Media literacy for the Trump era

I have compiled and explained a list of four five common fallacies that I have noticed while consuming news media in the age of Trump. These aren’t new since Trump was made president, but I feel like they are exacerbated by the current administration. They’re meant to be taken in the spirit of the “laws of the internet” that dictate “if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it,” or “any sufficiently long internet argument will eventually invoke Hitler,” etc.

The law of imputed 12 dimensional chess

No matter how demonstrably stupid Trump’s action, it will always be depicted by some as a part of an inscrutable master plan.

Every time Trump does or says something bad, it will be followed up by a series of hot takes, tweets or op-ed pieces in which we all try to guess what his real goal is. E.g. “He’s banned Muslims from entering the United States. But what is his endgame here? What is he trying to distract us from?”

Muslims being banned is the real crisis. Just because us white people aren’t directly affected doesn’t mean that the real evil is coming later. It’s not a feint to make us look the wrong way. That was it. This is not a drill. Real people are being hurt.

I think there’s a few reasons that this fallacy occurs so often. It’s hard to admit, but Trump isn’t a genius who beat the political system by being some calculating mastermind. That would be easier to take in some ways. (He’s profoundly stupid,1 but he’s wealthy and the system is just not set up to protect us from people like him.) As best I can guess, the “12 dimensional chess” theories are appealing due to: 1. simple self-centredness and latent racism (i.e. “It’s bad, but it doesn’t affect me, so the badness must be something else”), 2. a desire to avoid admitting that the left was beaten by a blasted fool or 3. a McCarthy-like impulse to cast the villain as omnipotent.2 Take your pick.

The law of sacrificing marginalised communities

Marginalised communities will be the ones most negatively affected by Trump’s policies, but they will also be the ones blamed for it, directly or indirectly.

Here is an example of what I mean: The February 2017 cover of The Economist3 features the profiles of Trump and Putin facing each other. Trump is wearing lipstick and there’s a kiss mark on Putin’s cheek. The implication is that Trump and Putin are gay.

The LGBTQ+ community has been betrayed by Trump’s recent executive order that rolled back protections for trans people.4 Gay men are now being turned back at the US border after being interrogated and humiliated over the private contents of their phones.5 Things are bad and I don’t know if they’re going to get better.

But of course, the joke that’s currently in vogue is that Trump is gay. (Ooh! Burn!)

Now, I get it. I’ve made jokes like this in the past, but I’ve had a change of heart on the subject. It would certainly bruise the egos of Trump and Putin to be called gay, but then they’re not going to be reading my Twitter feed. Other people will read my messages though, and they will be getting the message that it’s okay to use “gay” as an insult, or to throw marginalised communities under the bus to make a cheap shot at a world leader who honestly doesn’t care.

This is just one example of a marginalised community that’s being indirectly blamed for their own oppression, but I guarantee you that for every similar issue that comes up, there will be self-styled “centrists” or “moderates” who tell the more progressive elements of society that it’s “their own damn fault” for getting uppity and demanding something that the mainstream has had all along. You’ll often see this happen along with the phrase “This is why Trump won,” blaming progressives, women, LGBTQ+, whatever for the rise of Trump.

Watch for it. Any protest or statement with a progressive bent will be met by an opportunistic “centrist” who wants to shut you up by telling you that they agree with your general goal, but that you must be nicer about it and accept a glacially slow pace of progress, and that anything other than that “is why Trump won.”

The law of conservative victimhood

No matter how empowered conservatives become, they will always find a way to make their own victimhood the focus.

This is also an impulse I can sympathise with. I grew up in a super-conservative community, and so I was taught from a young age to believe that it is Christians and conservative Christians especially who are a marginalised minority in Canada. I was taught—and I fully believed—that Christianity was persecuted, and indeed if you define Christian orthodoxy narrowly enough, one can certainly maintain that delusion for quite some time. So I understand where they’re coming from.

But it’s still stupid.

Conservatives always have the upper hand. They aren’t a persecuted minority. That’s just what conservatism is—it’s the political inclination to support the status quo. It’s the people who have power working to support the institutions that got them there. The highest office in the United States has just been awarded to a conservative. The House and the Senate both have Republican majorities. Conservatives are not victims. Not in any sense. In fact, they hold a disproportionately large amount of power over the machinery of government.

