Hate Hat

Can anyone in Alberta’s mainstream media seriously claim to have been surprised by the vile stream of threats, abuse and harassment unleashed on a Mount Royal University student when they torqued a non-story about her supposed “political correctness” into an international sensation?

I mean, seriously, a couple of university students disagreeing emotionally and at times rudely about politics is hardly worthy of mention in a student newspaper, let alone worldwide news coverage by grownups! Never mind that Zoe Slusar was making a fair point when she argued another student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat on a Calgary university campus did, in fact, send a threatening message.

But right-wing media in North America just love to accuse people who challenge their divisive orthodoxy of being “politically correct,” as if opposing racism and standing up for inclusiveness in society were unreasonable things for a citizen to do.

It can be argued the media’s whole political correctness thing is itself a kind of bullying, intended to make politically engaged citizens think twice about daring to express their disgust at the dog-whistle messaging used by the likes of Canadian conservatives Kellie Leitch and Jason Kenney, plus, of course, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Regardless, anyone at the Calgary Sun surprised by the viciousness with which North American rightists respond to anything they don’t like, particularly when the target of their anger is a woman, hasn’t been paying any attention to their own Alberta beat!

No one who has been paying attention to Alberta politics since the NDP came to power should be surprised by any of this. Ugly threats on social media are standard operating procedure for the far-out fringe of Alberta’s right.

No, it’s fair to say that the Sun — which appears to have fired the opening salvos in the war against Slusar’s right to free speech — knew perfectly well what it was doing when it began to egg on the loony right with its mantra of “political correctness.” It’s said here they wrote the stories the way they did because they just couldn’t resist the temptation to wrong-foot anyone with a legitimate criticism of a right-wing politician or position.

Given that this was a total non-story anyway, about the best that can be said of this effort to foment outrage is that it was highly irresponsible.

In the event, Slusar and her loved ones have received more than 200 ugly and threatening messages in the short time since reprints of the Sun’s stories began appearing prominently in other like-minded publications like the National Post. Some of these late-night phone calls and social media messages have called for her to be murdered, others suggest she take her own life, still others urge degrading violence upon her.

So if Slusar said she found the implications of someone wearing that particular hat on the Calgary university’s campus threatening, subsequent events confirm her fears were completely justified.

If she imagined she would get any support from the university administration, however, she was bound to be disappointed. Notwithstanding the risible claims of the right, delay and cowardice are the normal response of most university administrations in the face of right-wing hysteria, and MRU’s administrators have performed to expectations.

When threats don’t work, the right moves on to whining about how they’re the victims of political correctness. We have now reached that stage in this story.

The next step in the right’s predictable repertoire is to complain they’re being “persecuted.” (Memo to Rev. Brian Coldwell and his religious-school supporters: Being fed to lions, crucified or sold into slavery for your religious beliefs is persecution. Being politely told you should take measures to stop anti-gay bullying in your private schools is not.)

And the Sun — which at least nominally covers Alberta politics — didn’t understand all this? Oh, give us a break!

So let’s talk about the message on that hat.

Why was the hat offensive? That’s pretty easy — it is fair to say Trump is running an overtly racist campaign, even if he has finally conceded that President Barack Obama was, in fact, born in the U.S.

The slogan on the hat — “Make America Great Again” — is a kind of sly racism, for the simple reason that the United States of America has never really not been great, arguably since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and certainly since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Since 1945, as we all understand, the United States has enjoyed a kind of greatness unparalleled in human history, exceeding that of Rome or the British Empire, culturally, militarily and financially.

So if Trump is not talking about that kind of greatness, what kind of greatness is he talking about? Everyone on both sides of this debate understands that too — it’s about returning to the day when white males were the unquestioned masters of that country and the world, and no one else was allowed into the clubhouse.

So was a dumb-ass hat on an undergraduate’s head threatening? Who knows or cares what the kid wearing it had in his heart? The threatening nature of such gestures, intended or not, is obvious. The proof is in what’s happened to Slusar and her family in the past few days. The bigger message, though, is “if you think that was bad, just wait till our guy’s in charge…”  We saw this very phenomenon during the Brexit campaign in Britain.

So, what if some kid had worn a black ball cap with a swastika on it? Or a KKK hood? Would those gestures be considered legitimately offensive, or would the Sun jump to the wearers’ defence as well? Would the Sun in those circumstances also scream political correctness, and try to set up critics for a campaign of harassment?

Sad to say, I don’t know the answer to those questions. But it’s worth asking, are those universally recognized racist symbols really all that different from Trump’s 21st Century ugliness just because one comes from the 19th Century and other from the 20th?

Trump, of course, has thankfully not yet had a chance to put his promises into action. But history teaches us to beware politicians who promise great outrages. Sometimes they deliver.

So, was Slusar right to speak up and challenge the hat wearer? You bet she was!

All decent people have a responsibility to challenge hateful speech and actions — which can be a pretty uncomfortable experience.

Does the kid in the hat have the right to wear it anyway? Well, yes, he does. That’s the thing about recognizing free expression as a fundamental right — it’s there to protect offensive speech, not just speech with which everyone agrees. Virtually everyone the Sun disparages for their alleged “political correctness” gets that.

But in a “marketplace of ideas,” we can’t marginalize offensive speech without criticizing it. So recognizing this fundamental right sure as hell doesn’t mean — as mainstream media’s professional political correctness scolds clearly want us to believe — that we’re obligated to keep our lips zipped when we hear hateful, threatening or abusive speech. And it doesn’t mean that people courageous enough to speak up are “ultra-sensitive” or “politically correct.”

Isn’t it curious how right-wing “free-speech advocates” instinctively use all the legal and political weapons available to them, from their exclusive media franchise to the law of defamation, to suppress legitimate democratic criticism when it comes their way?

Thankfully, it’s not working. And it will never work, no matter how much Postmedia’s political columnists whine about it. So hats off, as it were, to Zoe Slusar, for having the courage to speak up.

And shame on the Alberta media, especially the Sun editions of Postmedia’s deplorable Alberta Frankenpaper, for lacking the energy or inclination to write about real news, and for their complicit role encouraging the attacks that Slusar and her family will have to endure for a while yet.

If it’s any comfort to them, the media will move on eventually. After all, it’s almost time for the same crowd to start screeching about the imaginary War on Christmas. Oh! Wait! It’s already happening!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...