The ‘Post-Truth Elevation of Celebrity Over Fact’: Deborah Palmer on the CAN LIT Letter & UBC’s Firing of Steven Galloway 

I am heartbroken that these writers, so many of whom teach, have chosen this self-serving, old boys’ club denial. Signed by writers who posted “I believe Lucy,” this letter represents the wrong side of history. It values keeping a powerful man safe when others are not. It re-shames and re-silences his accusers. It’s anti-feminist and anti-union. It would hand employers the right to publicly shame and silence employees. It makes it harder for all Canadians to come forward. In short, these writers have misused their voice and platform. A mistake of misguided friendship is still a mistake.     – Deborah Palmer

In November 2015, on the basis of a series of complaints, Steven Galloway was suspended with pay from his position as professor and director of UBC’s Creative Writing Program. And after an internal UBC investigation led by Mary Ellen Boyd, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge, Galloway was dismissed in June 2016.  The November 2016 open letter in defence of Steven Galloway was signed by some of Canada’s most famous writers is here. Zoe Todd protests the “CanLit heavyweight” lack of insight into the UBC process and the victim’s perspective  here : “Well, I hope that Canadian Literati remember the incredible burden of proof that is put upon survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and harassment or bullying in the workplace. There is a reason that up to 2 out of 3 rapes goes unreported:  https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system ” 

Margaret Atwood’s defence of the letter is here and  here.  The fact that Atwood repeats Galloway’s own self representation as a victim of a Salem witch hunt is so problematic. Additionally she dismisses women in groups who lie. This gender reversal is so offensive.

I am quite confused about why this case is so scandalous. My sense is that there was a process to determine complaints etc. and an internal process with a distinguished former judge to determine whether it was just. And now there is a grievance as per the union contract. That sounds like due process to me. There is labour law that determines you cannot harass in workplaces. Why wouldn’t a university be subject to this.

A criminal case is quite separate. In a criminal court you must determine the judgment according to the beyond a reasonable doubt criteria. In a university it can be balance of probabilities (like in civil cases – remember OJ Simpson won his criminal case and then lost the civil case.) In cases like sexual assault etc where the offence often happens in isolated circumstances without witnesses, the balance of probabilities can make use of comparative evidence between victims etc. So can the criminal courts but with the whacking of witnesses that happens there, multiple victims can be disqualified for talking with each other, for instance – in Margaret Atwood’s words, you can’t trust women in groups who lie.

Karen Connelly writes in response to Deborah Palmer’s letter below: “She asked him to retract his statement. ” nue to speak the truth and I refuse to be intimidated into silence.””

What follows is Deborah Palmer’s excellent facebook post on November 17, 2016. I reproduce it with her position. Palmer sets out the potential harm and the limits of the letter from some Canadian writers:

As a writer, a 23-year high school teacher, OSSTF Branch President and union activist, this is my reply to the Steven Galloway #ubcaccountable letter. It dismisses labour and privacy law. It insults the democratic due process of unions. It sets up a court of celebrity and demands a dangerous precedent: the release of private information that would erode Canadian rights and freedoms.

To recap: Last November, in accordance with labour law and his collective agreement, Mr. Galloway was suspended from his position as acting chair of UBC Creative Writing. In such a high-profile case, I expected a media Ghomeshi, expected Mr. Galloway, his Faculty Association, and hot-shot lawyers, to swarm the media. They did not. Instead, silence fell.
For seven months, Mr. Galloway’s case was reviewed by a retired judge, the Arts dean, and UBC president. Reviewers met with Mr. Galloway and his accusers. Some accusations were dropped. One was not. With the on-going consult of his Faculty Association, he did not dispute the report.

In June, he was fired for “Breach of Trust” as clearly defined by contract and legislation. The lack of criminal charges is irrelevant. Educators all know they are held to a higher standard. All reviewers of the evidence agreed: the breach warranted termination. The CBC confirmed it termination with cause. Without severance. Without a departure package. Neither Mr. Galloway nor his Faculty Association protested or grieved these decisions. He remained silent.