And yet, conservatives will defend their victimhood as if that were their very essence.

If there comes a day when there is a shortage of foreign workers to pick the vegetables that Americans want to eat, the tragic hero of the story when it is told will be the poor hard-working American who can’t afford how expensive vegetables have become, and not the foreign workers who were deported. Count on it. Or if a queer person is beaten, the biggest controversy will be whether or not it’s fair to label the aggressor as “homophobic.” And we’re already seeing the beginning of what I expect will be a steady stream of op-ed pieces about how people who supported Trump are the real victims of liberals who are being big meanies about the fact that their choice for President is a fascist.6

It shouldn’t have to be said, but if you supported a fascist by voting for him, and that fascist’s policies mean that your friend is the victim of hate somehow, you should have the perspective to understand that you are not the victim in this situation. You are closer to being the aggressor.

This dynamic is probably strongest along racial lines, but you also see it along the queer-straight axis as well. (E.g. “They excluded police officers from Pride? That’s the greatest injustice in the history of the queer rights struggle!”)

C.f. The “Liberal bubble”

The law of false centrism

No matter how far the political centre is pulled to the right by extremists, anyone who questions “centrism” by advocating policies to the left of where the new political centre has been pulled will be dismissed as insane.

To make a facetious example, if Trump is saying that we need death camps for Muslims at every border crossing and his opponents are saying we shouldn’t have any, the fallacy of centrism would be to say that we only need death camps at certain major border crossings.

This one makes me worried for the future because the main message of the Democratic party from 2016 seems to have been, “If you’re politically to the left of Clinton, we don’t want or need your votes, you dirty Bernie bro. You’re just as bad as Trump.” This message only leads to political victories if everyone is really, really excited about being a political moderate. And only if they’re also okay with the political “centre” being shifted to the right.

From a Canadian perspective, it’s very easy to see how the American political spectrum is shifted. The policies of the centre-right party in Canada (The Liberal Party) would be considered so far left wing in America as to be absolutely unthinkable.

The law of imperfect protests

No matter how despicable the thing that is being protested, if the protest can be criticized—in any way—”moderates” will focus on that.

This mostly goes for student protests, but you see it in other contexts. I’ve seen it a dozen times if I’ve seen it once, and sometimes from people that I would otherwise consider to be very intelligent. Usually you see it shortly after a protest, and often it starts with a somewhat strained observation that the protest is “so ironic.”

E.g. “It’s so ironic,” said the moderate, “They claim to be against death camps, and yet there’s a small amount of litter left after the protest”

This example is really exaggerated, although who knows, we may get there. The fallacy I’m trying to point out is that the violence of white nationalism or fascism or being an outright peodphile apologist is nowhere near the level of violence of a stupid student protester who breaks a window or something while protesting against it. These are absolutely not equivalent, and a protest that doesn’t go 100% perfectly shouldn’t be a reason to throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, I can’t support these protesters because they broke a window. Their position looks just as violent as the white nationalists’.”

“Moderates” love to point out The Irony of this situation, and they also love to ring their hands over how the poor fascist just wanted to speak, and how this protest has somehow damaged Free Expression itself (as if protests weren’t also speech as well).

Like the other fallacies, this is not particular to the Trump era, but it seems much worse now. Watch for it and the others, as well as their themes and variations.

Edit (2017 March 6: Added “The law of imperfect protests”)



Are pronouns up for debate or not?

There’s been a lot of ink spilled recently about the use of pronouns and preferred names in academia. At U of T, one professor in particular is kicking up a fuss about having been asked to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. A CBC editorial on the subject by Neil Macdonald recently provided an entertaining example of a baby boomer throwing a sputtering temper tantrum over the fact that he’s being asked to think about other people.

I could begin demanding that my colleagues refer to me as “blort” or “zonge” with the expectation that they would respectfully begin doing so.

(Imagine wanting to be treated with respect! Hilarious! Also, for the record, the singular “they” is not some newfangled invention of “those damn SJW’s.” There’s at least one example of it in Shakespeare. See A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3.)

It’s almost not worth saying that this is a generational thing, and when the boomers have passed on, their faux indignation over being asked to be a decent human being will die with them.

But let’s take the question of whether we should debate another person’s pronouns at face value, just for fun. Academia is supposed to be an anything-goes bare-knuckle cage-match of ideas, right? Are there legitimate reasons why we might not want to have a debate over pronouns?

