A guide to Faith Goldy and reporting on bad actors

For Canadaland on September 26, 2018

On January 25, 2018, Roosh V — real name Daryush Valizadeh, a rank misogynist and denizen of the so-called “manosphere” — hosted a live-streamed discussion of “tradthots” in the far right. A “tradthot” is a female internet personality who preaches “traditional” values and gender roles while advocating a #tradright lifestyle, but who fails to adhere to those standards herself, as the underlying motivation isn’t ideology, but rather, the allure of financial and reputational gain.

Gonzo journalist and conspiracy monger Laura Loomer, white nationalist podcaster Nicholas J. Fuentes, and far-right extremist Peter “Sweden” Imanuelsen were among the panel’s “special guests.” So, too, was Faith Goldy — the conservative commentator turned fringe-right propagandist turned neo-Nazi fellow traveller turned (for the moment) marginal candidate in Toronto’s mayoral election.

Pressed by Roosh on precisely where women in the far right belong, if she doesn’t think they should be in a “leadership-type role” (such as running for political office), Goldy suggested that rather than waste time on women — who, by #tradlife standards, should be at home dedicating themselves to the “4 Cs” of cooking, cleaning, children, and church — this was a time to “focus on male DNA… this is a time for strong men.”

“I, for one, have never fancied myself to be a thought leader,” Goldy stressed. “I’ve only seen myself as a propaganda arm, and I would hope that a lot of the [alt-right] women see themselves as such.” Describing herself as “one of the few tradthots who does not expose cleavage,” Goldy assured the panel she “closed down my Patreon account to send a message — I’m not here for beta bucks.”

Yet four months later, Goldy was crying persecution after Patreon notified her of her account’s termination due to violating its guidelines on hate speech.

Patreon cited Goldy’s “sincere” recitation of the Fourteen Words — the creed coined by David Lane, founding member of The Order, a far-right terrorist organization whose members murdered Jewish radio host Alan Berg after he insulted Lane on-air — during her hour-long chat with Scottish white supremacist Colin Robertson, known in the alt-right as “Millennial Woes.”

While speaking with Woes, Goldy gave full credit to Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow, and Kevin Macdonald — all white supremacists and virulent anti-Semites — for providing the “robust intellectual backing” which drew her to the alt-right. “The VDare team had a lot to do with this,” she noted, before bragging of having “published a piece when I was back at The Rebel, called ‘White Genocide In Canada,’” which warned of a declining white demographic, and of “diversity” being “code for population replacement.”

“No one is going to save the white man except for himself,” Goldy went on, growing increasingly agitated, “and yet we’re like, ‘Keep on bringing the immigrants in’… if we don’t do anything about it, it’s only going to get worse. And I’ll be honest — as time goes on, in order to reverse this, the solutions are going to become more and more drastic, and I don’t want that.”

That coming solution? A race war.

And after favourably quoting Richard Spencer — at the time, still a highly influential neo-Nazi known for advocating a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of nonwhites in America, and whose dream of establishing a white ethno-state she enthusiastically shares — Goldy recited Lane’s cri de coeur: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Faith Goldy’s impulsive leap into Toronto’s municipal election is, to quote one former ideological ally who carefully tracked her descent into the darkest corners of the far right, “an exercise in profound selfishness.”

“Goldy knows the result that her actions and associations have — she jokes about it all the time,” wrote Jonathon Van Maren, a social conservative speaker and activist, in an imperfect but well-argued piecelaying out the conservative case against Goldy’s candidacy. “By courting conservatives who have everything to lose by associating with her, she is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that this mayoral run is a vanity exercise that is about her, and nobody else.”

Despite the polished image she’s been trying to present of herself and her campaign — “We have the best volunteers don’t we folks!?” Goldy recently Tweeted along with a photo in which uniformed police officers happily posed — leaked Discord chat logs offer a hint of what one volunteer called a “pretty barebones operation that seemed to work entirely out of her car.”

“So these Sikhs are apparently pretty damn conservative, some of them told us outright that they were Rob and Doug Ford fans, which is why we were sent to this neighbourhood,” the volunteer wrote, admitting it was “pretty unnerving walking through a suburb that was all Indians. This wasn’t some public housing ghetto or anything, it was a typical looking North American suburb, but full of brown kids riding their bikes through the streets.”

“Diversity doesn’t seem bad if its a few blacks in some projects, or Asians in Chinatown,” the person continued, “but when you see them occupy an entire section of an otherwise normal looking city, it’s a different story… every white person should be made to walk through here.”

The campaign member then suggested fellow “goys” employ this sort of “eye-opening experience” to “help red-pill the masses” in everyday life. “Hopefully I get to [door-knock] in a white area next time though.”

As newsrooms weigh the merits of dedicating already scant resources to covering this marginal figure — one of 35 in the race for mayor — it’s worth noting the absence of pressure to do so with other insignificant candidates. That Goldy and her followers feel she is entitled to be considered equal to frontrunners John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat doesn’t mean their delusions of grandeur need be indulged, and demands to treat this arguably bad-faith candidate as comparable to even second-tier personalities should be met with skepticism.

After all, it was Goldy herself who positioned the media as “the enemy,” and as with other demagogues who routinely demean the free press, impartial and unbiased reporting will always fail to satisfy her demands. Moreover, efforts to over-compensate for a feared perception of bias can result in uncritical amplification of harmful misinformation which, in the end, does more damage to the reputation of journalism than would the media holding a consistent standard and refusing to be bullied into engaging on the terms of those acting in bad faith.

Esteemed media veteran Ken Whyte, however, suggested the lack of attention paid to Goldy thus far was “antithetical to good journalism” and pointed to a lengthy Q&A by Graeme Gordon — a freelance journalist and frequent CANADALAND contributor — as “the most interesting and comprehensive thing I’ve seen on Toronto’s mayoralty campaign.” But when pressed by National Post columnist Chris Selley about what “story” was being missed, Whyte didn’t seem to have a meaningful answer.

And though Whyte characterizes Goldy as a “populist” candidate, Goldy rejected that very frame just weeks before she announced her intention to run for mayor on July 27.

“The zeitgeist that is sweeping us is not populism, it is [white] nationalism,” she told Infowars personality and host of The War Room, Jake Lloyd, in mid-June.

“We were never asked if we wanted to turn our proud, rich nations into essentially the boarding houses and battered women’s shelters for the third world,” she fumed. “And then we have the problem of fellow white people who are telling us that… all of this is antiquated and ‘white supremacy.’ People are starting to wake up … I think this is an exciting time to be a [white] nationalist and a right-winger.”

Whyte is correct, though, that there is a story to be found in Gordon’s piece — a cautionary tale for journalists on dealing with individuals who are, as described by New York Magazine senior editor Max Read, “so deeply disingenuous, and so completely uninterested in giving you any answer beyond the one that services their needs at that exact moment, that you are quite possibly doing your reader a disservice just by reporting on them.” [pdf]

Gordon wasn’t wrong to interview Goldy. His intent — to fill what he believed was a gap in campaign coverage — was sincere. His approach, however, was deeply flawed; it allowed her to control the discussion, offer evasive responses, and lie straight to his face with impunity.

