In lieu of responding to you formally, as Staniforth, I hope you won’t mind if I address you as I would were we meeting in person, as we undoubtedly will sooner or later, in one of the many places we habitually cross paths in Montreal.
I have thought a lot about what you wrote. I anticipated that you would respond to me, braced myself for it, if I am honest. I had hesitated about whether to publish “Try not to puke,” because I was afraid of being misread, afraid that the contempt I saw fueling the discussion elsewhere would be turned on me, as it was.
In my piece, I wanted to think through the danger of contempt in the discussions, but this gave the impression that I did not have my own feelings about the poem and the film, so let me clarify: I was disgusted with Zach Wells’ misogynistic poem and Dominic Gagnon’s racist film. I was appalled that Wells refused to take down his poem and that his eventual response snidely dismissed the criticism it had generated. Gagnon’s behaviour has been even worse; he has been irresponsible at every turn. My fear of what contempt does meant that I did not thoroughly express my own contempt for those pieces or for the way their creators responded. Contempt expels the disgusting object, and they should be expelled. The danger of contempt in the conversations, however, is that it expels would-be-allies too, causing those who are just starting to learn how to out racism in our society to shrink away, ashamed of their lack of knowledge, and shunned from the place where they could gain it. I was concerned, and remain so, that contempt prevents the kind of learning about racism that our society so desperately needs.
Even if I knew immediately that of the North was racist when I saw it, the controversy surrounding the film has vastly expanded my capacity to articulate how exactly it is racist. I learned from Tanya Tagaq’s description of the film as “one that hurt” and from Stephen Aglugak Puskas’s meticulous take-down of the origins and techniques employed:
Gagnon uses mise-en-scene to connect scenes like this offshore oil rig with Inuit. You can see in the trailer that he makes the connection with the oil rig and the Inuit in the next shot with sound: he cuts the voices of the Inuit in the video and overlays a muffled white noise, as if it is the sound of the helicopter from (presumably) outside the room landing on the rig. This suggests that these Inuit are living and working on the rig, which in truth they are clearly not. This is another example of how this film is fallacious and misleading.
Puskas used the film against itself, expertly illustrating how analysis of the film saps it of its power. Like a vaccine, perhaps, Puskas took small doses of the disease to innoculate us from the illness. And there were many other voices — I am thinking of the post by Inaluk beneath my article and of critical writing by Inuit filmmaker, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. Yet, my subject was not the film. My subject was the way certain people had spoken to one another with contempt, and Tagaq, Puskas, Inaluk and Arnaqug-Baril were not part of the problem. They were part of the solution.
Jesse, when I wrote the article, I had voices like yours in mind. I braced for your response because I knew what it would look like. Throughout your “response,” you gave the impression that we were opponents by attributing arguments to me that I did not make. A straw man argument gives the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument when it really refutes a different argument. You took my words, interpreted them, and then insinuated that your interpretation and my intention were one and the same. They weren’t. This is you addressing my article:
While the point of this piece is to criticise the hot temper of the way the film was debated, and the disconnection that Parr believes this temper created, much of its actual engagement with the film reads to me like an intellectualized version the familiar and fundamentally simple argument: ‘how can we know it’s racist if we don’t see it?,’ very popular among those supporting screenings of Gagnon’s film. [Her] argument is strangely reductive — it presumes a binary viewership in which I, the viewer (perhaps because I have read Plato and Marx and Nietzsche and Spivak) am always/already not going to be racist, will always be able to determine if the thing I am watching is or is not racist without its ever having the power to frame my perceptions or feelings….
This is a gross misrepresentation of what my article does, Jesse, and I think you know it. Your method is to point out a lack in my article (in this case, detailed film analysis) and then fill in that lack with your interpretation of its meaning (the fundamentally simple argument) and then lambast me for that argument (calling it strangely reductive). But you supplied the reductive argument, not me. I would never claim that academic study (nor appreciation of the arts for that matter) would make one impervious to racism. (I teach 20th Century history. Just last week we discussed Hitler’s love of Wagner and appointment of Strauss to the presidency of the Reichkulturkammer in 1933).
This is why I called for more education on the matter, saying If it is true that the film can be seen and can elicit multiple opinions, perhaps this is all the more reason for it to be shown, but in the context of a conversation that can draw out its toxins. In response to that, you adopt the same tactic of explaining what I meant:
It implies that one type of screening (one, perhaps, organized by the Makivik Corporation, or Native Montreal, with introductions and follow-up commentary by Inuit film scholars like Puskas or Arnuqaq-Baril) might be less damaging in its encouragement of anti-Inuit sentiment among the non-Indigenous members of the audience.
You say that the problem with such a screening would be that it would, “[place] the onus on Inuit to explain racism to non-Indigenous people.” Yet this onus is yours, for it was you who put together that screening, not me. I left it unclear as to what such a screening might look like, or whether or not it should be done; you “clarified” what I meant and then lambasted me for the significance of your proposed screening. This is the kind of bad faith argumentation that is characteristic of contempt.
