• After my rant last week versus CBC Radio and their use of an unreliable moral compass, the broadcaster has been kind enough to immediately vindicate my accusation. In particular, CBC Radio Vancouver’s The Early Edition—which brands itself a champion of anti-racism—cheerfully interviewed an alleged anti-racist, Masuma Khan, who had helped herself to a race-based criticism of white people, and now defended herself by claiming that it is impossible for someone of colour in Canada to be racist against white people.

    Now, it may seem that I am enjoying a bounty of low-hanging fruit by taking on such a silly notion that only certain races can be racist. However, I have accepted the challenge because this “can’t be racist” argument is catching on with certain “progressive” groups who enjoy essentializing race. More importantly, I notice that our hoped-for-defenders in the mainstream media rarely point out the obvious troubles with defining racism by race. As ever, I find this lack of critical response to be worrying: without interrogation, bad ideas surely have a better chance of flourishing.

    And so my fingers ranted out an email to CBC Radio’s Early Edition criticizing both Ms. Khan for crimes against the dictionary, and her interviewer, Rick Cluff, for not raising a single eyebrow of skepticism towards her creative vocabulary.

    As usual, I have not received a response from CBC Radio to my criticism, so I publish it here.


    Dear Rick Cluff:

    On November 28th you interviewed University of Dalhousie Student Union executive member Masuma Khan who had been accused by her university of racism after she had publicly used the term “white fragility.” She defended herself in your discussion by arguing that:

    (1) She cannot have been racist, because “We know… racism [against white people] doesn’t exist in a North American context.”

    (2) The criticism she received demonstrates a double standard against her because of her race: “freedom of speech,” she said, “has been all too selective, and… freedom of speech really only counts for those who are privileged.” And:

    (3) Since her “fragile” commentary, she was threatened on social media, and this proved the very insult that started the controversy. “White folks…” she explained, “they just showed how fragile they were with the way that they responded to my message.”

    I understand that your interview style is to be polite to your guests and rarely to challenge them, and I appreciate that easy-going presentation. However, I think that, as a publicly funded broadcaster, you have a duty to ask a skeptical question or two of someone who advocates race-based criticism, and yet denies not only that she participated in racism, but also that she could ever be a racist because her race makes it impossible.

    Those are some extraordinarily claims that should not be taken on faith. So, for the record, I would like to provide a few counterarguments to Ms. Khan’s.

    (1A) The stated notion that it’s impossible to be racist against white people [in North America].

    In the week before this friendly interview, you spoke with a farmer who said that he and his cohort were having trouble with thieves who, he surmised, probably think it’s no big deal to steal from a big farm. And you replied, “But theft is theft.”

    Theft—the taking of something [without permission] that is not lawfully your own—is indeed theft. That is the fact of the word. Of course, such thieves might argue that stealing from a farmer, or better yet, from a big corporation, is not as bad a type of theft as, say, helping oneself to the wares of a small convenience store. Indeed, in spite of repeating your aphorism, “But theft is theft” several times, you asked the farmer if he thought perhaps some of the thieves took from his bounty because they “needed to.” So you were making a distinction regarding the level of moral failing based on the possible poverty of the thieves. Yet, you did not relent from your insistence that theft is theft. And I submit that, in spite our society’s celebration of mythical figures like Robin Hood who steal from the rich to give to the poor, most of us, like you, are unwavering in our insistence that we call a thief a thief. This I believe is because we realize that if we start claiming that stealing is only stealing if it’s particularly harmful then we will find ourselves at the top of a slippery slope that may send us into moral and legal (not to mention linguistic) chaos.

    By that same instinct, I am bewildered by your unwillingness to gently question the equally untenable notion that certain races cannot be racist towards others. Racism is racism. Ms. Khan criticized a group of people on the basis of the colour of their skin and so, I’m afraid, the racism app has, by definition, been activated.

    Now, as with ranking the wrongfulness of different types of theft, Ms. Khan is welcome, if she likes, to argue that racism against a “historically privileged” race is not as harmful a brand of racism as that which insults a race whose member faces do not tend to decorate our money. But that cannot negate the fact that demeaning a particular group of people on the basis of their race is racism. To argue otherwise—without any hint of push back from an interviewer from Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster—is to bring us closer to Orwell’s warnings against doublespeak, where “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and now “racism is anti-racism.”

    (1B) The implied notion that it’s not a moral flaw to be racist against white people.

    Ms. Khan is attempting to ridicule her cake and eat it, too. She wants to criticize a particular race of people without having to wear that annoying label of being a race-based critic. It is an intellectual cheat that we would not allow in any other context:

    “Hey, you just punched me in the face.”

    “No, I didn’t. I’m smaller than you, so we know for a fact that it is impossible for me to punch you in the face.”

    I refuse to give up my dictionary so easily, and instead I would like to respond to the claim Ms. Khan is trying to hide within her doublespeak: that racism against white people isn’t so bad because, after all, white people are privileged, so they can surely handle the occasional slur and still have plenty of advantages left over.

    I cannot deny that modern anti-white racism in Canada is currently insignificant when compared to, say, Jim Crow segregation laws formerly in place in the United States. Yet, if we allow racism against white people to go not only unchecked, but unacknowledged, we are playing with a flammable agent. We already live in a world where the NDP who lead British Columbia and the “Liberals” who lead Canada discriminate against white candidates for office. You’re of course welcome to defend racial quotas based on what I assume is your moral position that governments should look like their citizens, but the problem is you didn’t need to make any argument to defend those racially discriminatory practices. The Canadian media has asked almost no critical questions about this renunciation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” of “a nation where his children would “not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

    It is not my contention that white people experience more racism in Canada today than other races do, but I am noting that racism against white people is not only mainstream (“Oscars so white”), it is systemic (“Preference given to candidates of colour”), and vicious: we often hear comedians and pundits merrily dismiss many important (and diverse) thinkers because they are “Dead white men,” or if such men are inconsiderate enough to still be alive, “Old white men.” Such essentializing is a powerful manoeuvre in the game of racism, as it reduces complex beings to a single supposed flaw (in this case, that white minds are antiquated). Such demonization of a particular race keeps our compassion for its members at bay, and allows us to expand our dislike for the lot of them without the discomfort of guilt.

    (2) The notion that Ms. Kahn experienced a racial double standard against her freedom of speech.

    Despite my contempt for Ms. Khan’s race-based arguments, I support her calling upon her right of free speech to defend herself against her university’s attempt to discipline her. Unless Ms. Khan was bullying individual students in her charge and/or discriminating against them in action (i.e. excluding them from participation in events), elected university student leaders should be free to express whatever opinions their electorate will tolerate. And the university’s attempt to quash her for expressing morally suspect notions is worrying: if universities are not a place where ideas can be freely expressed, where can such open dialogue occur?

    But, while I defend Ms. Khan’s right to free speech, her claim that she was treated worse by her school because she is not white baffles incredulity. I was, I admit, surprised to see a Canadian university (usually a stronghold of “progressive” politics) hold to their misguided “hate speech” restrictions even though it was against a person of colour. But they still eventually dropped their claim. Mr. Cluff, can you really, within the deepest honesty of your heart, believe that if a white Student Union executive member had uttered a race-generalizing remark towards people of colour that he or she would have made it to the end of their sentence without being removed from office?

    If you’re struggling to accept the obvious answer, please ask yourself this: if you were to describe people of colour with any negative word on CBC airwaves, do you think—in today’s climate where just criticizing the racially “progressive” notion of “cultural appropriation” is taboo on CBC—you would have a job the next day?

    In contrast, you gave a sympathetic interview on Canada’s public broadcaster to a woman who openly uses the phrase “White Fragility,” and, correct me if I’m wrong, but your livelihood remains intact. This isn’t to say that I think you should lose your job for being nice to Ms. Khan, but I do contend that Ms. Khan’s claim of a mainstream double standard against her brand of racism is self-evidently false.

    (3) The notion that threats by individual white people says something about white people in general.

    I am sorry Ms. Khan received threats: she did not deserve them.

    Violent threats against anyone for their choice of language is, of course, morally disastrous. However, if you speak with Ms. Khan again, could you please let her know that receiving threats is not uncommon for people who are publicly controversial (it happens, I’m afraid, to people from every corner of the political rainbow). Nevertheless, such violent language against Ms. Khan no more redeems her racism than white nationalist Richard Spencer was redeemed by the so-called anti-Nazi who punched him the face.

    The good news is most people do not threaten those with whom they disagree; unfortunately, it only takes a small percentage of citizens to use violent language to make one feel as though we live in a violent society. But I hope Ms. Khan can take some comfort in knowing that most Canadians—even those who don’t like her choice of language—do not approve of the violent rhetoric she received.

    Regardless, Ms. Khan’s contention that those threats “from white people” prove the very fragility she was accusing white people of, is more racism. She is generalizing from the bad acts of individuals to accuse the racial group to which they (allegedly) belong. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you surely would have condemned such generalizing bigotry if it were aimed at people of colour, so the fact that you did not question Ms. Khan’s anti-white generalizing once again disproves her argument that there is a double standard in Canada against her version of racism.

    My hope here is not to persuade you to blacklist the Masuma Khans of our society. I think the public discourse would benefit from CBC Radio talking to more people with controversial opinions. And I’m not suggesting that you change your style to a more combative one that argues with your guests; however, I do contend that, as a publicly funded broadcaster, you ought to at least put forward these most basic of counter arguments when you’re speaking with those who are attempting to renovate not only our moral compasses but also our dictionaries.

    Sincerely,

    Seth McDonough


    SETHBLOGS NOTE: If you’re interested in reviewing the source material for this essay, I have set up my transcription of Mr. Cluff’s interview with Ms. Khan as the first comment on this post. You can currently also listen to the interview on The Early Edition‘s Archives starting at 2:20:49 on November 28th.

