Multiculturalism: alive and well, or smoke and mirrors?
Multiculturalism as a concept stirs up conflicting opinions within me. On one hand, I want to be proud of Canada for being a leader in multiculturalism, and for being known as an accepting and diverse country. On the other hand, at times I feel like multiculturalism is a façade for the racism, discrimination, and prejudice that exist behind the screens.
This inner battle of opinions existed ever since I was in elementary school. At the same time that my school would embrace diversity, such as by celebrating Diwali and Chinese New Year, I also remember having to deal with racist taunts or cruel words that were said to me because I have a different cultural heritage. It happened in the classroom, in public parks and pools, and even at an amusement park.
I understand that children and adolescents are a cognitively, socially, and behaviourally developing demographic. This means that mistakes happen. Hey, even I have done and said a thing or two that makes me now cringe and shake my head. Yet, to this day, I still deal with prejudice (from adults, no less).
These experiences go far beyond stereotypical Asian jokes. For instance, I am dating someone from a different ethnic background than me. Disapproval from people of older generations was not surprising, and is indeed a whole other story. What left me utterly flabbergasted was to learn that people in my age-range — university students — would criticize our relationship based on the fact that we were an interracial couple. These people did not even know me, had no idea what kind of couple we were, yet they had the narrow mind to look down on me based on the colour of my skin rather than the content of my character.
Furthermore, when the Conservative government was in power, there was a legal battle to prevent a woman, Zunera Ishaq, from wearing her niqab during her citizenship ceremony. Wearing the niqab did not pose any identity concerns, as right before the ceremony Ishaq showed her face to an official to confirm her identity.
In light of the recent attacks in Paris, people are once again acting out on anti-Muslim views. According to the CBC, on November 16 a Muslim mother in Ontario was picking up her children from school when she was attacked from behind, called a terrorist, and told to go back home. This example, sadly, is one of many.
Racism and prejudice have been issues that have seeped into my personal life, my community, and in the governance of Canada. Perhaps my gut reaction is to feel angry. Maybe I have feelings of doubt and question multiculturalism in Canada. But when I let those feelings sit around too long, I feel like I have lost, and that such feelings would only contribute to the endless cycle of negativity.
It is important to understand that racism and discrimination, sometimes subtle and at other times flat-out bigoted, do exist in Canada. But knowing this, we cannot let ourselves sink into that negativity. There will always be people who hold prejudiced views. Trying to open them up to different perspectives is like having a conversation with someone who does all the talking and none of the listening. On the other hand, there are also many more people standing up against discrimination, and we ourselves have the ability to take part in that positive progress. As the KKK do not represent Christian values, and ISIS does not represent Muslim values, we must remind ourselves that racism does not represent Canadian values.
Paris and, uh, Beirut
Ignorance isn’t always on purpose
Without question, the attacks in Paris were awful, although it was nice to see how people supported each other in its aftermath. Social media feeds were filled with regrets and condolences for Paris, and Facebook even offered users the option to superimpose the French flag on their profile pictures to express solidarity. Amid all this sympathy for Paris, however, many pointed out that few Westerners were expressing the same kind of sympathy for Beirut, which experienced a similar attack just the day before, and even fewer seemed to share their condolences for Syria, which people are still fleeing because of the constant violence.
These criticisms of the West’s self-absorption are fair enough. Clearly, many of us are either ignorant or uncaring about much of the world. But I noticed many of these criticisms online were paired with personal accusations about how shitty white North Americans are for being so selective with their sympathy. This is simply not useful, since their sympathy probably isn’t carefully selective so much as it is only directed at the things that trigger an immediate response for them; in other words, it’s directed at things which feel more real than yet another news story they didn’t read about in yet another place they’ll never visit. Rather than condemn the ignorant, we ought to work harder at combatting the ignorance itself.
