Listen Up! Political correctness can go too far ~ Opinion


Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

In this era of populism and the dominance of social media, political correctness can get out of hand. A couple of items this past week brought this truth home to me.

The first is a story about a song, a simple song really, a traditional Canadian folk song, said to be written in the nineteenth century by E. Pauline Johnson, an aboriginal writer. It is called “Land of the Silver Birch”. Here are the lyrics of one verse.

Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
Boom-diddy-ah-da, Boom-diddy-ah-da, Boom-diddy-ah-da, bo-oo-oom

And then:
High on a rocky ledge
I’ll build my wigwam
Close to the water’s edge
Silent and still

I have always loved that song. I learned it as a Boy Scout at about the age of 12. It made me think of Muskoka, where as a family y we spent much of our time. It became a tradition to sing “Land of the Silver Birch” every time we drove north through what we called the Muskoka gates (the rock pass, just beyond the Severn Bridge). In fact, I still do it today.

Imagine my shock, therefore, to read recently that according to representatives of the Toronto District School Board this song is racist. Violet Shearer, a music teacher, taught the song to her classes which they also performed at a school concert. Subsequently, school administrators sent an email to parents apologizing for the song, calling it “inappropriate and racist”. They went on to say, “While its lyrics are not overly racist, ……the historical context of the song is racist.” They said, “(The song) romanticizes native people and culture as being pre-modern and connected to nature, while at the same time justifying colonization and the superiority of Western culture.”

To all of this I say, Hogwash!  Someone is lily-dipping the paddle here and taking political correctness much too far.  This is just a simple folk song, composed by a First Nations writer. There is nothing racist about it. In fact, it celebrates the heritage of Aboriginal people and highlights their closeness to nature. That, I believe is what this song is meant to convey. The teacher, Violet Shearer, is suing her Principal and the School Board for defamation. I hope she wins.

So why is all of this important? It is important because there are too many real issues out there and they tend to be taken less seriously when bunched together with accusations that border on the nonsensical and trivialize what really matters. As one aboriginal leader noted in an article in the Toronto Star, “if people are so enthusiastic about speaking on behalf of native people and what is racist and what isn’t, then please take this as an opportunity to go deeper because this (the song) is a little superficial to me. If you are going to address Indigenous issues go deeper, go to the water issue, go to the mould in housing issue. There is a lot more you can do to help Indigenous people rather than just pick on a lyric or two.”

Social media has brought a whole new meaning to political correctness. It has made it a lot easier to talk about subjects that appear to have been taboo in the past. But it has its dark side. In an article today in the Toronto Star, Jaime Watt a highly respected communication consultant, put it this way.

“Social media is an empowering tool, and one that has breathed new oxygen into our political process. It allows people to organize, to question and to rally. It has enhanced our democracy and changed it for the better.”  Further in his article he says,” The immediacy, the reactive nature and the openness of social media can cause grave damage, as well. Just as we have seen it used as a formidable tool to topple the powerful, the use of social media can ignite a fire that quickly burns out of control. The lack of control embedded in the use of social media means that it can be weaponized against innocent people.”

In my view, there are very serious issues that have been brought to life in social media, including those related to LGBTQ matters, sexual harassment, sexual assault and racism. But it can be terribly misused. It can bring allegations against people that are either entirely incorrect, comparatively trivial or of a different level of wrong doing than others and yet lumped in the same category with the same life-changing consequences.  And in doing so, especially when exposed, it casts doubt on the validity of many of the legitimate and terrible acts that have been perpetrated in the past and deserve retribution.

We live in an age of political correctness. And yet, it can go too far. It can undermine accuracy and it can defeat accountability. It can, to use the words of Jaime Watt, be weaponized against innocent people. We need to beware of that.

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  1. When I was in public school we had music class once a week. Our music teacher, Mr. Brown taught us basic music and traditional songs from different cultures and countries. This song was one of them. How on earth can something so beautiful and pure be misconstrued as racist? What has happened to us? It’s a beautiful piece….paints a picture in your mind’s eye….culture and nature…nothing wrong with that. I don’t know how we have come to look at everything in such a negative way…it’s a song…leave it be.

    • I agree Dorothy. I love this song and it reminds me of the clean air and beautiful country around us and how we should respect it.

  2. The people responsible for the education of our youth are not nearly as intelligent as one might think they should be given the huge task at hand. They actually get paid for these asinine pronouncements.

    • My comment was directed at The TDSB who seem to be the chief purveyors of this “correctness ” and certainly not our local educators…. I wonder if this statement might be perceived as correctness by some ?

  3. Surely this song emphasizes what our indigenous people have been trying to tell the rest of us about nature. Political correctness has gone mad. We soon will be afraid, if not already, to speak at all lest we upset someone. This is the same nonsense that forbids the singing of Christmas Carols in schools.

  4. Hugh, here’s another possible factor in explaining the growing stridency of opinions when various public issues are discussed/debated in ‘this era of populism and the dominance of social media’ – it’s how our history is being taught within our schools!
    It’s an interesting and internationally documented take by Alan Sears, who is a professor of citizenship education at the University of New Brunswick with over 40 years in social studies/history classrooms from the primary level all the way up to graduate level. He delivered the 2017 Eaton Lecture at the University of Toronto last Monday evening. Here’s a brief write up of his view point and a short interview carried out by the CBC:

    • Alan Sears nailed it. Critical thinking and debate are very much needed for many issues, including history curriculum.

  5. I agree with your point here. Some well-meaning people get too caught up in their cause celebre of the moment and lose their sense of perspective. It’s always about balance and putting things in proper perspective.

  6. I agree with you 100% Hugh Mackenzie. As a long time trustee with the Toronto Board we have significant hills to climb to achieve tolerance , understanding and compassion between groups of people. Let’s put our efforts into those issues to make a better society.

  7. Karen Wehrstein on

    Usually I disagree with your political-correctness columns, Hugh, but not this time. I looked at the full lyrics. Romanticizing First Nations’ closeness to nature? Sure. So what? Songs romanticize things all the time, it’s part of what they’re for! But “justifying colonization and the superiority of Western culture?” Where’s that in the lyrics? I couldn’t find it. I have to agree with the leader you quoted from the Star, that there are much more important issues to help out First Nations people with.
    Re social media being weaponized, yes, it is extremely powerful as advertisers know, and this power, like any, can be used for good or ill. Both Facebook and Twitter were called in for questioning by Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, due to their allowing Russian operatives to run ads and fake news stories appearing to be from American organizations–to put it bluntly, spreading disinformation to tens of millions of American voters. There needs to be some sort of regulation to prevent this, in my opinion, but also the social media consumer needs to apply critical thinking skills and learn to recognize fake “facts”. If everyone knew to dismiss unsourced and non-credible-sourced information, to check multiple sources on the same story and to decode weasel words, this would be a better world. I mean that quite literally, as Trump probably would not be president.

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