Will Canada Be Different?

As we see populist, anti-immigration sentiment gain political traction across Europe and in the United States, we wonder: will Canada be different?

There are at least two ways to look at this question.

In Canada, we have two official languages. We are the home of the most diverse city in the world. We sport multiculturalism and politeness like a global brand. We like to apologize for everything. We have a private refugee sponsorship program. We have a uniquely powerful Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined in our constitution. The Crown is our formal head of state. Statistics Canada recently reported that nearly half of all Canadians will be immigrants or the children of immigrants by 2036. We have a Prime Minister who says, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” and that the shared values of openness and respect “make us the first postnational state.”

These variables, among others, might incline us to think that Canada is somehow ‘unique’ in the world.

Yet the shooting at Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec demonstrates all too painfully that hatred lives here too. A recent poll by CROP-Radio Canada indicated that one in four Canadians and one in three Quebecers is “very or more or less in favour” of banning Muslim immigration to Canada. As many visible minorities can attest, racism is alive and well today, manifesting itself in all kinds of subtle (and not-so-subtle) actions and words. Our comment sections are full of vitriol, too. Along with the rest of the world, we recognize new dynamics at play in our society: such as the immense power of social media algorithms to invigorate existing bias and prejudice. And arguably Canada’s geographical position on the globe has meant that our rhetoric has never truly been ‘tested’ by the kinds of refugee and migrant challenges faced by many European countries today.

Perhaps most importantly, history is instructive when it comes to the potential fragility of multiculturalism. One need only consider the stories of 15th century Spain or 20th century Bosnia and Herzegovina to encounter sobering reminders that diversity requires diligence.

So, will Canada be different? Predicting the future is a foolish game, but I think the uncertainties call for speculation, studying the potentialities, and weighing the probabilities. I am organizing an event on May 29 to ask, ‘Will a populist, anti-immigration agenda come to Ottawa? Probably yes? or, Probably no?’ We will examine the variables related to this critical, national question, with the help of an eminent brain trust of Canadian scholars. In the end, this is not just about predicting the future, but grappling with it — anticipating the nation we will create together.

This event is an opportunity for the London community to wrestle with some more reflective, reasoned, and rational perspectives on how the next several years might unfold against an uncertain and shifting global backdrop. Expert panelists will look at the questions of populism and anti-immigration sentiment from the perspectives of sociology, psychology, journalism, religious studies, and history.

Monday, May 29, 7:00pm
(Pre-event concert at 6:30pm)
Wolf Performance Hall, London Public Library
FREE. All welcome. Coffee & refreshments served.

I hope to see you there!

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It’s Time to Retire Political Correctness

Back in October, our library hosted a debate about political correctness. This week, Jeff Preston, one of the debate participants and local rights activist, shares how his ideas on the issue have continued to evolve over the last five months. In light recent events — such as Milo Yiannopoulos’ fall from grace and the discussion surrounding the Liberal’s Motion 103 on anti-Islamophobia — Jeff is thinking and theorizing about political correctness as a construct of “in-group social etiquette” that we mobilize to identify insiders and outsiders. In this conversation, we wrestle with the proposition that ‘political in/correctness’ simply prevents us from talking to each other, and is thus a term of reference that deserves to be laid to rest once and for all.

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Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

As frequent readers know, I have been on something of a personal odyssey for the past few months grappling with the issue and rhetoric of political correctness.

I have been thinking about political correctness as a subjective language construct, a proxy for political conversations, a rhetorical tool to legitimize or delegitimize, and as an empty signifier that simply absorbs whatever meaning its user ascribes to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the tradition of liberal democracy that has led us to this point in time.

This journey both inspired (and was provoked by) convening an Oxford-style debate in October on the motion: Be it resolved that political correctness has gone too far. For those interested in the discussion that unfolded that night, the debate is now available in its entirety on the podcast.

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The End of Political Correctness

Words are symbols. If I say to you, “I own a red car,” I have presented you with a set of symbols that you interpret in fairly concrete terms. More symbols — such as the make, model, and year of my vehicle — will provide you with an even more elaborate understanding.

Outside of referring to physical objects around us, language can perform far more complex functions. While introducing the work of Marcel Mauss, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) noted that many words are “floating signifiers,” which “somewhat like algebraic symbols, represent an indeterminate value of signification.” (Lévi-Strauss 1987(1950):63,55)

We interact with floating signifiers every day. When a coworker raises their hand in a staff meeting and says, “Our office needs to become a better community,” everyone else has an idea in their heads of what “community” means, but any consensus on the group’s definition is only assumed implicitly. Consider the way politicians refer to ideas like “hope” or “freedom.” What do “community,” “hope,” and “freedom” mean? It depends on who you ask. (Don’t believe it? Just try asking.)

Floating signifiers possess incredible power. They are words that mean different things to different members of the group. As such, floating signifiers can galvanize large groups of people: these are not words that emit meaning — they absorb whatever meaning is projected on to them.

