Missteps and Counter-steps

Matt Gurney has an interesting piece (with an excellent URL) in the National Post regarding Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais’ letter to NDP MP Charmaine Borg. Gurney suggests that the letter was not misogynistic, as the NDP claim, and that the NDP’s reaction itself is the real problem. I would argue that misogyny is not always as obvious as Gurney would like it to be and that his column reinforces some unfortunate myths regarding calling out systematic discrimination.

This exchange was not “an opportunity for a female MP to take on a well-established (male) politician and fight for what she believes in on an equal footing.” Certainly Borg had the opportunity to take on a male politician, but to claim it was on an equal footing ignores not only the systematic gender discrimination at play in our political conversation, it ignores the fact that a Senator, from the governing party who will never have to face the electorate again, making off-side remarks is much more powerful than a first term MP without critic portfolio.

Gurney suggests that the letter was “insulting, rude, over the top and uncalled for” but not misogyny, which “is defined as ‘a hatred of women.’” Hatred, as defined in that same dictionary is either “a very strong feeling of dislike” or “prejudiced hostility or animosity.” Judging by the NDP’s reaction, we could then reasonably infer their meaning as “prejudiced hostility or animosity towards women” without violating the dictionary definition. Moreover, neither definition includes any reference to intentionality or deliberateness, so it’s clear that hatred, and therefore misogyny, can be expressed unconsciously. Gurney has already established the hostility and animosity within that definition, so our task remains to establish that Dagenais’ remarks were prejudiced and directed towards women more generally than at Borg specifically.

The NDP is often praised for having the most female MPs by percentage out of any party in the current Parliament (and for scoring top marks for diversity generally among their current MPs), but the sad truth of the matter is that all parties nominate minority candidates in ridings that they don’t expect to win. This is why, in the same list I just cited, the reduced Liberal caucus scored the lowest marks for diversity: the safest ridings are most often given to white men. Dagenais, in his remarks, suggested that Borg was only elected because of Jack Layton, and that she would not have been elected otherwise.  This comment, according to popular wisdom, would be correct; she ran in a sacrificial riding and won, like most of her Quebecois colleagues, male or female, because of Layton’s surging popularity. Ridings like Trinity-Spadina in 2008 and Toronto Centre in 2013, where two competent, qualified women both have excellent shots at winning get to battle it out on their own merits are unfortunate rarities. Dagenais’ comments attacked a woman on the basis of systematic discrimination against women. Without digressing into systematic ways in which women are excluded from the political conversation, or the fact that he thought he could get away with an attack that was “uncalled for” on a woman, using prejudice against women to attack a woman is misogynistic.

Now, whether we agree or not that Dagenais’ comments were misogynistic, the most troubling part of Gurney’s article was when he stated that:

Accusing Sen. Dagenais of misogyny is like calling someone racist or homophobic. It is a very serious allegation that Ms. Borg and Mr. Cullen have made, and it is not even remotely supported by the evidence. He probably has grounds for legal action (though, for optics, he should probably hire a female lawyer, and praise her effusively in public).

I am a white straight man. Calling me racist, or homophobic, or misogynistic is not grounds for legal action, nor is it really an insult; it’s suggesting that I made a (grave) mistake. None of these words imply that your prejudices are intentional; in fact, it implies the opposite because even the most die-hard bigots at least think they are in the right. We collectively have to come to the understanding that even with the best of intentions, we can be bigoted. Even if Dagenais made his comments without the slightest trace of malice, he is responsible for the context into which they intervene. This logic is already at place in Gurney’s piece when he suggests Cullen’s intervention was itself almost “paternalistic.” Gurney correctly identifies that Cullen’s best intentions are not a defense against a sexist misstep.

(Though in this case, I would argue Cullen was completely in the right. I’d rather have my House Leader taking on Senators than my backbenchers.)

To conclude with a remark on Gurney’s conclusion: it is neither the NDP’s, nor Borg’s responsibility to speak for women, nor do I think they would claim so. Moreover, it is not “unbecoming” to call out a colleague on their sexist behaviour, nor is it victim-crying to suggest that sexism undermines our female MPs’ abilities to do their jobs.

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