Demands asked of Write magazine go too far: Kate Jaimet

Hopefully but unlikely the last post on this subject but Kate Jaimet’s overall take and her critique of the equity task force “fundamentalists” is largely on the mark:

Like many writers I know, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching recently about questions of freedom of speech and cultural appropriation.

To me, it’s not a simple issue. While I’m sick to my stomach that white editors in positions of considerable power would “jokingly” tweet about funding a “cultural appropriation prize,” it also nauseates me that Hal Niedzviecki would lose his job as editor of Write (the magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada) for penning a controversial opinion piece.

It’s been a bad week for intercultural respect. And for freedom of speech.

Niedzviecki’s opinion piece, “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” which appeared in an issue of Write dedicated to Indigenous writers, was ham-fisted and offensive — in parts. In other parts, it was a timely plea for writers to step outside the box of their own ethnicity and culture, learn about other people, and write about them.

Having read the entire article, I don’t think that Niedzviecki meant to suggest that Indigenous cultures had never been exploited by imperial colonizers, nor that it was OK to do so. But his article could legitimately be read and interpreted in that way. And it was — which led to the fallout we’ve witnessed.

I don’t know Niedzviecki. But I do know that over the past few years, he transformed Write from a boring union newsletter to a vibrant publication with more diverse contributors than before his tenure. And I know enough about how small magazines work, (IE. on a shoestring) that I’d lay money on a bet that Niedzviecki either originated, or strongly backed, the idea of an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers, and worked hard to solicit contributions and get them into print.

The feelings of anger and betrayal expressed by Indigenous writers who were blindsided by Niedzviecki’s article are completely understandable and we, as fellow writers, must take them to heart. But I also believe that the List of Demands published by The Writer’s Union’s Equity Task Force in reaction to Niedzviecki’s article went completely beyond the pale.

Not only did the list call for a retraction and an apology, it also demanded (No. 6) that the next editor of Write must not only be an “Indigenous writer or writer of colour,” but also, “active and respected in Indigenous sovereignty or anti-racist cultural movements for at least three years;” and (No. 7) that all future Writers’ Union office staff be “active and respected in anti-oppression cultural movements for at least three years” with priority given to “Indigenous writers, racialized writers, writers with disabilities and trans writers.”

Further, the Task Force demanded (No. 4) “Protocols for editing all issues of Write that build in accountability to issues of race and colonialism.” Accountability, it seems, would be monitored by (No. 9) a new in-house Equity Officer “active and respected in Indigenous sovereignty or anti-racist cultural movements for at least three years.”

I’m sorry if people are offended by what I’m about to say, but to demand that all staff of the Writer’s Union must hew to a certain political line — and that all content of Write must be vetted in accordance with that line — smacks of totalitarianism.

Just as cultural appropriation evokes a strong reaction in Indigenous people, political totalitarianism evokes a strong reaction in many people of European descent — people sometimes labelled by the “anti-racist cultural movement” as simply “white.”

Many Canadians of European origin have experienced — or have parents or grandparents who experienced — repression for their political or artistic beliefs under 20th century totalitarian regimes. People were imprisoned for expressing opinions deemed politically unacceptable. Some lost their lives.

Freedom of speech is not just a megaphone used by the powerful to shout down their voiceless opponents (though it can be misused this way). Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle that we, as writers, must defend.

I believe more Indigenous journalists should be hired in Canadian newsrooms. I believe journalists who are not Indigenous should strive to learn about Indigenous issues and cover them with fairness, accuracy, and empathy. I believe more books, poems, plays and films by Indigenous creators should be published and distributed. I believe novelists who are not Indigenous should, respectfully, include Indigenous characters in their works; because leaving Indigenous people out of stories can be as racist as falsely portraying Indigenous people within stories. I believe that people shouldn’t lose their jobs for expressing their opinions.

I want to believe that I can believe in both: intercultural respect, and freedom of expression. I hope that’s possible in Canada today.

Source: Demands asked of Write magazine go too far | Toronto Star

Martin Regg Cohn also has a good piece: Why the debate over cultural appropriation misses the mark: Cohn – Wouldn’t social critics find a wider audience — beyond literary and journalistic circles, or the echo chamber of Twitter — by distinguishing between cultural exploration and exploitation?

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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