Goldy’s shameless exploitation of Gordon’s offer is standard practise for extremists and agitators. And note that it was his reputation that suffered a (momentary) blow, not hers, despite his subsequent introspection versus her unbridled mendacity.

Just as NPR handed marginal white-supremacist Jason Kessler a victory of sorts by allowing him to argue his abhorrently racist beliefs unchallenged on air — thus presenting white supremacy as mere political opinion, of equal merit to the social justice and civil rights causes to which it is opposed — Gordon’s choice to publish a verbatim Q&A offered Goldy a propaganda coup.

In May, Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture, published a comprehensive study into extremist manipulation of the media. One key observation was that when you allow such individuals to tell a story on their own terms, you grant them wide permission to edit the script.

She recommends that to maintain proper control over discussions, one must “avoid deferring to manipulators’ chosen language, explanations, or justifications.” To do this effectively, you must know your subject well. When dealing with Goldy, ask specific, detailed questions, and be prepared to both recognize and challenge dishonest responses; be equipped with the facts and knowledge required to firmly counter and correct misinformation in real time. Goldy has, time and again, proven herself a dishonest broker — her word is simply not one you can trust.

As evidenced in her exchange with Gordon, when asked an inconvenient question — “Do you still believe there is a white genocide taking place?” — Goldy will redirect, opting for a tangent to where she’s memorized her lines: “Do you want to know something interesting? I have never used the term ‘white genocide’ to discuss any sort of trend or single event anywhere… this is a propagated myth that has been manufactured in some paper and now it has caught on. I’ve never used the term anywhere to prove any point.”

Goldy’s deliberate non-answer to the simple yes/no question of whether she believes there is a “white genocide” taking place — she does — is couched in demonstrable lies, confidently told, regarding her own embrace of that alt-right conspiracy theory, one notably common among neo-Nazis.

It should also be noted that on June 8, 2017, one week after publishing that dire warning at The Rebel, Goldy triumphantly bragged of “Toronto’s biggest morning show defend[ing] my white genocide piece & shut[ting] down those who try to silence me as ‘racist.’”

To justify his call for greater attention toward Goldy’s campaign, Gordon quoted an unnamed “top media figure who used to manage a newsroom” as advising that “she is more than a minor far-right media figure … her utility to the coverage of the campaign is she’s a perfect foil for Tory. He is so damn cautious and bland. She is pointed and extreme.”

What this respected and accomplished media figure doesn’t appreciate is that that approach is precisely how, over a two-year period, extremists were able to hijack news cycles and dominate the conversation to serve the interests of their respective hate groups — as well as then-candidate and now-President Donald Trump. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s administration is tied to — and in some areas, staffed by — anti-Muslim extremists, anti-immigration xenophobes, overt white nationalists, and fringe conspiracy theorists.

As Phillips’s report on The Oxygen of Amplification made clear, bad actors “don’t have the numbers to steer the cultural conversation on their own.” They rely on the credibility and reach of traditional media for a key assist, as mainstream media’s “amplification makes particular stories, communities, and bad actors bigger — more visible, more influential — than they would have been otherwise.”

Meanwhile, the suggestion that Goldy is “more than a minor” far-right figure is simply not accurate. Both ardent supporters and fierce critics grant her far more significance than she maintains, inflating her profile in ways she alone never could. Visible as she may be, she is neither prominent nor influential among the post-Charlottesville alt-right. She is in many ways a perpetual status-seeker, a far-right performance artist akin to Milo Yiannopoulos, but without his knack for the shtick. An admitted propagandist and nothing more, her role is to nudge the mainstream right ever further to the fringe in hopes of resetting where the political centre lies.

She’s an agent provocateur who seeks chaos and courts outrage, and despite her lack of meaningful standing, her antics have resulted in real-world consequences. She whips up hysteria about immigrants, spreads lies about religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and does so with gleeful enthusiasm, always at the expense of others.

She will remain useful to the alt-right so long as she’s able to reliably draw oversized backlash, as this, in turn, nets desired amplification and mainstream media attention.

That’s not to suggest she should always be ignored. But when reporting on propagandists and other bad-faith actors — who will claim to have been misrepresented no matter how neutrally a story is presented — objectivity is crucial. And to objectively report on Goldy, one needs to know how to properly define where and for what she stands.

Is she truly a “Nazi,” as many critics allege?

After Charlottesville, J.M. Berger — a leading researcher, writer, and analyst on extremism — addressed the push to abandon what angry observers felt were euphemisms used to describe the presumed clear-cut “Nazis” of the alt-right.

“The alt-right encompasses a variety of right-wing and white supremacist movements,” Berger explained, “from conspiracists to the KKK … Nazis are only part of this movement, or more correctly neo-Nazis, since most of them aren’t German nationalists. Rejecting [other descriptors] might make you feel better,” he continued, “but it unproductively obscures the primary element that makes [the alt-right] work as a movement — its ability to unite disparate radical groups with differing beliefs and tactics into a single amorphous community that is capable of coordinated action.”

Berger is correct that, in carefully categorizing how people and ideologies fit in the broader scope — reserving the label of “neo-Nazi” for those to whom it truly applies, for instance — you’re not downplaying one element, but rather, you’re clearly defining another. And with this approach, you achieve deeper insights into each.

“If the alt-right movement consisted only of neo-Nazis,” Berger stressed, “we would not be talking about it.”

Without a doubt, Goldy is a neo-Nazi sympathizer and fellow traveller. She dabbles in anti-Semitism, flirts with fascism, and carefully toes the line on the “JQ” (“Jewish Question”). These aren’t insults or epithets, but factual, demonstrable observations.

That said, her endorsement of For My Legionaries — a book akin to Mein Kampf discussed in fascist forums, one you’ll find narrated at the Daily Stormer — during a chat with a fellow white nationalist, hinted at her shallow comprehension of the harder lines she espouses. Her swift walk-back of enthusiasm for the book fit a pattern of her blindly promoting extreme content in an effort to embellish her edge.

Goldy is a white nationalist who promotes white supremacist ideologies. She is, by her own admission, an “immigration-obsessed” member of the alt-right — some, like Goldy, have taken to calling themselves the “dissident right” — and she credits Charlottesville for “one of the most fantastic evolutions, from a personal standpoint… it helped me clarify what I think, what I believe, and how committed I am to truth, even in the face of whatever anyone wants to call me.”

On the evening of August 12, 2017, hours after the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in the death of Heather Heyer after white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, a veritable who’s who of neo-Nazis gathered for an exclusive after-party to celebrate what they believed was their very own “Beer Hall Putsch.”

This tightly-controlled event, which required high-level vetting and security clearance on top of an invite to access, included the likes of Christopher Cantwell, the neo-Nazi featured in Vice’s documentary of the weekend who suggested “a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly”; “Charles Zeiger,” recently identified as Gabriel Sohier Chaput of Montreal, writer for the Daily Stormer, unapologetic fascist, and respected member of Canada’s fraternity of white supremacists; and “Eli Mosely,” recently identified as Elliott Kline, a prominent white nationalist central to organizing that Charlottesville weekend, who once bragged of working “in HR firing n*****s and spics all day” and fantasized about “listening to a kike’s scream while in the oven.”

