On giving bigoted ‘idiots’ a voice

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I’m sure everyone’s heard about a certain letter to the editor published in last week’s Calgary Sun. By this point, I inevitably won’t be the first to comment on this “Anti-Newfoundland Rant,” now infamous, so I won’t — we all know how inaccurate and ridiculous it was, so why waste any more time on it. Still, while the merits of the letter’s contents hardly warrant further consideration, the merits of a large-circulation newspaper such as the Calgary Sun publishing bigoted content in the first place certainly does. After all, the letter isn’t the first disparaging remark about the people of this province published by a media outlet on the mainland (Margaret Wente’s “I like Newfoundlanders” column from a few years ago in The Globe & Mail comes to mind). Similarly, that column produced a huge (and predictable) public backlash both here and across the country. Such predictability is perhaps what sweetens such reactionary content for editors. Indeed, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Quite a cynical attitude, I know, but with this most recent incident in particular, it seems more than believable that it may be the case. After all, last week’s letter to the editor did garner the most reaction ever received by the newspaper for a single piece of writing. Naturally, whether based on generating publicity or not, the Sun’s decision to run the “rant” was an unthinkably errant one. That being said, once you consider the nonsense offered up as substantiation for printing such garbage, you start to understand how such a decision could have been made. After the letter was published and the subsequent stream of public reaction unleashed, the Sun’s editor-in-chief Jose Rodriguez was forced to answer the obvious question: knowing full well the letter’s prejudice towards Newfoundlanders, why publish it at all? His response: while the paper’s editors debated the pros and cons of allowing the letter to appear, they decided that running it would allow people to refute what it said and set the record straight. “There are people who are bigoted,” explained Rodriguez. “Do we just ignore them all or do we give them a podium so people can put (them) in (their) place?” It’s an interesting approach, exposing a person’s ignorance by allowing others to show them how wrong they are — a sort of orchestrated plot by the Sun to teach them a lesson. But here’s the thing. Even if it isn’t the paper’s intention to do so, by printing disparaging material such as last week’s “Anti-Newfoundland Rant,” the Sun, is in fact, promoting bigoted beliefs rather than discouraging them. In running the letter, it knowingly gives an uninformed, prejudiced person — whom Rodriguez himself later called an “idiot” — a platform from which to spew their hateful misinformation so that despite the ensuing deluge of comments and letters contradicting their claims, the original letter remains the cornerstone for debate, and its contents — their bigoted message — get repeated over and over again. So, despite the Sun’s ostensibly altruistic stance on the matter, you’ll have to forgive me for not applauding their efforts. Running the letter didn’t help Newfoundlanders, it just reminded us of the prejudices still held on to by a devoted, uninformed few. And as for the idea of knocking a bigoted person down to size, someone willing enough to write such an oblivious letter is clearly too entrenched and adamant in his or her opinions, no matter how obviously wrong they are, to change their mind. People like that are simply past saving. When it comes down to it, the Sun had the power to actually affect positive change by ignoring the letter and helping to stop prejudice-fuelled generalizations about Newfoundlanders from being perpetuated. Instead it chose the irresponsible course: propagating them. But I’m sure it must’ve created a lot of hits for them online. Lucky them. Patrick Butler will begin the journalism program at Carleton University in Ontario in the fall. He lives in Conception Bay South, and can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.

Organizations: Carleton University

Geographic location: Ontario, Conception Bay South

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  • Colin Burke
    August 11, 2013 - 09:20

    I've read that bigotry consists not in irrational dislike but in believing that no one could possibly have a respectable reply to your own argument. That definition appears to me to apply more to Mr. Butler than to Mr. Mitchell.

  • Greg
    August 05, 2013 - 23:14

    Mr. Butler, I also hope you learn a thing or two at school, but unfortunately you probably won't. Freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have in this country, and true freedom of expression includes bigotry. We do not have the choice to silence a voice we don't like simply because it might hurt someone's feelings, it is not an option and certainly must not be tolerated. Freedom of expression does not exist to protect people's feelings, to save the weak-hearted from being offended. It exists to protect every single person who the majority disagrees with on any given issue or non-issue.

  • Greg
    August 05, 2013 - 23:07

    Chantal, you need to stop throwing around terms you don't understand. You obviously have no idea what hate speech is, so stop trying to scare people into thinking they are committing libel and/or slander by speaking their mind.

  • Dee
    August 05, 2013 - 10:12

    I'm glad you said you didn't want to rant on Mr .Butler because that's exactly what you are doing.I know who I am I am a proud Newfoundlander like many others I don't need anyone to tell me that.

  • david
    August 05, 2013 - 09:46

    Many "idiots" are just people who disagree with your point of view. I believe this to be a classic example. This guy's experience with Newfoundlanders is quite likely a very rational reason for some of his opinions. There are far too many punks and drunks to deny their existence or their negative influence on people's impressions. And that's what all this is. Denial .

  • Colin Burke
    August 05, 2013 - 08:24

    How many other people with what other opinions are simply past saving, Mr. Butler? Maybe journalism school will give you a new slant on fairness and objectivity. Even so, I haven't a high opinion of journalism "schools." The only one I attended was a working newspaper, where Editor Cal Holloway showed me all I needed to know about writing news by chopping the three and a half pages from my second assignment -- I began a story on a Lions club meeting (where a government official's speech was the only thing of interest and not all of that) with who said grace for the meal -- down to a page and a half. (I still remember Rae Sunder's anguished cry to "Caaal!" on my proudly handing her the mess.) Any business worth working for will train its own workers on finding they have the talent for the work, which Cal had sensed I did when I brought him those few essays at The Western Star in September of 1966. (My first assignment had turned out okay; it was the 50th -- or maybe 25th -- anniversary of a bishop's ordination to the priesthood, and a Catholic former seminarian's attitude was already adequate to reporting that occasion.)

  • Jeff
    August 05, 2013 - 07:17

    If the Calgary Sun is anything like it's Toronto counterpart, promoting neo-conservative anger and bigotry is its bread and butter.

  • J
    August 05, 2013 - 07:07

    LOL. ah, a journalism student for censorship. No wonder newspapers are a dying bred. Last I checked being a bigot was against the law and just because you are offended doesn't means it should be banned or censored. I'm offended by a lot of special interest groups but I don't go calling for them to be censored. Usually, these groups end up shooting themselves in the foot, much like our Mr. Mitchell.

    • Chantal
      August 05, 2013 - 09:30

      Actually, hate speech is against the law. And before you get on about all the "special interest groups" and censorship, libel and slander are also against the law.

    • Chantal
      August 05, 2013 - 12:25

      Your point is taken about the Heartland Institute; however the Telegram routinely cites the self-styled Canadian Taxpayers Federation giving the impresssion that they somehow represent taxpayers when, in fact, they represent the interests of the corporate classes.

  • Betty
    August 05, 2013 - 05:32

    Patrick... Couldn't we say the same thing here, in n & l concerning the provincial liberal leadership race. When the Liberal took away Mr Charles Murphy right to run for leader of the party. I got this feeling it had nothing to do with his cheque...or his nomination paper, It had to do with his article of June 24/2013 in the western star..Now tell me...What would you call that? You don't hear anyone screaming out about the miss character of justice was put up on this man. And our province