This week, UBC confirms Mr. Galloway has changed his mind and filed a grievance. Having seen many through the grievance process, I question his lengthy silence and delay, but I respect his union-won right to file at any time, just as I respect the union process that produced his dismissal. In March, his grievance will be heard by an independent arbitrator mutually chosen by UBC and Faculty Association counsel acting on Mr. Galloway’s direction and behalf. As a life-long unionist, I do not always agree with an arbitration, but I deeply respect the contractual process and the generations of unionists who fought for it for all of us.
Who doesn’t? Mr. Galloway’s friends. By no coincidence, their letter, exactly coincident with the new grievance, is signed by many of the same friends who rose up to declare his innocence before due process even began, many in the first 24 hours when the story broke last year.
Let’s be clear. No one uses the word “rigged,” but when high-profile wordsmiths call a process “unsubstantiated” and “flawed” we all know it means they disagree with the result. In hypocritical irony, they demand a new “due process,” one that would over-ride a judge and an historical and respected contractual dispute process bound by law and the Charter of Rights. They imply that Mr. Galloway is innocent. That we should value him over over his accusers. That he’s “the real victim.” That he should be exonerated, if not compensated and/or rehired. In the smug middle-class bias of the self-employed, the letter sounds authored by those who have never read, attended, fought for, or gone on strike for, a union vote, but still have the disrespectful gall to call the union process “flawed.” Aka, wrong. Inferior. Invalid.
I’m deeply disappointed by writers who take it upon themselves to decide for, and speak for, the literary community. Without permission. Without evidence. With no credentials but a personal friendship with the accused. Writers who claim to value due process did not use it. They did not draft a public petition for all writers to consider. They signed a clandestine group-mind dispatch. They substituted their literary celebrity for our democratic literary community.
Since they’re claiming insufficient evidence for a fair decision, how do they make their judgement? Based on their own celebrity. If “the stars of Can Lit” know Mr. Galloway for “a good writer and a good guy,” of course that should carry more weight than the testimony of his accusers and a seven-month union process. They don’t need a Faculty Association. Or a contract. Or decades of labour and privacy law. They call for their own new process precisely because they don’t like the outcome of union due process. Either they don’t understand it, consider themselves above it, or both.
They prove it by demanding a dangerous precedent: the release of private information. What an ill-conceived request. We weren’t there. We don’t know what transpired with students or co-workers. Nor should we. It’s not our business. It would violate the rights of accusers and accused, Such details cannot be made public unless Mr. Galloway waives his right to privacy which he has not done. With advice of union counsel, he has signed a non-disclosure agreement.
In the bigger picture, the details of any dismissal in any union in Canada, are never made public. For good reason. This privacy is a hard won right of decades of unionists. Can you imagine a country where employers could release any and all details of a grievance or dismissal? That’s Trump heaven. No one would ever file a grievance again. This is exactly the over-turning of privacy and labour law that the short-sighted signatories of this letter demand.
It must be asked: does this letter question “flawed process,” or is it designed to affect the next process? This letter comes a year after suspension and five months after firing, but coincident with the new grievance. Is it a well-timed attempt to sway its outcome? To try it in the court of public opinion first? Is it anti-democratic meddling and muscle flexing?
I hope not. I respect these writers and consider some my friends. I want to believe they are simply misguided. At best they remind me of the heartbroken Whoopi Goldberg defending Bill Cosby because she simply couldn’t believe another artist, a friend and mentor, one of her own, could be an abuser. At worst, they evoke Shaw: that patriotism is the belief that one country is the best simply because you were born in it. Canadians revile Trump, but a post-truth elevation of celebrity over fact is a step in his direction. Just ask Newt Gingrich and Mayor Giuliani. Trump can’t possibly be an abuser because “he’s a good colleague and a good guy,” and hey, they know him personally.
I am heartbroken that these writers, so many of whom teach, have chosen this self-serving, old boys’ club denial. Signed by writers who posted “I believe Lucy,” this letter represents the wrong side of history. It values keeping a powerful man safe when others are not. It re-shames and re-silences his accusers. It’s anti-feminist and anti-union. It would hand employers the right to publicly shame and silence employees. It makes it harder for all Canadians to come forward. In short, these writers have misused their voice and platform. A mistake of misguided friendship is still a mistake.
I respectfully ask all signatories to retract their endorsement of this letter. I call on all members of the literary community and all concerned Canadians to denounce it. Friends don’t let friends discredit democratic due process. Friends don’t let friends drive rape culture.

the wear and tear of this beautiful difficult sassy knowledge

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I

While writing my dissertation during the 1980s, I worked on Sounding Differences, my collection of interviews with Canadian women writers. I called them “oral essays” to indicate the way this generative exploration project worked to empower a chorus of voices – a notion . While infused with differentiated power relations, the collectivity of women I interviewed revised the canon beyond the distinguished female triumvirate of Margaret (Atwood), Margaret (Laurence) and Alice (Munroe).

