When Disagreement Becomes Trauma

On April 22nd, the University of British Columbia released its Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force report, which contains 54 recommendations aimed at confronting “systemic racism against Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) within the UBC community.” Though it’s two years in the making, and almost 300 pages in length, the report contains surprisingly scant evidence that UBC is a racist institution. Instead, the authors mostly indict UBC on the basis of their own “reflections of lived experiences”—an “integrative” anti-racist fact-finding method described as “truthing.”

Like the report as a whole, the supplied definition of “truthing” contained within is written in a way that makes dissent impossible: It is “the act of stating truths on subject matter considered difficult and/or dangerous knowledge, in contexts of hyper policing, surveilling, and micro-managing of racialized bodies … while simultaneously addressing power relations and injustices which actively interrogate the discomfort, denial, disavowal, erasure, and censure that accompanies truthing the subject-matter.” In other words, to refute a truthing isn’t an act of mere disagreement, but rather a symptom of the truth-denier’s bigotry and intellectual dishonesty.

Numerous Canadian institutions have published similar long-form mea culpas in recent years, all of them generally heavy on the kind of circular logic and faddish terminology contained in the UBC report (to offer a quote picked at random from page 128: “Supports of safe environments for students require evidence of significant praxis employing theoretical, empirical and critical Indigenous anti-racism praxis at the critical intersection of Indigenous women, Two-Spirit, trans, Indigi-queer, GLBTQIA, anti-colonial histories”). In all cases, what concerns me more than the actual content of this tedious propaganda is the accompanying demand that we all treat it as unfalsifiable. The whole mission of a university is based around the practice of gathering (real) evidence and evaluating it by means of observation, objective analysis, and intellectual disputation. The Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence Task Force report, on the other hand, sets out IBPOC testimonials as sacred forms of revealed truthery, without allowing the possibility (or even legitimacy) of counterargument.

This allergy to disagreement is now a growing feature of intellectual life all across Canada. At Mount Royal University in Alberta, for instance, the faculty union recently sent out two pages of detailed instructions about how professors were expected to communicate with one another at an upcoming spring retreat. In the email message, leaked to me by an exasperated faculty member, the union warned members that discussions at the retreat “may involve engaging in brave, though not entirely safe, spaces.” In order to “minimize harm,” attendees were advised to “speak from our own experience and not invalidate others’ experiences.” They were assured that moderators would eject anyone who willfully violated these rules, and comfort those who’d fled “harmful” discussions. There were also detailed instructions about how to snitch on fellow union members who’d engaged in wrongspeak—including by anonymous complaint. Taken as a whole, the document is a warning to one and all that anyone disagreeing with anyone about anything might be at risk of public shaming and official sanction.

Mount Royal University has been in the news for other reasons of late, having fired a professor named Frances Widdowson for questioning institutionally approved truthings in a number of areas—including, most explosively, the issue of unmarked graves at the site of former residential schools.

This month will mark the one-year anniversary of the shocking announcement that the location of 215 suspected graves had been identified with ground-penetrating radar in Kamloops, British Columbia—graves that Indigenous knowledge keepers had foretold as containing the remains of First Nations children. The entire country treated this preliminary information as incontrovertible proof of mass murder, not only because doing otherwise was deemed scandalously disrespectful, but also because many of us (including me) assumed that these sites would immediately be searched by police and forensic investigators (as one would normally expect in regard to any other alleged murder scene). But almost a year has passed, and no human remains have yet been unearthed at the Kamloops site—an awkward fact with politically radioactive implications. Widdowson was one of the few Canadian academics who dared speak about these facts candidly.

Another was Quebec academic Jacques Rouillard, author of a Dorchester Review article titled, “In Kamloops, Not One Body Has Been Found.” As far as I know, everything Rouillard wrote was true. But on this kind of issue, truth and truthing lead in opposite directions. In a long Twitter thread responding to Rouillard (though not by name), the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, denounced any request for evidence of bodies as “ghoulish,” “retraumatizing for survivors,” and “part of a pattern of denialism”—the latter phrase being clearly intended to place skeptics such as Widdowson and Rouillard on the same moral plane as holocaust deniers.

The same week as Williams Lake First Nation announced the discovery of 93 potential unmarked graves at the site of the St Joseph's Mission School, a number of articles have been circulating questioning the nature and validity of these and other recovery efforts. #cdnpoli— Marc Miller (@MarcMillerVM) January 27, 2022

This conflation of disagreement with personal “trauma” takes equally lurid expression in the ongoing debate about whether self-declared gender identity should trump biological reality when it comes to the boundaries demarcating protected female spaces. Among many activists, it is now taken for granted not only that biological sex is a transphobic mirage, but also that arguing otherwise puts transgender people at mortal risk by “denying their very existence.” When feminist Meghan Murphy came to a Toronto library in 2019 to argue for protected spaces, a CBC radio host compared her event to an evening of—yup, you guessed it—holocaust denial.

