“Cancel culture” isn’t new; it isn’t even inventive. This mob bullying tactic just has a new name and the power of social media.
Its latest victim is a poet — not just any poet, but Toronto’s former poet laureate and the former poet laureate of Canada’s Parliament, George Elliott Clarke. He was hounded and scarified into cancelling his lecture at the University of Regina because he committed the emotional mortal sin of giving a killer a chance. Not a second chance mind you, because Clarke didn’t know the poet he mentored and helped called Stephen Brown, who lives in Mexico, was, in fact, Steven Kummerfield. Kummerfield was one of two men who killed an Indigenous woman, Pamela George, in 1995 and served half his sentence before being paroled in 2000. Only after helping Brown edit his poetry did Clarke discover his real identity.
Let’s not confuse the issue: Clarke himself did nothing wrong but in cancel culture the mere notion he had aided and abetted (Criminal Code of Canada, look it up) a killer, particularly a murderer of a First Nations’ woman, became the lightning rod for anger. Combine that with Regina, with its more than 15,000 First Nations and Metis population, Canada’s pathetic treatment of its Aboriginals (I prefer the Greek word, the more euphonious autochthones) and it’s a recipe for high-toned moral outrage.
This would be a modern phenomenon had the whole notion of being affronted by ideas and talk and things one doesn’t like wasn’t so old and tired.
I watched it in person and was disgusted with my fellow journalists in 1986 who chose not to listen or engage with the South African ambassador, Glen Babb, during the height of apartheid. It was a moral stance according to my colleagues who chose to picket a meeting of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Vancouver. Babb had been invited to sit on a panel about censorship of the press hosted by the late Peter Gzowski. The protesters marched outside the hotel, apparently unaware of the dichotomy of their position.
Yet, as far as I could tell, none of these so-called “neutral” journalists marching in protest was reprimanded or considered infra dig by their co-workers
If you don’t like a person’s opinion, debate it; if you don’t agree with their politics, vote otherwise; if you don’t want to hear any contradictory opinions, turn off the radio or television or change the channel. Don’t attend the lecture. Write a carefully crafted letter to the editor. But to try to shut down discourse because that person’s opinion is anathema to you, you have just proven how weak your own arguments and opinions are.
More history, but curiously connected, about “sensitive” topics: how we treat those whom we keep under lock and key. See the above outrage about Kummerfield. One can argue he didn’t serve nearly enough time for his crime, but we place those decisions in the hands of our courts and eventually with parole boards.
There is a thread running through all of this anger and resentment and an attitude of revenge, which for some bizarre reason resonates with so many of our citizens. Consider the height of cancel culture: Lock them up and toss away the key. Truly, is every criminal worthless or incapable of being rehabilitated?
The recent report on lack of access to education in prison by Lisa Kerr and Paul Quick, both lawyers, showed how rebarbative our treatment of criminals has become. Yet all I could think of was the two Steves: West and Harper. I consider both to be masters of “cancel culture.”
Many of you may not remember 1992 when Alberta cabinet minister Steve West decided colour television sets in Alberta prisons were a frivolity, so he had them removed and replaced with 12-inch black-and-whites. Apparently, colour TV was “coddling” miscreants.
So, too, with Canada’s six prison farms, which employed about 300 federal inmates. Stephen Harper’s government decided the program was not essential and was too expensive ($14 million annually.) The last one was shuttered in 2009. It was rebarbative. Why? Because such programs taught inmates how to care for living things, something so many hardened inmates never did.
Want a better world? First, make it better for society’s rejected members. Change “cancel culture” to “counsel culture.”
Catherine Ford is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.