My thinking was not original – but shaped by this earlier second-wave notion of difference as generative of “difficult conversations that can be life-saving” in Sara Salem’s words.

I was inspired by feminist film critic and art critic friends who introduced me to Trinh T. Minh-ha whose theoretical and cinematic work remains an inspiration. In Woman, Native Other (1989), she wrote:

“you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in awhile, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
 I may be on another hill further away. But this distant nearness of  our “intertwine” is an implication acknowledging the interior diss-identification of an origami fold. A cutting, a grafting that takes.



II


Mothering, interracial, adoptive,
reaffirms
an origami fold,
occasionally torn,
sometimes shorn,
of our undying days,
sleepless nights,
live-long years together,
daughtering,
mothering,
this rapport between
a 65-year-old mother and
an 18-year-old daughter unfolds.
with
the wear and tear of
difficult
sassy
knowledge,
an acknowledgement
in our bones
of how
lives
are lived
in this
unevenly
staged
world.
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III

 




IV

 


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On a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort
thinking of boredom of deluxe indulgence
of the first tourist t-shirt
glimpsed  on arrival –  
SUN’S OUT
GUNS OUT
(without the punctuation)

 

 



V

turquoise pools meander between
clipped fuschia & chartreuse
bougainvillea hedge funds
a watery lipless horizon
acres of white empty plates
groan stainless steel and
porcelain bowls of luscious
ceviche, salsa, guacamole,
chipolte-reddened fish
chocolate chicken mole
delicately tied tamales
steamed to perfection
ice creamed bins, farting
triple layer cheesecake
artful bamboo hidden Japanese sushi rolls
black tureened lobster bisque
careening carnivals of carved fruit
secret fish today, a sea bird tomorrow,
all day every day rainbow hilled
chopped pineapple, papaya, mango, melon
IMG_5723 copy

scales

 

before bed an 8:30pm performance of Michael Jackson lip-syncing,

Aztec psychedelia and swirling moebius looped Mexican skirts
late night drunken songs of weddings
sand between their ears

 

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and everywhere top heavy chef hats working
alongside friendly name-tags of aproned maids
anonymously shy
wandering smiles of mojito-laden waiters
all for tips, given or taken away
generous with their time
in conversation, the give and take of
my stilted Spanish the limit case of
what gracias
we know and not
IMG_5708
meanwhile from our fake 1%er perch
atop a white wrought iron fenced stone wall
a man in a bathing suit motions to the air along the shore
and white cotton-suited men women on the beach
offer brilliant enamelled bowls, striped multi-coloured
hand-woven blankets, t-shirts that name this place
for almost nothing.


VI


IMG_5751Thinking this in response to our few mother/daughter days together in bliss and in irritation, the back and forth of our closeness, as we lie on a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort.
Where a young man drowned today of a seizure or a heart attack.
The American couple at the next table, shocked by their loss, tell us the story of his last words in the ocean. On the way back to the boat. About feeling unwell.
The shocked couple at the next table tell us about the guilt of the young male survivors, all friends, the fruitless attempt to return for him.
His lifeless body. His friends who could have done nothing to save him.
The story unfolds as though it cannot not be told.
Over and over and over and over again.
The couple at the next table tell us they are in plumbing and heating. They travel here to this resort annually. In the company of forty of their employees.
They tell us over again and then apologize. And we squeeze their hands. And they tell us again of the telephone call to the forty-year old deceased man’s parents.
That impossible conversation about drowning.
And we listen and talk in this fragility of being here now.
To sit together straining between tables at dinner talking of loss and death and love and compassion….


VII


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All tonight’s writing started with this reading thanks to a colleague. The text made me think about the necessary and  irritating and incommensurable inconsolable chasms of misunderstanding and pain that are occasioned in the gaps between us.
“This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.
But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.
This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.
The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.”

subtracting terror

Belen Fernandez writes in “Orientalism with a surgical twist”:

For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterised as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilised pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.