Just a few months ago, trans activist Grace Lavery abruptly pulled out of a debate with gender-critical book author Helen Joyce, on similarly spurious claims that the event would somehow “harm” transgender people. (For good measure, Lavery added that Joyce—a gentle and patient soul whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with here at Quillette—is a bigot and “fascist.”) At Oxford University Press, a group of staff took the campaign against gender dissent a step further last month, with a petition launched against one of OUP’s own books. That petition advanced the extraordinary claim that a gender-critical (i.e., biologically rooted) understanding of womanhood shouldn’t even qualify as a legitimate scholarly premise, being a mere “polemical intervention, unsubstantiated in the fields of gender, sexuality, queer, and trans studies, that promotes itself by the deliberate sowing of public controversy without being held accountable for very real and dangerous consequences.” The petitioners hadn’t even read the book in question (because the author, one Holly Lawson-Smith, hasn’t finished writing it). But they had a duty to denounce it anyway, they insisted, in order to protect trans people from “terrorization.”

Harm. Trauma. Terrorization. Holocaust denial. Fascism. In every example I’ve supplied, this kind of apocalyptic language has been used to describe mere discourse: classroom content at UBC, dialogue among colleagues at an MRU faculty retreat, a magazine article, a feminist speaking at a library, a debate between two authors, the contents of an as-yet-non-existent book. In any normal era, this casual equation of discussion with physical torture would be treated as a symptom of severe neurosis. But times being what they are, we’re all supposed to pretend that this is a normal way for humans to respond to disagreement. And as a matter of political tactics, it’s proven an effective means for activists to insulate their claims from criticism: After all, how can anyone prevail against an opponent who claims that discussion itself represents an agony beyond endurance?

This phobic attitude toward debate in progressive circles explains why reasoned advocacy aimed at persuading others is increasingly being replaced by one-note sloganeering aimed at fellow travellers. An entire page of UBC’s new report, for instance, consists of nothing more than a list of large-print slogans instructing black people that, “You are beautiful,” “You are brilliant,” ”You are seen”; and exhorting them to “be unapologetically Black.” (Nowhere is it explained how the apologetic and unapologetic varieties of blackness manifest themselves in day-to-day scholastic life. But one presumes that the unapologetic strain is associated with a more militantly expressed rejection of “whiteness”—a word that appears more than 30 times.)

In the wider world beyond the campus gates, fortunately, things are very different: While many profs and activists are wont to pretend that each debate has only one legitimate side, the rest of us have the freedom to defy their edicts, and even to broadcast our heresies on social media (or in Quillette articles). And when we talk about the “culture war,” to some extent we’re talking about which of these two models of discourse moderation—neurotic versus normal—eventually will hold sway over society at large.

Twitter is where much of this battle takes place, a fact that helps explain the agitation that developed in progressive circles following news that Elon Musk was buying the social-media company. Even before Musk made his move, Twitter was already seen as problematic by the Left, insofar as its (largely) free-for-all ethos served as a standing rebuke to their growing hostility toward ideological pluralism. This is why so many of the most active social-justice accounts devote much of their bandwidth to questions of whom to mute, block, report, or ignore, and often toggle back and forth frenetically between protected and non-protected modes, all with the purpose of curating the same kind of perfectly orthodox, dissent-free milieu they’ve constructed for themselves within real-life social and professional silos.

If twitter is going to be purchased by someone who compared our prime minister to Hitler, and didn't even apologize, I don't think I'm going to tweet for a while. Maybe forever.— Irfan Dhalla (@IrfanDhalla) April 25, 2022

In the back of social-justice puritans’ collective imagination, there was always the dim hope that the lords of Twitter would someday see the light, and tighten moderation standards so severely that any kind of vigorously stated conservative anti-truthery would be classified as hate speech or harassment. Musk’s takeover killed that dream—because while no one knows his exact plans for Twitter, we can be fairly certain that “the unsettling and interrogation of hegemonic belief systems” (another wonderful gem from the UBC report) isn’t on his to-do list.

In recent days, numerous progressives have pledged to abandon Twitter now that Musk owns it. And I believe that many of them really will leave—if only because they’ve forgotten how to defend their viewpoints in any kind of free marketplace of ideas. It seems never to have dawned on them that truthings that can’t hold up to scrutiny or dissent probably were never all that truthy to begin with.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/08/when-did-disagreement-become-trauma/
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Kay does a fine job describing the woke insanity in Canadian academia. Things seem to be straightening out a bit in the US, and I’m hoping we’re just behind the curve.

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So it’s going to be the Ministry of Truthing then. Well, Orwell couldn’t foresee that particular newspeak word, could he?