It’s not that the attacks in Beirut weren’t covered by Western news outlets, but people just weren’t reading the coverage. Many publications, including the New York Times and BBC, reported the Beirut attacks on the same day they happened. Yet, as Anne Barnard of the New York Times writes, “For some in Beirut, that solidarity was mixed with anguish over the fact that just one of the stricken cities — Paris — received a global outpouring of sympathy akin to the one lavished on the United States after the 9/11 attacks.” She also notes that while Facebook gave users a “Safety Check” feature to make sure users’ loved ones in Paris were all right, “they had not activated it the day before for Beirut.”
The problem is therefore not so much with Western reporting but with what many of us use as our news source: Facebook. As an institution, Facebook has no journalistic ambition; its core function is as a social media website, and though it’s used all across the world, it is still based in the West. The articles users see are based on what their friends share, and the sum of what friends share doesn’t always accurately represent what’s going on in the world. People usually share stuff they looked up after hearing about it, so naturally if they heard about the Paris attacks because of their cousins or whoever lives there, that’s the news they’re going to seek, share, and talk about.
The best way to combat the general ignorance of Facebookers, then, is not to tell them they’re being bad people when they’re just wishing a city well, because that comes across like a weird punishment for a well-meaning gesture. Instead, use the platform to educate them by example on the platform’s limitations. Share links to articles about other parts of the world, like Beirut, that deserve just as much attention as any other country. Talk intelligently about reliable sources and how to find them, and about how Facebook isn’t really a source. Expecting expertise from people speaking from the soapbox — not think-tank — of social media is itself a little ignorant. So guide people, don’t yell at them.
Of course, if they still insist on justifying their ignorance and actively act like assholes, you can yell a little.
Let’s go beyond Facebook solidarity
Just over a week ago, three major tragedies occurred across the globe: terrorist attacks in Beirut, Lebanon; Baghdad, Iraq; and Paris, France. Since then, an overwhelming amount of opinions have been expressed across social media. In the wake of these disasters, Facebook has created a “cause” by providing users an opportunity to stand in solidarity with our fellow global citizens.
“If you wish to pay your respects and show your support, all you have to do is find a friend using ‘causes’ feature in Facebook to customise their profile picture in your Facebook news feed,” explains Nicola Oakley, reporter for the Mirror. Is that all we have to do to show our compassion and fight for human rights nowadays? Although I am excited to see how vocal people have become in this fight against terrorism, I am concerned that this is as far as it will go.
For me, the “cause” filter on Facebook comes across as the catch-all for actively campaigning for social justice issues. Whether someone sympathizes with only France or Iraq or Lebanon in their filter selection, I believe that it should not be the only step towards global solidarity. Although there are many differing political ideologies and perspectives that are shared on Facebook as a result of the profile picture flag-overlays, and it encourages excellent discussions between users’ personal and professional networks, people are beginning to question whether this new fad is actually improving our political fight against these socio-political catastrophes.
I think that often we rely too much on social media to do our bidding in the fight for political and social justice. Why not go beyond the filter and pursue outside avenues to fundraise, or work with local organizations that are actively working with the victims of global terrorism? Are we too afraid to experience direct socio-political consequences? Why can we state our opinions so openly online but then refuse to engage in political discussions in person?
I cannot help but think that sometimes we get too comfortable in sharing our political opinions behind the security of our technology in the name of anonymity or invincibility. What I mean by Facebook anonymity is that often we portray ourselves on social media outlets as someone who we want to be perceived as rather than who we really are in the non-virtual world. From my experience on social media, the sharing and criticism of people’s opinions is ironically done through virtual distance where the individual’s name and desired identity is on display. If someone did not like what you shared or stated on your profile, you can hide behind your screen and automatically delete their comments, or easily ignore them with one click of a button — unlike confronting someone in person about their opinions on sensitive issues, where you cannot simply ignore their reactions or outbursts. So are we really engaging in an honest open discussion if we have the power to control who says what on our posts?
According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Centre, “Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to want to share their opinions in many face-to-face settings, especially if they felt that their social audience disagreed with them.” I would like to acknowledge that this is not necessarily true for all social media users, since there are many possible consequences that can come out of online discourses about the world’s current events, such as “defriending” contacts due to their perceived hatred and white supremacy (although it is less common to lose friends immediately in the middle of a face-to-face discussion).