Of course, Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter. In the introduction to his seminal text Orientalism, the late Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:

“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to … the Orient of [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] Chateaubriand and Nerval’. He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”

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The terror attacks in Beirut, “Paris of the Middle East” and Paris, France – tragedies filled with laments for the dead and injured – inspire a predicatable response.

Edward’s Said wrote in his introduction

Beirut’s story is one of two suicide bombers. An explosion. A father and his young daughter are out for a walk.Adel Termos notices a second man approaching those who gathered after the first attack at the mosque a. And he acts. This man on the street throws himself on the second suicide bomber. He and his daughter die of course but dozens of other potential victims survive. The story barely surfaces and disappears with the name and number of the victims: 43 anonymous bodies in Beirut dead in the street and over two hundred wounded. But Beirut is so far away on the margins of the orient in “Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country with a history of civil war, [which] has seen deadly spillovers from the Syrian conflict.”

In Paris, three times as many people die and many are wounded in a meticulously executed multiple-site series of attacks. And there is unending international attention to this story. We are appalled over and over and over again as the maps fill up with explosive stars of red identifying the Cambodian cafe, the stadium, the concert stage, the street….

But the wreckage of these two narratives turn on who we recognize as deserving of elegies and our attention. Paris fills us with the romance of where we may have been, European romance and the short-cropped hair of Jean Seberg for those of us who remember, the streets of beloved museums and cafes. Simone de Beauvoir’s cigarette and the eye of Jean Paul Sartre. A bridge of love locks. A photograph of my mother in 1956, bleached blond hair, a beauty, standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Over the years, Paris remains the cobblestone destination honeymoon destination.

We don’t think about the suburbs of alienated youth, the police actions, the racist legacy of Le Pen and the father/daughter’s inheritance, the prohibition of Muslim dress for women. The will to bomb the Middle East. None of this justifies the attacks. But one of the everyday pivots of life in the city is inequality and non-fraternity along racial grounds.

Last week, I saw the opera Air India [Redacted] with a libretto based on Renee Saklikar’s brilliant poetry collection The Children of Air India (Nightwood, 2013). You can listen to her interview about the collaboration here.

Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the public in the aftermath of this catastrophe in measured tones. None of the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament patriarch who would have us ramping up military action. . Thank you for your measured commentary.image

The NDP from here to (t)here: the politics of Palestine by Janice Williamson

jerry-natanine

Mayor Jerry Natanine

“I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there,” said Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine. And he mused about the NDP drumming him out of his candidacy: “[it] turns out whatever was in my social media was questionable, and didn’t fall well with the headquarters.”

The conversation about the marginalization of those candidates who criticize Israel and identify with Palestine sounds with the passions of diverse voices but only some of them count. Some are silenced and deemed irrelevant in the urgent sluice called “getting elected.”

To some Canadians the Palestinian issues register as “ours” versus “theirs”. To say this is here and that is (t)here is difficult if you are interconnected with familial, historical, religious, or regional ties both here and (t)here – the threads trace the rich histories of our lives. This conversation about whether the issue resonates with a Canadian voter invites us to think through ethnicity, identity, and racialization – and empathy. And we must  think through “all my relations” – an Indigenous concept that informs Mayor Natanine’s philosophy about Palestine. To decide to prioritize issues relevant to “here” in an election year is to cut off and exile those with strong ties to “here” as well as a particular elsewhere brought close through actual relations, blood or adopted, or through the imagined relations of knowledge, analysis and empathy.

Where there is no “diversity with equity” the shadow of racism falls. And we must speak out.

You don’t slice and dice justice in the interests of expediency. Why the silence on this ongoing purge of NDPs who have a conscience about Palestine. Not an important election issue? Tell that to the Muslim and Arab Canadians who have been exiled and demonized for the past decade and beyond. Or to anyone who works in solidarity with Indigenous issues and identifies with the Palestinians. Tell that to those concerned about Canada’s extremist foreign policy and uncritical support of Netanyahu’s Israel. Harper just bought Israeli Iron Dome missiles for Canada that were test driven in Gaza massacres last summer. Would a different government order more? 