I’ve come up with two.

Intellectual honesty

Let’s start with the example of smoking and lung cancer. I’ll get back to the debate at hand, I promise.

Smoking causes lung cancer. This is a fact.

Yes it’s a probabilistic thing; yes, it’s true that not all smokers get lung cancer; yes, it’s true that not all people with lung cancer smoked. But the causal link between smoking and lung cancer is so well established that it is now beyond doubt.

If, in 1950, there was a formal debate at McGill called “Does smoking cause lung cancer?”, that might have been an appropriate debate to have. There was genuine uncertainty over the issue at the time.

However, if I saw a poster on campus today in 2016 for a debate with the same title, I would take it to be a major failing in terms of either scientific judgement or intellectual honesty on the part of the organisers. I would question either their motives or their competency. For a person who wants an answer to the question of whether smoking causes lung cancer, the appropriate response is to point them toward the library, where there are reams of good data on the subject. A debate would not be appropriate.

The reason for this is that a formal public debate presupposes a certain equipoise between the sides being debated. Just framing certain issues as needing to be discussed by academics in the manner of a debate can be dishonest, like in the smoking/lung cancer debate example.

And so sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” it’s not because that the person is some insecure authority whose policies cannot bear scrutiny and they wish to stifle dissent by barring discussion. Sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” they just mean that it would be irresponsible and dishonest to use the machinery of academic “debate” to introduce unwarranted uncertainty where the issue has already legitimately been settled.

As academics, of course we need to be ready to defend any position we take. If there is anywhere that debates should happen over difficult, offensive or extremely technical subjects, it’s within a university. And yet, not all debates are intellectually honest ones to have. Sometimes when a person says, “Let me play devil’s advocate,” the correct response is, “The devil has enough advocates.”

Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre

Not all speech is benign. The famous example is that if you falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, you could kill people.

The same goes for other forms of speech, including academic or political “debates.” After Harper dredged up the niqab debate in the 2015 election, there were violent physical attacks on Muslims in Montreal. The Brexit and Trump campaigns also both arguably brought about spikes in hate crimes in the UK and the US. If you have debates like, “Should we ban Muslims from our country?” those can—and we have seen recently that they do—incite violence against Muslims.

Other sorts of speech can cause harm even more directly. Let’s imagine the example of a trans student in a small class who doesn’t want to be outed as trans to her peers. Imagine that the student goes to the teacher on the first day of class and says, “I know the class list has my name as ‘John,’ but I go by ‘Jane,’ and I’d like you to use ‘she/her’ when referring to me.”

Let’s further imagine that the professor is of the type who refuses to respect a student’s preferred name and pronouns on principle. Just by exercising their “right to freedom of expression,” this professor could out the student to their peers against the student’s will, which could directly put them at risk of harm. This student might be threatened or harmed, but even if the student is lucky and nothing bad happens, she might just feel threatened by this behaviour, which is a harm in itself.

Part of the problem is that discussions that can cause harm or risk of harm to others are often initiated by people who don’t bear any of that risk themselves. So for example, when Harper decided to “have a debate” on the niqab for his own narrow political ends, he did so knowing that he would never be the target of the anti-Muslim violence that followed. Similarly, a cis prof who refuses to use preferred names and pronouns will never be on the receiving end of violence against trans people, and they aren’t even in a good place to evaluate the level of risk that they may be imposing on other people against their will.

The prof at U of T wants to paint himself as the brave intellectual, bucking the orthodoxy and asking questions that no one else has the courage to ask, while his opponents won’t even meet him for an honest discussion. All I see is a guy who doesn’t have any skin in the game, who can afford to debate the level of respect owed to other humans because it will never affect him personally.

What does it mean when someone says their pronouns aren’t up for debate, then?

When a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they are not saying that there is no defense for the position they’re taking. There is a field of study that has considered, among other things, the question of pronouns and preferred names. In a lot of academic institutions, it’s called “Gender Studies.” You’ve probably made fun of it. But the fact that you’re ignorant of an entire academic discipline and decades worth of research doesn’t mean that there is a genuine question to be considered. It might just mean that you need to go to the library.

And when a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they might mean that what seems like an abstract, academic discussion to you could mean harm or the risk of harm to them. They’re not saying, “My position cannot stand up to criticism.” They’re saying, “I don’t want to be a casualty of this discussion.”