Attendees were treated to a special live recording of The Krypto Report, an internet radio show hosted by Robert Warren Ray, an avowed white supremacist who writes for the Daily Stormer under the alias “Azzmador.”

They marvelled over the previous (Friday) night’s torchlight rally where, to chants of “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” they stormed the University of Virginia campus, surrounded a small group of students encircling the statue of Thomas Jefferson, and met the students’ shouts of “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA” with howls of “White Lives Matter.” That’s when, according to neo-Nazi podcaster and conspiracy theorist “Johnny Monoxide,” real name John Ramondetta, things turned violent. ”Some people got their heads busted… and we took the statue,” he told Azzmador proudly. “It was amazing.”

Saturday’s rally at Emancipation Park focused on a different monument. “They were trying to take down the statue,” Azzmador explained to Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, who wasn’t in Charlottesville but watched the day’s events via the Stormer’s livestream and joined the evening’s discussion remotely. “For most of us, even though that’s part of it, it became a whole lot more than that. It became about the destruction of white history and the removal of whites having power … to remove us completely, not only from existence, but from memory.”

Azzmador bragged how, before the “Battle of Charlottesville” erupted, “I went and I found Dr. David Duke, he gave a great talk about the Jews to the people watching on Daily Stormer. We got the crowd to shouting things like ‘Hitler did nothing wrong’ and ‘Gas the kikes, race war now.’ It was going along great.”

“It’s totally hilarious in a sense, how strong the parallels are between what we’re doing now and the movement in the 1960s,” Zeiger would suggest to the audience. “I mean, we’re getting kicked out of businesses, refused service, we’re advocating for civil rights for a certain racial group … and we’ve got normal people — ‘normies’ — who are fighting against that. Of course,” he noted, “we’re the reverse of what the people in the 1960s wanted. Because they were in favour of equality and all that, and the core of our message is more about hierarchy.”

That “hierarchy” being white racial supremacy.

If then-Rebel Media personality Faith Goldy — in attendance that night, by invitation — was troubled by things she heard through the hour preceding her spot on the broadcast, it certainly wasn’t enough to damper how “thrilled” she was to be part of the moment.

“I salute you all for doing this,” she said, adding tongue-in-cheek “not a ‘Roman salute,’ you guys.” (A “Roman salute” is essentially a Sieg Heil, but with the arm a bit lower. It is a fascist gesture.)

Goldy spoke of the “fellow Leafs” — the term for Canadian white nationalists — she met “from all over the place today,” winked at the frugality of her then-boss — a Jew — and indulged Azzmador’s seething distrust of what he calls the “lugenpresse.”

“Context is irrelevant in today’s media,” she charged. “We know that the cultural Marxists own the media, we know that they own academia, etc., and they’re pushing a particular narrative.”

Goldy’s strategic choice of words — “cultural Marxists” — was instructive. Those aware of the “JQ” know she was “naming the Jew” without naming the Jew. She deliberately spoke in code.

Days later, freshly unemployed and under intense scrutiny, Goldy tried damage control. “It has come to the public’s attention that I appeared on a podcast affiliated with the Daily Stormer while in Virginia,” she wrote on Facebook. “I made a poor decision that has had unintended negative personal and professional consequences on those I care about most.”

Those who took her at her word about her participation having simply been a “poor decision” — at the time, Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington asked people to “go easy” on the nearly 30-year-old woman because she was “a good kid” — may well have had reason to offer some benefit of the doubt. It’s entirely possible that, before Charlottesville, they’d paid little mind to Goldy’s ever-rightward trajectory.

Goldy has since made her sympathies abundantly clear, and the mainstream right should proceed with caution. Continuing to suggest she’s merely “a conservative voice” means embracing fascist, anti-Semitic, and white supremacist persuasions as part of respectable conservatism and reputable conservative discourse.

Meanwhile, progressives and like-minded organizations should also be careful in how they deal with Goldy’s doomed candidacy.

Those calling on Tory or Keesmaat to boycott events in which she is included are, in effect, requesting that those who can most effectively and directly counter Goldy’s narrative while defining what Toronto stands for — tolerance, inclusivity, diversity — forgo that prime opportunity. Closing one’s ears to ignorance does not silence it, and rhetoric like hers, when left unchallenged, is what offers permission for people to act on their prejudice and paranoia. (Of course, to directly challenge her in such a substantive way would require her invitation to such events — which, as of now, no one seems inclined to offer.)

Goldy cannot defend her positions as ably or coherently as her critics fear — there’s a reason she keeps to friendly, sympathetic media and appearances. On the debate stage, she’d have no control over questions, direction, or format. Rather than cede to demands they boycott, her opponents should welcome the opportunity to firmly, unequivocally denounce her beliefs and discredit her candidacy.

And it’s crucial that her opponents not preemptively call for her exclusion from any event. Doing so will not only fuel the victim narrative on which she thrives, but will imply a weight of influence she does not carry.

There’s as much a threat in over-reacting to a political agitator as there is in not responding forcefully enough. Goldy isn’t as adept or clever as detractors seem to believe, and the illusion of the contrary has long worked to her advantage. Progressives would do well to take a breath, step back, and simply allow others to offer her rope.

Trudeau, #MeToo, and a poisoned discussion

For Maclean’s on July 23, 2018 

#MeToo, in most respects, has been an undeniable force for good. This movement of education and empowerment, of courage and justice, has shattered the silence around sexual misconduct across industries, exposed the pervasiveness and severity of predation at the hands of powerful, often respected men, and revealed the machinations that simultaneously enable and protect perpetrators while punishing victims.

There was, however, an unwise preoccupation with anger in the movement’s early days, where “female rage” was celebrated, stoked, and uncritically presented as virtue. Men who voiced sincere, if misguided, reservations about a retroactive application of norms—concerns that past, imperfect conduct would be stripped of context and human error, and reframed as criminal—were as aggressively ridiculed as those forewarning of absurd inevitabilities.

But those calling for nuance, who felt it crucial to meet honest apprehension with meaningful dialogue, were largely dismissed and told this was a time for anger, not discussion. All behaviour was to be viewed through a Manichean lens if women were to make progress. Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein were equally dangerous and irredeemable. That awkward night years ago wasn’t merely a regrettable consensual experience to be learned from, but an event to resurrect, deconstruct, and mine trauma from. Every woman became, to some degree, a “survivor,” and all men were to be viewed with suspicion because all transgressions, in the end, rendered one a monster.

If nothing else, the recent controversy surrounding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a decades-old account of a stray hand served to demonstrate how the resistance to nuance didn’t insulate this important movement from bad-faith actors—but rather, has directly enabled those fuelled by disdain for women and feminism, not to mention a visceral hatred of men who consider themselves allies, to co-opt and weaponize #MeToo’s intent for malicious gain.

In many ways, the question of exactly what happened at British Columbia’s Kokanee Summit festival 18 years ago between Trudeau, then a 28-year-old schoolteacher, and Rose Knight, a reporter for the Creston Valley Advance, matters as much as how each party chose to respond when allegations of his misconduct were thrust back into the spotlight—this time, notably, without the knowledge or consent of the woman involved.