  • My adversary today is what I’ll refer to as PC-shame culture.

    If you are an advocate of political correctness, fear not, I come not for your hopes for a kinder society. Admittedly, I am a critic of political correctness because I believe it stunts conversations, disallows nuance, and causes “ism”-fearing people to agree to policies they would otherwise argue against. Nevertheless, I believe that many advocates of political correctness make their case not because they want to hinder dialogue, but because they hope to promote a voluntary, respectful standard in that conversation. And that’s certainly a value that I support, even if I don’t think PC culture gets it right every time.

    My argument today, then, is not with political correctness, or at least the goal of kinder conversation, but with its leading enforcement mechanism, that of PC-shame culture, which demonizes those who don’t follow its edicts. This shame culture is especially powerful because our usual watchdogs in academia and the mainstream media—clearly afraid to be shamed, themselves—rarely investigate PC shaming attempts with the depth they would a less dangerous topic.

    I believe that shame culture instigators can be produced by any ideology (including my own favourite values). However, given that identity-based political correctness is currently the point of view with the most ability to shame (since almost no one wants to be seen as a bigot), it is PC shame culture that I am focussing on.

    I see seven leading ways in which PC shame culture is dangerous to our society’s health.

    1. CONTEXT ELIMINATION

    Those in the forefront of PC-shaming are not big fans of context. Recently, Evergreen State biology professor Bret Weinstein criticized supposed anti-racism activists for the 2017 version of their “Day of Absence.” Dr. Weinstein says he had always supported their annual protest, in which students and teachers of colour continued a 1970s-initiated tradition of taking a day away from the campus to highlight issues of race. However, in this particular case, he argued that the updated Day of Action policy was racist because it called for white students, in particular, to absent themselves from campus to make room for the activism.

    Weinstein has been charged with racism by the activists, who gathered outside the professor’s in-progress classroom on the day of action, and called for him to resign for his “racist” comments. Yet, if one allows oneself a few moments to check for context, and reads Weinstein’s offending letter, there is nary an iota of racism, just a criticism of one of the methods utilized by the group claiming to represent anti-racism.

    As I’ve argued before, criticizing a person or group, who purport to be the official champions of anti-bigotry, is not the same as supporting bigotry, itself. But, for PC shame culture, the context and details within criticism is irrelevant. You are either with us, or you’re a bigot.

    2. POISONING THE EXISTENCE

    Once again, I ask you to consider the case of Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Tim Hunt, who, during a speech in which he was promoting women in science, made a joke about women in science.

    A feminist in the room twittered the joke to her followers, and the shame culture brigade soon had him fired from all of his scientific positions. Far from intervening on rude and/or even bigoted language by criticizing it, PC shame culture dismisses the offending speaker’s entire existence as broken. Even if Dr. Hunt’s joke was intended to sincerely belittle women scientists, it is dangerously disproportionate that one flawed remark overruled Dr. Hunt’s career contribution to cancer research.

    3. HIGH ACHIEVERS MAY SOMETIMES HAVE QUIRKS

    Unfortunately, the best and the brightest are not always the most socially adept. Consider Dr. Matt Taylor who led a team of scientists to land a spacecraft on a comet. During the press conference, he wore a shirt decorated with skimpily dressed cartoon women.

    The shame culture response to this shirt, led by TheVerge.com’s, “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing,” resulted in Dr. Taylor having a second press conference in which he tearfully apologized for “[making] a big mistake.”

    Again, whether or not one thinks Taylor’s shirt was sexist and/or inappropriate, PC Shame Culture’s dichotomy is scary: you either perfectly align with PC values in everything you say and wear, or you are unfit for participation in public life.

    4. PRIVACY IS ONLY FOR THE MORALLY VIRTUOUS

    PC-shamers do not limit themselves to that which is said in public. Recall NBA owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded by his girlfriend stating a racist opinion during a private conversation. He was subsequently removed by the NBA as an owner after his former paramour published the results.

    I don’t doubt that Silver is a morally questionable guy, and if there’s good evidence his racist heart has shown itself in his NBA dealings, then by all means the NBA should have kicked him out. However, as it was, Silver was dismissed for his private contemplations.

    If that doesn’t make you check on George Orwell’s grave to see if he’s rolled over, think of the most politically incorrect thing you ever said in private to someone close to you, and imagine that utterance was recorded and played in your future job interviews.

    5. ALL YOU HAVE TO BE IS PERFECT FROM BIRTH

    (A) In the last Canadian federal election, two political candidates were dropped for comments they had made online in their young adulthood. I don’t object to scrutinizing people for words they freely expressed in public even if they were naïve at the time. But there seems to be no room for personal development in this politically corrected society.

    Instead of, “Hey, I see you said this controversial thing before you were politically active. Do you still support it? If so, why? If not, what changed your mind?”, we go with, “Hey, I see you previously said this controversial thing. You’re off the team.”

    (B) Along with disallowing young adults to make stupid mistakes (in a social media world where one’s mistakes are increasingly public), such a policy also limits good faith public introspection. That, is if one questions or criticizes values they’ll later adopt, their career is over before they get a chance to have their epiphany. This means that all members of the public discourse must arrive on the public scene with all of their views in perfect condition. That’s going to cost us otherwise valuable contributors, particularly those with the ability to think outside the soap box.

    6. THE END OF NUANCE

    Notice that, as the PC Shame Squad becomes more powerful, their restrictions are growing more general. It’s not just directly bigoted comments that cause one to be exiled, it’s also any statements that do not conform to politically correct conclusions.

    Recall General Lawson, who had the “wrong” opinion regarding the genesis of sexual harassment in the military because he suggested such faulty characters were formed by nature and not nurture. This was found to be “unacceptable,” not because Lawson was making a nihilistic claim that sexual harassment wasn’t bad, but because he wasn’t falling in line with feminist theory that nurture (by which they mean our allegedly patriarchal society) is always to blame. Even if Lawson was himself oversimplifying his argument, there was no evidence that he was using his perspective as a basis for not taking sexual harassment seriously.

    So, instead of provoking a useful discussion calling upon experts to weigh in on the balance of nature vs nurture, no further contemplation was necessary: Lawson was a transgressor and nothing less than his unconditional apology would suffice.

    7. SELF CENSORSHIP

    The more we don’t allow people to ponder out of bounds, and consider the intricacies of settled moral questions, the more we risk ignoring legitimate trouble spots in our best intentions.

    For instance, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used a quota system to select his cabinet in 2015 (consequently elevating 1 out of 3 female MPs compared to 1 out of 9 male MPs), the only question I heard the media ask him was the soft-as-pudding query, Why did he think a gender balanced cabinet was important? His home run response was, “Because it’s 2015.”

    Even if one believes in quotas, surely we can acknowledge that discriminating against/in favour of people on the basis of race, sex, and other immutable traits is serious business deserving of some critical questions from our vital protectors in the media. A simple, “What evidence do you have that women et al are discriminated against in Canadian politics today?” would have been a decent start.

    I am sure there are good people who support quotas. However, if we are to hold onto our claim of being an enlightened society, we must allow the discussion of such weighty issues to take place without demonizing those with the opposing, politically incorrect opinions as unfit to take part in the conversation.

    HIS BITE IS NOT AS BAD AS HIS BARKLEY

    When I was a youngling, superstar basketballer Charles Barkley was quoted as saying, “That’s why I hate white people.” I recall that I wanted to exile “Sir Charles” as a racist, partly because I thought he should be treated to the same condemnation as a racist white public figure would have been. Yet, after receiving a few “Tsk, Tsk”s from the media, Barkley was left alone. And so, irritated by the double standard, I often noted in my conversations that he ought to be demonized.

    However, when Barkley retired and became a broadcaster, I noticed that—in spite of my shaming bias—he was a rather likable fellow, and never again showed any evidence of racism. So I’ve come to appreciate Charles Barkley, and am glad he wasn’t cut from the conversation per my hopes at the time of his indiscretion. I suspect now that there was context to Barkley’s racist remark that would make it less despicable. But, even if there wasn’t, I’m glad that his entire existence was not measured by that one utterance.

    THE HIGHER ACHIEVING YOU ARE, THE HARDER YOU FALL

    Humans, including the best and the brightest, are fallible. So, when public figures say things that we find objectionable, I suggest that—instead of destroying them—we simply criticize their words and arguments, and allow them to live to reconsider their ideas (or even provoke us to reconsider ours).

    If kindness is at the heart of political correctness, then I appreciate it for that worthy motivation. But PC shame culture—like McCarthyism before it—requires us to sacrifice all that enlightens our society to enforce it. And that’s a shame.

  • In Part I of this essay, I argued that there is a distinction between Definition Feminism (the pursuit of gender equality) and Action Feminists (those who advocate in feminism’s name).

    HIDING UNDER DEFINITION FEMINISM’S COAT:

    “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

    —-Madeleine Albright, campaigning for Hilary Clinton in 2016.

    By utilizing appeals to our compassion (for women) and to our fear (of being branded misogynists), Action Feminists have convinced the mainstream media and politicians not to question their status as perfect representatives of gender equality (i.e. Definition Feminism).

    They have achieved this result through a variety of false equivalencies:

    (1) CRITICISM OF ACTION FEMINISM = “HATE SPEECH”:

    SITUATION: I was going to send one of my arguments to the Hourglass Literary Contest, but I discovered in the magazine’s guidelines that they “do not tolerate… anti-feminism” because they have deemed such criticism to be a form of “gender hatred.”

    I think we can assume, by their open-ended use of the term “anti-feminism,” that the writing contest is not contemplating any distinction between the ideals of gender equality and the alleged efforts to produce it. No, evidently, criticizing feminism in any form is intrinsically “hate speech,” and thus is forbidden.