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If attempting to persuade against the evils of censorship is the actual goal here a more accurately balanced approach may help otherwise all one sided accusations do is further entrench denial & tribalism. There are just as many conservatives adopting hysterical hyperbole & authoritarian tactics see: grooming & pedophilia claims than progressives banging on about phobias so let’s not add to the dumpster fire that is the state of public discourse if we can avoid it?

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It’s gotten to the point where “why do you believe this” is the most racist, violent, oppressive question you can ask… Even if you’re looking for reasons to join their side!

Nearly every group, no matter their intentions, is bent on some form of social justice as determined by them. The phrase is as meaningless as asking people to pay their “fair share.”

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The pot and the kettle are both black, to be sure, however is diversion from one to the other a solution to either? The article is right to draw attention to it even if the specific example might be seen to point leftward. I’d be happy to see something similar pointing at some equivalent on the right. Both sets of holy warriors appall me.

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I don’t see how avoiding these issues or this sort of language helps anything at all. The whole point of disagreement and debate is to engage in ideas that one sees as bad, destructive or otherwise counterproductive. (Which you do all the time on the QC) I think it is unfair to characterize the recent “culture wars” as some sort of dumpster fire. There is a lot of hand-wringing recently about how “things have never been this bad before”. But it might just be that this many people have never been able to publicly express their ideas before… That, to my mind, is not a dumpster fire at all. Rather, it is good to see the ideas that all people are willing to express when provided the chance.

I doubt that during the more “refined” times of our history, people were just more reserved or better-behaved. Instead, I have a feeling that the vast majority of the world’s people were just nameless participants in whatever was going on at the time. At least now, more and more people can publicly express their distress and dismay.

The public square is not in jeopardy, it has merely gotten much, much larger.

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I’m not suggesting we avoid these issues rather take a more balanced approach otherwise it comes across as another tribalistic accusatory tit for tat brick in the wall.

As far as moi is concerned, I’m hardly composing articles for broad public consumption under the guise of trouble shooting. See me more of a boutique market devil’s advocate edge lordess at the service of the raging bigoted ninnys that frequent this fine establishment…

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Debate phobia is different from censorship, but of course when debate phobic people are “protected”, that leads to something very similar to censorship.
Yes you are right about cases of “hysterical hyperbole and authoritarian tactics” in conservative circles, but i don’t see the connection to the pathologic aversion to debate in some woke/progressive circles. The two things are not related, they are two different phenomena. The only things they have in common is how radical both sides are and how deeply they hate each other.
The way i see it, polarization has become a censoring instrument in and by itself. People are reluctant and even afraid to debate and even to talk face to face about most issues, and that is because of polarization, having a different opinion makes people see each other as enemies, so they chose not to open any “dangerous” subject.
Once we lose the ability to talk to each other openly and debate…what follows is kinda scary, and in my opinion the imposed silence is scarier than having heated arguments and ruffled feathers.

As an advocate for woke/progressive/feminist ideologies, do you believe that the progressive “approach” in real life, is balanced or tribalistic and accusatory?

This sounds rather accusatory to me, but i understand you, i sometimes feel the same way, guess we’re all human after all…but i have to add something.
You are paying a sub to this “fine establishment”, so you can speak your mind and make your points.
The “raging bigoted ninnys” here let you express your opinions and respond in their raging bigoted ninny ways but…they let you speak out your mind and they don’t call for your cancellation and burning at the stakes. Imagine if one of us bigoted ninnys would come to one of YOUR ideological fine establishments and speak our mind out.
Personally i believe these forums wouldn’t be the same without your contributions, much as i disagree with you, or without everyone else’s contributions, much as i disagree with them.
These forums would be richer with an even greater variety of ideas and opinions, much as they would be contradictory.
This is in line with my dialectic-materialist education i got in communist schools, truth emerges from contradiction.

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BIPOC – what an odd term. We used to say non-white.

There is no “systemic racism” against non-whites at UBC or any other Western university – and there hasn’t been for generations. If there was “systemic racism” the courts would be full of lawsuits. Institutional racism was dealt with a long time ago. That’s why the magic term “systemic racism” had to be invented.

If anything our universities pander too much to non-whites treating them like infants – which in many ways they have become. Expectations for non-whites are way down.

This is why the recommendations from UBC are unfalsifiable mumbo jumbo – they are fake solutions to a fake problem – political smoke and mirrors.

We all know that populations and cultures are different. Why do we have to pretend that everybody is equally good at everything? Using metrics like disparate outcomes to claim “systemic racism” is nonsense. It’s a lie. It’s nothing more than an excuse to mask the intellectual differences among groups.

Here we are some half century after the moon landing when we should be focused on going to Mars, yet instead we witness non-whites using political power to scam the admissions process and get credentialed without having to pay tuition.

