Earlier today I wrote about a question I’ve had for a while: does revealing a tragedy has occurred to an indigenous person make people care more, or less, about the problem?
Unbeknownst to me, that question was being answered by Neil Macdonald in a column entitled, “Why clicking on this story about Indigenous people matters.”
The whole thing is worth reading, but the key revelation for me is what he calls the “Bus Plunge”:
“In choosing stories and laying out pages at newspapers decades ago, I quickly learned that one dead Canadian anywhere (even more so, a white Canadian), equalled two or three dead Americans, which in turn equalled 10 or 15 Brits or West Europeans, which in turn equalled 30 or 40 dead East Europeans, who were probably white and maybe even Christian, but came from unpronounceable places, and so forth.
“At the very end of the list were Africans, or, say, Bangladeshis. They had to perish in very large numbers indeed to merit any notice.
“Then there was the Bus Plunge. The Bus Plunge was usually a two-paragraph brief from somewhere in the Third World where a bus (or train or ferry or any other contrivance) crashed or plunged or exploded, killing a lot of people. The Bus Plunge was terribly useful; it could be used to plug last-minute holes that resulted from poor layout measurements.
“I’m not saying Indigenous issues are a Bus Plunge. But Indigenous people, I’m afraid, haven’t rated very highly on that unspoken hierarchy. Canadians evidently do not consider Indigenous people proximate — and the less proximate the subject, the more indifferent the audience.”
He backs this up by looking at the number of clicks stories about Indigenous people get versus other stories.
The conclusion: in cold, hard numbers, it seems people will pay more attention to the line “missing woman” than “missing indigenous woman”.
When you’re writing news, you want to lead with the strongest line possible.
For radio, that means you want the first sentence to grab the ear and make the listener care.
Online, that means you want a headline that will cause people to click and read on.
So here’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Does the word “Indigenous” (or “Aboriginal” or “First Nation”) make people care more… or less?
If you hear or read, “a thirty-year-old woman has gone missing” does that jar you more, or less, than hearing, “a thirty-year-old Indigenous woman has gone missing”?
I honestly have no idea how the average person would respond.
On the one hand, hearing that the woman is Indigenous ties the story into a larger, ongoing narrative about missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.
On the other hand, maybe it makes it easier to externalize the story into a part of a problem that is big, but not surprising.
Like yeah, it sucks that there’s people being killed with bullets in the Middle East. But somehow it doesn’t shock us as much as hearing about it happening in Paris.
I suspect there’s a certain portion of the population who hears the word “Indigenous” and, even if they care, tunes out just a little because they are so used to hearing about bad things happening to Indigenous people.
I’d like to imagine that it doesn’t matter. That people would care equally, regardless of identity or race.
But I doubt it.
So how do you lead the story?
For Canada Day, the story of Alex Cuba, a Cuban-Canadian musician living in Smithers who decided to learn some of the indigenous language of Wit’suwet’in so he could sing it when he was invited to perform on Parliament Hill.
Cant believe we’re celebrating Canada Day again… I mean when will we have a day for all those countries that aren’t Canada… your Canadian fine but why do you have to dress up and make a big deal about it and wave your flag everywhere…. most of the world isnt canadian… dont get me wrong I just think we should treat everyone equal… having a special day for one group of ppl is like reverse discrimination
The future of travel comes with homework pic.twitter.com/F4XIDEauMb
— Andrew Kurjata (@akurjata) June 27, 2016
“In the age of inclusiveness and accommodation, reconciliation and identity politics, the world is being carved up into distinct spaces. There are women’s centres, transgender bathrooms, First Nations studies and, as of this week, a New Brunswick cabinet minister responsible for ‘Celtic affairs.'”
“These artificial distinctions are so powerful that people are blind to the frames and lenses of the glasses they’re looking through, never mind the possibilities outside of their immediate vision. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Daniel Kahneman describes this outlook as ‘what you see is all there is.’
“Worse, the current default in Canadian society has become to continuously develop more new distinctions, all in the name of progress, regardless of whether they make sense or are good for society. To oppose new distinctions, especially once they’ve received legitimacy, is to fight the tide of history, to reject modernity.”
Then, he gets to the nub of it. Just as identity politics are dividing us, so, too, are bike lanes:
“Once upon a time, cyclists rode on the street and if the road was too busy or there were vehicles parked against the curb, they rode on the sidewalk and pedestrians made way for them.
“The space was shared…
“Rebooting the timeless ideal of sharing space would bring people together, increase the sense of community and encourage residents to notice more of what they have in common with one another and less of what they don’t.
“A driver, a cyclist and a pedestrian are all just trying to get from one place to another safely.
“So why can’t we do it together in a space we can all share?”
This editorial surprised me quite a bit because Mr. Godbout has, in the past, written rather eloquently in favour of acknowledging diverse identities, most notably in an award-winning piece called “White Pride“. From that:
“We’re surrounded by so much white culture that it’s the equivalent of standing in the middle of a forest and asking where the trees are. To take the metaphor further, in that same forest, gay pride and aboriginal pride are a handful of seedlings. They are neither big enough nor plentiful enough to threaten the trees in any way but they are part of the forest nevertheless and they deserve to be there as much as the old, established trees.”
