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Jonathan Kay: The performative snobbery of social justice invades the supermarket

National Post logo National Post 2021-07-09 Jonathan Kay
a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a building © Provided by National Post

“Ottawa plans to teach non-racialized Canadians about systemic racism in new campaign,” read a CTV News headline on Wednesday. If you’re wondering what a “non-racialized” human being looks like, the story helpfully indicates that the term means “white.”

No ordinary Canadian says “non-racialized,” of course. Most Canadians likely have no idea what it even means. But “non-racialized” is the jargon term that Liberals use in describing their new program, having judged (correctly) that saying the “white” part too loud is politically problematic.

Reporters traditionally have felt duty-bound to debunk this kind of self-serving government bafflegab. But since journalists swim in the same Twitter bathwater as the public officials they cover, these convenient euphemisms sometimes end up being copied and pasted into everyday reportage.

Coverage of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls similarly presented the acronym “2SLGBTQQIA” as if it were just an everyday term used by line cooks and pipefitters. And CBC Radio listeners will hear guests being casually referred to as “colonizers” and “immigrant settlers.”

Conservative pundits have prattled on about “left-wing media bias” since the dawn of time. But what we often see nowadays goes beyond “bias”: progressives have crowdsourced what is effectively an entirely new dialect — one that’s unintelligible to the vast bulk of the population, especially immigrants and working-class people who lack entrée to college-educated professional circles.

The idea of social justice was once based on the widely shared desire to help the poor and underprivileged. And given the obvious overlap with the Christian tradition of alms, Muslim zakat, Jewish tzedakah and South Asian dāna, there is no reason why a sincere commitment to social justice couldn’t help bridge the political gap between liberals and conservatives in a multicultural Canada.

Alas, social justice has instead metastasized into a passcode-protected treehouse club, from which the privileged lecture those proles who lack fluency in the latest social-justice argot.

In an alternative, common-sense social-justice world, it might be taken for granted that Canadians should unconditionally oppose the burning down of houses of worship as retribution for historical crimes committed by congregants’ deceased coreligionists.

And yet here we are, a month into a sustained arson and vandalism campaign that has damaged or destroyed more than 20 churches, and Canada’s progressive cadres still can’t quite decide what to think about it — even as Indigenous leaders decry the violence as a counterproductive and ghoulish response to recent disclosures about residential school victims.

Liberal party consigliere Gerald Butts called the arson “understandable.” Osgoode Hall Law School Prof. Heidi Matthews posted a thinking-deeply emoji alongside musings about how these arsonists might simply be exercising their “right of resistance to extreme and systemic injustice.”

Most infamously, we had Harsha Walia, head of the BC Civil Liberties Association — whose job includes protecting religious freedoms, I should add — commenting on a news report about burned churches by tweeting, “Burn it all down.”

Unlike your average Twitter rando, Walia had the privilege of airily dismissing her critics as right-wing racists, switching her account to protected mode and then outsourcing her PR functions to University of Manitoba historian Sean Carleton. He’s written a lengthy thread on Walia’s behalf, full of academic citations, denouncing all those ignorant knuckle-draggers who interpret “burn” as “burn” and “all” as “all.”

The true, metaphorical meaning of the phrase “Burn it all down,” Carleton explained, is obvious to anyone who has studied “historian Mark Leier’s biography of Mikhail Bakunin,” not to mention an essay collection released by a self-described “anarchist publishing house,” containing such literary gems as “The Ax Tampax Poem Feministo.” Who among us doesn’t have well-thumbed copies of these texts shelved within easy reach?

The pushback against this sort of self-parodic intellectual snobbery is coming not just from Indigenous people (whose communities are home to many of the churches that have been targeted), but also from immigrants, including those of Vietnamese and African descent whose churches were recently targeted in Calgary. Newcomers to Canada picked our country for a reason, and few share the morbid sense of collective guilt that’s become the in-house creed of Butts’ and Carleton’s treehouse clique.

Last week, when the president of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia ordered his university bookstore to strip its website of promotional Canada Day references, the faculty voices that erupted in protest weren’t the old-stock WASPs of progressive stereotype, but rather proud immigrants, including one who recounted in detail what it had been like to live under a communist dictatorship in East Germany.

On July 5, university president Alan Davis sent out a mass email, effectively telling these rubes to either get with his program or shut up. “This is not the right time for settler voices to provoke open and unfacilitated inquiry,” declared an in-house advisor whom Davis chose to quote approvingly.

Until recently, such intellectual cultism was confined to a handful of privileged professional silos. But it will be interesting to see what happens now that mass retail corporations are signing on. On Thursday, I received a set of anti-racist training documents that were circulated among employees of Sobeys, Canada’s second-largest food store chain.

The documents urge workers to watch videos on “Deconstructing White Privilege,” support Black Lives Matter and generally spend their free (i.e., unpaid) time reading “books and articles” that are consistent with Sobeys’ new diversity and inclusion regime. (There’s also a section urging employees to “reach out and check in” with Black co-workers — the sketch comedy writes itself.)

Oh, and the fun doesn’t stop when your shift ends: workers are instructed to go home and proselytize this material to “children and family,” presumably under the conceit that members of the Sobey clan itself are spending summer days on their Pictou, N.S., docks, earnestly quizzing one another on the oeuvre of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi.

When I sent Sobeys a list of questions about these policies, a corporate communications official told me that she would not be supplying me with answers, on the basis that I was taking “issue with the fact that a proudly Canadian business is actively working on building a diverse, inclusive and equitable culture for our teammates and the customers and communities we serve.”

Equitable? Sobeys is a massive, largely white-run company that depends on an entry-level workforce that is increasingly Black and brown. These low-level jobs have started to get phased out in favour of automated check-out technology.

And in 2020, Sobeys cut the meagre $2-per-hour premium that was briefly paid to front-line workers who exposed themselves to COVID-19 so that privileged people (like Butts, Carleton — and me) could eat. One can understand why it feels more ennobling for plutocrats to lecture everyone about racial justice than actually face up to one’s role in an increasingly unequal society.

But let’s put this negativity aside for a moment, so I can end on a hopeful note. One demand made of workers in the Sobeys anti-racism materials, I couldn’t help but notice, is to “yield positions of power to those otherwise marginalized.” When it comes to the experts lecturing the rest of us about what opinions we should have, what subjects to discuss at the dinner table and what buildings we’re allowed to burn, that’s a sentiment I can really get behind. Maybe there’s room for common ground after all.

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