Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An NDP candidate's mistake and the politics of not-knowing

I have to admit, I'm skeptical that Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas NDP candidate Alex Johnstone really didn't know what Auschwitz was until last week. But I think the controversy that her claim to not-knowing has spawned raises some larger issues that are worth reflecting upon. One is the tricky question of responding to public not-knowing in general. And the other is around learning from the specific flavour of not-knowing which Johnstone has claimed, and the energetic incredulity and condemnation it has evoked.

The knowledge (or lack of same) of the candidate -- also the vice-chair of the local school board until a couple of days ago -- has become a topic of public conversation through the latest variation on a cycle that has been quite common in this election: Seven years ago on Facebook, she made a joke in the comments on a photo taken at Auschwitz, comparing fence posts in the image to a penis. Someone recently dredged up this fact, and then a reporter asked her about it. Her response was to apologize, and then to explain her actions by citing her lack of knowledge -- she had no idea what Auschwitz was until last week, and had she known seven years ago then of course she wouldn't have joked about it. Subsequently, of course, it is this admitted (or claimed) ignorance that has gone on to become the source of momentum for the controversy.

As I said, I'm skeptical that she really didn't know. I think it's more likely that she was grasping for a way to defuse something that she knew had explosive potential, she made a bad choice, and now she (and the party) are stuck with it and have to ride it out.

I certainly could be wrong, though. Paul Berton, the editor-in-chief of the local daily, wrote a column on Saturday making some quite sensible points about not-knowing and asking questions about what exactly we can legitimately expect political candidates (or any of the rest of us) to know in this era where knowledge is both much more plentifully accessible than a generation ago, and much more socially fragmented.

He writes, "After all, in a digital world, with news media expanding and information exploding, what else should we know? How much can we know?" and after presenting many cogent examples, concludes, "As the information highway gets ever wider, the definition of 'common knowledge' will get ever narrower. Only the most arrogant, as usual, can pretend to know it all." (Well, mostly cogent examples -- his admission that he has worked as a journalist in Muslim countries for a "considerable time" and "can't seem to keep track of the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam" sounds an awful lot like admitting to a shallow knowledge of the social context he was being paid to report on, which is not only in a different league than the other examples on his list, but that also, in the very casualness with which it was shared, potentially offers a disturbing kernel of insight into the ongoing serious problems with mainstream Western knowledge production about Islamic countries. But I digress.)

It doesn't completely abolish my incredulity at this particular instance, but I do have a fair bit of sympathy for the more general point. One small way in which I have long been conscious of a related phenomenon in my own life is that I am someone who reads a lot, and who reads a lot of different things, but who is not in any standard understanding of the term "well read." I've had a few people in my life over the years learn of my delight in and affinity for books both great and small, who then relate to me as someone who would fit into that category, which of course has led to awkward conversations where I have to navigate being assumed to have intimate knowledge of various 19th century English classics, the output of the literary superstar du jour, and so on, which I mostly do not have.

But more than that, I'm a writer and media producer. That means that I am regularly making claims-to-know in public contexts. I work hard at being careful as I do that, but it's the sort of thing where sooner or later, everyone makes a mistake, everyone runs into something that they don't know and arguably should have. And sometimes, someone notices and publically points it out. Heck, I've made lots of mistakes, and I can't claim I've always responded perfectly when people have told me so. And it's not just those of us for whom this kind of thing is work that face this, because really anyone who is involved in social media or even the different sort of public space that comes with social movement or community struggle is likely to face public not-knowing sooner or later.