    More significantly, as I described in FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM, various critics of Action Feminism in Canada and the US have been protested by Action Feminists on the grounds that they are promoting “hate speech.” In some cases, the protesters have been so assured in their convictions that they have pulled fire alarms to disrupt the blasphemous talks. And the mainstream media rarely questions the righteousness of such accusations and tactics.

    CHEATS: If one pays attention to the actual content of feminism critics, it is clear that most of them are Definition Feminists. They too are arguing for the most gender equal-society we can create. But they disagree with mainstream Action Feminists about whether we currently live in a patriarchal society, rape culture, and systemically-unfair-to-women economic and political system. Moreover, they argue that in certain arenas in our Western society, male people have generally fewer privileges, yet more obligations, than female people.

    Of course, like Action Feminists who assume woman are always worse off, such critics are fallible. They might have their facts wrong; they might be offering bad solutions, and so on. But such disagreement over the facts does not prove sexism.

    CONSEQUENCES: By arguing that opposing claimants to the best path to gender equality are “hate speakers,” Action Feminists scare away reasonable criticism of their work. As I argued in THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY, any ideology that does not benefit from rigorous criticism is in danger of being overtaken by its worst ideas.

    CONCLUSION: This contest to be the go-to representatives of gender egalitarianism ought to be covered by the media with a neutral curiosity. And the rest of us should do our best to criticize the media when they fail. Otherwise, they have no incentive to risk the misogyny-badge they would likely receive for asking feminists tough questions.

    (2) CRITICISM OF ACTION FEMINIST DATA = RAPE APOLOGIA:

    SITUATION: Whereas in science, skepticism is a tool to reduce mistakes, in gender studies discussions, skepticism of Action Feminist data is considered to be hateful towards the victims described in the data.

    For instance, Action Feminists have produced statistics that seem to suggest that approximately 20% of American college women will be sexually assaulted. However, critics, such as philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, have argued convincingly that there are serious flaws in the studies (such as non-representative samples and strange interpretations of data) which have facilitated these shocking results. Dr. Sommers says that the best data shows the numbers are closer to 2%. A common Action Feminist response, then, is to accuse Dr. Sommers of being “a rape apologist.”

    CHEATS: There is nothing in Dr. Sommers’ argument that suggests anything but contempt for rape. She merely disagrees on the facts of how prevalent the cruel crime is.

    To argue that anyone who is skeptical of the scariest rape statistics is a “rape defender” is to put Action Feminists themselves in danger of being called rape apologists. After all, if they’re sure that 20% is the right number, it just takes one alternate Action Feminist to argue the number is 25% to make the first suddenly a rape apologist unless they immediately accept the higher number.

    CONSEQUENCES: Is it not obvious that this kind of “You accept the scariest numbers or you promote their cause” argument is inevitably going to facilitate a culture of rape research that is skewed? (As I’ve argued before, such a system provokes “rape culture” culture.) Indeed, under such high-stakes pressure to conform, how many social scientists will have the courage to resist?

    CONCLUSION: As Dr. Hoff Sommers argues, serious problems deserve serious statistics. The only way to achieve a true understanding of these issues is if we are allowed to make sure Action Feminists are not accidentally and/or intentionally steering the numbers to fit their expectations; and the only way to do that is to require that Action Feminists be subject to scrutiny like everyone else. “You’re with us, or you’re a misogynist” reasoning cannot be allowed to dominate the conversation.

    (3) CRITICISM OF FEMINIST ANALYSIS = A LACK OF COMPASSION:

    SITUATION: When critics of Action Feminist data argue there are flaws in the design and/or interpretation of feminist research, they are accused of disrespecting victims, and denying the “lived experience” of women.

    CHEATS: Anecdotal evidence is not valueless as an intuitive starting point for investigation, but it is not necessarily representative of a population either. In scientific research, those intuitions and individual experiences may guide the researcher as to where to focus their lens, but that is all it can do. Particular experiences cannot override the resulting data.

    Such a recognition that our intuitions do not always generalize does not mean we shouldn’t try to help those who are suffering, even if there are fewer sufferers then we anticipated.

    CONSEQUENCES: Action Feminists often get away with conflating legitimate skepticism of their conclusions with contempt for the victims they claim to speak for. They have been unnervingly successful in muddying these moral waters by utilizing noble-sounding phrases such as “believe victims,” and “listen to women.” With these emotional, faith-based slogans, Action Feminists have successfully created and nurtured the notion that questioning social scientific research is denying the “lived experiences” of individual victims.

    CONCLUSION: The truth is becoming tangential to these discussions. We must stop allowing unearned conclusions to be claimed without criticism.

    (4) INDIRECTLY CONTRADICTING FEMINISM = MISOGYNY:

    SITUATION: Action Feminism’s hold on our public conversation is illustrated not just in their reactions to cases where their allegedly omni-benevolent work is checked, but also in circumstances where a public figure says something which indirectly doesn’t coincide with a feminist conclusion.

    Recall the case of General Lawson, wherein the commander of the Canadian armed forces tried to explain the continuing presence of sexual harassers in the military by suggesting they were “biologically wired” that way. This was on the wrong side of the Action Feminist position that nurture (as opposed to nature) is always the culpable parent when it comes to creating bad characters.

    There was bi-partisan agreement amongst Canadian politicians (and the mainstream media that covered them) which contended that Lawson had been “offensive.” He apologized, but not without a call from then third party Liberal Leader (now Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau for the General to be fired.

    Meanwhile, brilliant screenwriter (and Action Feminist) Joss Whedon similarly discovered the danger of indirectly crossing feminist orthodoxy when he wrote a movie in which a female superhero lamented her inability to have children.

    Even though her male superhero counterpart was similarly disillusioned by his childless future, Action Feminists on Twitter railed against their feminist ally, Whedon, for allegedly imposing a traditional gender role on one of his female characters.

    CHEATS: Action Feminists are helping themselves to unearned interpretations of meaning. In Lawson’s case they are suggesting that, by blaming biology instead of society for bad sexual misconduct, he is not holding his soldiers accountable (since no one can control their biology). But, as I argued in WIRED FOR OFFENCE, if feminists are right that nurture is responsible for all of our moral defects, the soldiers have no power over that cause either.

    General Lawson stated unambiguously that he was targeting the sexual harassers in his charge. Thus, even if his one-sided understanding of the cause of the problem was silly, it seemed to have no effect on his intention to hold the assailants accountable.

    Meanwhile, in Whedon’s case, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing his artistic choices, but why are Action Feminists so certain that individual female characters represent a writer’s views on all women? (Indeed, feminists don’t need to travel far in the Whedon resume to see that he has written many “strong female characters.”) Moreover, why all the rage? Does everyone have to blindly follow every expectation of Action Feminism or be Twitter assassinated? Action Feminists seem to forbid any diversity of thought.

    CONSEQUENCES: Action Feminism’s speed of rage when confronted by innocuous, indirect disagreement surely encourages the sort of politically correct, sycophantic non-speak we hear from so many politicians and pundits (as I described in A NEW POLITICIAN’S GUIDE TO WAFFLING). Few people with a platform have the courage and/or will to cross feminist dogma, and so they play it safe, leaving meaningful and diverse conversation as the casualty.

    Meanwhile, it is often said that there are fewer nuanced roles for women in Hollywood than there are for men. If this is true, one possible contributing factor is that Action Feminists, such as the above Twitter assassins, have scared some writers away from creating interesting female characters. As Action Feminists demand female leads be beacons of feminist strength in all ways, the resulting characters become a wee bit boring. Writers can only have so many shiny lights of independence in one movie, so, when it comes to filling the imperfect (i.e. interesting) character roles, I can imagine some screenwriters erring on the side of making them male to avoid being accused of sexism.

    CONCLUSION: When Action Feminists attack, we need to do a better job of politely asking them to justify their assumptions.

    (5) CRITICIZING FEMINISM WHILE POSSIBLY BENEFITING FROM IT = UNTENABLE:

    SITUATION 1: When women criticize Action Feminism, they are often asked why they are betraying a cause that is trying to help them.

    CHEATS: It turns out that some people don’t define their values just by what helps themselves most. Moreover, some female critics of Action Feminism may believe that, despite Action Feminism’s theoretical concern for women, it does women more harm than good in practice.

    SITUATION 2: Men who criticize Action Feminism are often told that “Feminism benefits men, too.”

    CHEATS: In certain cases, I’m sure feminism does benefit men. If, for instance, feminism has helped to free us from the universal assumption of gender roles, that’s probably a benefit to many individual men and women. But that doesn’t mean such people can’t criticize Action Feminism for over simplifying the issue with their insistence that gender is entirely a social construct. Moreover, there’s no reason that said “benefitting” person can’t have other moral disagreements with the work of Action Feminists.

    CONSEQUENCES: Both men and women are told to support Action Feminism, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the selfish thing to do.

    CONCLUSION: We should demand that Action Feminists not use people’s gender to guilt them into agreeing with them. Instead, we should remind people that moral value is not necessarily predicated on personal value.  Moreover, the identity of one’s gender has no relevance to the validity of one’s moral argument.

    (6) CRITICIZING FEMINISM = BEING OPPOSED TO ANY OF ITS GOOD DEEDS:

    SITUATION: Consider feminist singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, who song-ranted at young, female celebrities who said they weren’t feminists. She explained that, in fact, if they liked the benefits that feminism had helped them to achieve, then they were obligated to accept they were feminists. Sang she:

    Yeah, babe, you’re a feminist

    Just take a look at the checklist:
    Do you like voting?
    You like driving?
    You’re a feminist.

