This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Warriors, put down your keyboards

Our constitutional right is to be tried in a court of law, not by social media

Raziel Reid@razielreid

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

I recently found myself the recipient of a barrage of condemning tweets. No surprise that self-righteousness and outrage prevail on Twitter, but I was still frustrated. There’s no room for trying to understand. They’ve already decided I’m on the other side. Today’s social media splits society into extremes. We’re in or out. Refugees are sanctified or demonized. Islam is spirituality or terror. #lovewins or you’re going to hell. The wall Trump wants to build between the U.S. and Mexico is literal, but there are also the figurative walls we put in place and which create divides.

In June, I sarcastically lambasted the University of British Columbia for its handling of the inquiry into what they called “serious allegations” against Steven Galloway, chair of the Creative Writing Program. Galloway was suspended in November of 2015, and a retired Supreme Court judge, Mary Ellen Boyd, was brought in to investigate. UBC announced this publicly, and some faculty breached his right to privacy by giving media interviews, which led to public hearsay. In the time of Jian Ghomeshi, assumptions were made.

Galloway had hired me to profess Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults, and was suspended from his post during my time at UBC. My tweet wasn’t about his innocence. What was meant to be a statement in support of liberty, justice, and its process was used against me. There were calls to revoke my Governor General’s Literary Award (heard that one before…) and suggestions that I was a rape apologist.

Many university campuses have a sordid legacy of suppressing reports of sexual assault. When a case does reach court, as recently seen with the atrocious Brock Turner case, there doesn’t seem to be real justice. The people are mad. And we should be. The law is failing us. But that doesn’t give us free rein to crucify someone. It is not guilty until proven innocent.

My outspokenness on the subject wasn’t about Galloway. We aren’t friends; I never conferred with him over my statements. Equally, it wasn’t about the alleged victims. I was on neither side of the wall. I live in an open-space loft. I was speaking out against an inequitable series of events which have resulted in slander. The disorder and vagueness of UBC’s dealings with Galloway—publicizing his dragging through the mud without any facts that might reveal its justification—scared me. After all, I was employed by them once.

I tried to explain how my point was for humanity, and our liberties in this country. Our constitutional right is to be tried in a court of law, not by social media. Boyd’s investigation only substantiated one of the claims, but UBC felt its trust in him had been broken. Okay, fire him and move on. That’s their right as an employer. It is not their right, or anyone’s right, to throw him under the bus and roll over him without even knowing what street you’re on.

My initial tweet, “Steven Galloway is a true visionary, and I look forward to his next book. He can be ‘unsubstantially’ inappropriate with me any day,” was impetuous and easily misconstrued. I wrote what I was feeling at the time, and wrote it in a confined space. Because the internet is a place of permanence, no one lets you forget. The condemnation that followed equated to intimidation and censorship.

If you post something people disagree with or don’t fully understand, you’re bound to be attacked and lose followers. In this superficial, stat-obsessed world, freedom of expression is at risk. If you aren’t confident in your point of view, you might allow yourself to be oppressed. What should really be silenced is digital self-righteousness. A person’s heart amounts to more than 140 characters. Take the time to know it.

Raziel Reid is the author of When Everything Feels like the Movies, which won a 2014 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature and was optioned for screen. He is currently living nomadically in Europe while working on his next book.

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