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“This is how words work”

It’s not every day you get called a misogynist and a white supremacist by another lawyer, but I guess we should probably get used to the fact that social media is the best solvent for rational discussion since the invention of road rage.

It all began innocently enough — as these things do — with a rather curious Twitter post from Atrisha Lewis (@atrishalewis), a bencher of the Ontario Law Society, apparently complaining about how hard it is to be a bencher when others have other views than you do (see below).

What surprised me about this Tweet was the nonsensical idea that your role in an organization (such as a law society) should in any way be more difficult just because others have a different view of some issues than you do. This is even more surprising when that person is a lawyer. Last I checked, lawyers are supposed to disagree. That’s kind of our job.

So I asked the question.

I thought this was fair. Rather mild, perhaps. Certainly not offensive or rude.

She didn’t respond. But apparently this rather innocuous comment was sufficiently provocative to encourage Ontario lawyer Jennifer Mathers McHenry to spring into action. You can see how that unfolds below.

Well that escalated quickly, as they say. But let’s examine this dialogue carefully.

We start with McHenry’s equating social science with actual science and arguing that not all opinions have equal validity. There are numerous flaws in that “logic”, but let’s just identify two: first, who gets to decide what is “valid”? We’re not talking about a falsifiable scientific fact that can be proven, after all. You can’t run a DNA test to determine whether something or someone is racist or sexist.

Even scientific “facts” are simply the latest hypothesis which has not been disproven. The impact hypothesis (which postulated the sudden extinction of dinosaurs due to meteor impact) was ridiculed for years until being accepted as “fact”.

Second, even if someone has a different view of the “facts”, how does that make them prima facie unacceptable, offensive or unpalatable to work with in the context of a large organization like a law society? Is it really the case that everyone has to share your specific beliefs before you feel comfortable working with them? I could see this working well in a Trudeau government, but in most places where people are actually encouraged to think, this seems rather short-sighted. This was the sub-text of my original, un-answered question to Ms. Lewis.

But McHenry is either oblivious to the points I’m trying to make, or doesn’t care. I suspect it’s both. Because she quickly concludes that I am apparently a white supremacist and a misogynist. Why? Because I disagree with her. Obviously if I disagree with her on the “fact” of systemic discrimination, there simply is no other option: I must be a woman-hating racist.

I’m sure my wife will be surprised to hear that. Not to mention my mother, my sister, my co-workers, and other lawyers (both male and female) with whom I have a good working relationship.

I must be a woman-hating racist. I’m sure my wife will be surprised to hear that.

I attempt to point out to McHenry that I’m neither a racist nor a misogynist, but to no avail. She unpacks her straw man and proceeds to attack it with abandon. Apparently I now believe that “white dudes are naturally better” (pretty sure I didn’t say this). She also — regretfully — informs me that she hates to “throw labels on you”, but (and this is my favourite part) “that’s what those words mean and how words work”.

And there you have it, one of the most illogical twitter broadsides since the invention of both Twitter and illogic. Apparently McHenry believes she is my superior in scientific facts, words, and how words work. Thus endeth the lesson.

In fairness, I must confess I did not take “how words work” in Law School. I tended towards the core studies like contracts and torts. But fair enough, I will take McHenry’s admonition to heart and google “words and how they work” at my next opportunity. Alas, I will not consult Twitter. I don’t think it would help.

In fairness, I must confess I did not take “how words work” in Law School. I tended towards the core studies like contracts and torts.

There are serious points to be made here, however.

The first is that ideology is no replacement for thought. My initial tweet was a real attempt to understand why a difference of opinion between individuals should be a barrier to working together. If social justice advocates really want to effect positive change, they should be focusing on engagement, not censure.

The second is that name calling is the least persuasive strategy one can pursue. Did McHenry honestly think that by implying I was a racist she could convince me to agree with her? This is a common backfire effect from the Left: they just can’t help calling other people names. You must either agree with them entirely, or be branded a racist, a sexist, a homophobe — whatever the epithet of the day may be. In 2016 I didn’t understand how a buffoon like Trump could possibly be elected. But I understand it now.

Lastly, I think Twitter should be renamed “Mixed Feelings”, because I don’t know anyone on Twitter who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the platform. It’s equal parts cesspool and electronic brain-trust. In the long run I expect many will tire of the casual abuse by those with little to say other than repeat tribal mantras. For Twitter, as with most social media, curation is the name of the game.

Social media is the ultimate car window: a thin pane of glass that emboldens us to insult strangers. But unlike shouting at other drivers who may or may not be able to hear us, social media records and amplifies our messages, perhaps in ways we didn’t intend or did not foresee. And as soon as your message is sent or posted, you may not like the ultimate result.

Ultimately, that is how words work.