    Past feminists gave their lives
    To let you vote and be more than wives
    Saying you’re not a feminist gives them hives

    CHEATS: Here Goodman is ignoring any possible distinction between between Definition Feminism and Action Feminism. Just because I am critic of the general way in which Action Feminists ply their trade, does not mean I am obligated to disagree with every opinion they espouse, nor every good deed they achieve.

    If Action Feminists deserve credit for de-coupling gender from the franchise, great (although, as Janice Fiamengo describes, the situation may have been a little more complicated than celebrated), but such moral achievements don’t prove that every act performed by Action Feminists is as virtuous as their best.

    If you’ll forgive the harsh analogy, I also think giving toys to needy kids is a worthy endeavour, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to criticize other activities of the Hell’s Angels.

    CONSEQUENCES: This is a problem with committed ideological affiliations: they disallow nuance. You’re expected to either take on the label of the ideology (and the baggage that it entails), or you must admit you’re opposed to everything ever done in its name.

    CONCLUSION: We need to start openly criticizing demands for intellectual simplicity and point out that Definition Feminism and Action Feminism are not always identical.

    (7) HAVING A MORAL HIERARCHY DIFFERENT FROM FEMINISM = MISOGYNY:

    SITUATION: When critics rank non-feminist imperatives over the goals of Action Feminism, such dissenters are immediately accused of being opposed to those feminist hopes. For instance, Action Feminists have attempted to change the legal system to make it easier to prosecute alleged sexual assaulters. This sounds like a noble cause, but the problem is that Action Feminist “solutions” may be putting due process in danger. However, when critics point out such concerns, they are accused of being “rape culture” advocates.

    CHEATS: Action Feminists appear not to understand the vital concept of moral hierarchy. If, for further instance, I value free speech over freedom from hate speech, many Action Feminists contend that I must agree with any bigoted language that free speech allows. They do not accept the possibility that someone could value public decency while choosing free speech as the more important necessity of a civil society.

    Action Feminists, of course, are entitled to their own moral hierarchy. If they want to argue that the good of convicting a higher percentage of guilty people is worth the sacrifice of also convicting more innocent people then that’s a legitimate philosophical stance to take. Similarly, it’s legitimate for their opponents to argue that keeping innocent people out of jail is more important than catching higher numbers of bad guys. It’s an interesting moral dispute. But to claim that due process defenders are misogynists is an intellectual cheat of the lowest order.

    CONSEQUENCES: As vital moral questions arise, criticism of Action Feminist solutions are demonized and thus dissuaded. Without such a filter, both the best and the worst ideas of Action Feminism get through. Soon, we may lose our rights to due process and free speech without having made our best cases for protecting them.

    CONCLUSION: We need to demand that Action Feminists argue fairly and not sideline important discussions with wild accusations of misogyny.

    (8) CRITICISM OF FEMINISM WHILE NOT BEING FEMALE = IRRELEVANT:

    SITUATION: Perhaps the most aggressive of Action Feminist silencing language comes in the form of the term “male privilege.” (I will write more about this term in a spin-off rant.) Men who disagree with Action Feminists are often dismissed because of their gender. That is, given they are male, they are described as definitionally privileged, and consequently disabled by their life-long advantage such that they cannot recognize their privilege, and therefore cannot be expected to speak reasonably on sexism.

    CHEATS: I’m not sure why Action Feminists are so confident that privilege universally harms perspective, and disadvantage automatically improves it. But let’s assume that those claims have proven to always be true.

    We’re all privileged and disadvantaged in some ways. And certainly, particular groups sometimes have widespread advantage or disadvantage. Whether men or women as groups are more advantaged or disadvantaged is an interesting question to which Action Feminists argue they have the unequivocal answer: any claim other than universal male privilege is apparently laughable.

    To make this broad case, Action Feminists point out certain inequivalencies of results, such as fewer women in high-paying jobs in general, and in politics and STEM fields in particular. But, if results alone prove inequality of opportunity, then there are lots of statistics that show men are also sometimes less equal (higher sentences for the same crime, lesser custody rights, gender quotas against them, more workplace deaths, more homelessness, fewer shelters, less medical research, and (thus?) higher suicide rates, lower life expectancy, and more). 

    Clearly, privilege isn’t as simple as checking one’s gender. But by dogmatically treating “male privilege” as a tautology, feminists have managed to undermine our collective skepticism. Indeed, men who don’t acknowledge their privilege are dismissed as the worst misogynists of all.

    Thus, men wanting to stay on the right side of Action Feminists not only cannot disagree with the ideology, but also must confess their complicity in provoking it.

    Moreover, even if one does legitimately come to the conclusion that men in general are more privileged than women, that does not justify assuming that every individual man is privileged. For instance, let’s say there’s a 20% advantage for men over women going into STEM, but a 10% advantage for women over men going into novel writing. While the former case might mean that men on average will fare better just because of their gender, the aspiring male writer may still be systemically disadvantaged in his life.

    CONSEQUENCES: Along with anti-male hiring policies in work and politics, pundits and politicians’ genders are often taken into account when assessing their arguments. Sometimes, for committing the crime of being male, pundits’ arguments will be dismissed on the basis that their privilege is showing.

    Also, sometimes individual men are excluded from discussions so as to ensure a panel is more gender balanced. In contrast, if a panel is unanimously female, Action Feminists celebrate the result as an achievement for inclusiveness.

    CONCLUSION: If we’re going to examine unfair advantages in work and play, we must not assume the very thesis that Action Feminists have a vested interest in proving. If Action Feminists claim a particular disadvantage, we should give it no more automatic weight than we would someone claiming any other fact of our society.

    Moreover, we cannot allow Action Feminists to exclude certain people from participating in discussions on the basis of their gender. Ideas should be measured by their content, not by their owners’ chromosomes.

    THE SHIPS ARE SAILING:

    “If you’re not a feminist, then you’re a bigot. I mean, there is nothing in between. It’s like being pregnant. You either are pregnant, or you’re not.”

    —-Gloria Allred, feminist activist and lawyer.

    These many examples of Action Feminist silencing behaviours have consequences beyond their individual cases. Surely, as politicians and media professionals witness the career disintegrations of resisters to Action Feminism, it is understandable that they prefer not to put themselves in the same line of fire.

    Consider incoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s delivery on his promise to gender quota in a balanced cabinet. Whether you agree or disagree with affirmative action discrimination, it is a decision that has serious consequences. Many moral questions should have been asked by the media of this Prime Minister.

    (For instances, if we let quotas instead of qualifications determine who is elevated to the top government positions, aren’t we by definition going to have a less accomplished group? Moreover, is it fair to the individual men who otherwise would have been promoted based on their merits that they be excluded because of their gender? Is there any evidence that such men were unduly advantaged in acquiring their resumes, or is it possible that other factors, such as general differences in female and male career interests, played a role?)

    But, instead of the obvious critical questions, the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was asked the soft-as-a-feather question of why gender parity was so important to him. And he simply replied:

    “Because it’s 2015.”

    This resulted in approving laughter from his new team, but no follow up query from the media.

    Indeed, in my perusal of the mainstream media coverage, the only criticism I encountered of Justin Trudeau’s gender quota policy was one which argued that it would hurt women. I don’t doubt that such a quota system can have unintended negative consequences for women who, in particular cases, may be unfairly assumed not to have earned their position via merit. However, why is the media not looking at the consequences of this policy on men, as well as on the quality of the government?

    “Because it’s 2015” may sound vapid (and it is), but it also contains a warning:

    Given we now live in the modern era, it is embarrassing for us to still exist in a system which privileges men over women. And, if you question my policies, you are suggesting that it’s okay for men to be privileged over women. Go ahead and challenge me on these points, I dare you.

    I submit that Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t justify his gender quota system with clear moral arguments because he didn’t think he needed to. He figured the media would cower to his implied warning, and realize it was safer to leave the matter be: and he was right.

    Action Feminists have succeeded in making all criticisms of Action Feminism taboo. Indeed, even the most scary ideas within Action Feminism are now able to hide under the coat of its noble, Definitional godmother.

    Recall singer/songwriter Katie Goodman’s rhetorical question for women who don’t want to call themselves feminists:

    “A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

    It’s confusing because many people who advocate in feminism’s name are calling for policies that do not match the ideals of gender egalitarianism.

    The key to saving ourselves from the worst ideas of feminism is to demand the right to distinguish between the various ships that carry her name. Not all Action Feminisms are gender egalitarians; and not all critics of Action Feminism are opposed to gender equality.

  • THE SHIPS OF THESEUS:

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    —-William Goldman (via his character, Inigo Montoya) in The Princess Bride.

    As imagined by the ancient thinker, Plutarch, there are two candidates vying for the title of the Ship of Theseus. First, there is the ongoing ship that has continuously flown Theseus’s flag for the past, say, 20 years. It has travelled from port to port, and floated on missions on behalf of Theseus with the same licence plate number throughout. (Let’s call this Continuous Theseus.)

    But, as it has been injured along the way, the Ship of Theseus has had its parts replaced one by one over that same double decade. In fact, we are to imagine that, as of today, every individual piece of the ship, whose escapades we have been following, is now distinct from its original part. Meanwhile, all of the discarded original pieces have been re-assembled by an archivist to recreate the original ship. (Let’s call this Original Theseus.)

    The question, then, is do we have a paradox of two ships that are the same ship?

    My answer has always been that the apparent contradiction is simply a linguistic dispute resulting from the fact that we have only one word for two concepts, functional vs. molecular identity. If you’re discussing the ship that has carried out the missions of the Ship of Theseus, then HMS Continuous is your boat. Whereas, if you’re interested in the very matter that was used in the first instance, then HMS Original will be your choice.

    So, in my view, this not a paradox; instead, there is more than one way to define identity (and both are useful notions that we should feel free to use so long as we’re clear about which we’re utilizing).