Everything should be open for debate—in principle—but not all debates come from a place of intellectual honesty, and not all debates are benign.

A gift of the fae folk, I assume?

What is this thing?
What is this thing?

I tried to go to the Snowden talk at McGill a couple weeks ago. The lineup was too huge for us to get in, so we went to Thomson House, the McGill grad students’ pub, and hooked a laptop into a TV there to watch.

Seriously, what?
Seriously, what?

On the way back, in a pile of stones upturned by the construction between the Leacock and Brown buildings on the McGill campus, I found a little medallion marked with strange symbols. It has a pentagram on one side and Death on the other.

I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was left for me by the fairy folk, and that it’s a good omen?

The answer to the question

On October 9, inspired by the STREAM research group’s Forecasting Project, I posed a question to the Internet: “Do you know how the election is going to turn out?” I tweeted it at news anchors, MP’s, celebrities, academics, friends and family alike.

I’m very happy with the response! I got 87 predictions, and only 11 of them were what I would consider “spam.” I took those responses and analysed them to see if there were any variables that predicted better success in forecasting the result of the election.

The take-home message is: No. Nobody saw it coming. The polls had the general proportion of the vote pretty much correct, but since polls do not reflect the distribution of voters in individual ridings, the final seat count was very surprising. This may even suggest that the Liberals got the impetus for a majority result from the fact that everyone expected they would only narrowly eke out a victory over the incumbent Tories.

You can view the final report in web format or download it as a PDF.

Can you predict the outcome of Canada’s 42nd federal election?

The STREAM (Studies of Translation, Ethics and Medicine) research group at McGill University, of which I’m a part, has been working on a project for the last year or so in which we elicit forecasts of clinical trial results from experts in their field. We want to see how well-calibrated clinical trialists are, and to see which members of a team are better or worse at predicting trial outcomes like patient accrual, safety events and efficacy measures.

Inspired by this, I borrowed some of the code we have been using to get forecasts from clinical trial investigators, and have applied it to the case of Canada’s 42nd federal election, and now I’m asking for you to do your best to predict how many seats each party will get, and who will win in your riding.

Let’s see how well we, as a group, can predict the outcome, and see if there are regional or demographic predictors for who is better or worse at predicting election results. The more people who make predictions, the better the data set I’ll have at the end, so please submit a forecast, and ask your friends!

The link for the forecasting tool is here:

Just to make it interesting: I will personally buy a beer for the forecaster who gives me the best prediction out of them all.* :)

* If you are younger than 18 years of age, you get a fancy coffee, not a beer. No purchase necessary, only one forecast per person. Forecaster must provide email with the prediction in order for me to contact him/her. In the case of a tie, one lucky beer-receiver will be chosen randomly. Having the beer together with me is conditional on the convenience of both parties (e.g. if you live in Vancouver or something, I’ll just figure out a way to buy you a beer remotely, since I’m in Montreal). You may consult any materials, sources, polls or whatever. This is a test of your prediction ability, not memory, after all. Prediction must be submitted by midnight on October 18, 2015.

Stephen Harper’s “soft on torture” agenda

A longstanding policy of the Conservative government has been reliance on information gathered from, and outright complicity with the torture of human beings. Since we’re deep into an election, and elections are one of the most clear ways that we’re supposed to be keeping our government accountable, let’s have a look back at the Conservative government’s “soft on torture” agenda.

As Man-in-Blue-Suit would say, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about metaphorical torture. I’m talking about purposely imposing literal pain, humiliation and deprivation on actual living human beings in order to elicit information, or to otherwise bring about some political gain. This is serious, and to call it “torture” is not an exaggeration in the slightest. And Stephen Harper has made sure that the Canada is a part of it. To sum up, as Harper said himself, we might not recognise Canada, now that he’s had his way with it.

To start with, this is not a one-off thing. This is a policy that the Cons have crafted over the course of years. Far from being an accident or an oversight, parts of this “soft on torture” policy were implemented in secret, which suggests that they understood the enormity of what they were doing, but they wanted to get away with it anyway.

Contrary to Harper’s patronising dismissals, this is not a conspiracy theory either. This is well-documented by internal government “watchdogs,” military memos, Parliamentary debate and even reports from foreign powers.

