Friday, May 22, 2015

Hurtful words constitute harmful actions

(The following is a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen in response to an opinion column in its May 22 edition.)

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Dear Editor:

In Christie Blatchford we have H.L. Mencken turned inside-out while doing a handstand, in that her mission is to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Her most recent column (When did we get so sensitive? It all started back in 1993) is a case in point, and one in which she utilizes a three-pronged attack.

Firstly, she delegitimizes victims by reducing reactions to mere “hysterics”, ensuring that those on the receiving end of sexual misconduct on any scale feel even less emboldened to take a stand against their perpetrators. Isn't there something more useful a nationally-syndicated columnist can do with their pulpit than pass judgement on the unguarded emotional responses of victims?

Secondly, she asserts that there are circumstances in which the victim should simply suck it up and take it. By Blatchford’s logic, being a Crown Attorney obligates one to accept a judge’s tongue in their mouth, and boozed-up golfers have the right to ‘heckle’ a performer with the implication of impending sex – with or without consent. Call me weird, but I believe there are no circumstances in which any of the above is acceptable. (All things being equal, if there is no excuse for impaired driving, then there is no excuse for any other act one commits while under the influence.)

Thirdly, she ties it all together by reducing the issue to a false binary, as if the true scandal in question is that one extreme (“hurtful words”) is being wrongly conflated with the other extreme (“harmful actions”). To the contrary, hurtful words do indeed constitute harmful actions because, by definition, they are intended to trigger a negative consequence (emotional or otherwise), and thus they are not mutually-exclusive. Our legal system recognizes this reality by categorizing hurtful words according to various infractions, such as libel, uttering threats, malicious harassment, inciting revolution, and, of course, sexual harassment, which is what the issue at hand is really about.

It is very telling that the term ‘sexual harassment’ is nowhere to be found in Blatchford’s column - 'harassed' appears on its own, but that's not quite the same thing. After all, if one is to legitimize sexual harassment in the workplace, and thereby reinforce the traditional power balance, then the first step is to eliminate the term itself from the debate. This, of course, fits in neatly with the greater objective of right wing populism, which is to turn the mainstream against the marginalized.

James Deagle
Ottawa, ON