3 min

Feeling the chill

Decision to pull Heather Mallick's column from was an unprecedented act of censorship

Lefties are famous for being humourless. It’s a hard stereotype to avoid. We’ve all heard the jokes about feminists who never crack a smile and many of us have suffered through earnest political meetings and potlucks — all very serious and appropriate. I know I lived through my activist and university years, struggling to find the “right” words to describe something, desperate not to offend anyone, lest I be cast out of the lesbian commune or the vegan co-op.

Thankfully, those years are over. And though I would never argue that we should all run around deliberately trying to hurt or offend people, the truth is, not everyone is going to get our jokes. I was reminded of this over the summer, after making a crack about a friend’s ham omelette as being particularly “manly.” When the 22-year-old radical sitting at the next table castigated me for “gendering food,” I couldn’t help but shudder.

Still, I can only begin to imagine what Heather Mallick has been going through these days, after trying to inject a little sartorial humour into the often staid CBC. In the last few days, she’s been publicly flogged for a column she wrote about Sarah Palin (it’s no longer on the CBC website). CBC news chief John Cruickshank condemned Mallick’s work as “viciously personal, grossly hyperbolic and intensely partisan,” taking his direction from Fox News and rightwing columnists Margaret Wente and David Warren.

This is not to mention the hundreds of abusive emails she’s received in recent days, including one from a reader who voiced the desire “punch you right in your chops and knock every tooth out of your head.” According to an appeal that Mallick sent to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, she’s had to hire a security guard to accompany her to a class she teaches, out of fear that the online vitriol could result in actual violence.

In the oft-debated column, Mallick referred to the Republican vice-presidential nominee as displaying “a toned down version of the porn actress look.” She also referred to Republican men as “sexually inadequate” and argued that Palin appeals to the so-called “white trash vote.” Taken out of context, the words are offensive and seem poorly chosen. But if you actually read the whole article, you can practically see the sarcasm dripping off the page. I thought it was funny and certainly didn’t warrant unprecedented condemnation from Canada’s national broadcaster, not to mention the torrent of abuse from readers.

It’s also pretty rich that Warren and Wente are holding themselves up as models of appropriate speech and respectful argumentation. Both have been widely condemned for their less-than careful word choices.

In January 2005, Wente provoked controversy for referring to Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams in the Globe and Mail as “a deadbeat brother-in-law” and calling Newfoundland “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.” In 2006, she blamed the AIDS crisis on North America on African immigrants, declaring that “changing the behaviour of African men is probably hopeless.”

Warren regularly whines about the evils of no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and radical feminism in the Ottawa Citizen. He recently wrote a long article celebrating the REAL Women of Canada for resisting feminists’ desire to convert “a new generation of embittered young women and confused men, attracted to the task of infiltrating our legal and political bureaucracies.”

He’s a frequent defender of the Catholic Church, and recently called the federal government’s apology for the horrors of the residential school system “appalling,” bemoaning that church officials had “devoted their lives to serving the Indian children according to their best lights, and to saving whom they could from what was often terrible squalor.”

This is the kind of unsourced, poorly written, inflammatory drivel that we should be decrying. Wente and Warren certainly have the right to write and say what they like (and frankly, it’s helpful to our community to see these kinds of arguments voiced so plainly), but what we should really be asking is why these voices are so dominant in the mainstream press. The brouhaha over the CBC’s supposed liberal bias obscures the real problem: a lack of progressive voices on the pages of our major newspapers. Media concentration is squarely to blame, and it’s no coincidence that this has led to a spike in interest in the alternative press. Where else are we going to see our opinions and values respected?

While I would normally be somewhat encouraged by an announcement from the CBC that they will be seeking to increase the “diversity” of voices online and on the air, it’s abundantly clear that they intend to recruit more conservative columnists. With Harper poised to form another government, it’s no wonder that CBC officials are quaking in their boots.

Still, I would expect more from a broadcaster that actually has a mandate to reflect the Canadian public. Pulling Mallick’s column off the website was an unprecedented act of censorship. It plays right into the hands of Harper and his ilk, who would seek to filter out what kinds of speech and cultural products are “appropriate” and therefore deserving of public support. Makes me want to turn off the radio and go rent a copy of Young People Fucking, before it gets pulled off the shelves.