The following is not an exhaustive report, but just a convenience sample that I came up with. The earliest article is from the Globe and Mail in 2012, saying that Harper covered up the delivery of prisoners to be tortured more than 5 years prior, and the most recent is the response to the CIA report in December of last year.

Fortunately, Canada is a democracy, and one of the things that we citizens of Canada have is the right—and the responsibility—to hold the government of the day accountable for its actions at the polls.

Gotcha! This is why piracy happens


This summer, I took a two-week long course on systematic reviews and meta-analytic techniques for which there was some required software, in this case, Stata. As a McGill student, I was encouraged to buy the student version, which was about $50 for “Stata Small.” Not bad. I’ve paid more for textbooks. So I got out my credit card, bought the license, installed it on my computer, and ran the very first example command of the course. I immediately got a string of red letter error text.

The error message was telling me that my license did not allow me enough variables to complete the command. I checked the license, and it said I was allowed 120 variables. I checked the “Variable manager” in Stata, and I had only assigned 11 variables. (I checked the variable limit beforehand in fact, and made sure that none of the data sets that we’d be working with had more than 120 variables. None of them came close to that limit.)

So I emailed Stata technical support. It turns out that the meta-analysis package for Stata creates “hidden variables.” Lots of them, apparently. So many that the software cannot accomplish the most basic commands. Then they tried to up-sell me to “Stata SE.” For $100 more, they said, they would send me a license for Stata that would allow me to run the meta-analysis package—for realsies this time.

I asked for a refund and decided that if I really needed Stata, I would use the copy that’s installed on the lab computers. (Now I’m just using the meta package in R, which does everything Stata does, just with a bit more effort.)

For the record: I am perfectly fine with paying for good software. I am not okay with a one-time purchase turning me into a money-pump. I thought that the “small” student license would work. All their documentation suggested it would. If I had upgraded to “Stata SE,” would that have actually met my needs, or would they have forced me to upgrade again later, after I’d already made Stata a part of my workflow?

It probably would have been okay, but the “gotcha” after the fact soured me on the prospect of sending them more money, and provided all the incentive I need to find a way to not use Stata.


A few years ago, I bought a number of pieces of classical music through the iTunes Store. I shopped around, compared different performances, and found recordings that I really liked. This was back when the iTunes store had DRM on their music.

I’ve recently switched to Linux, and now much of the music that I legally bought and paid for can’t be read by my computer. Apple does have a solution for me, of course! For about $25, I can subscribe to a service of theirs that will allow me to download a DRM-free version of the music that I already paid for.

This is why I won’t even consider buying television programmes through the iTunes Store: It’s not that I think that I will want to re-watch the shows over and over and I’m afraid of DRM screwing that up for me. It’s because I’ve had some nasty surprises from iTunes in the past, and I can borrow the DVD’s from the Public Library for free.

For the record: I do not mind paying for digital content. But I won’t send you money if I think there’s a “gotcha” coming after the fact.

I’m really trying my best

People who produce good software or music should be compensated for their work. I don’t mind pulling out my wallet to help make that happen. But I don’t want to feel like I’m being tricked, especially if I’m actually making an effort in good faith to actually pay for something.

Since DRM is almost always fairly easily circumvented, it only punishes those who pay for digital content. And this is why I’m sympathetic to those who pirate software, music, TV shows, etc.

Yes, it’s racist

Judge Eliana Marengo recently told another human being that she had to be stripped of her identity and publicly humiliated in order to have her case heard in a court in Québec. That is to say, the judge refused to hear the case while she was wearing a hijab.

For clarity, Article 13 of the regulations of the Court of Quebec make no reference to headscarves. This was just one judge’s decision to make life harder for another human being. And it was racist.

Wait, how was it racist?

This is a point that people keep refusing to understand. I have written previously about how you can be substantially racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. without ever actually making reference to a person’s race, sex, orientation, gender, etc. This is exactly the same thing.

A policy that makes life harder for one group of people is discriminatory against that group, regardless of how obliquely that group is singled out in the wording of the policy itself. And it’s still discriminatory even if that policy contains an ostensibly non-racist/non-sexist/etc. counter-example to ward off suspicions of racism, sexism, etc. (Cf. the Charter of Values and conspicuously large crucifixes).

