Checking the Blind Spots: A Review of Identity, "Race", and Freedom of Expression

January 2023

Rachad Antonius and Normand Baillargeon (eds.), Identité, « race », liberté d’expression. Perspectives critiques sur certains débats qui fracturent la gauche, Québec, Presses de l’Université Laval, coll. « Philosophie », 2021, 384 p. ISBN 978-2-7637-5625-7

Normand Baillargeon, who taught at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) from 1989 to 2015, is a defender of freedom of expression. Readers of the SAFS Newsletter will recall a previous collection of essays he edited, Liberté surveillée (2018), reviewed in issue #83, 2019. Baillargeon’s new collection, edited with UQAM sociology professor Rachad Antonius, focuses on the malaise in Québec that followed such events as the Lieutenant-Duval case and the demonstrations against Robert Lepage’s plays SLĀV and Kanata. Baillargeon and Antonius believe it crucially important to understand the Woke movement and the ideological fractures within the contemporary left. Divided into four sections, their book gathers essays and testimony from various horizons (sociology and pedagogy, for instance) by figures most of whom are well known in Québec for having gone on record about this malaise.

The first section takes up almost half of the volume and concentrates on the “world of ideas in mutation”, as the editors entitle it. Drawing on Max Weber, UQAM political scientist Marc Chevrier analyses the trend in philosophy and the social sciences towards taking “prophetic attitudes” (Weber), a trend Chevrier attributes to increased scepticism about truth and objectivity. This scepticism generated the rise of “the useful” and, mainly, “the just”, an evolution that reinstates in academic disciplines two characteristics of prophesying: moralism and waiting for salvation.

Patrick Moreau, a teacher of literature who writes regularly for Le Devoir, reflects on the “word war”. To consider taboo the word “nigger” reduces the word to a signal by refusing the multiple meanings of the sign. Moreau points out that, because they transform signs into signals, contemporary neologisms and the dramatization of language blur our relation both to language and to the real. Dogmatism and moralism aim to fight symbolic oppressive figures such as patriarchy and slavery, without solving any problems. This generates a perverse Manicheism, reifies the individual, and destroys the possibility of a democratic conversation in search of the truth.

Sociologist Micheline Labelle examines some of the corruptions and perverse effects of leftist discourse on discussions in Québec society – discussions on secularity and Loi 21, for instance, and on Québec nationalism.

Qussaï Samak, of the Université de Montréal, retraces the origins of the “cultural left”, with its identity politics and political correctness, to the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School, to French Deconstruction, and to postmodernism. The left, Samak says, is largely responsible for “civic and political sorrows”. Samak excoriates the sacrificial neo-obscurantism (néo-obscurantisme victimaire) that sought to empower sexual and racial minorities but instead generated the current newspeak and lead to a culture war that often looks like a mission of religious indoctrination.

Rachad Antonius criticizes diversity ideology for committing the error of extending concepts beyond their limits of validity. Examples he gives are the concepts of privilege, systemic racism, colonialism with regard to First Nations, and victimhood as an identity. In this discursive landscape, the moral position supplants the analytical one, and binaries are reversed. Race, for instance, has become either/or while biological sex has turned into a spectrum. Ideological orientations, Antonius finds, produce unfortunate cleavage effects.

David Rand, president of Atheist Freethinkers, also evaluates the Woke movement. Although wokism pretends to be left-wing, it is, rather, with its dogmatism, moralism, and Manicheism, a parareligion, Rand contends, as we see in both cancel culture and Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility”. The woke mentality proves to be anti-universalist and racist as it attacks “white privilege” instead of discrimination. Retrograde and reactionary, the woke movement provoked the quasi-destruction of the left.

In the last essay of the section, retired Université Laval professor Claude Simard ponders sectarianism and the tendency towards a peremptory and ostentatious virtue found in postmodern self-righteousness (bien-pensance). Virtue signalling lines up with the “society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord) and Homo festivus, man devoted to pleasure and personal fulfilment (Philippe Muray). The bien-pensance fits the current “neo-tribalism” (Michel Maffesoli), since the self-righteous are gregarious and sectarian, favouring emotion over reason. Simard argues that our new social paradigm promotes censorship in the name of virtue and supposedly progressive values.

The second section focusses on political transformations that attended the rise of identity movements. Following French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, Stéphane Chalifour and Judith Trudeau (both at Collège Lionel-Groulx, in Montréal) note that we live in a “uneasy society” (société du malaise) generated by the radicalization of individualism in the 1960s. The individual is dominated by a psychological sorrow immanent to freedom when socially structuring norms have been effaced. Showing this sorrow gives the individual her identity. Identity then becomes political, since the sorrow calls for compensation. The people and the class struggle are thereby replaced by disparate communities each promoting its victim status. For Chalifour and Trudeau, identity dynamics generate a climate of suspicion that prevents new social relationships from forming.

Michel Roche, a political scientist at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, examines the chasm between the left and the working class, the latter assimilated by the left to the “white” majority. The fall of the unions, deindustrialization, globalization and stratification of education have led to increased suspicion of the left among “white” working-class people and pushed those who don’t simply abstain from politics into the populist right. The left forgets that its hatred of the working-class milieu is rooted in material conditions and neglects the fact that it itself is responsible for its ideological and intellectual isolation from that class. If the left persists in its current discursive trends, Roche argues, it will create – and feed – a monster. Roche concludes that the defence of minorities must include all members of the working class, otherwise there will be no winner.

