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Too Effective Words? (2022-05-02)

Adrenaline molecule three dimensional diagram by Jyunto, via wikimedia commons under creative commons 1.0 universal public domain dedication license, june 2011. Adrenaline molecule three dimensional diagram by Jyunto, via wikimedia commons under creative commons 1.0 universal public domain dedication license, june 2011.
Adrenaline molecule three dimensional diagram by Jyunto, via wikimedia commons under creative commons 1.0 universal public domain dedication license, june 2011.

Some time ago now, I finally had a chance to read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure. It is well worth the read, especially for anyone who is not from the united states and trying to understand just what is going on with many younger people there and why they are so insistent that their understanding of the world must be everyone's even as they decry colonialism. It is a nuanced read, critical in the best way, and treating people across the political divide in the united states in a respectful manner. That is hard to find right now there and in many other anglophone countries that I am familiar with at the moment. It was also quite eye opening in terms of how such a wild confluence of factors have come together in such an unwanted way when what people wanted and are trying to do is quite different. One aspect of their discussion has particularly stuck with me among others, because issues fo what speech is permissible in my workplace has gone in some peculiar directions.

I have worried at the knot of whether words can be dangerous, whether words can be violence. The idea that words can literally be violence is so widely accepted at least in the media right now, yet it seems to me that something is seriously awry with it. Lukianoff and Haidt observed that there is a big difference between acknowledging that speech may be used to provoke violence, and claiming that mere speech by itself is violence. They also carefully unpack the problems with insisting that the only measure of whether speech is somehow harmful or meant to incite violence is the perception of the person hearing it. The reality is that context is everything, and if people go into a scenario expecting that they can't trust others, they will be prone to leaping to the bleakest interpretation of what they hear when others speak in order to disagree with and challenge them.

A powerful vector of psychological abuse is indeed speech, but it never starts with speech. A person who engages in psychological abuse with malice aforethought is in a position where they are acting most likely in one of two major types of scenarios. One type is now more often recognized for what it is, one in which name calling, insults and the like are considered okay to use against a particular group. When many people engage in this behaviour together, it makes for a hostile environment that even if it is not physically dangerous may still be intolerable for a member of that group because it interferes with their ability to be there. The other type is much smaller scale, typically within a household, where more often than not a male member of that household has instilled fear and anxiety in other members of that household using violence, then shifted to invoking that violence by verbal reference. Either way, that's an entire environment of nasty, and there is plenty of additional evidence demonstrating that yes, those words are being used to make a toxic environment and at times even to incite violence.

Some words are deeply upsetting even if no element of these scenarios is present. But as Lukianoff and Haidt point out, how upsetting words are doesn't actually tell us what the other person meant by saying them. So it's worth holding back, calming down a bit, and then gathering more information before deciding whether the other person was up to no good. Sometimes they are. Then it is necessary to decide whether they are trolling, in which case the thing to do is actually to walk away rather than feed the troll. More often, they aren't, and they need constructive feedback, if there is sensible space and time to give it in. This all sounds like what should be common sense, but as most of us learn, "common sense" is what a group of people know together, not what everybody knows everywhere. I am not sure how to express how disappointing it was when many years ago I realized that common sense isn't actually universal. It would be so nice to have at least one simplifying thing turn out to be genuinely applicable past the age of fourteen.

Words are powerful, to be sure. But there is no real reason to assume that almost everyone in the world is out to do us harm just because they don't agree with everything we say or they say something that surprises or discomforts us for any other reason. These days, with so many things changing and so many assumptions challenged, I think that many of us are running more often into situations where we trip over the contents of our own or others' mental lumber rooms. By that I mean that most of us have preconceived ideas and responses that we picked up when we were impressionable, and we can end up repeating them without thinking because we learned them as "what you say" without necessarily appreciating their actual content. That is where quite a few racist and sexist and expressions have fossilized, and when they pop out they can be left field blindsides from someone we never expected such a thing from, or that we didn't realize we had piled in a corner of our mental lumber room. So either we are shocked by somebody else, or embarrassed that we had that piece of rotten mental furniture. But that doesn't in itself make or us or them bad people. It makes us responsible for getting rid of that rotten mental furniture to be sure, under conditions where we are feeling awkward indeed. But that is not violence. It is an unwanted surprise and one of those necessary lumber room cleaning moments.



Back in early 2017, I found myself reflecting on the latest experiment in papering over past and present colonialism, a thing called "reconciliation" with Indigenous peoples here in the northern part of what is now labelled as canada on the maps. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which began in 2009 and released its report and "calls to action" in 2015, heralded an outpouring in mainstream canadian media. "Reconciliation," "improving the relationship," et cetera, ad nauseum. I had been reading and listening to this stuff for over a year. Indigenous writers and thinkers whom I respect struggled mightily to find a good path forward in this mess of media buzzwords. Ryan McMahon dedicated an entire season of his podcast Red Man Laughing to "reconciliation," for crying out loud. He seemed to come around to the idea a bit. A media blitz plus lots of federal feel good press releases set my reactions to high skeptical, so I watched, and waited, and listened, and read. Doing my best to reserve judgement. (Ha ha, see what I did there?) Well. It has been a long period of research, and here is the conclusion I have come to.