I think that the term “political correctness” may be one of the emptiest signifiers of our time. What does it mean? An evolving code of conduct for showing decency and respect? A synonym for the liberal agenda? A Trojan horse of socialism? Empathy and justice put into action? The iron fist of the self-righteous mob? The meaning of the term is in constant transition: shifting, morphing, and evolving. As per Lévi-Strauss: political correctness is “devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (pg. 55). The problem is not that “political in/correctness” means nothing: the problem is that it can mean anything and everything, to anyone.

Empty signifiers can be mobilized at whim. Suppose you meet a person spewing hatred against black people. When you confront the individual about their racism, they respond, “I’m not a racist, I’m just politically incorrect!” It makes no sense to argue your definition of political correctness against theirs. Debating whether one concept of political correctness is “more correct” than another definition is impossible. It seems that there is nothing concrete that differentiates one person’s political correctness from another person’s cultural relativism.

Likewise, if an entourage of so-called “social justice warriors” threaten to suppress the right of a controversial figure to express their opinion, debating whether they have “taken political correctness too far” is pointless. Reprimanding others for being “too politically correct” only entrenches the idea that such a thing as political correctness “exists” in the first place, and that — based on someone else’s definition of it — you yourself are on the “incorrect” side of the equation. Instead of getting into the rhetorical mud of political correctness, it makes far more sense to focus on what is actually at stake. (In this case, the fundamental rights and laws whereby a society considers itself “free” in the first place.)

From this perspective, the language of “political in/correctness” appears to be distracting at best and a red herring at worst. Yes, words like “equity” and “justice” are maddeningly difficult enough reel in from the atmosphere of floating signifiers as it is. But we stop talking about “equity” and “justice” altogether as soon as we bait one another into arguing about this layer of abstraction we call “political correctness.” Asking, “Is this politically in/correct?” is a whole degree removed from asking, “Is this equitable and just?” These two questions are not synonyms in the common lexicon. Political in/correctness seems like an unnecessary and unhelpful tangent that gets in the way of constructively addressing just about any issue of consequence. It is static interference.

It is a little  awkward reach this “conclusion” as a person who just organized and hosted a debate about political correctness. But I am thankful nonetheless for where the journey has led thus far. I suppose that becoming aware of just how empty a signifier is sometimes requires investigating every corner of the container diligently.

Moving ahead, I have come to the tentative conviction that abandoning the rhetoric of “political in/correctness” is the most efficient strategy for constructively addressing anything that matters. (Maybe this would make an interesting resolution for another debate…)

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Political Correctness, the Proxy of Politics

In today’s cultural landscape, the language of political correctness is operationalized. Whether you accuse someone’s insensitive words as ‘being politically incorrect’ or deride the ‘political correctness of social justice warriors,’ you have mobilized rhetoric.

Political correctness is inherently ideological — and nonetheless so if you are trumping yourself up as the antithesis of the ideological. Whether you are ‘for it’ or ‘against it,’ arguments about political correctness are collisions of social agendas. Political correctness is politics, and everything we say about it is political.

However, in common parlance, it increasingly seems like ‘political correctness’ is just encrypted speech about politics. It is as if ‘political correctness’ is a codeword for debating political issues and social policy under the rubric ‘unpolitical speech.’

Perhaps this is because we find the formalities of politics unsavory. Politicians are untrustworthy… and trust is a limited resource. And yet we still need to say political things: we need to talk about resource distribution, public spending, social policy, and civic rights. But how do we ‘talk politics’ without actually talking about politics? Apparently, we talk about ‘political correctness.’

But political correctness is still politics: it boils down to the same old debates about rights, resources, and responsibilities.

It is as if political correctness has become our proxy term for politics itself. It is the piñata of choice in our social discourse. Come! Let us take our swings and pokes at this candy-filled caricature of our politics.

But as soon as we engage, it is no longer a caricature. It is politics.

Perhaps today’s ‘PC wars’ merely get in the way of having legitimate political conversations? But what is the alternative? The PC cat is out of the bag. The piñata is no longer a proxy. Like it or hate it, we now live in a world where this linguistic construct dominates as the terminology of the age (and ideological battering ram) for a wide range of issues: from gender identity to foreign policy, from systemic racism to accessibility rights, from mental health advocacy to the freedom of the press and academy, and from environmental law to economic regulation.

The most important question now, I think, is fundamentally pragmatic: how can we have coherent discussions about our politics in the shadow of our tired, well-worn, and pejorative accusations of political in/correctness?

At some point we will find ourselves forced to return to the elementary questions and first principles behind all this PC banter: what is the state for? what is the nature of liberty? what is my responsibility to you? what does it mean to be a neighbor? No matter which ‘side’ of the PC debate you are on, these seem like the truly critical questions.

(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Come to the live event or join the discussion at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently produced about political correctness.)

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