Analyzing the origins and the characteristics of political correctness, French sociologist Pierre Mouterde shows its underlying authoritarian political drift, as the case involving Verushka Lieutenant-Duval reveals. The roots of this ideology lie in the “uncertain in-between” (entre-deux incertain) period that developed with the expansion of global capitalism, the crisis of anti-systemic political alternatives, postmodern individualism and the growth of collective guilt (towards the environment, for instance). Political correctness offers only cosmetic changes to our political powerlessness; in reality, Mouterde argues, it supports an unbearable status quo and encourages top-down social controls.

In the final paper of the second section, Charles Le Blanc, professor of philosophy at the Université d’Ottawa, meditates on racialism and resentment. Racialism is a revolutionary ideology that aims to exchange one relation of dominance for another; in this sense, it is a despotism wrapped in virtue. Within racialism is the idea of race purity, and – more importantly – the impulse to displace moral responsibility for our actions from the individual to the collective. Even more, this ideology’s quest for justice proves to belong to resentment (Max Scherer), which generates envy and desire for revenge. Racialism, Le Blanc concludes, is an amalgamation of attitudes dressed up in scientific respectability.

The third section features examples and testimonies that illustrate the mutations examined in the previous theoretical sections. In her article, media personality Marie-France Bazzo describes how new discursive trends have affected Québec media. Respectful debates are now extremely rare, as everybody is made to wear a label and too many Quebecers prefer to live in silos. Hostility and isolation rent the social fabric and shut down humanistic values. Because of their traditional left-wing values (and guilt), media workers relay only woke ideology, dismissing diversity of opinion in favor of uniformity and purity. Bazzo despairs that collective conversation is no longer possible.

In 2018, Maka Kotto, a former politician who is an actor, author and educator, accused activists who urged a boycott of Robert Lepage’s SLĀV: une odyssée théâtrale à travers les chants d’esclaves of “intellectual terrorism.” He returns to this theme in his contribution. Kotto deplores the American concept of “cultural appropriation”, for it restricts the imagination. Kotto himself produced and participated in productions that borrowed from various cultures. Behind the concept of cultural appropriation lies tribalism, he claims; to fight racism, we need communication, not confrontation.

His experience as a teacher convinced Christian Boyer that constructivism in pedagogy is not postmodern but in fact premodern. Constructivists deny scientific data, rationality, and objectivity, as can be seen in their championing of Whole-Language reading instruction. Through the years, various constructivist ideas influenced both Ministries of Education and vulnerable children – hardly ever, Boyer says, for the best.

The late sociologist and philosopher Franklin Midy takes as his main topic the word “nègre”. To forbid this term is to forget its contradiction, “blanc”. It is also to erase the memory of its historical roots; the word is not only negative, contrary to what the current discourse pretends, as shown in the Haitian constitution and Franco-African literature. For Midy, what we must fight are the causes and effects of racism, and not some particular word.

Musicologist Claude Dauphin agrees with Midy. In Haitian creole, “Nèg” means “human”: using the expression “mot en N” therefore annihilates the critic’s humanity. As well, banishing “nègre” erases Haitian and Caribbean literatures. Dauphin reclaims the term as a symbol of Renaissance.

In the final paper of the third section, Fabrizio Vecoli (Université de Montréal) offers testimony on the university as a professor of religion, a sensitive field of study since it touches both individual and collective convictions. Vecoli deplores contemporary disparagements of objectivity, the universal conception of the human being, and critical distance before one’s subject of study. When the university is made timid and fragile by ideologies of identity, it serves the ends of the ideologues and, ultimately, of those in power. This is why, according to Vecoli, academic freedom is not a privilege, but a responsibility.

The two essays that make up the fourth and final section of Identité, « race », liberté d’expression concentrate on questions of sex and gender. Rhéa Jean, who has written a book on the agency of prostitutes, notes that even if the concept of man and woman is based on stable biological characteristics, the definition of gender will remain blurry, and even circular. Yet, gender ideology permeates society and has negative effects on women’s rights. Accepting that claiming to be a woman is sufficient to be one makes women invisible and threatens abortion rights, Jean says. Girls and teens are also victims of this so-called progressive ideology when they opt for gender transition or conversion therapy, which often leads to psychological and physical problems. Gender-identity ideology could reinstate women’s oppression and force repulsive practices on children. We do not, then, according to Jean, have the choice of silence.

Anthropologist, and leading member of Pour les droits des femmes, Michèle Sirois agrees with Jean. Confusing gender and sex puts women at risk or disadvantage, Sirois maintains, for it enables men to enter spaces traditionally set aside for women (such as women’s washrooms, prisons and sports competitions). As well, it imposes its criteria of sex and gender on various cultures, overriding their values and folkways. Gender identity lobbyism is powerful, as it has successfully counteracted the universalist feminist movement and marginalized women. Along with the other contributors, Sirois calls for a questioning of woke ideology while asking for candid, respectful discussion on the collective level.

With this collection of essays, Antonius and Baillargeon have gathered very stimulating perspectives, creating a subtle and multi-layered analysis of the state of discussion in Québec. In their conclusions, the editors underline the fact that not everything in postmodernism and intersectionality is wrong. They seek mainly to bring back the spirit of the Enlightenment, helping us to check the blind spots in current thought and practice, in order to find a “constructive balance” between, on one hand, social justice and recognition, and, on the other, freedom of expression and analytical rationality. They hope that Identité, « race », liberté d’expression will contribute to the collective debate.