By Misao Dean
I gave an interview on my research last March on the CBC program The 180. In it I talked about colonialism in Canada, picking away at some of the myths that sustained my childhood sense of “Canadianness,” and arguing that we should read them as representations of colonial power.
These ideas are not that radical in Canada; they’re absolutely conservative, in the context of recent interpretations of Canadian law. But it seems that when you bring those abstract ideas down to specifics – this piece of land, that cultural practice – or when you mention whiteness – well, some people get pretty excited. And someone wrote a reaction to my interview on a British right-wing website called “Heatstreet,” and that got a comment in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and a tweet was picked up by Fox News, and then things went a bit bananas.
On October 23rd 2016 I checked my e-mail and found a request for an interview about my research, from a podcast that is produced in Chicago. My first thought—as a researcher and scholar based in Victoria, British Columbia was WTF? The request referenced a tweet from someone I’ve never heard of, who according to Google, is a sociologist from the UK. My feelings shifted ever-so-slightly from incredulity to careful interests. Maybe my research is really getting some traction, I thought. People are talking about it, excitement, I thought.
By the time I got to work there were more requests for interviews, this time from ESPN, and there was something else: a steady stream of e-mails all consisting or two or three words, calling me a cunt and a fool, an idiot and an “SJW,” (derogatory internet slang for ‘social justice warrior.’) These emails had something in common: they were all lamenting the way I’m poisoning the minds of students. Many of them suggested I commit suicide.
Take a moment and pause on that: I was receiving emails from strangers telling me to commit suicide.
By the time I finished teaching my first class in addition to invitations to be on international news, and the hate-filled trolling, there were also e-mails to the Dean and my department chair, and someone in the Dean’s office had contacted me, offering “support.”
I’m ok, no big deal, I said. When the first death threat appeared in my inbox my stomach dropped, and I started to wonder why I did that interview.
I mean let’s stop and think about this again: I talked about systemic racism in Canada and I got death threats. Me—a middle-aged white university professor whose idea of a good time is a visit to the National Archives—got death threats talking about facts of Canadian social and political history.
My daughters asked me, What did you expect? Talking about race in the mainstream media just makes you a target. I gave this some thought. It doesn’t really help that I was attacked using my own words, taken out of context. This kind of irresponsible and de-contextualized quoting has become an art form among Trump followers who think it’s hilariously funny to post stories that make it look like famous “liberals” have said something entirely opposite to what they actually said: for example, that Michael Moore endorsed Trump, or that a woman academic doesn’t know the first thing about her own research topic.
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect hundreds of abusive and obscene accusations from people who didn’t even know that the interview was talking about Canada.
I didn’t expect my Rate My Professor page to be flooded with complaints about my teaching from people I’ve never met, and who can’t find my university on a map.
And I didn’t expect my kids to find abusive comments about me in their Facebook feeds.
I expected a conversation, but this isn’t conversation. Hate isn’t a conversation.
Listen, I’ve been called an idiot before, and survived (after all, I grew up with brothers). I’ve still got my job, and all the privileges that go with it. But last week I was asked to review a grant application for SSHRC and evaluate, among other things, a “knowledge mobilization strategy” in which Some Poor Sap, PhD., wrote that when his book comes out, on an important topic that really needs sophisticated discussion in the public sphere, he intends to create a website, and make himself available for media interviews and panel discussions, and really get his results out there.
I wanted to tell him, publish that book, create those new courses, teach those great ideas, but keep your head down, and don’t talk to the media, at least not before asking yourself these questions: Are you tenured? What will happen to you if colleagues or students Google you and find that the top results assert your incompetence?
And what does this self-policing of necessary and hard research questions do to researchers, to scholars, to our students, and to the public who is meant to receive that mobilized knowledge?
Research like ours, the complicated, risky, challenging ideas that really teach you something: this isn’t the stuff of public discourse anymore, and it’s disingenuous of SSHRC to suggest it is.
Have I learned something from this? If the CBC calls again I will probably talk to them; the producer who organized the original interview called to apologize, and I think he honestly does feel bad about it. But the stuff is still out there, articles and blog posts and tweets that make me ashamed and defensive about my years of successful peer-reviewed research, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do to correct it makes me feel ill.
Miao Dean is a Professor of English at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on the Canadian novel, and is interested in non-fiction prose and travel writing as well. She has published extensively on early Canadian women writers, on the literature of wilderness travel, and on animals and hunting in early Canadian writing. Her most recent book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, is on the way the discourse of the canoe is mobilized to justify Canadian sovereignty in the context of aboriginal title.