, and there was some sort of arbitration.
The latest development involves two authors taking screen shots of another author/professor’s Facebook post about the university course she was teaching. Her Dalhousie English class had discussed the Galloway issue, among other things. One of the authors passed that Facebook post to Jonathan Kay, former editor of The Walrus, a Canadian magazine. Kay then posted it to Twitter, and accused the prof/author of indoctrinating her students. Once again, this is the Cole’s Notes version, but I don’t have the column space to flesh it out.
I missed this last incident on Twitter/Facebook, but the Globe and Mail covered it. Why are major media outlets following this latest squabble when they barely cover Canadian books these days? Why are Canada’s literati acting like high school students? What on earth is happening?
I guess we all love to watch a bit of drama. But most of us don’t enjoy being part of the drama, at least not for very long. It rarely turns out the way we’d imagined.
Here are four questions we should all ask ourselves before we weigh into contentious issues in a public forum.
1. Do I know what I’m talking about
While this seems like common sense, too few people stop to consider whether they actually know the facts before they dive into an argument head first. I think we’ve all been guilty of this at some time or another. But social media would be less annoying if we all cut this out.
Save those speculative, fraught discussions for friends who are willing to participate instead of publishing them somewhere that they can be screen-captured, reposted and perhaps cause real damage.
2. Am I being fair?
Assuming you know what you’re talking about, consider whether you’re twisting the facts to suit your own argument. Sometimes we do this without even being aware of it at first.
Also consider whether the information you’re sharing was shared with you in confidence, or perhaps shared with someone else in confidence. Is the issue so important that it’s worth breaking that confidence? If you do share that confidential information, are you going to share everything or be selective in what you leak? If you’re being selective, are you only sharing information to bolster your own argument or serve some other interest? What are the consequences of all this?
A few years ago someone gave me a copy of Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations. One concept she writes about is how to deliver the message without the load. Basically, if you want to reduce the negative aftermath of a tough message, avoid loading it with a malevolent undertone, she writes. For example, don’t call people names. Don’t use jokes to attack someone (a friend of mine calls this a joke with a jag). Don’t sprinkle sugar all over a passive-aggressive comment. Don’t put words in other people’s mouths. You get the idea.
Susan Scott’s book was first published in 2002, but that idea of loading messages with malevolence seems bang-on with today’s social media-fuelled public discourse. When I look at the online conversations in Canlit these days, there are plenty of people on both sides willing to rip each other to shreds. There is very little forgiveness for any perceived slight or difference of opinion.
3. Is this relevant to the conversation?
Have you ever been at a dinner party, telling a story, only to have someone interrupt you to argue about some detail that seems irrelevant? Would you find that annoying?
When this happens offline, people have all kinds of strategies for dealing with it or shutting it down. But when it happens on social media, there’s a huge risk of people following the rabbit trail until it takes on a life of its own.
Consider author Margaret Atwood’s tweet on the Galloway affair, pointing out that another Canadian writer, Joseph Boyden, had confirmed that Steven Galloway is Indigenous and was adopted. What does Galloway’s ethnic background or adoption status have to do with his behaviour towards students, you ask? I frankly have no idea. It seems completely irrelevant.
But this tweet sparked a whole new fire. Some people were angry that Joseph Boyden apparently conferred Indigenous heritage on Galloway. He had been a very vocal defender of Galloway. Boyden has written three novels set in Indigenous communities. Boyden had also claimed to be both European and First Nations himself.
About a month after this tweet, APTN published an article questioning Boyden’s claims around his First Nations identity. It seems fair to check his claims about his ethnicity, since he had talked about it quite a bit over the years. But how do you determine this? DNA testing? Cultural practices? Official membership in a band? Honourary membership in a First Nation? Blood quantum? At any rate, it got very ugly for Boyden.
It turns out that people were wondering about Boyden’s ethnicity long before Atwood’s tweet. But I doubt it would have blown up so spectacularly if his ethnicity hadn’t been linked in some way to the Galloway debacle. It’s the difference between fuelling a fire with paper and wood, and pouring diesel all over an overflowing dumpster before striking a match.
I know which fire I’d rather roast marshmallows over…
4. Am I listening to other people?
There is plenty of drama and nonsense surrounding the Galloway issue and its spin-offs. But there are also meaty moral quandaries worth talking about, if you’re interested in these things.
How should institutions handle allegations of abuse? Should profs or program directors be allowed to sleep with students in their programs, even if the affair is completely consensual, or are there too many potential issues of nepotism and abuse of power? Who should we believe in those situations? Who gets to decide what communities we belong to? Who gets to decide to what stories we write? All these issues relate to power, and that is a fiction writer’s bread and butter.
Susan Scott has an interesting idea in her book. Thinking about the word confrontation, she realized the Spanish word “con” means “with.” She reasoned that the word confrontation could be interpreted as being with someone in front of something. I visualize it as standing with someone in front of a roadblock and discussing how to get around it.
Scott writes that “conversation” has that same “with” sentiment. If you’re not conversing with someone, what exactly are you doing? You are talking at someone.
Social media is full of people talking at each other and not listening. I want to ask: If you don’t think anyone else in the conversation has an opinion worth listening to, then why are you even talking to them? Is that really how you want to spend your time? Aren’t you better of talking to someone whose opinion you respect? If you have so little respect for the other person’s opinion, do you really think you’re going to change his mind anyway?
If you’ve read this far, you probably know more than you ever wanted about the not-so-secret drama of Canadian authors. Heed this warning, Canadian ag community, and avoid lighting those dumpsters, no matter how much the garbage stinks.