Visiting my beautiful 86-year-old ailing mother a few days ago, she reminded me why we must speak out: “I gave birth to my voice in giving birth to you,” she said. And it is true. My birthdate in 1951 meant I grew up in an era informed by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements where change informed actions. The ongoing efforts of the Women’s Liberation Movement made it possible for some women to struggle to speak out about injustice. And over the decades, it is clear that only some women benefitted from this noisy conversation. Many Indigenous peoples have been left behind as the 2012 report on NunavutHuman Development Index indicates.

Jerry Natanine’s words should be our own: “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.” Translate his sentence and you find yourself writing about “(t)here.”

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— for a look at the telling 2012 Human Development Index report on Nunavut, look here: http://www.csls.ca/reports/csls2012-02.pdf

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nunavut-ranks-below-estonia-on-human-development-index-1.1157776

Alberta’s New Government and the Funding of Postsecondary Education and Academic Research in Alberta

reposting…excellent commentary written by Arts Squared ….the environment, petroleum state single resource development and other oil connections underpin issues of postsecondary funding in Alberta that are analysed in this article…

Alberta’s New Government and the Funding of Postsecondary Education and Academic Research in Alberta.

via Alberta’s New Government and the Funding of Postsecondary Education and Academic Research in Alberta.

May 5, 2015 Orange Crush in Alberta. Rachel Notley Wins! (speculation at noon of election day but riding the wave of hypotheses based on polls and conversations and hope !)

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People say ‘Alberta is not an NDP province.’
And I say they are right.
Alberta doesn’t belong to a political party.
Alberta belongs to Albertans.

Rachel Notley 3 May, 2015

front-ric

Why do I think NDP ALBERTA will win?
31% more people voted in the advance polls. 12% more voters registered this election.
Why?
A friend quipped: “Because they have a choice and can imagine change!”

Why is Rachel winning? Insert here all of the polls, the articles east west north south about Rachel’s skill, gifts, history, talents.

Here’s the poll that was published the day before the election with huge NDP numbers and a majority government predicted. Will this come true? Who knows.

Hypothetical begins with the same letter as Hope! It is now 1:29pm election day and I can manage hope for a few more hours until we all gather to watch the election returns and come to know what has transpired.

Why will Rachel win? Imagine the wonderful community, the excellent numerous campaign workers and the well-funded campaign and you have a story about the transformation of Alberta.

11148572_10153344422291385_2025959887160694327_oWill NDP win? The opposition underwhelms —

  • The PC’s leader Prentice has the charm of a board-room bureaucrat.
  • The Wild Rose limps on with a leader who might win votes. Fenceposts have been  elected in Alberta.
  • The Alberta Party barely breathes.
  • The Green Party makes excellent arguments but doesn’t have the voter base.

But NDP Alberta is soaring. (please don’t disappoint, Alberta)

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  • Everyone was looking for the Notley Crue t-shirt invented by NDP campaigners. You can order them here. 
  • Or you can buy the “Keep Calm and Notley On” shirt off my back but I’m not selling!

11174608_10153346992716385_8778017773931011246_oJanice Williamson

Twitter’s Sound & Fury: the artist and the scholar

How do we read and interpret twitter?

images-11What is this twitter genre? And how was it used as a rationale for the firing of the highly lauded  pianist Valentina Lisitsa by the TSO on the basis of her anti-Ukraine tweets described as bordering on hate speech. Later others would point to pressure put on the TSO by donors who support  Ukraine, but much of the public debate has focused on twitter.images-12

In a very different case that parallels Lisitsa’s, the Palestinian American scholar Stephen Salaita was fired from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana for “incivility” in his twitter feed that he wrote during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. After the firing or “de-hiring,” access to information legal requests yielded an archive of university administration correspondence that illustrated a concerted campaign to dismiss Salaita by Israeli supporters including a Member of the Board of Hillel, an Israeli-funded organization devoted to the support of Israel. This MoB made a substantial donation to the School of Business at the same university and threatened to withdraw his funds like others who wrote to the university to pressure them.

