Jesse Wente Won’t Like This…

…or maybe he will.

The controversy surrounding cultural appropriate blew up over the weekend with two editors of prestigious magazines quitting and me, as an ageing white male heterosexual Canadian-born settler, firing off a Tweet to @jessewente with a copy to @metromorning.

My notification setting on Twitter (@oakvillerider) started binging away every couple of minutes this morning so I decided my 140-character response needed more space.

So here’s go…

For a long time I was either a news journalist or an editor. I went to work everyday with the actual thought in mind that this day might be the day I would quit over a matter of principle.

I never had to quit but I did have to offer my resignation on a couple of occasions where my aggressive manner went over the line.

When I became a news editor and later a group national magazine editor I told my staff and later my group of editors that my job was to make their jobs easier. It was my job to protect their jobs and to protect them from the vulgarities of their publishers and complaints of advertisers and even readers.

I told them so long as they told me first what happened I’d do my best to shield them and only edit their writing when necessary (spelling, grammar, structure) or make changes to copy with their input.

They always had the right to quit and I had the right to fire and we both were very careful not to do either.

And now we come to Jesse Wente…

I like listening to Jesse Wente, a regular contributor, on CBC Radio. Mr. Wente is intelligent, compassionate and knows how to tell a story. I’ve long known he is an indigenous Canadian writer and broadcaster and the indigenous part was for me – inconsequential. However, it seems for Mr. Wente it is central.

Fair enough. You get to be what you want to be in my world. But somehow being an indigenous person especially one in the media has become something else…something I don’t recognize as helpful.

You see this current debate began last week when the editor of The Writers’ Union quarterly Write magazine Hal Niedzviecki wrote an essay where he said: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.”

Within hours the cultural roof fell in and Mr. Niedviecki had quit under barrage of criticism on Twitter and Facebook. The Writers’ Union Equity Task Force (whatever that is) issued a statement that said they were “angry and appalled” and demanded that all staff at the magazine be re-educated in the ways of anti-racist writing.

Yikes.

A second editor Jonathan Kay of prestigious The Walrus magazine quit after writing on Twitter that “the mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let identity-politics fundamentalists run riot.”

Gee I wish I’d said that….sorry fundamentalists.

Here’s the issue as I see it:

If we go along with the identity-politics fundamentalists then Elvis wouldn’t ever have been allowed to sing black blues music. Shakespeare would have been shunned for writing about the love affair of a couple of Italian kids. Maybe indigenous musicians shouldn’t be allowed to play white man’s rock and roll (which was appropriated from Mali musicians and adopted by black (and white) Americans living along the Mississippi River and universally loved by many…including old white heterosexual men like me).

Oh the list goes on and gets really silly in a hurry.

What’s not silly but is very serious is the way mainstream culture supports and encourages (or shuns) other cultures whether they be indigenous or different culturally, religious, by sexual orientation or whatever else you can think of.

When I was an editor it was my duty to be inclusive and to encourage even seek out different voices. It was never my job to shame writers who wrote of things I may not have understood. It was never my job to gang up on creatives who dreamed dreams that were not mine.

Yes the past was filled with terrible things done by one culture to another and indigenous peoples aren’t exempt from the view of history anymore than white culture.

But the way to healing the wounds of the past are not to be found in the shaming and bullying tactics being used in the present. I won’t dare to suggest how to find healing in one’s heart but I do know I wouldn’t find it by being critical of others.

I do know my own heart is lightened when I open it to the stories and pain of others even when I don’t understand or even agree with what I hear.

Being in pain, being oppressed, being shamed, being bullied are all things that aren’t okay with me whether it’s happening to me or happening to you or happening to someone else and I will object.

Remember you are my brother (or my sister) whether you like it or not.

Peace be with you.

 

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