Prominent pundits across Canada are writing all sorts of stern, thoughtful pieces about Dr. Andrew Potter of the University of McGill at the moment. On March 20, Potter wrote an article for Maclean’s magazine that criticized Quebec society. It generated a backlash from Quebecers, including the premier of the province, and Potter immediately groveled and apologized. His employer publicly denounced him, and then eventually fired him (well, formally “accepted his resignation”) from one of his university jobs.
People are writing about this episode for a number of reasons. Potter seems to be a well-liked guy within the Canadian media establishment, and other media people seem honestly upset that he’s been cajoled out of his “dream job.” The idea of a professor being disciplined by his administration for expressing controversial opinions raises serious questions about academic freedom. But more than anything else, his plight has offered opportunity to take particular issue with Quebecers, and the degree to which they seem prone to extravagant demonstrations of offense in response to rather mild criticism. They say it takes three examples to prove a trend, and Potter’s name is often mentioned alongside Jan Wong and Martin Patriquin — two journalists who were officially denounced by the Canadian parliament for writing things that offended Quebec.
I’m in a unique position to comment on this, because last month I myself was denounced by a unanimous vote of the Quebec legislature for the crime of writing something that offended the province. The Bloc Quebecois almost got a motion denouncing me to sail unanimously through the House of Commons as well, but the Conservatives denied support.
My episode received very little media attention. As far as I’m aware, no one in English Canada wrote a single editorial in my defense (there were several pieces written denouncing me in the Quebec press, however, and I was given a sympathetic interview by the U.S.-based Daily Caller).
On some level, this was predictable. I am not as famous or as well-liked as Dr. Potter, and a conservative writer like me getting in trouble for being offensive is a bit of a dog-bites-man story. On the other hand, I will take some credit for engaging in deliberate tactics that specifically helped minimize the drama of my situation. I didn’t suffer nearly as much for my actions as did Dr. Potter, despite the fact that my article received a much harsher official rebuke.
Why? For starters, I wrote my piece for the Washington Post, an American publication. Americans have the First Amendment, and they value freedom of speech and freedom of the press as fundamental, inalienable rights. The notion that a calmly-argued editorial column deserves any sort of official reprimand is bizarre to American sensibilities. My editors at the Post stood by me 100%, and I am still writing for them to this day. My professional advice to Canadian journalists is that if you want to write something provocative or controversial, consider doing it for someone in the States. Canada simply has a lot fewer people willing to defend free speech as a principle unto itself.
Second, Dr. Potter made the fundamental mistake of apologizing. Any phonebook lawyer will tell you, the absolute worst thing you can do when accused of any serious offense is concede the validity of the accusations. Potter’s first instinct was to not defend the free speech rights he had exercised, it was to admit he went too far in criticizing Quebec and would do things differently in retrospect.
I thought about defending myself when the backlash to my piece began, perhaps clarifying some of the points that I believed were being misunderstood by my critics, but ultimately chose not to. I didn’t say anything about the piece. I didn’t write any follow ups or clarifications. I certainly didn’t concede that I did anything wrong. I won’t concede that now. I wanted the issue to be as clear of distraction as possible, with the issue being I had written an opinion column and a government was denouncing me for it. Defending that big picture will always be a much easier argument than getting into the nitty-gritty about whatever specific thesis you were pushing. That’s for comments threads.
Lastly, Dr. Potter clearly didn’t have the courage of his convictions. As the National Post’s Jen Gerson put it on Canadaland, his piece read like the rant of a man who got caught in a Quebec traffic jam and tried to form a thesis around it, rather than any deeper motive. Potter’s subsequent expressions of regret and remorse revealed a man who worries very much about Quebec’s approval and was genuinely troubled by their rejection. He has some personal history with the province and held a high-profile job at “a Montreal institution that more than most reflects Canada’s language duality” — in the words of Chantal Hebert — which put him in a uniquely defensive place.
I, meanwhile, don’t really care what Quebec thinks of me. Being denounced was weird, and being barraged with swear-filled emails from strangers (which I continue to receive to this day) certainly could be disturbing, but it wasn’t existentially threatening to any part of my identity or lifestyle.
The old saying is true — they can’t take away what you never had.