The initial description of the incident, as per the resurfaced, unsigned “Open Eyes” editorial in the Advance, accused Trudeau of “groping” and “inappropriately handling” of the reporter on assignment. And while the publisher has since suggested it was “a very brief touch” on Knight’s backside, her then-supervisors—who both corroborated Knight’s account and vouched for her excellent reputation and solid character—failed to offer any explanation as to why they felt this was the appropriate avenue for handling the situation.

No matter the exact details of the interaction—neither Knight nor Trudeau are willing to clarify—she felt disrespected enough to seek an apology which, as her July 6 press release on the matter reiterates, she received the next day. “I did not pursue the incident at the time and I will not be pursuing the incident further,” she went on. “I will not be providing any further details or information. The debate, if it continues, will continue without my involvement.”

Knight seemed content with having left the matter back in August of 2000. She did not, however, demand all discussion cease, nor did she suggest that probing Trudeau on the details of the incident would violate her request for privacy. She simply and clearly stated she wants no part of what devolved into a partisan charade, one which Trudeau arguably stoked through his evasive, ambiguous, and dismissive lines of response.

It’s a cynical, calculated strategy that backfired—much to the delight of some longtime critics primed for a #MeToo “witch hunt.”

Whether fuelled by personal resentment or partisan vendetta, those eager to take this “feminist” Prime Minister down a notch forced a victim narrative on the woman who had already categorically rejected that frame. In reducing Knight to little more than a means to their own selfish ends, Trudeau’s foes entitled themselves to violate this woman in one way, so as to more effectively chastise him for having done so in another. What’s more, by inflating the severity of Trudeau’s transgression and classifying him a sexual predator, these disingenuous advocates of Knight—many whose histories reveal a pattern of situational belief and concern for survivors—only served to devalue the meaning of sexual predation and diminish the severity of sexual violence.

But it wasn’t just bad-faith partisan actors who poisoned the discourse here. Some feminists authorized themselves to speak for Knight, offering a different grievance narrative to satisfy their own ideological end, saying that reporters had “sent women back decades” and “enabled perpetrators” simply because they sought to confirm the details of alleged prior misconduct at the hands of a now-powerful man. In effect, these individuals chastised and shamed journalists for having dared to “believe women.” And far from doing harm, the press acted precisely how #MeToo demands: they took every allegation of sexual impropriety seriously, especially when it seems out of character for the perpetrator and the instinct is to disbelieve the complainant.

One positive—if belated—shift did occur within this group, however: a contingent of previously uncompromising actors were willing to acknowledge that transgressions indeed exist on a spectrum, and that pretending otherwise is both unreasonable and irresponsible. Without saying the words, they even embraced the notion of due process—another crucial, yet habitually mocked element in #MeToo conversations—warming to the idea that yes, men are redeemable, and that yes, minor transgressions are minor. Even forgivable.

This eminently practical mindset should have long been fundamental to the feminist’s cause. When men have to ask questions privately out of fear of public reprimand, it suggests there’s something wrong with what we’ve allowed to become the norm in these discussions. When women opt to endorse an (assumedly) unconventional view—that a prevailing narrative is infantilizing or that the favoured approach is counterproductive—rather than voice it over fears of the same, it confirms it. Education and awareness cannot lead to behavioural change without room for honest inquiry, reasonable debate, robust disagreement, and the right to safely be wrong.

On matters of feminism, sexuality, relationships, and misconduct, the loudest voices aren’t always the wisest, and keeping to one or two personalities to offer insight or expertise only serves to create a dangerous illusion of consensus—this false agreement even more troubling when fuelled by hyperbole and tribalism.

When the notion of belief demands a blind, uncritical application of it—be it toward the person alleging misconduct or the one who stands accused—the merits of the allegation cannot be fairly assessed. When the mere acknowledgment of facts in a complex situation is presumed to be harmful, and when hypotheticals are presented as certain consequence in an effort to gain control over discussion, activists threaten to create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of worst-case scenarios.

Reacting defensively on behalf of every woman to fit a tidy narrative only serves to infantilize all women. This habit will not create a safer future, nor persuade those who instinctively distrust the accuser when allegations are made, nor do much other than offer skeptics reason to wrongly think that women are unable to take fair measure of where responsibility lies. And when men are led to believe that women are so delicate that a perceived violation is, say, inevitable by way of interacting at all, it’s impossible to have any meaningful exchange regarding institutional failures, evolving boundaries, and the complicated conditions women are made to navigate daily.

The matter of Knight and Trudeau was the perfect opportunity to debate the boundaries of media, including when and why—or if—limits can be relaxed. It would have been worth exploring the arguably routine, if still wrong, nature of Trudeau’s conduct, too. And in demanding all discussion be shut down, those who often initiate these sort of conversations only robbed themselves of the chance; indeed, the limits imposed on exchanges thus far have only served to fuel the paranoias of bad-faith actors. That said, for all the sniping between the two opposing camps, a discussion about any sort of boundaries was the target of neither.

With no one willing to admit having mismanaged this debate, there’s reason to believe these mistakes will be repeated, too. This is to be expected, to a point—the movement continues to evolve—but both sides refusing to correct course doesn’t inspire confidence in the movement’s future.

If #MeToo hopes to escape the confines of a hashtag and mature into a stronger, lasting force, those who are strangling the discussion must be willing to release their unyielding grip.

Anthony Bourdain, suicide, and lifelines

For the CBC on June 12, 2018

Many of us experience a heaviness in the early morning hours; a feeling that the Swedish word vargtimmen perfectly encapsulates.

Robert Macfarlane, author of The Lost Words, writes that this term translates to “wolf-time; the menacing transitional hours of night into dawn.” How fitting that during these dark, foreboding hours last Friday, the world learned that Anthony Bourdain, age 61, had taken his life.

Like so many others, I was drawn to the authenticity of Bourdain’s work. His inexhaustible curiosity about the world, his ability to weave together stories of people and cultures, enabled viewers to experience foreign destinations in a uniquely engaging manner.

‘Your realest friend’

As New Yorker correspondent Helen Rosner put it, Bourdain cultivated an intimacy with his audience in such a way that he felt like “your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there.”

How a man who appeared so full of life — whose drive to work and travel and explore seemed so insatiable — could have possibly taken his own is, on its surface, incomprehensible. So too is the question of how someone so demonstrably successful, respected and admired could have felt so powerless, lost and alone, that such a disproportionate, permanent solution seemed the necessary choice.

Suicide is often (though not always) an impulsive act, where one moment’s unbearable despair eclipses a lifetime of reason. Nihilism supersedes all rational thought.

In his 1972 book The Savage God, English poet, novelist and essayist Alfred Alvarez described suicide as “a closed world with its own irresistible logic” akin to “the unanswerable logic of a nightmare … Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident reinforces his decision.”

Because depression is an all-consuming beast, one that incrementally siphons life of meaning, the way the mind works to rationalize suicidal ideation over time can create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Though Bourdain spoke of his depression and of the despondency he’d sometimes feel, there were hints of something deeper, a vacuum he left unexplored.

While paying tribute to his CNN colleague, Jake Tapper spoke of insecurities Bourdain seemed to mask with bravado, hinting of an emptiness — some sort of persistent wanting that plagued Bourdain — which could never quite be satisfied. Friends spoke of Bourdain’s self-imposed gruelling work schedule, which fed the isolation and loneliness he’d accepted as a tradeoff for his lifestyle. One colleague mentioned Bourdain’s worry of where he might find himself should he ever ease off the workload.

