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Why a Nanaimo Newspaper Should Have Declined a 'Racist' Letter About First Nations

The key for determining which conflicting views should be published and which ones disregarded is whether they can contribute to a productive dialogue for the better of a community. By publishing a letter accusing First Nations peoples of unreasonably holding on to their supposedly outdated "tribal system," the Nanaimo Daily Times has failed this test.

Earlier this week, the Nanaimo Daily News published a letter from local resident Bill McRitchie who argued that Canadians today should not have to face "condemnation," as he put it, for the injustices committed by their ancestors towards First Nations peoples. McRitchie subsequently accused First Nations peoples of unreasonably holding on to their supposedly outdated "tribal system."

I can only assume McRitchie means white, privileged Canadians, considering that many (although, not all) First Nations peoples today also self-identify as Canadians. As well, as a white, Anglo-Protestant whose family background is dominantly British, I am unsure, despite being born and raised here, how I am more of an "evolve[d] Canadian," to use McRitchie's words, than First Nations members whose ancestors were, well...from here.

The blunt of the criticism, however, has been levied at the Daily News for publishing the letter, with news articles emphasizing the subsequent "outrage on social media" towards the newspaper and denunciations of it from First Nations communities.

Interestingly, the same newspaper subjected itself to an almost identical controversy less than a year ago for publishing another letter critical of First Nations peoples, even sparking a protest and a call for its managing editor's resignation as a result.

At the time of writing, the Daily Times has not issued a statement to respond to the more recent incident; but of the earlier one, they defended the letter writer's right to free speech and stressed that the views expressed in letters to the editorial staff that they decide to publish do not necessarily reflect their own views. (To be sure, they clarified that in the case of that particular letter, it did not reflect their own views, and as a seeming appeasement to the community, they retrospectively agreed that they should not have published it.) One could reasonably suppose that they would frame a response to this week's controversy along similar lines.

An issue I therefore find interesting that emerges from this incident is the plausible argument the disclaimer "letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff" presupposes, which is that journalists provide a space to reflect the views of the local community at large.

This point, from a particular perspective, protects the newspaper from becoming an apparent editorial whip, deciding which views of the community should be heard and which ones censored. It allows for the presentation of conflicting views on an issue as an avenue for debate, even when such views do not accord with the majority opinion.

Could it be that the Daily Times simply just believes that it is important for them to publish such letters as a means to highlight that certain levels of cultural intolerance still exist in our ostensibly civilized society, which could also explain, under the logic of topicality, their otherwise suspicious timing given that they published the letter only a day after a popular Reconciliation Walk in Vancouver? And if so (or even if that is not necessarily the case), why the disparity between the outrage towards them and the outrage at the letter writer?

On these points, there seems to be an interesting parallel with the recent controversy over author David Gilmour's arguably misogynistic attitudes towards (not) teaching women writers. In response to Gilmour's remarks, Toronto Review of Books editor Jessica Duffin Wolfe articulated the following: "Hearing about Gilmour's terrible perspective has at least given us a chance to push forward a better conversation about what it means to read well, honestly, widely, ethically, and about what it should mean to 'teach literature.'" Out of controversy, it appears, arises the opportunity for productive and progressive dialogues to emerge.

All of these plausible perspectives beg an understanding of why McRitchie himself is not the larger target of criticism. Perhaps the question of his racist undertones is not particularly debatable, and the inappropriateness, to say the least, of his letter is tacitly and preemptively agreed upon by all of us--no point, thus, in attacking an easy target.

So why exactly are we so critical of the Nanaimo Daily Times, by contrast? Well, they should be the main target of criticism, but not simply because they published a morally questionable letter to the editor. The fact is, as I earlier suggested, newspapers publishing controversial letters is by no means an uncommon practice, and it often results in forming generative spaces of dialogue. To insist that newspapers only publish letters that accord with society's morals is damaging to not only the freedoms of speech and of the press, but to democracy as well.

The problem is deeper, and it reflects the need for an ethical imperative to restrict free speech, but more accurately, the kind of restriction that is needed is internal, that is, we must practice self-restriction.

As I delineated in a previous blog post, external censorship harms free speech by destroying the possibility for productive affirmations of thought and identity. Self-censorship, on the other hand, protects the concept of free speech while drawing a line internally in our collective consciousness between what is acceptable and what is not.

In the case of this particular example, the editorial staff needs to practice self-censorship by recognizing that an accusatory letter unreasonably critical of First Nations communities is a reflection of the paper itself if they publish it, even if they did not write it. The very process of disseminating information means, in an ethical society, that you need to take responsibility for the consequences.

This is an issue of self-censorship because the newspaper is a voice for its own community, to which it is organically merged. A newspaper then should not--indeed, cannot--represent some magical, objective, third-person perspective.

The culprit seems to be the line of thinking encapsulated by "letters do not necessarily reflect our views." Taken to its extreme, beyond mere, and often useful, debates in editorial pages on party politics or transportation issues or waste-management systems, for example, it can dangerously be applied to instances which in no way help to generate productive lines of dialogue.

I am always baffled when employees attach a disclaimer to their public remarks that their comments are always their own and do not necessarily reflect their employer's. But you inherently are always a reflection of your business because through your labour you become an individual through your work--in this way, your reflections are also your employer's.

Similarly, a newspaper is not simply an objective reflection of the community it represents but it needs to subjectively contribute to the community by assuming the community's ethical values as a whole. The key for determining which conflicting views should be published and which ones disregarded is whether they can contribute to a productive dialogue for the better of a community. The Nanaimo Daily News, it seems, has failed this test.

This blog originally appeared on the author's website.


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