And yet here we are.
OK. So. Why do we have things like women’s centres and transgender bathrooms and bike lanes, tearing apart what was once a unified world?
Let me start by saying, as a straight white male I am wholly aware that riding a bike in no way, in any universe, comes anywhere close to having the lived experience of a woman, minority, or non-cisgendered person. At all. Not even close.
Riding a bike has given me a tiny taste of what it’s like to not be privileged.
But still. A taste.
When you ride a bike on roads designed for cars- and to be clear, that’s most roads- you are in a space that is optimized for someone who isn’t you. Drivers may not notice your obstacles, but you sure do.
When gravel is swept to the side of the road so cars have a clear path, you are the one who has to ride over it.
At weighted intersections, your presence isn’t noticed.
When you lose your lane- which is often- it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get in anybody’s way. They may have to watch out for you, too, but let’s be real, who’s it gonna hurt more if one of you messes up?
And sure, “once upon a time, cyclists rode on the street and if the road was too busy or there were vehicles parked against the curb, they rode on the sidewalk and pedestrians made way for them” but here in reality when you do that you get angry drivers honking at you or, alternatively, complaining that they see cyclists riding on the sidewalk so why the heck don’t they follow the rules?
Do you see where I’m going with this?
The road isn’t really made to be shared. A shared road would be one where cyclists are given a clear path without aggressive drivers who come up behind you and honk their horns or, in what is one of the scarier experiences I’ve had, swerve towards you just to make a point: this is their space, and they can take you out if they want to.
Not all drivers.
But enough that virtually every single cyclist has experienced that fear, that feeling that they don’t belong, that it is a risk to get from point A to point B on two wheels rather than four.
But here’s where we really get into it: cyclists have a choice.
(Except for cyclists who are using a bike because they can’t afford to own a vehicle and/or the transportation system doesn’t accomodate their needs).
You know who doesn’t have a choice? Women.Transgendered people. First Nations. All these people whose special needs are dividing the world, rather than bringing it together.
Except, and I know Neil Godbout knows this because he wrote an award-winning column about it, the world isn’t really designed for all people. The dominant culture- the white culture, the male culture, the heterosexual culture- it’s everywhere. It’s the forest. It’s the road.
It’s the space that the non-straight-white-men need to navigate carefully, because even though technically it’s supposed to be shared, they know who gets in trouble if someone slips up. It’s the space where obstacles are swept into their path while the rest of us whizz by without even noticing. Or the space where they aren’t noticed at all.
It’s the space where if they ask for one tiny little slice to be theirs, the rest of the world huffily demands they stop being so divisive.
When people ask for transgender bathrooms or Pride centres or First Nations cultural spaces, they aren’t asking for special accommodation. They’re asking for what the rest of us already have: a place to feel safe.
When I’m in my car, I feel safe. Yes, I still have to be a careful driver and yes, something could still happen, but I’m on a road that is designed for me. As any engineer will tell you, a lot of thought has been put into maximizing the chances of me getting from point A to point B safely.
When I’m on a bike, they’ve taken that carefully designed road and mmmmaaaayyyybeee painted a white line that’s supposed to keep me safe. But only if it wouldn’t inconvenience the cars too much. And there are still plenty of drivers that resent it being there, especially if they’d like to park in it.
When I’m navigating this world as a straight, white, able-bodied male, I feel safe. Yes, I have to be careful, and yes, something could still happen, but I’m in a world that is designed for me. I’m in a cultural and political climate whose very roots can be traced back to a time when literally anyone who wasn’t like me wasn’t considered capable of citizenship. Over the years we’ve let more people onto the road, but the road still wasn’t really designed for them. And sometimes people swerve at them, just to remind them who it really belongs to.
Not all men. Not all white people.
If we really want to share the road, we’re gonna need better lanes.
One year I worked in a temporary sales shop- it was a brief set-up that only lasted maybe six months, total.
At the end of it, one of my co-workers stood up to say goodbye to the group and broke down in tears.
He was gay and, he said, this was the first time he’d ever been in an environment where it wasn’t a source of stress for him.
Frigging mid-twenties and it was his first time being with a group of people who allowed him to be who he was without feeling othered by it.
It was then I realized I would never, ever understand the immense bravery and resilience it would take to simply exist as a gay man in the world (and by extension any non-cisgendered person, though at that point I wasn’t aware enough to understand the full spectrum).
That sense- of knowing this is a terrible thing while also knowing I will never fully understand just how terrible and deeply personal it is- that’s how i feel today.
If you are being affected by today’s events on a deeper level than I am- if this cuts deeper to who you are than it possibly can for me- I’m sorry. I can never fully feel what you feel, but just know – I am here, if there is anything I can do.
Ali did not transcend race to bring people together. He refused to hide the parts of himself that were unpalatable to polite society, and made people come to him. *That* is why he was great.
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