Recently, however, there seemed a calm; a sense of completeness.

“The last I knew, he was in love,” Bourdain’s friend Michael Ruhlman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday night. “He was happy, he said, ‘love abounds,’ some of the last words he said to me.”

Andrew Zimmern, another close associate, echoed that belief, saying he’d “never seen (Bourdain) as happy. He told me that in his relationship, not only had he never been happier, but that he never liked himself more, those were his words.”

So, what could possibly have happened? What changed so drastically that Bourdain, who’d overcome addiction and hardship in the past, felt he couldn’t possibly cope with the present?

His friends say he wasn’t showing cracks; he wasn’t letting people in. Only Bourdain knows why he maintained that barrier, even among the people closest to him. For all his candour about his past, he was guarded in his final moments.

It’s possible that, no matter how long he’d known these peers, there lacked a specific trust that would have made this conversation a safe one to have, particularly among fellow men.

When confiding in someone, there’s a difference between being listened to and being heard, between being heard and being understood. When there’s trust that no matter what is said, there will be understanding — meaning no risk of judgment or loss of respect, no worry of awkwardness later on — one will often reach out without hesitation.

Acting as lifelines

In times of crisis, when anxieties are heightened, that trust is vital. It’s something that is built over time, cultivated through regular, forthright conversations. One would assume Bourdain, a man who so seamlessly connected with others and could converse with such ease, had these sort of bonds. That indications are he didn’t, arguably deepens the sadness of this entire situation.

It’s easy for those who have these friendships to take them for granted, assuming everyone else is as privileged to have secured this most precious thing. While there are no easy answers to what’s become an epidemic of suicide, there are ways one can serve as a potential lifeline for another, should the need arise. And that begins by developing trust.

It’s not enough to ask someone to be vulnerable, the candour must work both ways. There must be a demonstration of understanding, or at least, of sincere empathy. There must be something that will override the lies one’s mind will tell at the thought of opening up. Words alone are inadequate.

In a 2014 episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain traveled to Massachusetts where he retraced his heroin addiction through Provincetown.

“You know, I didn’t have anyone else who could have talked me out of what I was doing,” he told a group of recovering addicts. “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin … intervention wouldn’t have worked.” One day, however, he “saw somebody worth saving” in his reflection.

If only he knew how desperately people wish they could have talked him down now. If only he caught that glimpse of worth one more time.

How USAG destroyed young women

For Maclean’s on January 29, 2018

Beyond inherent ability and genetic advantage, success in high-performance artistic sport—gymnastics, ballet, figure skating—requires militant self-discipline and unwavering dedication to training. All talent begins raw, and each sport has its own developmental program where young athletes hone specific skills and build key areas of strength which underlie the advanced demands of the competitive system. While elite programs differ in terms of sport-specific training strategies, the best and worst systems share a common, underlying component: abuse, either in their zero tolerance for it, or the centrality of it.

My own time as a dancer and gymnast saw the full range of abuses, and escaping one kind of mistreatment only led to being the target of and witness to another. For me, the most destructive was being subjected, starting at the age of 8, to an abusive sort of body-policing where my young physique was relentlessly scrutinized and compared to the bodies of girls who were older—girls whose athletic and physical development were naturally more advanced than my own.

I was told, repeatedly, how horrible my body was, where it looked wrong, how unacceptable it might forever be. I was told I was too fat to have friends; my weight and measurements were strictly monitored and widely broadcast. All talent was rendered insignificant by my apparently horrendous self. I was shamed, belittled and humiliated, over and over, and I developed a severe eating disorder by age 11, relapsing once at 14. The anorexia was ultimately surmountable. The intense self-hate and outright abhorrence of my body, however, was not.

Though my own work ethic and drive to train ultimately earned that lean, muscular body, enviable strength and elite level of fitness as an older athlete, my grim self-assessment was firmly, irrecoverably ingrained—which affects me to this day.

That’s why the excruciating testimony in the sentencing of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar resonated so deeply for me, and I suspect for other female athletes who’ve been through the same. In addition to the horrors of Nassar’s serial molestation, the stories of endemic abuse by coaches and staff forced USA Gymnastics (USAG) to acknowledge the truth of its system, and the rot at its core—a rot that too often exists in programs across competitive athletics.

Last week, USAG complied with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s ultimatum for mass resignations from the director’s board, preventing the USOC from decertifying USAG, which would have stripped its status as the sport’s governing body. Regardless of the intentions behind this purge, the lifeblood of USAG’s twin cancers remain.

The first: An ideology where coach deification and institutional worship results in unquestioned, untouchable authority—the ideal conditions for abuse to thrive. When not enduring mistreatment, athletes are forced to be complicit in cruelty toward others. Speaking up will incur further abuse or outright end a career. Less powerful coaches, too, find they can do little more than witness in silence. Either their concerns will be ignored, or they’ll be out of a job. Sometimes, it’s both.

The second: A method of training built on insidious forms of abuse, where harm to the mental and emotional well-being of young female athletes is but collateral damage in the quest for glory, and where the aftermath—eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide—is shrugged off as somebody else’s problem.

We saw how entrenched this was in the survivor testimony at the Nassar trial. On the sixth day, former U.S. national team member and 2010 floor champion Mattie Larson named two now-retired figures central to the notoriously abusive system that currently exists: Bela and Martha Karolyi, icons in their field, whose Ranch served as the national team’s training centre, hosting camps billed as integral to Olympic glory.

Before defecting to the U.S. in the ‘80s, the Karolyis were the power couple of Romanian gymnastics. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, their gymnast Nadia Comăneci scored the sport’s first perfect 10 at an Olympic Games. In America, their stars included gymnastic legends Mary Lou Retton and Kim Zmeskal, as well as two members of the 1996 Olympics’ “Magnificent Seven,” Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strugg. In a glowing 2016 profile in the New York Times, Martha credited her system, and the ranch, as the prime reason that the “United States dominates the world of gymnastics.”

Larson, however, testified the Ranch was little more than a USAG-sanctioned centre for uninterrupted physical, emotional, psychological—and, from Nassar, sexual—abuse.

She told of an “intense and destructive six-year eating disorder” that developed in an effort to be skinny enough for the coaches’ affection and approval; the Karolyis were notorious for imposing a severe caloric restriction on athletes on top of the schedule, which demanded overtraining. During one camp, Larson was told she was fine by the doctor Nassar, despite later revelations that she had dislocated and fractured both ankles. She also recounted a time she intentionally injured herself in a desperate bid to escape the relentless abuse at the Ranch.

“While [Nassar] is a mentally deranged pedophile, he is not the head of the monster,” wrote Valorie Kondos-Field—head coach of the six-time champion UCLA women’s gymnastics team—in a post published days before Larson’s testimony. That, she said, was the cult of Karolyi: “Martha, and before her Bela, and before him Don Peters, who has been banned from coaching for his own sexual abuse allegations. For decades they established a culture of abuse that was widely accepted and mimicked by other club coaches because ‘we won medals.’ ”

This draconian method of “creating champions” is what allowed Nassar to prey with maximum reward, especially at the Ranch. He befriended the athletes, offered an empathetic, kind respite from the ongoing viciousness, and masterfully groomed each young gymnast for use to satisfy his own depraved sexual pleasure. While Nassar has been made to face consequences, and despite USAG’s vow to implement policies to better protect athletes from sexual misconduct, there has been no commitment to end the methodical mistreatment which remains.