You employ this tactic again when you claim that my problem with contempt was also a problem with censorship and that, outrageously, the only censors that bothered me were those who were indigenous:
Why does she herself refer to those who have problems with the film as ‘censors’ and not, in the case of of Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Stephen Agluvak Puskas, and Isabella Weetaluktuk, “Inuit” or “Inuit filmmakers”? In the case of vocal Montreal detractors Tim Armstrong and Nakuset, “Cree”?”
Again you (purposely?) forget the topic of my article. The censors I was referring to were not the censors of the film, but censors like you, who would stifle conversation as I think you are attempting to do now, in how you write about me, or rather for me, because that is what your interpretations do here. You were under no obligation to listen to me up until the point when you proposed to respond. And, in responding, you had every right to say I’d missed the mark, speaking to the secondary issue of the debate and not the primary issue of the film. Yet you went further.
Despite the way you addressed me, this and other exchanges have been fruitful. I rejected your approach because I thought it closed off conversation. I think every white person in this country should be talking about this. I have received messages from people admitting that they wish they didn’t feel so cowardly in the face of this discussion. This is a problem not because we need more voices, but because we need more ways to unlearn racist thinking and seeing. For some, participating in the conversation could facilitate that unlearning. Contempt’s habit of either/or thinking totalizes and silences, neither of which facilitate learning. Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe it is possible that contempt is one pedagogical tool among many.
As it turns out, your contempt has taught me quite a bit.
Much more broadly, I continue to feel that shame, if it can avoid its narcissistic tendencies, can be a tool for undermining white privilege. And yes, I speak as a white person, to the productive shame that can come of recognizing privilege. Shame has many faces, not all of them so productive. Being a woman in a patriarchal society has also, at times, led to a feeling of shame (the feeling of wanting to withdraw, hide away, be silent), yet am working to reject that shame. One of my aims was to suggest that censorship and free-speech were the wrong framework for the discussion. Two days ago, the National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition released a statement about of the North, a small portion of which I quote here:
Censorship and freedom of expression do not exist in a vacuum. It is illusory to instrumentalize freedom of expression arguments without taking in to account the horrific history and neocolonial reality of theft and exploitation of everything belonging to Indigenous peoples including our lands, our languages, our children, our sacred items, our very lives, and yes even our youtube videos….Some have come forward claiming that removing of the North from Rendezvous du cinema québécois interrupted a chance for a public dialogue and feel strongly that the film should be seen and issues raised by the film discussed.
We challenge these assertions by asking how a dialogue could possibly take place without Inuit voices present. Furthermore, assumptions that Inuit would want to engage in a dialogue regarding a film made about them but without them, in a space dominated by nonIndigenous people and eurocentric worldview, speaks to a profound ignorance regarding cultural safety and is indicative of the naivete afforded to those with white privilege.
Jesse, I am writing this in the hopes for a better world. I am a person of privilege — born into it by way of race, citizenship and class and secured into it now, by virtue of my professional status. I have benefited in countless ways by the inequality of this system, and aim now to use my privilege to dismantle it. I entertained the notion that there might be some value in screening a version of of the North, so that it might be treated as Puskas has, or in the context Tagaq suggested: “If this film is crucial for discussion, it should also be shown in Nunavut, with the filmmaker and/or supporters present…”. Let me repeat: I never supported the film, but rather the conversation it might inspire, perhaps with the film blacked out and in such a way that would honor Indigenous people and quiet white voices like mine. These conversations have convinced me that no screening of the film would warrant the further damage it would do (nor the further notoriety it would grant Gagnon, who will be an Invité d’Honneur at the upcoming Visions du Réel festival in Switzerland in April).
But what of these conversations and the way in which we conduct them? Gagnon’s film is part of a larger problem. There will be more of these conversations. I am aiming to make it easier, not harder, for white people to learn how we have benefited from white supremacy. My critics would say that I’m being sensitive, that a life time of privilege has taught me that I have the right to a conversation about my privilege that would still be nice for me, that would make me feel good at the end. This is a legitimate concern. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, of Malcolm X, that “he was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” I expect no one to make me feel comfortable here. If I wanted to be comfortable, Jesse, I would not be responding to you.
So, while I agree with you about much of what you say, I still disagree with how you say it. I appreciate your emphasis on the day-to-day nature of racism — how you set it out in scenes of apartment hunting and grocery shopping. And I appreciate your anger about the ongoingness of unjust representations of Inuit on screen, in print, and online by white people who would presume to speak for them. I share this anger. As I said earlier, we ought to identify racism and misogyny as worthy of contempt because they absolutely are, and it is true, that as individuals we must learn to identify when and how our behavior reifies those ideas.