the oppression tree

Early in the summer at CLD, I volunteered to write an open letter to the Minister of Public Works and Procurement regarding an “interim prohibitory order” (IPO) she had issued against James Sears, the editor-in-chief of a particularly abhorrent publication called “Your Ward News.” I would suggest you look up the publication (TW: anti-Semitism, racism misogyny, general white supremacy), but I don’t know if you want that in your search history.

The IPO, issued in 2016 and under review in 2017, prevents Sears from receiving or posting any mail. It was issued pursuant to s. 43(1) of the Canada Post Corporation Act, which allows the Minister to step in when they have reasonable grounds to believe that someone is using the postal service to commit a criminal offence. In Sears’ case, Minister Judy Foote’s office stated that it had reasonable grounds to believe that Sears was committing the criminal offences of defamatory libel and wilfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group under ss. 300 and 319(2) respectively of the Criminal Code. The Minister did not identify the specific articles or comments which she and her office considered to be libellous or to constitute hate speech.

When I first read about the IPO, my gut response was “Good. You go, Judy.”

I mean Sears is (in my unprofessional and unclinical opinion) a narcissist. And if not, he is definitely racist and definitely harbours some deeply entrenched and alarming beliefs about male superiority.

In addition to being the “editor-in-chief” of a publication I don’t even want to legitimize by characterizing as rag, he considers himself a professional pickup artist. He goes by the name “Dimitri the Lover” and runs “seduction workshops” through the “Toronto Real Men” club, which he refers to “the world’s FIRST and ONLY Seduction Lair” (emphasis in original).

James is also a former physician but was ultimately stripped of his medical licence in 1992 after a long history of sexual impropriety towards female patients. He, in fact, pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault, though those convictions were overturned and an acquittal entered on appeal.

Needless to say, I was not super comfortable with the idea of writing a letter in support of this dude. So why did I volunteer to write it? Because it’s good practice. By virtue of the nature of their role, lawyers are bound to represent interests that are not their own and argue the law even when they don’t agree with it. This is particularly true of defenders of civil liberties. I’m sure Sukanya Pillay, Executive Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has no particular desire to be associated with the views of James Sears, but she has spoken up on his behalf nonetheless. As a student particularly interested in criminal law, I figured I’d better get used to navigating these situations

It was a great learning opportunity. I became familiar with the arguments commonly used in support of “free speech”. One argument that came up time and again was that “people don’t have a right not to be offended”. I have a hard time with this one. Such an argument denies that there are real issues and rights at stake. Further, this argument too often betrays the privilege of the speaker and their failure to understand the self-sustaining character of systems of oppression. The dissemination of prejudicial speech is harmful not because it’s offensive, but because it legitimizes and reinforces the systems of oppression at the root of social inequality and discrimination.

I recently participated in an anti-oppression workshop in which the facilitators analogized various systems of oppression to a tree. The objective of the exercise was to impress upon participants the complexity and rootedness of these systems. I believe (or suspect) that the exercise was inspired by ‘The Tree of Patriarchy’ metaphor, which appeared in sociologist Allan G Johnson “The Gender Knot”. In our adaptation, the leaves of the tree represented discrete moments of discrimination – manifestations of prejudice. The branches were the beliefs and values that underlie these moments and which are in turn supported by institutions, represented by the trunk. Far more than just words, hateful or discriminatory speech is an expression of the values and ideas reflected in our institutions. Ultimately, systems of oppression are rooted in deeply entrenched normative theories and principles about human nature and the operation of society. In the same way that a tree is fed by both its roots and leaves, systems of oppression are self-sustaining

But what happens when we strip away the branches – when we censor harmful expression? Would it just create a “PC culture” – as the facilitator referred to it – or would it have an impact in creating a more just society?

…sounds like a term paper.

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