There is no reconciliation. That's right, folks who think you are white (many thanks to James Baldwin), there is no reconciliation. There will be no reconciliation. Period. There are many reasons why, but let's start with Sophie McCall's description of reconciliation in her book First Person Plural, since she whether or not she thinks she is white, she understands that she is not Indigenous and has given serious thought to how to interact with Indigenous peoples respectfully. "While reconciliation prioritizes the expiation of the colonizer's sense of guilt, it places the onus upon the colonized to end longstanding conflicts." The prioritization of expiating colonizers' sense of guilt is key here.

UPDATE 2021-08-07 - I have happened on a new article by Justin Podur, Canada is Waging All-Front Legal War Against Indigenous People. He runs the Anti-Empire Project website, which has serious coverage of Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, the Philippines, Venezuela... it is impressive. It is also possible to view this article on CounterPunch, but the links are full of trackers and as a result don't work properly.

UPDATE 2021-08-09 - Further to this essay, the tyee has been running many solid pieces on the aftermath of the canadian indian residential school system. The most recent, by Daniel Heath Justice and Sean Carleton, is Against Residential School Denialism: Eight Ways to Identify and Confront Efforts to Undermine Indigenous Peoples' Harsh Experiences Under Canadian Colonialism.

Now let's go on to what the word "reconciliation" actually means. According to my OED, it refers to restoration of friendly relations between parties, or making "one view or belief compatible with another." In colonial states, there have been and are no friendly relations. What there have been and are, are Indigenous people engaging in resistance and damage control while non-Indigenous people continue pursuing their displacement and dispossession by every means possible. This includes non-Indigenous people who may never have consciously intended to engage in such behaviour in their lives, because this is something that comes from a systemic and structural not an individual, basis. At no time has there been any widespread effort on the part of non-Indigenous people, most especially those who think they are white, to make their own views and beliefs compatible with the views and beliefs of Indigenous people, even the basic ones like the right of Indigenous people to exist and have a future. The definition of "reconciliation" in my dictionary also refers to "making financial accounts consistent." When the money stolen from any Indigenous nation just in canada is returned with interest and a full and complete acknowledgement that it is not possible for Indigenous peoples to "surrender" their lands as a prelude to putting the land situation right and upholding treaties by the people who think they are white – let alone the other non-Indigenous folks who may or may not have realized what a mess they were getting into when they came here – then maybe the word might at least hand wave at that definition.

I appreciate that many readers might find what I'm writing here inflammatory and unfair. How dare I suggest that there is an ongoing effort to destroy Indigenous people, after all, that's in the past. Non-Indigenous people living in canada today had nothing to with those horrible actions, and people know those things are unacceptable and no one does that horrible stuff anymore.

You may not believe me, but I sincerely wish this was true. I wish that all the horrors and the systemic racism were truly in the past, with no connections to today, and that no one now is complicit with colonialism because canada isn't a colonial state anymore. Many people, especially those who think they are white, would fiercely disagree here. After all, they can point out that today there are no more residential schools, no pass system, it isn't illegal to practice an Indigenous religion, Indigenous people aren't being rounded up and forced onto isolated reserves and starved. And besides, according to more than one of my acquaintances who think they are white, look at all the good things the european invaders brought. They have a hard time coming up with specifics, referring mainly to "advanced technology." As if there was no advanced technology on Turtle Island before europeans came along. (Hint: There most certainly was.) I wish they were right, too. Except they are wrong. If they were right, none of the following things would be part of all of our lives today.

