In its very particularity, the flap over St. Francis Xavier University’s apology to a former student for a plaque honouring Brian Mulroney has general application to what seems a deep error of our day.
Earlier this week, the Nova Scotia university said it was sorry to have “those offended” by the words quoting Canada’s former prime minister. Those words were: “The only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door.” Mulroney attributes them to his father, an electrician at the local paper mill, when the boy from Baie-Comeau set off with his cardboard suitcase to attend St. FX in 1955.
The plaque drew the Facebook post ire of a self-identified “social worker in training,” Meaghan Marie Landry, who said the sentence demeaned tradespeople, small town Canadian life and pulp mills generally, so had to be protested for their discriminatory and oppressive content.
After a period of “self-reflection,” the university administration issued the “we are so sorry” statement, which only got it out of the sty mud and into the pork chopper. The National Post’s John Robson lacerated the apology as further “amusing and grotesque” evidence of the political correctness revolution devouring its ideological children. Maybe it was only my imagination, but I swear I heard Rex Murphy, Barbara Kay, Margaret Wente et al also rummaging around for their carving knives and sharpening stones.
Should they decide to do so, neither they nor John Robson would be inherently wrong to want to take another slice off the PC beast with their typical panache and perspicacity. Lately I’ve begun to question, though, whether the whole habituated cycle of offense-apology-criticism isn’t what needs to be addressed.
We know the cycle all too well. Someone somewhere objects to something someone somewhere has said or written. After some variable interval of “self-reflection,” those deemed responsible mutter their mea culpas, and the stalwarts of free speech descend from the hills, borrowing the infamous phrase about journalists, to bayonet the wounded on all sides.
But what if the corrective isn’t the reflexive declaration of offense, off-the-shelf apologies that are often a way of saying “happy now? please go away,” and terminal bemoaning of the loss of the freedom to say what we want? What if the answer isn’t to insist on just being free whatever-we-want, but to exercise the obligation to ask essential questions?
What if, just to take a zany example, a “social worker in training” had been less concerned with the pro forma denunciation of perceived discrimination and oppression than with the primary task of asking whether:
- The university administration had considered that what held in 1955 Baie-Comeau might not accurately describe, say, Kamloops, B.C. in 2019?
- The university had considered the risk of the words of the famous man about his inspiring father being misunderstood without necessary context?
- The university had considered supplying that context by making it clear that the benefits of a university education are not the negation of a technical, craft or trades training?
- Anyone in the university administration had actually grown up or lived in a paper mill town and so was able to reasonably adjudicate from lived experience whether the words were a fair and current representation?
- What was the object, intention and circumstance of putting up that plaque with those particular words, and might alternatives have been preferable?
Likewise, university administrators, as administrators of an institution dedicated to inquiry, knowledge and understanding, might have reasonably asked the “social worker in training”:
- Whether she presumed that her experience growing up in a paper mill town in Cape Breton was the experience of all who have grown up in paper mill towns across Canada throughout Canadian history?
- Given the nature of the profession she seeks to enter, whether it is wise to be at risk of appearing to extrapolate one’s own experience to diverse populations across vast geography and history?
- Whether she had done any research into the words themselves, and the objective conditions in which they were made?
- Whether she might be able to read the single sentence from within its historical context, and see its intention as legitimate to personal liberty and growth, rather than discrimination and oppression?
- Whether the very nature of being a social worker in training, i.e., someone who intends to practice social work, doesn’t carry a first obligation to assume positive intent and investigate circumstance rather than advance brandishing critique and demands?
Of course, these questions could be improved upon immeasurably by minds intent on doing so. Nor are they meant to be limited to the particulars of the St. FX flap. The approach they recommend could be applied generally. Because surely it is better to hone our questions than to continually sharpen our outrage and submit to the blade of a “make it go away” apology on our necks, yes?