Having coached 46 former U.S. national team members through their NCAA gymnastic careers, Kondos-Field witnessed the fallout of the system where “verbal, emotional, and physical abuse were simply the way of life.” She identified Larson as the most “egregious case” she’d seen of a young woman so thoroughly destroyed by the elite stream.

Following three weeks of living as a persona non grata after being blamed for America’s failure to secure team gold at the 2010 World Championships, Larson called Kondos-Field to say she was quitting elite to come to UCLA. When Kondos-Field asked why she’d do that so close to the Olympics, Larson replied: “Because I’ve become invisible. I actually pinch myself at times to make sure I am still alive and not a ghost.”

“I never felt so small and disposable in my life,” Larson said of that experience in her courtroom testimony. And in naming another notable figure, she exposed how inescapable the abuse remains even without the Karolyis at the helm. “It truly bothers me that one of the adults who treated me this way…is the new national team coordinator, Valeri Liukin. I hope for the sake of the current and future national team members he has changed.”

Liukin is gymnastics royalty—a top-tier figure, a two-time Olympic champion, and “one of the most highly regarded coaches in all of gymnastics,” boasts the USAG. Liukin is also the father of beloved American gymnast Nastia, whose awards include the coveted all-around Olympic title from the 2008 Beijing Games.

This wan’t the first time Liukin has been cited as abusive—two-time All-American and Junior National champion Katelyn Ohashi has spoken of aggressive body shaming and weight policing despite her being 70 pounds at the time, leading to bulimia—but it was certainly the most public, and thus inescapable, accusation. And when he replaced Martha as national team coordinator in September — four days after the Indianapolis Star first published Rachael Denhollander’s allegations against Nassar, and one month after its initial bombshell investigation into the systemic cover-up of sex abuse in the sport — the proud and firm believer in the Karolyi method planned for business as usual.

“There is no point in changing something that isn’t broken,” he said at the time.  “… We’re winning a lot of medals, and that’s what we hope to continue to do.”

That system—in which Liukin has been involved since 1999, employing methods he endorses and outcomes he’s entirely pleased with—was the one with shattering repercussions heard in that Michigan courtroom. Nassar, too, was part of that system. And Liukin saw no reason for concern. None.

When USAG recently, belatedly, agreed to close the Karolyi Ranch, Liukin offered his own facility as an interim training centre. Though the athletes would be spared of having to train in the place they were abused by Nassar, they would continue to endure every other abuse of the program.

If USAG is sincerely dedicated to a complete overhaul—if the intention is to truly establish a zero-tolerance attitude regarding the mistreatment of athletes—they will move to replace Liukin with someone outside the Karolyi circle. They will work to find an esteemed coach who isn’t known for targeting athletes in a terribly personal, cruel manner.

USAG has the power to deliver the final blow to the Karolyis’ destructive legacy. Liukin’s future role within the organization will be telling of how much power the old guard maintains in the future, and will send a message to other sports authorities about the need for total reform in their own ranks. After all, as Larson concluded in her testimony: “There is another way, a healthy and supportive way, to make champions.” For gymnastics to have a future, the USAG must believe that a demanding, disciplined program which expects excellence does not need to be abusive. It needs Larson to be right. The good news is that she is.


On loneliness​ and the winter low

For Maclean’s on December 24, 2017

“Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert in a 2010 entry on his online journal. “It’s always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: ‘You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship.’

“What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction. Encouragement. Change. Feedback … what all lonely people share is a desire not to be—or at least not to feel—alone.”

Embedded in the post was a poignant cartoon of a simple figure, looking downward with a pink heart on its chest, showered by an unforgiving rain from a cloud hovering above. Beside this image, there were these words: “Sometimes I take a carton of eggs out of the fridge and look at it and think that maybe one day I’ll crack an egg and a little baby chicken will fall out, and I’ll wash him off and raise him indoors and then… then I’ll have a friend.”

For many, the winter brings an increasing darkness beyond the shortened daylight—a shadow which stubbornly hovers like the cloud haunting the figure in the cartoon—a cycle best captured by an Icelandic term: “Skammdegisskuggar.” The meaning, as noted by author Robert Macfarlane, is “literally, ‘shadows of the short days’; metaphorically, the darkness that can be cast into both land and spirit by deep winter.”

Winter depression, and the loneliness it invites, can make the year’s final months seem, at times, unbearable. The holidays can prove to be a particular challenge, as the reluctance on one end to reach out for support, combined with uncertainty on the other of when and how to extend a hand amid overwhelming cheer, intensifies the aching sort of isolation, which then begets further loneliness.

Why, with all the campaigns dedicated to understanding mental illness and promoting emotional well-being, does there remain a reluctance to seek support for social isolation? Loneliness hasn’t been granted the same sort of legitimacy as, say, depression. It’s largely subjective, deeply personal, and remains so stigmatized, people are deeply reluctant to discuss—or even admit to—this honest emotion. There’s a profound vulnerability in doing so, as if loneliness itself indicates or reveals some fundamental failing or flaw of character.

Some won’t acknowledge their own lingering sadness because they imagine loneliness only affects those who are, quite literally, all alone. But the fact is, you can be married, have children, enjoy a stable, successful career, be surrounded by like-minded colleagues, and still, at the end of the day, feel lonely. You can still lie awake with an emptiness, yearning for some specific, meaningful connection to something or someone that would satisfy some persistent void.

“Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being,” wrote Dr. Dhruv Khullar in his December 2016 column in the New York Times outlining the “dire physical, mental and emotional consequences” of social isolation. Though we’re more connected online than ever, those ties are increasingly superficial. Not only have deep, meaningful bonds become scarce for many, modern demands of life and work have made it more difficult to maintain and nurture—or at least, far too easy to neglect—those important few that are still held.

Whether you’re married, single, an extrovert or generally shy, close, meaningful friendships matter. It’s not the number of connections or the proximity, but the quality of them.

Despite the evolutionary role of interdependence for well-being and survival, rugged individualism is too often romanticized. As recent research on the medical, as opposed to the psychological, fallout of loneliness has shown, the biological and physiological consequences of the prolonged stress from loneliness can be, quite literally, lethal.

According to Khullar, “analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age. Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions.”

What’s more, the fallout begins early. “Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors.”

“It’s up to all of us,” concludes Khullar, “to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.”

If you find yourself, to use Ebert’s words, among “the lonely people” as the year draws to a close, it’s important to understand that, no matter the reason, you’re not alone in that feeling. If you reach out to someone—whether a close friend or a mere acquaintance; a family member or a crisis line—you’ll be met with far more empathy and understanding than you might expect, because everyone, at some point, to some extent, has been there too.

Rekindle ties with those you value and with whom you may have fallen out of touch. Write a letter or an email, or give them a call. Do something tangible, even if it feels forced at first, to begin to reconnect and rebuild the relationships which remain, in some way, important to you.