    Meanwhile, I believe that many discussions of our controversial friend, Feminism, have had similar identity confusions. Many self-described “feminists” insist that the work they do is, by definition, identical to their philosophical mission statement, i.e. the pursuit of social, economic and political equality between the sexes. (Let’s call said goal Definition Feminism.)

    Definition Feminism has a lovely, egalitarian sound to it; the trouble is, some of us perceive that, in action, many self-described feminists seem to be agitating for something that encompasses much more (and less) than gender equality. (Let’s call any of these applications of Definition Feminism, Action Feminism.)

    To avoid confusion, then, I contend that, we should do our best to distinguish Definition Feminism from those flying its flag while on board a different ship.

    THE SHIPS OF FEMINISM:

    A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

    —-Feminist and comedic singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, in response to some young female celebrities not calling themselves “feminists.”

    If you consider yourself to be a feminist, I don’t ask that you immediately accept that any particular Action Feminism is distinct from the pursuit of gender equality. All that I request for now is that you consider the possibility that it could be. History demands that we recognize that sometimes philosophical ideologies that sound noble, by their definitions, can be misapplied (intentionally or accidentally) by their practitioners.

    (As always, consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

    Such a distinction between theory and attempted practice is a natural consequence of human fallibility. Most of us are imperfect, and so our ability to apply our best ideas may be undermined by our intellectual and moral limitations.

    So, if it’s possible that an ideology—-even one as noble of spirit as Definition Feminism—-can be accidentally or intentionally misrepresented by imperfect practitioners, then a crucial means of protecting ourselves from such wolves in feminism’s clothing is to make sure that we question not just the best ideals of feminism, but also the arguments of its alleged advocates.

    If you are a feminist, you might believe that the majority—-if not the entirety—-of feminists are doing good work. However, how can we know this if there are no means of checking that those flying the flag of Definition Feminism are indeed matching its best intentions? Similarly, most scientists may be sincerely trying to produce the most reliable scientific studies possible, but we require them to use both a rigorous double-blind scientific method and peer review that try to disprove the resulting claims, to ensure that we catch errors (even unintentional ones). I cannot conceive of a reason that feminist philosophers and researchers wouldn’t benefit from the same oversight.

    Nevertheless, in the current state of gender discussions, many feminists—-whether they are as virtuous as their best definition, or as morally flawed as their harshest critics suggest—-have managed, by a variety of brilliant methods, to evade vital criticisms. Instead, when they do or say something that seems dubious to critics, in lieu of arguing their side, Action Feminists will often point to the definition of their movement, and suggest that those who disagree with their particular contentions clearly disagree with equal gender rights.

    This will not do. Perhaps such Action Feminists can prove all of their claims, but they cannot do so by using the best ideals of their movement as cover. The question remains whether they are, in fact, sailing the true ship of Definition Feminism, or some other ship, that looks like it in name and mission statement, but in fact is doing things beyond (and/or less than) feminism’s scope.

    In Part II of this essay, I will describe eight ways in which Action Feminists subdue criticism by appealing to the virtues of Definition Feminism for protection.

  • Congratulations! I understand you’ve decided to go into politics. It can be a lot of fun for your pension, but tedious for your brain and ego. Whereas in the outside world, the truth allows for shades of grey and humility, when you are a politician, you must pretend with every inflection of your tone that your way is always 100% the right way and that your opponents are not only wrong, but embarrassingly so.

    To achieve such focussed confidence in a world of nuance, you must think of yourself as a politician magician. When you see a question you don’t want to answer, your duty is to distract the audience with sleights of language, so that you can replace the question with one you do want to take on. This may sound daunting, but you will not be on stage alone: utilizing the following easy-to-learn techniques from many great prevaricators before you, you too can become your society’s Confuser in Chief.

    1. ELOCUTION, ELOCUTION, ELOCUTION:

    No matter what the question or quandary, never let them see you ponder. Instead, make your body language and tone tell your audience that you are self-assured and party-assured in every subject under your jurisdiction’s sun. Show us that there is no question too big for you by smiling, nodding thoughtfully during the interviewer’s question (use Mmm-hmms if you’re on the radio) as though you think it’s a great question, even if (especially if) you’re about to sidestep it. Stay calm. No matter how wildly you avoid a query, if you sound relaxed as you’re doing it, the less likely it is that your audience will think you’re doing it on purpose. At worst, those nit-wits will just think you misunderstood the question.

    2. NEVER ANSWER A QUESTION YOU DON’T LIKE:

    Now that you’ve got your tone in place, you’re ready to start waffling. The first thing to keep in mind is that the questions your interviewer attacks you with don’t always comport with your campaign slogans. The interviewers are trying to trick you into going off your key messages. Don’t let them manipulate you! Think of their questions as first drafts: your job is to edit their queries into something you’d prefer. For instances:

    A. THE TICKLE AND TANGENT:

    Start by complimenting or humorously acknowledging the question, and then zipping into your talking point. Try this:

    INTERVIEWER: What’s your position on Eco-1000-dusters?

    YOU: That’s a great question, which would have left my opponent in the dust! I, however, keep going back to how we need to provide the aesthetic infrastructure that will improve conditions in the dust fields. My plan…

    See how you’ve acknowledged the question by both complimenting it and showing how your opponent has no answer for it. That tickle was all you needed to prove that you could discuss the subject. No need to join those dusty depths yourself!

    B. THE FLIP AND QUIP:

    When asked a direct question about your plan that would prove daunting for you to handle, remember these simple words, “I’ll tell you what we will do…” of better yet, “I’ll you what we’re not going to do.” The directness of your words hides the indirectness of your answer. Watch this:

    INTERVIEWER: So does that mean you’ll be increasing the fine for tree-eating even though you once said that tree-eaters were getting a bad rap?

    YOU: I tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on police services trying to catch tree eaters. However, the (evil) purple party will.

    or:

    YOU: I tell you what I am going to do. I’m going to plant 1000 more trees a year, especially in parks where children play.

    C. THE HYPOTHETICAL-ANTITHETICAL:

    Hypotheticals can be the best of questions, and they can be the worst of questions. But the neat thing is you only have to answer the ones you like because the “Hypothetical Convention of 1901” states that politicians can always have sanctuary from hypotheticals by simply pointing them out. So, when you hear an “If” or “Would you” contemplation that your party policy can easily handle, great: answer away. If the hypothetical question isn’t so digestible, though, then simply say, “I/we don’t answer hypotheticals” or “I/we don’t deal in hypotheticals.” You see, because the hypothetical convention was signed by all political parties (and hockey coaches, for that matter), it is considered bad form for the interviewer to try to press you on it. If they do, simply re-assert your right to plead the hypothetical convention, then apply the FLIP AND QUIP (see above).

    D. THE POLITICALLY CORRECT MISDIRECT:

    Regardless of what era in history you are reading this, there will always be particular groups that are seen as more in need of consideration than others, and so when you refer to them, you gain points for compassion. And the neat thing is it doesn’t matter whether what you’re doing for that group is actually helpful or ethical: once you have said something in celebration of that group, it’s hard for anyone to criticize you because you can immediately imply that they don’t care about said group if they do.

    So, when questions get tough, point out that your concern for X group (if in doubt, go with children) won’t allow your conscience to consider such a course of action, but… and now get to your talking point, or better yet tell a story about a child you met on the campaign trail who motivated you to do more on this particular issue. This is a segue that’s hard for interviewer to crack, because if they try re-direct you when you’re emotionally describing your concern for children, they can seem callous.

    HINT: To get extra credit for your interaction with such a citizen, include a location that will impress the voters, such as meeting the person on transit, at a firefighter-saving workshop, or a single mom convention.  For instance, “I remember talking to Cindy Lou, a single grandmother of eight, while on the bus to her subsidized housing complex. She doesn’t like my opponent either. She, like me, was concerned about the state of children in our society.”

    E. THE DISTRACTION-REACTION:

    If there is an issue that has on its poles two politically unpalatable positions, try to let your opponents hash out the unwieldy terrain. Be patient. Let them get some good shots in. Then, once they’ve wounded each other with hard-hitting criticisms, refer to their fight as a distraction from a much more important (i.e. less politically contentious) topic. In fact, now would be a good time for a Politically Correct Misdirect (see above). Give it a try:

    OPPONENT 1: We must invest in more arsenic-testing of our soft drinks to save lives.

    OPPONENT 2: Arsenic-poisoning is so rare, but the expense of such testing will cost the economy billions of dollars.

    OPPONENT 1: So you’re saying let people die?

    OPPONENT 2: No, I’m saying don’t let the economy die.

    YOU: This is all a big distraction from the fact that neither of you has a policy that will keep strychnine away baby kangaroos. Today, I met Gilda, a single mother of a baby kangaroo, and she told me that her daughter…

    F. THE COMPLEX AND FLEX:

    Before your interview, review your thesaurus and any complicated statistics that you happen to like. When you’re backed into a corner, bring out the big words and numbers. Most people won’t look them up; and most interviewers won’t want to admit if they don’t understand them, so, if you can confuse them, they will move onto the next question to avoid looking like they can’t keep up with you.

    HINT: If you’re worried the interviewer might be able to follow your train of distraction, combine several big words and numbers and roll them out as quickly as you can to keep even the fastest of minds from following you.

    G. THE RE-DIRECT DEFLECT:

    And, finally, sometimes you’ll be dealing with one of those mean interviewers who will point out that you haven’t answered their question. Do not panic; do not blink. Stay on your re-direct message, and re-assert your irrelevant answer. Most interviewers will move on after one re-try, but if not, then try saying, “I’ve already answered that,” (given that you’ve now been talking about the same question for a while now, most of your audience won’t remember whether you’ve answered it or not), and then help your interviewer escape the stumble in the conversation by segueing into a FLIP AND QUIP (see above).