It is laughable that Marengo invoked equality to justify her racist abuse of power. She deigned to instruct us in righteousness by telling us, “The same rules need to be applied to everyone.” To get an idea of how the rules are applied to everyone in Québec, I have compiled Table 1, below.

White people do religious stuff in the public sphere in Québec all the time. Nobody minds. Nobody gets upset. Certainly nobody refuses to give them the basic justice that all humans are due. But when one private person of colour wears a hijab to court, suddenly a) it’s fair game to publicly humiliate them and strip their identity, and b) it’s hitting below the belt to call it “racist” when it happens.

Table 1: A convenience sample of conspicuous religious accommodations in the province of Québec, indexed by race

Religious thing Private or public? Who did it? (Race) Is it okay in Québec?
Prominent crucifix in legislature Public White Okay!
Giant cross overlooking biggest city in province Public White Okay!
Big white cross dominating the provincial flag Public White Okay!
Nearly every street and city named after a Christian saint Public White Okay!
Private person wearing hijab in court Private POC “This is unacceptable! Religious people are always demanding more and more accommodations. This is not about race at all!”

In defense of #selfies

Someone felt good enough about her appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule her for that.
Someone felt good enough about their appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule them for that. HA HA.

It is fashionable these days to tease people who take selfies, or to look down one’s nose at those who do take selfies, or to dismiss them as juvenile, feminine, vain, or generally bad for reasons unspecified.

You’ve seen it before. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. You see someone pull out a phone to take a selfie, and you make a joke about it, or someone complains about how “everyone is always taking selfies.”

There’s a sort of a snobbish “I’m better than that” attitude that comes along with all these condemnations. The commentator looks around after the comment was made, grinning in a most self-satisfied way, as if he has said something most original and daring. There’s a smug, superior, aren’t-I-clever-for-going-against-the-grain vibe that I get from people who say things like that, and I just can’t deal with it anymore.

First off, when you condemn selfies and those who take them, you are not saying anything clever or original. It’s not funny. It’s not illuminating. You haven’t picked out some interesting and unremarked-upon feature of human experience that no-one else has noticed. (Not that I’m claiming that any of the following ideas are original to myself either—plenty of other people have had reasoned pro-selfie positions. Consider this more of a rant than a claim to an original philosophy.)

Further, you are not some brave individualistic rebel among a flock of narcissistic sheeple. If anything, this makes you more like a corporate shill, helping to ensure that a new generation of young people is intimidated into believing that they have good reason to be insecure (and thus prepared to spend money to make that feeling go away). There are, after all, entire industries whose business model depends on encouraging our insecurities and preying on them. So if you’re feeling smug about being the lone wolf who’s bucking a terrifying trend of vanity, you should consider that every single person you’re criticising has been told “you’re not good enough and you should feel bad about it” in a million subtle (and also a million not-so-subtle-and-corporately-funded) ways for their entire life.

When you say things like, “No one wants to see your selfies,” you are not actually commenting on the value of the photographs that you’re disparaging, even if you think that’s what you’re doing. You’re coming closer to making a commentary on your own value as a friend, though. With a statement like that, you’re saying, “I don’t care about you, how you look, or what you’re doing. I don’t care that you felt good about yourself today.” And when you say things like that, you’re telling everyone in earshot that they shouldn’t expect positive feedback or encouragement from you.

It’s the same sort of attitude that you get from people who say things like, “Don’t tweet about what you had for breakfast,” or “You don’t need to make a Facebook post every time you go for a run.” You know what? If you care that little, no one’s forcing you to use social media. You can leave the party if you’re not enjoying it.

And this is why the whole thing is hypocrisy: When you say, “How egotistical—my friend posted a selfie,” what you are really saying is “I don’t care about my friend—if they’re feeling good about their appearance, or what they’re doing, or if they just want some positive attention from their friends, then that is unimportant or offensive to me somehow.” And that attitude—trying to make someone feel bad, just so you can have the satisfaction of looking down your nose at them—is so much more self-absorbed than posting a selfie.

As for me, I do care about my friends, and when I see a friend’s selfie go by on my Twitter feed, I want my first thought to be “Aww, isn’t that cute,” and not “How can I make that person feel bad?” That’s the kind of person I want to be.

