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
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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