The Case of Valentina Lisitsa, artist

Globe & Mail writer Kate Taylor suggests “the TSO could have handled it better” but she also intimated that there were grounds for the TSO abruptly cancelling her concert on the basis of her twitter feed. Her comment suggests an unsettling hierarchy of incivility and injury that attends to academic and artist: “If a local university had just cancelled a talk by an anti-Kiev academic I might be outraged, but I am less offended to discover that an orchestra doesn’t want anything to do with someone whose notoriety is likely to prove a distraction from the concerts.” And elsewhere in MacLean’s Paul Wells makes another commentary that doesn’t take issue with the cancellation through its mild dismay: “I’m uneasy about the TSO cancelling Lisitsa’s appearance.”

The genre of twitter itself has been analysed to support the pianist’s discussion of the reception of her tweets as a misreading of literary nuances and rhetorical effects like satire and hyperbole that are not identified in the critiques.The pianist describes the tweets here: “You might find some of them offensive—perhaps. Satire and hyperbole are the best literature tools to combat lies. Bear that in mind when reading.” And this cautionary note corresponds with other analyses of the twitter genre that leave room for excess and even misrepresentation. My own reading of Lisitsa’ twitter feed available in a link available here is that they are vile, disgusting and excessive but they are also part of an ongoing international battle of words and propaganda that tracks the terrible violence of regions of Ukraine under siege. And that is not a space geographically or psychologically for calm reflection by those with vested interests, emotional and familial, in the region. That is not to excuse the nasty characterizations of the Ukraine leaders as coloured pig testicles, but it is an explanation.

In a Musical Toronto interview, the TSO CEO explained why Lisitsa’s concert was cancelled: “this is not a free speech issue, but rather an issue of someone practicing very intolerant and offensive expression through twitter.” Michael Vincent, the interview and the publisher of the digital magazine explains his understanding of the contested twitter feed: “After analysing the document, it is our opinion (we are not lawyers) that they do not cross the threshold into hate-speech, and are indicative of the extraordinarily negative political situation surrounding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in which Ms. Lisitsa is involved.”

Between these two commentaries falls a shadow. The editors observations gives a context for the invective, hyperbole and excess. But even if we condemn the tweets themselves as something between disgusting and just this side of hate speech, there is another argument to be made about the way twitter circulates and is perceived as a genre.

The pianist Valentina Lisitsa described her twitter campaign against Ukraine:

…there was another me: not a musician but a regular human being – a daughter, a mother, a wife. And this human being was watching helplessly how the country of my birth, of my childhood, of my first falling in love – this country was sliding ever faster into the abyss. Children die under bombs, old ladies die of starvation, people burned alive…
The worst thing that can happen to any country is fratricide war, people seeing each other, their neighbors as enemies to be eliminated. This is what has befallen my beautiful Ukraine. My heart was bleeding. You all saw on TV screens all over the world a magnificent revolution, the people of Ukraine raising in fury against their corrupt rulers, for a better life. I was so proud of my people! But the ruling class doesn’t let go easily. They managed to cunningly channel away the anger, to direct it to other, often imaginable, enemies – and worse, to turn people upon themselves. Year later, we have the same rich people remaining in power, misery and poverty everywhere, dozens of thousands killed, over a million of refugees.So, I took to Twitter.

The Case of Stephen Salaita, academic

Compare this to an excerpt from Stephen Salata’s “How U of I Destroyed My Career,” an article published in the Chicago-Tribune where he describes the genesis of his twitter:

In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.

“A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.steven salaita poster legal size 30 Dec 11-14 (1)

Salaita spoke on his recent visit to UofA and elsewhere about his twitter campaign. A video of his  January 13, 2015, afternoon talk on “Palestine, Digital Activism, Academic Freedom & The Decline of the Public University” is available here. (And a second talk corresponded with his most recent book: The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan that analyses the rhetoric and myths of settlement in both North America and Israel and “patterns that connect Indigenous writing in both locations.” This video and a short essay will be available soon.)

And several articles have explored Salaita’s tweets including an intriguing analysis by Joseph Levine, a philosopher who asked in the New York Times “Did Salaita Cross the Line of Civility?”  Levine takes up one of Salaita’s tweets that were condemned as anti-Semitic:

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014

The entire opinion piece is worth reading but I will only focus on the final lines which justify the “incivility” of  Salaita’s twitter about the devastating bombardment of Gaza:

expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.