Along the way they’re ruining the universities and taking down some very high-functioning whites and Asians who could be of great service to society. This disease has infected all our institutions.

The grift by less intellectually competent non-whites and their fake-virtuous “allies” is becoming tiresome. If you’re not a good fit for university then please do something else. There are “other ways” of succeeding.

Leave the universities alone. Leave K-12 education alone. Don’t break what you didn’t build and what you are not competent to build.

The political appointees running our universities are – at best – an abject disgrace. They need to be terminated and held accountable. It will happen, the backlash has started.

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Not being up for listening, self reflection & open to change is hardly debate friendly either.

Well said. Banging on about censorship without tackling polarisation first is putting the cart before the horse.

But having ‘freer speech’ ie messing with terms of service whereby anything goes is only likely to inflame polarisation. We don’t teach our children from a very young age manners for the sake of manners but for the purposes of getting on in the world that leads to better outcomes for all. Ideas need not be necessarily silenced if conversation is approached in a more respectful manner.

But I think some of the problem is a lot of folks literally have no idea they are being disrespectful for various reasons. Some progressives for their part have been too aggressive in their approach to grievances as some conservatives have been too defensive of them. Respectful communication is crucial in sensitive areas & when it’s not people just switch off or put up barriers.

Of course not. But here’s the thing, the constant refrain from the free speech purists is why the illiberal tactics? But if the ‘free’ speech being objected to is only serving the purpose of further dehumanisation then it’s hardly surprising these tactics ensue. Injustice ignored breeds vigilantism & lawlessness. Mess with peoples dignity that they have no recourse for & its begging for illiberalism. An example is the abortion debate in the US where the supreme court leaks are seen as justified.

And I don’t object to that because that’s the telos of this establishment. It’s not a workplace or a college class where some semblance of respectful restraint is required so the telos of those environments is uncompromised.

Agreed. Contrarians & opposing views are essential however effective communication requires tolerance that in my experience often those shouting the loudest about censorship are the ones that get personally abusive very quickly at the instance of push back. The requirement for safe space/echo chambers isn’t just exclusive to the left.

Well said.

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This sums it up. It’s a religious studies course. Doesn’t belong anywhere else in academia, or outside of it.

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The former shows a very fine spirit, but the later seems unbalanced, tribalistic and accusatory, does it not? Indeed it seems to be just about as vicious and binary and tribal a comment as one could make. To be quite frank, it was raging and bigoted.

That’s an excellent point. To pick over it, I’d say they are related – both spring from intolerance – but indeed they are not the same. Fundamentalist righties and fundamentalist lefties are perhaps more or less equally vicious with each other (See Ella’s comment just above calling the rest of us ‘raging bigoted ninnies’), but it is particular to the left to want to prevent debate or even suffer the mentioning of opposing views.

Please!!

Beautiful post Kaay, I wish we could flag a post as ‘post of the day’ – that’s the one.

But you used to be able to do it. Something changed you.

True, but one can examine a problem from its roots or its branches. The cart is not before the horse, rather, we notice the cart is stuck in the mud and then we wonder if perhaps the horse lacks the strength to pull it out. Our examination of censorship might lead us right back to the polarization problem. The symptoms reveal the disease.

Quite so. Therefore, I’d ask you to retract the ‘raging bigoted ninnies’ remark above. Those of us who would prefer that tried and tested words like ‘man’ would best be retained in the meaning they have held in every culture in ever age might be mistaken – perhaps ‘hot’ should be expanded to include ‘cold’ and ‘up’ should be expanded to include ‘down’ and ‘man’ should be expanded to include ‘woman’ – but be charitable, be kind, be generous: we might not be raging bigots so much as we are just overly fond of the Oxford English Dictionary – give us time to adapt, we aren’t as limber as we used to be.

Exactly.

Is that a fair characterization of the conservative view?

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Back in the day (1692) in Salem, Massachusetts this whole lived experience kind of truth was called spectral evidence sufficient to hang witches. Now we have spectral evidence of racism, sexism and any other thing that might happen to enflame young but profoundly ignorant minds.

Salem also had a profoundly cynical clergy beating the drums for blood in the form Rev. Parris and Cotton Mather and the entire Second Church in Boston. These were also some the best educated men in the colony.

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Whataboutwhataboutwhatabout?

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Whataboutism is bad enough, but when the whataboutists start worrying about who’s whataboutery is worsest …

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Cede nothing. The argument isn’t about adaptation, rather, it is about resisting distortion of reality.

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The nice thing is that you can attempt to cede this or that in the spirit of democracy, but the fundamentalist cannot meet you half way anyway, so at the end of they day they either win everything or they lose everything and one’s overtures are thrown back in one’s face. Like Lincoln, I’d be more than happy to compromise here or there to prevent civil war, but they will not have it, so totaler krieg it would seem is inevitable. I hope we win.

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