Putting a flag on your Facebook profile picture or “liking” or “sharing” causes is only the beginning of mobilizing peace and global solidarity. These social media initiatives are only powerful if they are followed up by real-life involvement. “Solidarity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” Historically speaking, socio-political solidarity was only successful with the follow-up action of like-minded individuals, such as the overthrow of dictatorships we recently witnessed in the Arab Spring of 2010.
Does changing the Facebook profile picture help create a global awareness of the current events taking place? Absolutely. We must talk about it in whatever capacity we can, but fighting for justice, especially on such a scale as large as “The Fight Against Terrorism,” requires active participation outside of the virtual world of technlogy. It may require attending a meeting with other like-minded individuals once in a while, or it may be as simple as volunteering at a nearby neighborhood community centre.
Either way, helping for the greater good requires more than taking a few minutes out of your schedule to change your profile picture. As uncomfortable or as stressful it may seem, it is through meeting the people for whom you claim to advocate that makes the largest impact. If you stand in solidarity with France or Iraq or Lebanon or whatever other cause you find attractive, I strongly urge you to physically engage with those communities around you and take real steps in the peace-building process.
Not guns, but flowers: resisting hatred after tragedy
It seems that every time you log onto social media right now, you are swarmed with ranting posts, terrible memes, and videos of people discussing the tragic attacks in Paris. With the Syrian refugee movement and these attacks of terrorism, people seem to be on edge — and it’s bringing out the best and worst in everyone.
After a terrible event like this, it is hard to make sense of what happened and why. People turn to the media and sources online for their information. The problem with this is that sometimes misconceptions and wrong ideas are quickly spread.
The common misconception is that this is a result of Muslim extremists who were brought in disguised as refugees. In a CBC article published on November 17, 2015 (along with numerous other articles published about the perpetrators), we learn that although many of the attackers are from Middle Eastern descent, the majority have been identified as French and Belgian citizens. So why are people still so quick to blame refugees?
Through my classes and experiences this semester, I have had the opportunity to look at this event from a variety of angles. On November 4, 2015, a week and a half before the attacks in Paris, peace activist Yonatan Shapira visited the UFV Abbotsford campus to give a lecture on the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Even though the conflicts are not directly linked, the ideas of which Shapira spoke are transferable; he believes in peace’s ability to defeat violence and oppression, and advocates that peace and unity is what those in power fear. This connects directly to a discussion that we had in my anthropology of world religions class. We talked about the media, the fear of people, Trudeau’s promise to take in 25,000 refugees, and the concept of peace as a solution to ISIS’s terrorism. The extremists in ISIS want to create division and fear; they want everyone to deny asylum to these refugees fleeing violence and oppression. If we deny these refugees entry into countries around the world, where will they have to go? The problem is that they will have nowhere to go but to return to ISIS for help.
So what is the proper response to the people who fear Syrian refugees coming into our countries, or who argue that our only solution is to fight back with more weaponry? We can’t blame an entire people or religion for the comparatively few extremists who create the violence, and it is not possible to go to war with an ideology. Just like other religions, Islam is composed of many different sects. A great comparison was made by Victoria White in the Irish Examiner: “Britain didn’t mistake Ireland for the IRA. Don’t confuse Islam with IS [Islamic State].”
I have posted my fair share of articles, videos, and pictures on Facebook in a sea of rants and comment wars galore, but the best moments are when you find the positive stories. Like the video of a man explaining to his son that the French should not fight back with guns and bullets, but with flowers. Or the video of Antoine Leiris who lost his wife in the attack on the Bataclan, warning the attackers that he would not give them the satisfaction of revenge or hatred, but instead insists that he will not turn against his neighbours. There’s the story of a security guard who stopped a suicide bomber from entering the Stade de France. And then there’s the little-known and heroic story of Safer, a Muslim bartender who pulled two injured women into the basement of the restaurant while there was still gunfire in the streets.
These are the stories we should look for instead: the stories of hope and the persistence of humanity after a tragic event, and of the ability of people to overcome horror and show love for their neighbours.