    If you can master these techniques, you will be a politician, my friend. Remember, politics is not about who has the best plan for your society: it is about who can sound like they do.

  • “Talking to the audience” is my term for the technique that some television, film, and play writers employ to unnaturally transmit contextual information, via their characters’ dialogue, to their audience. That is, they force their characters to supplement their natural communication with clarifying circumstantial details for the benefit of us viewers: such scripted characters are heard saying strange things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were allowed to live their lives as if no one from another dimension were watching them.

    Here are a few of my favourite examples of this troubling tendency:

    (1) BACKSTORY COMMUNICATION:

    JENNY: Hi, Jim. How’s your broken arm from when you fell off your motorbike?

    Jenny’s specifying of the particulars of how Jim got his broken arm is not for Jim’s benefit (since Jim likely already knows why his arm’s so sore right now), but instead is an indirect message from Jenny’s author to us so that we’ll know why Jim is wearing a cast. If Jenny were allowed to speak to Jim without the obligations of communicating to us peeping audience members, she would have likely just said, “How’s the broken arm?” or even, “How’s the arm?”

    (2) EXPERT-TO-EXPERT DETAIL SHARING:

    When two scientists in a show are talking about something with which they are quite familiar, but their author realizes most of their audience is not, we often get the following result:

    JIM: Did you get any conclusive results on the DNA test?

    JENNY: Well, in order to check for a viable match, I need to first apply X scientific process to determine results.

    JIM: And, when you conduct that test, you’ll be able to see definitively whether the DNA sample matches that of our victim.

    JENNY: I concur, doctor.

    Admittedly, sometimes one scientist might not know the procedures or knowledge of another, but all too often in such dialogue, they tell each other things that they would have learned in scientist grade school and so would find quite condescending to be lectured upon at this advanced stage in their careers.

    (3) RELATIONSHIP IDENTIFICATION:

    Sometimes a writer might want us to know right away how two characters know each other, so they’ll offer the following dialogue.

    JIM: Nice outfit, sis, are you going somewhere fancy tonight?

    In my experience, real people rarely refer to their sisters as “sis,” but instead call them by their first names (or nicknames). This is not universal, so if the author of this dialogue honestly believes that Jim would refer to his sister as “sis,” then all’s swell in love and dialogue; however, I’ll be watching. If, during all other interactions in the plot, the character Jim nevermore says “sis” to Jenny, then we know for sure that in that anomalous first instance, Jim’s author was sending us a message (“By the way, these two are siblings!”).

    Whenever I hear an author calling out to me in the above and other ways, I find I am removed from my engrossment in their plot because the show is so conspicuously reminding me that its characters do not have free will, and instead are agents of the writer-god who created them. (In fact, sometimes, I’ll talk back to television characters when they are talking to the audience so that I can see if their awareness of my existence will translate into them being able to hear me.)

    Thus, from witnessing the works of many authors who don’t utilize this embarrassing information dissemination service, I would like to offer those who do a few proven suggestions for how to avoid it:

    (1) Use a narrator. Narrators are amazing! Their job is literally to talk to the audience for you, so they can offer meta comments about your characters’ lives without poisoning their dialogue with strangely unnecessary details. For instance:

    NARRATOR JENNY: There was Jim. I hadn’t seen him since the day that he broke his arm falling off his motorbike.

    JENNY: Hey, how’s the arm?

    (2) Tour your world through the perspective of a character just arriving in its grounds. So, for instance, your experts could be explaining their procedures to a newly-minted scientist just out of university.

    (3) Let the audience figure out the details for themselves. In most cases, if your world is well developed, we’ll be able to determine who’s who and how everyone is related to each other as we watch. Most of us have been watching popular entertainment since we were old enough to hold a remote, so we’re actually really good at extrapolating details that aren’t yet there. We’ll generally do this by a constant series of trial-and-error estimates as to what’s going on, which we’ll correct as we receive new evidence. So, for instance, when we see that Jim and Jenny are really familiar with each other, we’ll estimate that they have a shared history. As we see them talking about each other’s separate dating worlds, we’ll guess that they’re either friends or siblings, and when one says to the other, “Did you hear about Uncle Charlie?” we’ll determine that they’re probably related, and so on. We really don’t mind doing that. It’ll be our pleasure.

  • One can never speak the same language twice. It’s always changing and every time you dip your lips into it, one of your words means something slightly different from what it used to indicate to your audience. I admit that I am a resister. I do not like that words so often lose their meaning because of what is most cathartically described as laziness.

    I realize that the words that I and others wish to protect are themselves probably corrupted versions of prior definitions that were once jealously guarded by previous linguistic conservationists. And I recognize that language comes to mean what we understand it to mean, and so if the ever-changing lexicon continues to carry with it the power of communication such that we can semi-accurately read each other’s thoughts when we put sounds in the air, or symbols on paper, then it is difficult to prove my and others’s suspicion that the alterations significantly harm society.

    That is all fine and melancholy, but there is one piece of language that I believe deserves extra protection because it has lost its meaning illegitimately. When I was in university studying philosophy, I met a professor—let’s call him Beggins, since I don’t remember which of my teachers he was—who introduced me to my favorite expression of all time:

    PROFESSOR BEGGINS: So, when people quote Plato to me, I feel that they are, in a sense, begging the question that I give a damn about what that self-righteous pupil of Socrates had to say. Questions?

    SETHBLOGS: Excuse my ignorance, Professor, but what does it mean to be “begging the question”?

    BEGGINS: Dear me, you don’t know what it means to beg a question?

    SETHBLOGS: Not so much, no.

    BEGGINS: Well, my good lad, I think you will find it a very useful phrase: it refers to occasions where you are in a debate, let’s say about whether Plato ever uttered a useful word in his life, and in response to your contention that he did not, your opponent says, “Of course he did because, after all, Plato had so many wonderful things to say.”

    SETHBLOGS: So?

    BEGGINS: Do you not see? Your opponent has laid claim to a conclusion that takes for granted the answer to the very issue that is in dispute. It is the equivalent of attempting to prove that God exists by noting that the Bible says he does.

    Beggins’s example led my intrigued brain to recall a recent conversation I’d had at a party:

    —-JEN ACQUAINTANCE: How come you’re not drinking?

    —-SETHBLOGS: I’m not really into drinking.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Why?

    —-SETHBLOGS: I don’t really like the idea of my brain being messed with by a foreign substance.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh.

    —-Awkward silence.

    —-SETHBLOGS: Um, and also, I hate the taste of alcohol.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh yeah, I hate it, too—so you just have to make yourself get used to it, and you’ll be fine.

    —-SETHBLOGS: But that assumes I want to acquire the taste.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Of course you do! Everyone wants to drink. It’s fun!

    —-SETHBLOGS: But I’ve told you I disagree with that. Don’t you need evidence beyond just saying that everyone likes it?

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Well, I’m entitled to my opinion, aren’t I?

    —-SETHBLOGS: But—

    The professor beamed as he witnessed me coming to his conclusion.

    SETHBLOGS: Wow, yes, I hate it when people beg the question.

    BEGGINS: As you should.

    SETHBLOGS: So, forgive my continued ignorance, but where did this invaluable expression come from?

    BEGGINS: Well it turns out that in a formal debate—in order to hasten the event along one can ask one’s opponent to concede a particular point or “question” that could otherwise be debated. But if one gets greedy and requests the concession of a point that contains the very issue at question in the debate, they are begging that question.

    I was immediately in love. This “begging the question” pointed to something I had experienced (and probably committed myself) many times before, but had never known how to itemize. When someone claimed as self-evident the conclusion at stake in a greater debate, they were begging the question. Brilliant! I now had something to say to combat such philosophical infractions. Imagine, I thought:

    —-SETHBLOGS: But I don’t want to get drunk.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Come on, everyone likes getting drunk sometimes.

    —-SETHBLOGS: I think you’re begging the question there.

    —-ACQUAINTANCE: Oh… I guess you’re right: I simply re-stated my thesis—which assumed the conclusion that’s in dispute—as if it requires no evidence, even though you’ve already indicated that you disagree with it. I’m terribly sorry.

    —-SETHBLOGS: That’s quite all right.

    How glorious life would be with “begging the question” at my side! We dated for a while, and then I married it into my conversation and told my friends about it. Some companions even liked it as much as I did. But one cruel day that begs for the Kleenex box, some TV or radio personality got an ear on it, and guessed it meant something different from what the philosophy gods had intended. I suspect it happened in a philosophy bar one end-of-term evening:

    PROFESSOR BEGGINS: Socrates had it coming, old boy.

    PROFESSOR RIVAL: Preposterous! He was defending the intellectual discourse.

    BEGGINS: Yes, well, given that he refused to let his friends break him out of jail, his execution was tantamount to suicide. And suicide is wrong.

    RIVAL: What makes you so certain suicide is wrong?

    BEGGINS: Because suicide is the murder of oneself, and murder is wrong.

    RIVAL: Ridiculous: I don’t believe suicide is generally considered murder.

    BEGGINS: That begs the question, old boy.

    JOHN NEWSMAN (eavesdropping to himself): What a lovely phrase.

    RIVAL: No it doesn’t.

    BEGGINS: I think it does.

    RIVAL: Does not!

    NEWSMAN: I’m sorry to interrupt—

    RIVAL: Glad you did.

    NEWSMAN: Thank you. So, why don’t you let him just ask the question?

    RIVAL: What question?

    NEWSMAN: The one that he was begging for.

    BEGGINS (laughing): Very droll, my good fellow.

    NEWSMAN (to himself): Wow, a cool-sounding phrase and it makes people laugh. How charming.

