The Least Shall Be First

Green Leader Annamie Paul facing no-confidence motion from party brass -  CityNews Toronto

You’ve probably heard those mutterings about how the surest way to win a government grant or a job in the public service is to identify yourself as a disabled gay Native person, or some other advantageous combination of disadvantages. While the cracks can certainly evoke an ugly resentment, their familiarity suggests a widespread cynicism towards official multiculturalism and the victim racket – not so much a hostile backlash against them as a resigned acceptance that they are now the only game in town. How has this attitude come to be?

Surely one explanation is that news coverage seems to more and more reflect a sanctioned advocacy on behalf of selected minorities, whereby intersectionality equates with importance: thus the proliferation of stories about the plight of being a Muslim polyamorist, about the struggles of being a trangender Asian, or about the painful experience of being a Jewish Black female leader of an environmentalist political organization, as witnessed in the recent kerfuffle around Annamie Paul, who blames a trifecta of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism for criticisms of her performance heading Canada’s Green Party. The implication of such journalism is that the articles or profiles are uncovering a hitherto overlooked population whose shared concerns are overdue for acknowledgement or even redress. Yet the increasingly obvious contrivance of the angle – projecting an entire “community” from particular individuals who self-identify as representatives of it – only adds to a broader fatigue felt towards identity groups of many kinds.

Generally, the most relevant or most urgent news story of the day is the one which holds the broadest public interest: an election, a government scandal, a natural disaster, an international incident, or some other episode holding equal significance to any one citizen, regardless of their personal affiliation or outlook. Even a murder or a plane crash, though by definition involving a limited number of people, feels random enough that ordinary news readers or viewers can empathize with those affected. On the other hand, the heartfelt feature piece on the two-spirit coffee shop proprietor, the genderqueer single mother of five, or the Afro-Caribbean activist battling racism in the landscaping industry, is much less relatable to anyone outside the categories themselves. If the reporting is meant to promote solidarity among the downtrodden, or to shame bystanders for being insufficiently supportive, it’s ended up shaming anyone who’s not quite downtrodden enough to merit the air time, and promoting solidarity among unsupportive bystanders.

At its worst, the constant attendance to – and exaggeration of – issues which affect only small slivers of the public is an affront to the democratic ideal. While proportional representation is sometimes touted as a potential improvement of our electoral system (each party’s number of sitting legislators would better correspond with its earned share of ballots cast), no one seems to be calling for proportional representation in the media, such that society’s relatively few drag performers, professional anti-racists, or sexual harassment complainants, for example, are correspondingly rare onscreen. Free societies, of course, protect minority rights, insofar as being popularly outnumbered should carry no risk of being politically excluded; indeed, whatever the jokes say, the disabled gay Native person ought to be no less eligible for the grant or the government job than his or her far more numerous able-bodied straight non-Native competitors. But truly free societies don’t overcompensate minority rights by applying them to every possible situation where majorities would otherwise naturally dominate. A principle of never playing favorites has been inverted into a principle of always defaulting to the underdog. The notion that the atypical, the marginal, or the statistically inconsequential must be artificially propped up by extra attention, in order to safeguard them against the average, the mainstream, and the demographically prominent, is not how democracy works. It’s how democracy breaks down.

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