  • The federal government estimates that the Indigenous population within canada is roughly 4% of the overall population. It is probably underestimating, but not by much.
  • Hundreds of Indigenous communities lack basic, consistent access to clean water for drinking and washing.
  • The most recent estimate of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls by Walk 4 Justice activists within canada alone has now passed 4 232. There is no sign that this number is going to stop growing, and efforts by police to minimize the numbers are ongoing.
  • Residential schools may be gone, but today more Indigenous children have been taken away from their families and imprisoned in the "child welfare system" (also see Teaching the Legacy of the 60s Scoop) than were in those schools. Social workers are quick to take away Indigenous children, any Indigenous children, status under the racist Indian Act not required. As of mid-2021, these numbers are even worse, so bad that even the current Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has said out loud in the press that "There are more kids in care now than there were at the height of residential schools and it's unacceptable and harmful."
  • The other way Indigenous children are targeted for removal from their families and communities is by law enforcement, which in the province of british columbia alone meant "Indigenous youth account for about 10 per cent of B.C.'s youth population, but 49 per cent of all youth locked up in 2019." This quote is from an article by Hiren Mansukhani at the tyee about the abuse of the widely recognized torture tactic of solitary confinement in youth jails.
  • Despite being only about 4% of the total population within canada, Indigenous people make up over 20% of the federal prison population. That this is a product of systemic racism is now begrudgingly admitted.
  • The racist, sexist Indian Act remains law in canada, including provisions that will inevitably redefine "status Indians" out of existence using a covert blood quantum system. (FYI, this piece of legislation has nothing to do with Indigenous rights or treaties.)
  • Oh, and contrary to popular belief, the parts of the Indian Act declaring Indigenous ceremony illegal have never been officially repealed. They simply aren't printed as part of the act anymore, and aren't enforced because of effective and determined Indigenous resistance.
  • To this day, canada refuses to admit that Indigenous peoples have never ceded their lands, nor has it upheld its part of any treaty it has signed with Indigenous nations, even according to the strictest letter of the versions of the treaties the federal government says it recognizes. If it had, there would be no "specific claims."
  • Outsiders continue trying to impose a racist and racializing definition on Métis within canada, denying the reality of Métis history, culture, and relationship to the land. The effort to do the same to First Nations is enshrined in the already mentioned Indian Act. Inuit are engaged in their own struggle against the canadian state on this point as well.
  • Heedless of intense, unremitting resistance to destructive and inappropriate projects intended to allow super-exploitation of "resources" ranging from metals to water by Indigenous communities, many of which see their lands and often their literal villages destroyed by them, governments at all levels work together with corporations to build them anyway.
  • Out of at least hundreds of Indigenous languages spoken within canada before europeans arrived, only three are considered "healthy" today: Cree, Inuktitut, and Anishinabowin. Access to Indigenous language instruction is difficult to impossible for most Indigenous people living within canada, and most programs operate on shoestring budgets.
  • "Aboriginal and treaty rights" remained outside of canada's constitution until 1982 when it was officially patriated. That was also the year that the official federal definition of "Aboriginal" was defined to include First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. For context, canada has officially existed since 1867.
  • Despite the recent legal settlement between the federal government and the Métis represented by the Manitoba Métis Federation, the majority of Métis remain landless and the Red River Métis treaty with canada, which became the basis of the Manitoba Act, is still not acknowledged as a treaty by the federal government.
  • In 2013, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 40% of Indigenous children within canada live in poverty. This has everything to do with persistent disadvantages that impact Indigenous access to good jobs and the good health necessary to succeed in them. If the lack of access to education, a safe home, and good food are overcome, there is always systemic racism left to deal with.

By the way, for those settlers still puzzled how the residential schools could have been bad if the last one didn't close until 1996, because they provided schooling, do feel free to read about what they were actually like for the majority of students, starting with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report. Or you could consider Sto:Lo orator Lee Maracle's concise description from her book My Conversations With Canadians about the purpose and curricula of residential schools:

Removal was the object of residential school, and it was not for purposes of assimilation, and it was a crime. It was done to destroy the language, culture, and sensibility of Indigenous people. This is genocide. No academic or English language or mathematics or science courses were taught in the first one hundred years of those schools. Those would be the sort of courses that would justify calling it an assimilation program. Instead only the destruction of Indigenous language and knowledge was offered. Children worked and recited scripture when they were not being beaten, starved, or raped. When are rape and hunger part of an assimilation program? Only when it applies to us. Elsewhere in the world, it is genocide.

Being a residential school survivor adds insult to injury in canada, because that puts you and your children and grandchildren under additional surveillance by the various provincial and federal authorities that claim to be concerned for the health and welfare of children. This exponentially increases their opportunities to kidnap children from their families on flimsy pretexts. Stealing Indigenous children and preferentially placing them in non-Indigenous homes or warehousing them in hotels where traffickers wait outside to lure them away are genocidal actions.

So no, there is no reconciliation, and there will be no reconciliation, because these facts, and many, many more, show that on a systemic level, there are no friendly relations. On a systemic level, there is no effort going on to admit and accept that Indigenous people are not going anywhere, they are staying Indigenous, and colonialism is unacceptable and must end. On a systemic level, there has been and is no effort to "balance accounts." This reflects the mainstream definition of the term. It also reflects the real life facts. The trouble is systemic, so even though I do indeed have good friends who are not Indigenous, even friends who think they are white, and yes, they are good people, those relationships aren't reconciliation. This is still true despite the wonderful to see growing resistance by non-Indigenous people to colonialism and the systemic practices that oppress Indigenous people and are tweaked slightly every day for use against others who have been racialized or feminized relative to the "mainstream." To be clear, this resistance is effective, it's just not big enough to bring down the system quite yet.

What there is, is the possibility that people who think they are white may at last establish friendly and respectful relations with Indigenous peoples and nations within canada. Which means actual decolonization and the people who think they are white taking up the difficult and critical task of dismantling the systems of oppression, not just of Indigenous people, but also of women, of other racialized groups, and sex role stereotype defiant people living within canada. If those systems are allowed to persist in any form, they will continue to poison the well for everyone. The question then, is whether the people who think they are white will pursue that opportunity, which begins with rejecting the fictions of whiteness and reconciliation and acting on that. I know which answer I'm hoping for.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2022
Last Modified: Friday, August 05, 2022 15:45:07