    If only the eavesdropping media had thought to check their internet for the definition of “begging the question,” the phrase could have been spared. Instead, without a philosophical adviser to influence them, various TV and radio personalities went ahead and guessed at the meaning for themselves by translating the words literally:

    JARED AUTHORBY: In my latest novel, I investigate the intersection of gender and curiosity as it relates to hunger.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: That begs the question: what’s your favorite food?

    SETHBLOGS (from the television sidelines): What?!

    AUTHORBY: Well, I like it when my friends eat crow.

    NEWSMAN (chortling): Good one. Your humour begs the question: what’s your favorite joke?

    SETHBLOGS: Oh no! You think “begging the question” means literally that someone has said something that begs (for) a particular question to be asked! No, no, stop that!

    At first it was just the occasional television and radio pundit who misused the phrase (in spite of my constant heckling for them to stop), but apparently “question begging” wears with it a certain aroma of sophistication because soon any television or radio personality fond of saying things like, “Frankly,” regardless of whether they were being particularly direct or candid, was suddenly noticing questions being begged (for) all the time:

    SUSAN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think government subsidies have gone too far.

    NEWSMAN: Frankly, that’s an intriguing notion, which begs the question: how far do you think the government should have taken the subsidies?

    It was torture for those of us who loved and cared for the phrase. Eventually, the infestation leaked from the media into the minds of civilians:

    FREDDIE SALESMAN: Excuse me, ma’am, but I notice that you’re looking at this TV, which begs the question: do you have any questions about it?

    JANICE CUSTOMER: Thank you, yes; in fact, your question begs a question of my own: how much is it?

    SALESMAN: That begs the question: do you want quality or do you want to save a few dollars now, and then regret it later?

    CUSTOMER: That begs the answer: quality please!

    SALESMAN: It sure does!

    SETHBLOGS: No it doesn’t!

    And so the original—and I still like to say—“true” definition of the expression has been slaughtered. The other day, I even heard a Yale-educated professor “beg the question” and then ask it. The hostile, yet accidental takeover is nearly complete as those of us who still want to protect the phrase have great difficulty communicating it successfully:

    SETHBLOGS: Professor Beggins, doesn’t that beg the question?

    BEGGINS: All right then, go ahead, my good man.

    SETHBLOGS: No, I meant that the quote you read begs the question.

    BEGGINS: Yes, very good, young man, I’m interested to hear your question. Please proceed.

    So there we are. This useful expression that had once lived obscurely, but precisely and helpfully, in philosophy classes has been kidnapped by greedy newscasters who were not satisfied with the bounty of phrases already available to indicate that a question had been inspired in their brains. What was wrong with “raises,” “provokes,” or “invites” a question?

    POLLY POLITICIAN: We are considering our options regarding gun control.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: Well, that provokes a question—

    POLITICIAN: “Provokes a question”?

    NEWSMAN: Yes, exactly.

    POLITICIAN: That’s a bit humdrum for an important interview, don’t you think?

    NEWSMAN: Why?

    POLITICIAN: It’s a boring segue: give me something with a little more pizzazz.

    NEWSMAN: Like what?

    POLITICIAN: I don’t know: maybe you could abduct a cool phrase from another discipline and use it as though it means “provokes a question.”

    NEWSMAN: Good idea. I tell you what: tonight I’ll go to the nearest philosophy bar to see if I can appropriate a phrase of theirs.

    No, there was no such dearth of segues that explained the pundits’ commandeering of “begging the question.” Instead, it was simple vanity: the abductors enjoyed the sound of the obscure phrase, and so decided to try it on. Such an attempt to curry respect via impressive language instead of high-quality ideas is not new, and is too omnipresent a foe for me to attempt to combat here, but I do note that, where one reaches for an expensive word or phrase without understanding its meaning, one risks identifying oneself as a fraud.

    Years ago, a self-absorbed co-worker struck up conversation with me in our office hallway:

    CO-WORKER: So, what do you do when you’re not working here?

    SETHBLOGS (surprised to be asked and hesitant to answer): I’m attempting to be a writer.

    CO-WORKER (justifying the above hesitation): Oh, yeah? I’m a writer, too.

    SETHBLOGS (impressed with how quickly the snob brought the topic to himself): What do you write?

    CO-WORKER: Poetry.

    SETHBLOGS: Cool: do you have a particular genre you focus on or—?

    CO-WORKER: No, I want my poetry to be for everyone: I don’t want it to be above anyone. I’m not into that, you know, egalitarian stuff.

    Now, I have no quarrel with someone who doesn’t know what “egalitarian” is. However, if he wants to announce his high-level intellect by using a big word, then his audience may in turn be tempted to judge the truth of his claim by checking to see whether the impressive language was used correctly.

    The great arbiter of expression, George Orwell, argues in “Politics and the English Language” that stringing together prepackaged phrases without fully considering what they mean is a linguistic abomination that generates vagueness of expression and feeble mindedness (and worse, political oppression!).

    Hear, hear! If my favorite expression had lost the monopoly on its words because another worthy concept required those words in particular, I would have accepted the theft of meaning.

    STAR McATHLETE: I wouldn’t take steroids unless I really needed to: after all, as my mistress says, they’re way over-priced.

    NEWSMAN: That makes me want to ask you something, but I’m not sure how to tell you that what you’ve said has provoked a question.

    McATHLETE: Well, if you’re not comfortable transitioning from my statement to your question, then I can’t—in good conscience—answer it.

    NEWSMAN: Fair enough. How to put this? I felt that what you said contained some surprising details—for instance, that you have a mistress—that kind of begged for a question.

    McATHLETE: “Begged for a question”—that’s rather clunky, don’t you think?

    NEWSMAN: Too wordy?

    McATHLETE: Maybe drop the “for” and see if that tightens it up.

    NEWSMAN: Nice.

    If that had happened: if the television personalities had, by their own invention, discovered “begging the question” to be a useful phrase for their interviews and commentaries, I could have accepted the phrase invasion, and moved on. But that is not what happened; instead, the expression has lost its purpose because of an accident of guessing. The vain newscasters, who liked the way the phrase made them feel about themselves, were so sure that it meant what it sounded like, that they helped themselves to its succulent flavor.

    Therefore, against the crime of intellectual laziness and vanity, I will keep fighting. I know that I will fail. The old meaning of my favorite phrase will continue to dissolve into the new one.

    KATEY SONGSTRESS: In this song, I bastardize the word “irony” to mean any old thing, like coincidence or bad luck.

    JOHN NEWSMAN: Begs the question: do you find this interview to be ironic?

    KATEY: Which begs my own question: do you think it’s ironic?

    NEWSMAN: Nicely begged. Which, in turn, begs the contemplation: I wonder where the expression, “Begs the question,” came from?

    KATEY: I don’t know: maybe, in olden days, you had to pay to ask a question.

    NEWSMAN: Interesting, that begs an explanation request: what does buying a question have to do with begging it?

    KATEY: Well, imagine a grocery store in olden times:

    —-OLDEN CUSTOMER: Thanks, I’d also like to get a pack of ten questions, please.

    —-OLDEN CLERK: Sure, you want a bag for that?

    —-OLDEN CUSTOMER: Yeah, bag the questions, please.

    NEWSMAN: Makes sense to me.

    KATEY: It really does, doesn’t it?

    Yes, eventually the former meaning of question begging will simply be a footnote in the mouths of expired philosophers. But for me to retreat because of likely failure would be to beg the question that one should give up the good fight in the face of futility.

    NEWSMAN: Good question, indeed!

    And so the rant begins anew.

  • When someone sends a message on Twitter, and they are quoted either by themselves or someone else, the current convention is to say, “X tweeted Y.” Not since the phrase “X xeroxed Y” has a company been so pleased with the public’s use of a corporate verb to express their actions. I think it is time to show some resistance to this portion of Twitter’s master plan to dominate our lexicon.

    When someone “tweets” something, they are writing it in the public domain. Thus, if I choose to quote a public figure, is it necessary to say that “Jim Carrey tweeted Y,” or could I not say, “Jim Carrey said/wrote/stated Y”? Is there anything gained by always crediting Twitter when referencing a comment from it?

    Until this phenomenon, the branded medium by which people express an idea has not been universally indicated when quoting them. That is not to say that media nouns have never become verbs; sometimes we might say, for rhetorical purposes, that Dickens “penned” a phrase, but not always. And never do we say that Shakespeare “Bic”ed a play or that Austen “Random House”d a novel. I acknowledge that the word “tweeted” gives an audience more information than they would have gained from a simple “said” or “wrote,” but is that extra detail always useful to our understanding?

    It seems to me that, when speaking from the first-person perspective, noting for one’s audience that one is quoting a tweet can often be useful. For instance, the phrase, “I said that I will give up alcohol” may mean less than saying, “I tweeted that I will give up alcohol” because the latter tells us that it was a public announcement. (But even then, one could simply state that they made the announcement “on social media” or even “on Twitter.” One doesn’t necessarily have to transform Twitter into the verb of the sentence, which makes the social media outfit an essential component of one’s phrasing). When journalists are quoting celebrities or academics, however, we can assume that their subject’s statements are public, and therefore, amalgamating the expression with its platform is not as universally necessary as the constant usage implies. Nor does it appear to be consistent with how we refer to other carriers of correspondence. In my estimation, for instance, the press is less likely to identify the medium of communication when discussing non-Twitter statements. For instance, if a politician makes a remark at a press conference, the location of the remark is not always identified, and the phrase “X press conferenced Y” is never used.

    Thus, I believe the statement “X tweeted Y” (1) limits our expression (as we seem to be using the verb in any case that it applies, instead of employing the linguistic discretion that we would when referring to statements made in other media), which in turn (2) harms our language aesthetically, and (3) plays into mighty Twitter’s hopes and tweets for world linguistic domination.