Why the PQ and its Charter of Values is racist

On a couple occasions, I have been challenged by people who are upset when I say that the Parti Québecois and its Charter of Values are racist. While I disagree, I can understand their objection. On the surface, the Charter of Values makes no reference to race, and there are even non-white members of the PQ, so it might be hard to see how I make the case for racism.

Before I directly address the problem of racism in the PQ and the Charter of Values, there are two fairly non-controversial general propositions about oppressive systems like racism that I will briefly outline. Understanding these positions will clarify why I say that the PQ and the Charter are racist.

1. You don’t need to have a negative disposition toward a group to be party to that group’s oppression

One of the most self-centred conceits of us white people regarding racism is the idea that it primarily exists as a state of mind for the white person—as if the biggest problem about racism is that it’s a character flaw for white people. (Mutatis mutandis for men and sexism, straights and homophobia, cis people and transphobia, etc.)

I see a parallel to this all the time when I implicitly or explicitly call out a straight person for something homophobic, and suddenly the biggest problem is that the straight person is offended at being thought a homophobe, not that something genuinely hurtful and oppressive happened to a queer person.

A society can be substantially sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. in which its citizens have a generally positive attitude toward women, people of colour, gays, and trans people.

This is because racism, etc. are systemic and institutional ways in which a society is structured to make life worse for the oppressed group, while maintaining privilege for that group’s complement. Racism, etc. are not primarily a matter of personal dislike between two individuals, although that is unfortunately also part of it.

For emphasis, even if every single person in Canada had a personal epiphany, repented and swore to never have a negative thought about any other person on the basis of her race, that would not affect the problem of racism in Canada in the slightest until we dealt with the laws, power structures, social norms, institutions, and systems set in place to privilege us white people and make life harder for everyone else. Same thing goes for any other system of oppression (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

Thus, appealing to the character or the intentions of a person or group (E.g. “They’re not racist! They don’t hate brown people because …”) is not a good argument against someone being racist, since racism is not primarily a matter of the state of mind of the group that is doing the oppression.

2. Even if a proposed piece of legislation doesn’t mention an oppressed group at all, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t oppressive to that group

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine there’s a group of legislators who propose a law, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. Here is the proposed law in our thought experiment:

Everyone who wants to vote in Canada must bring a current government-issued photo ID and their birth certificate, and the names on the two documents must match each other exactly.

It is not hard to see why a law like this is sexist. (“But how can it be sexist? It doesn’t even mention women!”) It’s sexist because (except in Québec) it is common for women to change their names when they get married. Hence, such a law would systematically disenfranchise women more than men.

The important thing about this argument is that the oppressiveness of the law doesn’t turn on whether women are explicitly mentioned or whether the legislators had any hateful emotions toward women. The oppressiveness of the law toward women isn’t a function of the state of mind of the legislators at all. The only question that is relevant with regard to whether the law is sexist is whether or not it systematically makes life worse for women and not for men.

If you concede that a law like the one above is fairly clearly sexist, then it’s not a big cognitive jump to see why “Stand Your Ground” laws in the United States, for example, or even the Charter of Values here in Québec are racist. These are laws that systematically single out particular racial groups and not others, to make life worse for them. “Stand Your Ground” is racist because white people in the United States are overwhelmingly using it to murder people of colour. The Charter of Values is racist because we are using it to make life worse for people of colour.

It’s true that race is not mentioned in the Charter, but it is conspicuously silent on the subject, just like how there was no mention of women in the law in our thought experiment that if enacted, would disenfranchise most women. Even the prohibition on wearing very large and ostentatious crucifixes comes across as a transparent attempt to preempt accusations of racism. I grew up among very conservative Christians, and never once met a person who wore a large cross. Ever. I’ve never even heard of that happening among the most devout. I’m sure that the only reason that large Christian symbols were even mentioned is so that the PQ can say, “See? We’re not racist. The law will even apply to whites!” It certainly wasn’t included because there’s a problem with Christians wearing too many big crosses, threatening the neutrality of the state.

The Charter would not change life at all for white religious people. They already wear clothing that conforms to the Charter’s requirements. On the other hand, the Charter will cause crises of faith for many non-white religious people, make them feel unwelcome in Québec, and remove any representation they would have otherwise had in positions of authority in the province. The fact that this prohibition is invoked under the banner of “neutrality” is laughable.

So even though there is no mention of race, the Charter is racist because it systematically targets POC to take away their freedom and make their lives worse.