More recently, the distinguished American social historian Joan W. Scott published “The New Thought Police”  in The Nation where she had this to say about the genre of twitter:

“The medium of Twitter is complicated because it provides a public space for private, personal expression. In one sense, it is no different from a speaker’s rostrum at an antiwar rally or any other highly charged political event. In another sense, though, because the public is not physically present, the dialogue can be imagined as limited to one’s followers or, in an even more restricted way, to those interlocutors who are tweeting back. As a result, it may feel like a protected site, one where it is safe to express deep feelings that otherwise must be kept under wraps. A similar assumption figures in the notion of “hidden transcripts” described by the political scientist James Scott. Hidden transcripts are criticisms of the powerful by their subordinates, fantasies of revenge uttered to a small circle (family, friends, trusted members of the group) only outside the hearing of their superiors. (Slaves are one example he cites.) Scott notes that the powerful have hidden transcripts as well: private opinions held beneath an outer mask of civility. Indeed, critical commentators on civilityscott_thought_police_otu_img in the 18th century noted that it consisted of an “outward show,” somehow inauthentic, masking the reality of one’s attitudes and being. Mirabeau noted in the 1760s that civility only presents “the mask of virtue and not its face.”

Twitter disrupts this careful separation of the hidden and the acceptable, blurring the boundaries by offering a public forum for venting private feelings. In so doing, it makes the hidden visible and seems to reveal the “true” nature of the tweeter—the reality ordinarily concealed by the rules of decorum and politesse. They may not realize it, but those, like Wise, who take tweets to be indicators of the “real” nature of the tweeter (and so the ultimate proof of his or her unfitness as a teacher and colleague) are also acknowledging the limits, if not the inauthenticity, of civility as a form not only of political but also of intellectual exchange. For some members of the UIUC faculty, as for the chancellor, the tweets exposed the underlying premises of Salaita’s scholarly work, the hidden transcript of his articles and books. The tweets became not an easily compartmentalized instance of extramural speech (and so of the First Amendment right of the scholar as citizen), but the key to the entire body of his work and to the unacceptability of the politics that informed it.

***

In the middle of writing this, I fell asleep for a few minutes only to awaken in the midst of a classic nightmare where I was surrounded by a glistening and quickly enclosing web pinned to edges of the outdoor path where I was walking. An invisible spider spun intricate threads to imprison me. Such is the psychological struggle of comparing these two cases. For I can sense very quickly my own bias. And also the point of conflict.

My blog post emerges in fact from a facebook conversation with a  friend, a distinguished writer who objected to the PEN Canada press release objecting to the cancellation of the Valentina Lisitsa’s performanceplaceholder_news. The concern was that the press release did not adequately characterize or respond to the level and effects of anti-Ukraine invective in Lisitsa’s tweets, invective that corresponds with how hatred demeans ethnic and racial groups in poisonous ways.

My response was to comment about the mythmaking that occurs on the Russian side and on the Western side – I was thinking in particular of the papering over of the corruption of the government in place now and the fascist histories of government officials and parties reported regularly on progressive sites.  In reply, writer/philosopher Stan Perskey reminded me of his March 23 analysis of Ukraine where he makes this sensible call for a measured reading of Ukraine:

The point about all of this is relatively simple: there’s a big difference between recognizing and worrying about the role of extreme right wing groups in recent events in Ukraine, which any sensible person ought to do, and the exaggerated description of those events as a “fascist coup.” It’s a description that’s been offered by Putin and his spokespeople, as well as by many Western leftist formations, and it’s inaccurate. Again, there are real questions here that need investigation, and I’m not brushing them aside for a moment, but I refuse to buy into a histrionic account that seriously distorts what most of us see as reality in order to denounce U.S. imperialism or justify Russian policy.

While the case of Stephen Salaita and Valentina Lisitsa are different, Salaita’s passionate engagement in Gaza’s bombardment that led to his twitterfeed that some found anti-Semitic corresponds with Lisitsa’s fervour for Russia’s role in the Ukraine invasion – her own discussion of nationalism suggests her intensity and even her blindnesses perhaps.  However impassioned twitter speech genre should not be read with sensitivity to the genre and context. And there is no question that it should not be the grounds for firing a scholar or an artist.

(note: this post is still in progress and I welcome any corrections, commentary or critiques)

— Janice Williamson