    On its own, Twitter’s ability to infiltrate our language in this omnipresent way is not going to break the dictionary, but if we don’t resist, then the next global online phenomenon will try to do the same, and soon our sentences will look like a collection of billboards. Ultimately, the phrase “tweeted” may be relevant and informative more of the time than I am estimating here. Currently, however, this is hard to know because we are using the phrase indiscriminately and are thus giving special privilege to Twitter that we do not offer to other communication media.

    I’m not anti-capitalist, and so I’m not saying that the word “tweeted” should never be used; but I dislike the product placement in our sentences, and more significantly, I fear that such uncritical language usage that is homogenizing our expression.

  • WARNING: The following entry features two seemingly unrelated babbles, but I hope they will come together in the end.

    Part 1: THE BEST OF LANGUAGE

    I have recently made a pact with myself to read the novels of Charles Dickens. I met him as a kid, when my dad read to me Great Expectations, which may have given me a false expectation of the writer since my dad, along with my mom who read books to my siblings and me, is one of the greatest readers aloud of books that history has ever known. Both provide pathos in their tone that enlivens the spirit of every character. My particular favourite was the lawyer with the thick fingers, Mr. Jaggers, to whom my dad’s voice delivered a confidence and intelligence that would have left Perry Mason jealous. I then read Hard Times in university (at the instruction of a professor), which I think must be one of Dickens’s few concise works, as it didn’t take long to get through. I recall it being humorous, in spite of its dark themes, but embarrassingly I don’t remember much about the story, so from it alone I still cannot claim to have verified Dickens’s greatness.

    So, this year, I decided to take on A Tale of Two Cities, in part because it is so well introduced by Dr. Frasier Crane in the excellent sit-com, Cheers

    FRASIER (reading to his less literate bar buddies, whom he’s finally persuaded to let him deliver a sampling from Dickens): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times–”

    NORM: Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Which was it?

    FRASIER: “It was the age of wisdom, in was the age of foolishness.”

    CLIFF: Boy, this Dickens guy really liked to cover his butt, didn’t he?

    –but also because I wanted to have the work read to me as an audiobook during my many free times on transit, and the audio version for A Tale of Two Cities was available at a good price on my local internet.

    The book, I quickly discovered, would have been more appropriately given the label of “Hard Times,” both for its characters, and for its reader (listener), as there are many passages of description that baffled my mind. Upon two or three listenings of the bulkiest sections, however, I understood most of it, and whenever the characters spoke to each other, the story soared. Each person in the narrative has a distinct character (and voice provided by the amazing narrator, Peter Batchelor, who proves himself to be a worthy Dickens-reading understudy for my dad) as their lives mingle together with both the nuance of a true story and the unexpected turns of a mystery novel. Dickens’s puzzle pieces fit so well together in service to the grand story, and yet all of the characters act as autonomous beings, never wavering from their individual motivations.

    The finale of the Tale arrived in my ears as I jogged the New Westminster sea wall; with a cool wind in my face, I was stunned as each of the characters collided into a perfect heart-palpitating conclusion. I was forced to come to the following determination: Charles Dickens is the greatest novelist whom I have met so far.

    After the tale was done, I dialed up the audiobook store again, and selected David Copperfield because it was both selling at a good price, and because my new friend and narrator, Peter Batchelor, would be supplying his voice again.

    I was warned, upon this choice, though, that I might find it to be aggravating because, in the novel, Dickens apparently spends much of his time telling stories from the past in the present tense. Uh oh.

    Part 2: THE WORST OF LANGUAGE

    I have been ranting (in my non-blog life) for a while now about the omnipresent usage of the present tense to describe events that happened in the past. I understand that, when telling a story, rendering it in the present tense can sometimes create the impression that the narrator and listener are experiencing it as it happens. However, the trend has turned to a requirement in the media. One of my two radio stations, CBC, insists on utilizing the present tense in all of its documentaries to the point that, when experts join the discussion to give their belated perspective on events, it is often confusing which parts of the discussion are current and which are past. Moreover, interviewers often don’t even give their witnesses the option of using the correct tense.

    INTERVIEWER: So what are you thinking when you first see the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m thinking: that’s the biggest rhinoceros I’ve ever seen!

    INTERVIEWER: And when do you realize that you’re dealing with a dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Well, I’m talking to my colleague, Dr. Expert about it, and she says that rhinoceroses don’t breathe fire, and so I realize I’m onto something. My rival Bernie McSkeptic says it’s the greatest discovery of the 20th century.

    INTERVIEWER: Bernie the dragon skeptic was there, too?

    SCIENTIST: No, he just said that now on his Facebook page. He’s listening to this interview.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see, well let’s get back to the story. I understand you’re worried that your puppy is going to be eaten by the dragon?

    SCIENTIST: Oh, yes, he chases the dragon initially, but he escapes, and I’m totally relieved.

    INTERVIEWER: Me too!

    SCIENTIST: But then he gets eaten a few minutes later.

    INTERVIEWER: Oh, I thought he survives?

    SCIENTIST: He does… initially. And then he gets eaten.

    All right, that’s enough. I realize I may have exaggerated the point a wee bit here, but the fact is: often, when listening to stories on the radio, or in a television documentary, it can actually become confusing at various moments in an interview whether the speaker is describing their current thoughts on a past incident or their past thoughts as they happened in the then-present.

    Thus, I have come to the following demand: all media should desist in wielding this tool completely because they are incapable of using it sparingly in particular incidences where they think it will bring specific tales extra significance. Instead, like underlining every word in a document, they use present tense storytelling almost exclusively, and so the technique has lost both its power and its clarity.

    Conclusion: THE MAGIC OF DAVID COPPERFIELD or PAST TENSE

    David Copperfield begins with the phrase, “I am born,” which sets the tone for a novel that, although it is told from the perspective of a time long passed its events, nevertheless dips into the memory of its protagonist, and so sometimes shares those memories from his perspective of re-living them.

    Amazingly, though, ten chapters into this tale told in two tenses, not once has Dickens irritated me. The majority of the story is cheerfully described in the correct, past tense, but occasionally the narrator zooms in on a sequence and gives a verbal snapshot about what he was feeling at the time of the event. The result is never confusing, but always clearly delineated as an exception. I, as a reader (listener), always know when the storyteller is providing a close-up memory that he is feeling as though it is happening again in the present tense, and when he is panning out from the story and offering his long distance perspective of the past.

    And so I am tempted to reverse my call for a ban on the present tense in past tense storytelling in the media. But not quite. Instead, I will now authorize the following middle ground: anyone in the media who possess something near Dickens’s skill may use the present tense for past descriptions. For future reference, all others must stop immediately.

  • Every year, the Canadian Press poles the nation’s news editors for the purpose of naming its annual Canadian “Newsmaker of the Year.” This year the vote determined that an alleged murderer who posted evidence of his crime on YouTube was their man. Consequently, many politicians and citizens have condemned the collective decision and have petitioned the news agency to take the title away from the accused. The protestors argue that such recognition for the suspected murderer is disrespectful to the victim of the crime, while simultaneously giving the alleged villain more of the attention he seemed to be seeking. They argue that “Newsmaker of the Year” sounds a lot like “Man of Year,” and so gives other potentially dangerous individuals impetus to do something equally cruel in pursuit of fame. I agree.

    But, while I concur with all of the above points, I’m not convinced of the protestors’ conclusion that the CP should have found a “Newsmaker of the Year” who had made a positive contribution. To my mind, if the Canadian Press is going to have a “Newsmaker of Year,” then—given that the making of news is often the province of negative agents—on what definition of “newsmaker” would murderers be excluded? Instead, I think the only way to avoid championing horrific acts is to abolish this careless contest of significance that is the “Newsmaker of the Year” program.

    The Canadian Press’s editor-in-chief, Scott White, explains that “Newsmaker of the Year” is neither a popularity contest nor a commendation. He argues that editing out unpleasant newsmakers from contention would be like excluding certain politicians from an election. This is an interesting analogy, except, while freely voting for government is a crucial aspect of running a democracy, a newsmaker election seems to have no journalistic purpose other than crowing a top newspaper seller. So, if White’s right (and I think he is) that the only way to have a “Newsmaker of the Year” is to sometimes allow for murderers to receive an extra shot of fame for fame-seeking behaviours, then maybe we don’t need to name a top newsmaker each year. The risk of copycat crimes outweighs the benefits of a self-indulgent poll.

    I don’t see anything wrong with looking back at the significant stories of a past parcel of time. If the Canadian Press wants to review the previous news year for us and discuss the most significant stories, then could they not achieve such results without creating the impression that the most followed event of the year has won some sort of newsmaking championship?

    In similar meta-news-manufacturing, CNN and other 24-hour news stations often ask their viewers to vote on what is the top news story of the day, so that the anchors can then refer to the top choice as “the most popular news story.” What for? Once again, such voting and ranking creates a callous celebratory tone as it connotes an audience’s appreciation for certain stories. Whether those “voting” are enjoying the negative stories or not, the language of such polling gives an impression of approval. But, again, for what purpose? Do we really need to know what story people think is the “top” story of the day? I could accept the legitimacy of such information if it were under the guise of viewer analysis or feedback. Perhaps questions such as “What is the most significant story of the day to you?” or “What story should lead our news coverage?” would be reasonable if the news agencies presented the results as a sociological look at its viewers without the fanfare of a beauty pageant. But, instead, the presentation of these surveys is akin to a simple top ten list that allows news followers a chance to “play along” with the news as though it were a game show.

    While such polls of the day are immature,The Canadian Press’s “Newsmaker of the Year” is both childish and reckless. Many have argued that giving an alleged murderer a grand designation is wrong because it is nourishing his malevolent ego. I agree, but to my mind the greater crime here is that this manufactured title is giving potential killers a bigger carrot of fame to chase.

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