If you’re someone who will be surrounded by family and friends over the holidays, consider taking a moment, or finding meaningful time, for a person you suspect might not be as fortunate. It could be an elderly neighbour who lives alone, or perhaps a colleague you’ve noticed withdraw in recent months. You never know when the simple act of checking in—sending a simple text or e-mail, calling to chat, leaving a message, or dropping by—will change, or even save, a life.

Helping others through a difficult stretch doesn’t require special training or knowledge, just a moment of patience and an empathetic ear.

Never underestimate the value of time. Whether seeking it from another, or offering some of your own, it can prove to be the most cherished gift exchanged through the holidays. These connections have a way of growing into deep, lasting friendships—the kind that are the ultimate antidote to loneliness, even after the winter low has lifted.


Of flawed men and dangerous​ ones

For the CBC on November 30, 2017

In early November, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston weighed in on the stunning allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against Hollywood icon Kevin Spacey — one of the early casualties of the so-called Weinstein effect — in an interview with BBC Newsbeat.

Cranston suggested Spacey was “a phenomenal actor, but not a very good person,” describing Spacey’s alleged predatory behaviour as “beyond disgusting. It’s almost animalistic … his career now I think is over.”

Cranston’s response was, at the time, a minor entry on the list of celebrity reactions. It was a chat with BBC’s Will Gompertz, just days later, which drew considerable attention — and outrage.

Finding a way back

Cranston was asked if he thought there was a way back for some of the “Weinsteins and Spaceys of the world.” (To be clear, the full conversation was far more substantive than subsequent clickbait-y headlines would suggest.) In response, Cranston spoke of the wider societal problem of sexual harassment and specifically called for male introspection. Then he went on:

“It would take time,” he said. “It would take a society to forgive them, and tremendous contrition on their part … a knowingness that they have a deeply rooted psychological and emotional problem [that] takes years to mend. If they were to show they put the work in and are truly sorry and making amends, not defending their actions but asking for forgiveness, then maybe down the road there is room for that, maybe so.”

It was an admirably honest, thoughtful response to an uncomfortable question of how to deal with perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse.

Must every offender become a pariah, or is there room for rehabilitation — possibly even forgiveness — depending on the severity of the crime, sincerity of remorse, input from the victims and totality of circumstances?

As Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post, argued: “The notion of the cleansing purge has its satisfactions.” There’s a tendency, however, to “overcorrect for past sins. If society once ignored sexual harassment — and we certainly did — one risk…is overcompensating for earlier apathy.”

Marcus has a point. That’s not to suggest men like Harvey Weinstein, who embody a particularly heinous sort of sexual predator — those who not only victimize prey, but implicate all those around by terrorizing them into silence — deserve any shot at redemption. Nor do men who prey on children.

But this overdue reckoning with inappropriate conduct will include transgressions that are arguably minor, and not so straightforward; behaviour more ambiguous — boorish and repulsive, perhaps, but not habitual or necessarily criminal, if still wrong. I suspect most — if not all — men have behaved in some regrettable manner at a given time. But it’s a mistake to assume a man’s worst days accurately reflect his character or potential to reform.

Case in point: Senator Al Franken.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles radio personality Leeann Tweeden alleged that the comedian-turned-senator forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a comedy bit back in 2006 on a USO tour. The same tour produced the now-infamous photo of Franken mugging for a camera while reaching for Tweeden’s breasts as she slept.

After the allegations were made public, Franken conceded that he “let a lot of people down,” but said he is determined to make amends: to prove himself a better man and still-worthy senator.

“This is not going to happen quickly,” Franken said. “I have to earn this over time and that’s what I plan to do.”

Long a sincere and fierce advocate for women, Franken recognizes the unique betrayal many women feel and the additional challenge of repairing that bond. “I know I’m not going to regain their trust immediately. There’s no magic words I can say here to make that happen.”

Compare with Weinstein who immediately sought victimhood, claiming his sexual crimes — which were so obviously premeditated choices — were the result of “sex addiction.” The diagnosis has become a handy tool, of late, to absolve sexual predators of responsibility.

After a single week of “intensive therapy” at a luxury Arizona rehab/resort — a choice “treatment” destination for Spacey, too — Weinstein checked himself out. Far from seeking to earn a second chance, Weinstein, who considers himself “the good guy,” apparently feels entitled to one.

Franken, meanwhile, has welcomed a Senate ethics investigation, vowing to fully co-operate and take responsibility.

“I’m going to be held accountable, and I’m going to try to be productive in the way I speak about this,” he said. In addition to his personal, unequivocal apology to Tweeden, which she graciously accepted without hesitation, Franken’s introspection has been laudable. For instance, though he maintains a different recollection of the USO rehearsal, he understands Tweeden’s interpretation differs from what he believes was his intent, and he accepts that some violation happened on account of his actions.

Learning from mistakes

What adds weight to Franken’s words are his actions: he hasn’t just said the right things, he has already taken steps to atone for his sins and learn from his offending conduct. Short of his resignation, what more should we reasonably ask?

Tempting as it is to “burn it all down” amid the torrent of allegations of sexual impropriety — an inclination which gains appeal with each, seemingly daily bombshell (see: Matt Lauer) — tangible progress and lasting change happen incrementally.

Allowing imperfect men to be part of the solution, even if they were, at some point, in some way, part of the problem, can make for a powerful allied force for good. The passion and dedication that those reformed often bring to a cause shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

It’s important we listen to the stories of those who have been targeted and victimized by powerful, horrible men. But careful weighing of the appropriate, proportional response toward all accused will help ensure irredeemable offenders — and their network of enablers — are fully exposed and held to account. Misdirected anger is wasted energy and, ultimately, a distraction from the larger, most crucial end.


Confronting prejudice and changing minds

For Maclean’s on August 31, 2017

One year ago on C-SPAN, Heather McGhee—an African-American woman and the president of Demos, an equality-focused public policy organization—was the featured guest of a call-in program in Washington. Half an hour into the broadcast, a caller introduced himself as Garry from North Carolina, and made a remarkable request: “I was hoping that your guest could help me change my mind about some things,” he began. “I am a white male, and I am prejudiced.”

Garry said his views were rooted in fear—among other things, the fear of black crime and “young black males” needing to turn to crime “to get money for drugs”—and he didn’t want to think or feel that way. But he didn’t know how else to feel.

McGhee, recognizing that Garry had for some reason found a friend in her, took a deep breath and thanked him for being honest, and for opening up a conversation that, too often, isn’t had. “Asking the question you asked, ‘how do I get over my fears and my prejudices,’ is the question that all of us … people of all races and ethnicities and backgrounds hold onto these prejudices … your ability to just say ‘this is what I have, I have these fears and prejudices and I want to get over them,’ is one of the most powerful things that we can do at this moment in our history.”

McGhee recognized Garry’s aversive racism—“I don’t want my fears to come true, so I try to avoid… and I come off as prejudiced”—and gently and non-judgementally addressed the racist assumptions Garry listed before offering concrete suggestions of how he could work to counter and confront those fears, like visiting a multi-ethnic church, getting to know non-white community members, fostering conversations about these fears with family, and learning more about African-Americans in the country.