On the one hand, I have little time for the sort of piece that has cropped up recently condemning the internet outrage and shaming machine, because often those pieces boil down to entitled people not liking the fact that social media gives marginalized people about whom they say awful things a chance to respond...and even, sometimes, a little bit of actual power to inflict consequences. Particularly if an instance of my not-knowing causes harm, then of course I should be held to account for it. But it's not clear to me that there's always real space to be genuinely accountable for an error of public not-knowing, to learn from it, and to move forward. Because if you write, make media, participate in social media, or organize for social change for any length of time, you're not only going to be displaying your knowing and not-knowing in public, you inevitably have to be learning in public. For years, the master post where I list links to my collection of non-fiction book reviews (sorry -- it's a bit out of date!) has warned of reviews "that I would write quite differently now, given that my knowledge base, life experience, and analysis have all evolved over the life of this blog and will continue to evolve...that's the potentially vulnerable side of putting at least part of your intellectual growth on public display." Even in off-line social movement contexts, we don't always do a good job of accounting for the messiness that gets wrapped around public displays of not-knowing: When does it really matter? When is it genuine? When is it a cloak for a more active sort of refusal to account for your own privilege? How do we respond when it causes harm? How do we create space for learning without indulging that harm? How much leeway should be allowed? How do we respond without creating barriers to participation? I don't write this with answers, but with a keen sense that more of us need to be asking the questions.

Of course, the instance at the centre of this controversy is not some generic form of public not-knowing, but is rather a very specific kind of not-knowing that has evoked a very specific sort of response. It is generating so much attention because there is broad public sentiment (including from me, and very likely including from Alex Johnstone) that -- however we shape our expectations for what details about it each of us must know -- the Holocaust as an overall phenomenon must continue to be broadly known, and not-knowing about it must be challenged. It is, after all, the most prominent instance of horrific and inhuman violence and systematic mass murder -- of genocide -- in the 20th century. I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about knowing and not-knowing the past, how it happens, and why it matters, and it seems to me that challenging not-knowing in this area is absolutely vital, in part to honour those who were victims and those who resisted, and in part to contribute to building what is needed to ensure that such horror never happens again.

Of course when it comes to the very worst of the kinds of hateful collective violences that one segment of humanity has inflicted on another -- the Holocaust, the Middle Passage and slavery of Africans in the Americas, the settler colonial genocide on Turtle Island, and so on -- it is important not to diminish their magnitude and their specificity, including by making shallow comparisons to other kinds of phenomena. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is also a dishonour to the memory of those who suffered/died/resisted/survived these great violences if we don't try to learn from them in ways that apply to responding to the many forms of unjust harm and violence that get organized into so many lives today, which even when not in the same league as those historical pinnacles of awfulness still have their own significance and impact on real people.

Which brings me back to not-knowing in the context of elections. In the context of mainstream public discourse in this country, including very prominently in the course of election campaigns, there are huge areas of foundational and ongoing unjust collective harms and violences (including some that are ongoing manifestations of the white supremacist slavery and settler colonialism mentioned above, and also including, both intersecting with those and beyond them, some connected to patriarchy and gender oppression) for which publically performing one flavour or another of not-knowing is not only not challenged in the mainstream, but is very actively reinforced. You cannot refuse to publically not-know about the full enormity, implications, and ongoing character of these collective violences and harms and how they are woven through what "Canada" continues to be, and still be taken seriously as a viable candidate or as a commentator worthy of mainstream access. Not-knowing is the expectation, the norm; and that's a huge problem.

And because I promised myself to try and keep my posts to a modest length in my new upsurge of blogging, I'm not going to try to make the full case for what I've just said -- overcoming the powerful weight of the socially organized, publically mandated not-knowing that I'm talking about is far beyond a single blog post anyway. But there are lots of resources out there that interested folks can use to chip away at this not-knowing if they so desire, from the small efforts I've tried to make on the blog, in my books, and in hearing from many different voices through my current radio work; to the useful collection I just finished reading, Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada (Fernwood Publishing, 2013); to both written work and recorded talks from activists and scholars like Himani Bannerji, Sunera Thobani, Rinaldo Walcott, Taiaiake Alfred, Patricia Monture, Gary Kinsman, Harsha Walia, Sherene Razack, Howard Adams, Glenn Coulthard, Leanne Simpson and many others; to the organizing that happens under banners like No One Is Illegal, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter.

So even if the details of what Alex Johnstone did or did not know, and should or should not have known, remain up for debate, I think we need to be informed by the energy and insistence of the reaction to her not-knowing. I think we need to take that energy, to take the lessons of those pinnacles of historical collective violence and harm, and to apply the imperative to challenge not-knowing to the many ways that not-knowing about historical and ongoing collective violence and harm in which many of us are complicit are sanctioned and encouraged in this election and in mainstream public life more generally in Canada.

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