The compassion offered by McGhee not only allowed for a truly constructive bit of discourse, it provided a direct refutation to Garry’s belief that blacks were inherently angry, aggressive, and dangerous. Had McGhee mocked or chided Garry for his beliefs, or responded in the way that’s become far too common across social media—vindictiveness or dismissal—Garry’s fears would seem justified, and that small window for change would be forever sealed.

When it comes to racial prejudice and intolerance, there are far more Garrys than there are David Dukes or Richard Spencers—a sentiment that, in today’s charged climate, can feel false. On its own, that August weekend in Charlottesville where toxic male aggression, combined with seething racial tensions and overt white supremacist ideology, inevitably ended in violence, would seem to prove otherwise. But while this degree of far-right extremism and neo-fascism needs to be explicitly called out and unequivocally denounced, it would be a mistake to assume that racist, bigoted, or discriminatory beliefs are wholly indicative of the individuals who harbour them.

However morally satisfying, viewing racism through a Manichean lens—where people are either evil or good, “racist” or “not racist”—misunderstands the complexities which drive the formation of irrational beliefs and misguided assumptions of someone else. It assumes—wrongly—that all people who hold racist views explicitly choose to hold them. Quiet, implicit biases, for instance, are often come by honestly. And while no one is free of them—within every race and ethnicity you’ll find varying degrees of prejudice toward specific others, as it’s part of an evolutionary in/out group tendency—there are differing degrees of awareness to individuals’ own soft bigotries.

Knowing this makes it easier to accept that good people—including those you may know and love—can hold deplorable views without being fundamentally deplorable human beings, and in getting beyond the desire to write off those who maintain such views as entirely irredeemable, you can actively work toward challenging—and changing—their flawed mindset.

While some eagerly embrace intolerance, many are reluctant to acknowledge—or may be entirely blind to—their own prejudices, because those quietly acquired beliefs are so far out of line to their consciously held morals. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in 2013, “we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons, and orcs. We believe this even when we are being racist.”

 It’s easier to cling to the “white hood” theory of racism—the notion that hateful people like Duke are the epitome of the problem—than to confront our own subtle, insidious views about a given other. This makes harmful beliefs pertaining to race and matters of social justice so notoriously resistant to change. While there’s no single foolproof approach to changing misguided ideas, what’s been proven the least effective and most counterproductive effort is the shaming method.

“When people have their self-worth validated in some way, they tend to be more receptive to information that challenges their beliefs,” said Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at UC Irvine—that is, treating the person as worthy of debate, no matter how unworthy you’ve deemed their opinion, creates opportunity for constructive dialogue. Because mood factors into how receptive we are to new information or different ideas, direct antagonism—whether through point-scoring, name-calling, or the use of epithets (which includes the allegation of being “racist”)—immediately puts the other on the defensive, which not only kills any chance for discussion, but instinctively drives a doubling-down on the problematic beliefs.

Further, by separating the person from their views, thus removing any sense of moral failure or shame on their part, you can more effectively, even directly, challenge the faulty beliefs without attacking at a personal level. In acknowledging someone’s identity outside of a particular view, you provide assurance that while you may find their point of view detestable, you don’t hold them personally so. When people respect your approach and feel they’ve been fairly heard—that care has been taken to consider a point of view they may hold passionately—they are increasingly likely to consider your counter-argument.

Once you’ve started some dialogue, asking the other to expand on their specific idea—giving them full opportunity to explain, in detail, precisely why they hold that opinion—will open them to the limits of their own understanding. It’s easy to hold some gut-level belief, but given how those often arrive without conscious effort, asking for in-depth reasoning will expose the absence of it, and without any effort on your part. Even if the person’s mind isn’t changed, the introduction of doubt to one’s certainty can help begin the education process. And if you can’t offer a thorough response yourself, to help fill the information gap the other has revealed, then chances are your own knowledge of the matter isn’t as complete as you believe it is. This presents an opportunity for you to broaden your own understanding and deepen your knowledge, which will then strengthen your argument down the road.

In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, co-authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore the limits of knowledge, and the precise role that groups play. The way we rely on the expertise of others to make personal sense of the world is what sets the stage for over-confidence in what we think we know. Leaning on others’ knowledge without a full understanding, over time, creates the illusion that we ourselves possess the expertise. 

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” they observe. “As a rule, strong feelings about (fraught political) issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” Exploring the complexities of an issue and patiently working through the details offers the best chance to “shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Another promising approach deals with the precise framing of debate. By appealing to the moral concerns of the person whose beliefs you’re challenging, you can work toward finding common ground. “There’s this tricky difference between moral difference and the absence of morality,” notes Matt Feinberg who, along with Robb Willer, studies effective persuasion across ideological lines.

Jonathan Haidt studies the psychological foundations of morality, and his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion introduced the Moral Foundations Theory, positing that liberals and conservatives are uniquely motivated by five distinct moral dichotomies that frame their thinking. Liberals, for instance, place greater importance on matters of care/harm and fairness/cheating, while conservatives value the concepts of loyalty/betrayal and authority/subversion. These competing values, in part, fuel the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter fight.

Take, for instance, the case of Jeronimo Yanez, an officer with Minnesota’s St. Anthony Police Department, who was acquitted in June on all charges of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile, a black man who he’d pulled over on account of a broken tail light. Castile was, by all accounts, the sort of man conservatives routinely suggest are absent in black communities—his record was clean, he was a role model for local youth, he had a job and a girlfriend and served as a father to her four-year-old daughter. Castile’s life approach, described by a longtime friend, was always “‘play it by the books.’ ”

Dashcam video revealed Castile as attentive and respectful toward the officer when he was pulled over, and showed he proactively informed Yanez of the presence of a gun which he was fully licensed to carry. Mere seconds later, Yanez opened fire, unloading seven rounds into the car, five of which hit Castile.

Conservatives who’d always found reason to justify previous deaths of black men at the hands of police, but who decried the officer’s acquittal in this case, were able to find common cause with Castile largely because of the Second Amendment aspect. That moral frame forced them to see not a black man—someone who was “other”—but a fellow patriotic American whose black life should have mattered.

That’s no small revelation. And yet, while many champions of police reform welcomed the conservative advocacy, some couldn’t help but fall back on the call-out/shame cycle, admonishing for “not listening” to what the black community had long been saying.

While frustration is understandable, scolding someone you’ve been trying to reach for making real progress—no matter how delayed—is ultimately self-defeating. What’s more important here: self-righteous point-scoring, or welcoming an ally from the other side to help work toward a now-common goal?

There is courage in admitting to beliefs which could be deemed a moral shortcoming. Making oneself vulnerable in order to become a better person is a harder choice than it ought to be. Making that choice an impossible one—by always greeting honest effort with hostility—guarantees an end to progress. There is also tremendous bravery in responding with compassion when, throughout life, you’ve been afforded none. Though it seems unfair that the bulk of effort to counter harm rests with the those who’ve borne the brunt of it, that’s what social justice activism is about: to persuade those who feel they have nothing to gain by challenging an injustice, to see themselves in the cause, and join it.

You cannot force someone’s change of heart. But you can lead in a way that might entice one.