Serious enough for you, David?

If there were gratifying results from David Gilmour’s interview with Emily Keeler on Hazlitt, they would include the reactions of dismay that populated international, national and local news channels, mainstream online publications, personal blogs and social media in the weeks following. Dozens of teachers, writers, editors and journalists found his “lack of interest” in teaching women writers, Canadian writers, and minority writers to be unacceptable. Many called his attitudes sexist, racist, bigoted and an abuse of his privilege as a teaching fellow at Victoria College.

The media reaction provides a snapshot of Canadian academics, writers and journalists’ attitudes towards the subject of diversity in literature. In the month since the original interview, the quantity and the quality of the editorials, blog posts and news stories has been strikingly varied, and indicative of how certain publications position themselves. The timeline of the coverage also provides insight.

Keeler’s interview appeared on the morning of September 25th, and by the early afternoon the reaction on social media was so vocal that Gilmour was trending on Twitter. Hazlitt quickly followed up by posting the interview in its entirety, and a summary of the interview had appeared on National Post’s Afterword section. The Toronto Star ’s Storify amalgamated a “flood of tweets” and posted pages of satiric, ironic and emotional messages which were later republished on the Quill & Quire site and The Star. By 5pm, Mark Medley at the National Post had conducted another interview with Gilmour, which included his apology along with more dismissive and ill-thought remarks.

Within a day, the public reaction to Gilmour’s comments had become newsworthy. Rachel Stapleton, U of T Phd candidate in Comparative Literature, collected links from The Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Sun News, City TV, Global News, MacLean’s, MetroNews, and the CBC. Several outlets and sites published multiple articles from instructors, former students, freelance writers and staffers. Internationally, the controversy reached The Guardian, Atlantic Wire, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yet many sites and mainstream media simply provided a summary of the controversy, rather than a discussion. While extensive, the media coverage at times lacked depth and complexity. For instance, Toronto Life posted a top-ten list of Gilmour’s most infuriating comments, with very little context or conversation.

Maclean’s, previously lambasted for its “Too Asian?” cover piece on university enrollment in 2010, published three pieces on its On Campus section. In one, Barbara Amiel cordons Gilmour within what she calls the U of T “zeitgeist bog,” and finds “nothing exceptional” in Gilmour’s preferences. She sees Gilmour as “lucky”, but her idea of luck is baffling, as are her opinions on teaching literature by women: “There are loads of gifted female writers I adore, but for me, they are not quite among the greats—Edith Wharton comes close.” Gilmour ought to have gone “into the fetal position,” Amiel continues, and named authors from “Aphra Behn to J.K. Rowling plus every female in Canada that has ever published a pamphlet” when his “giggly interviewer” asked him about his courses. If Amiel believes there are clear sides to the culture wars and battles of legitimacy, she doesn’t condescend to join either side: “You wouldn’t catch me in a pronouncement on anything with gender-ism lurking in it, but I am a hardened warrior of the culture wars.”

The Toronto Star published three articles on the story, from a news reporter, a staff reporter, and then a freelance writer who had also worked as a sessional instructor at U of T. The Globe and Mail published three articles and ran an interview with Books Editor Jared Bland, and attempted to “drive debate” by exploring a professor’s responsibilities and comparing Gilmour to Michael Ignatieff, who they call another “relic of privileged old Canada”. The National Post has thus far shed the most ink on Gilmour with six pieces, and their coverage augmented our picture of Gilmour with the first interview regarding his new book, The Perfect Order of Things.

Most major newspapers and channels zeroed in on the social media furor, the rally organized by U of T graduate students and the most denunciatory calls for resignation and outcries. At best, they minimized the issues. At worst, the coverage was a form of lip-speak, and they were using the story to position their own organization and publication as politically correct, without committing to any change or progress. They appeared to capitalize on the public interest towards a writer distinguished enough to be offered a visiting professorship from year to year, and the embarrassment he was causing to Victoria College. It all reminded me of a stream of traffic that slows down to view a horrific accident or derailment–not getting a full view of the extent of the damage, and assuming the road ahead would be smooth and straightforward.

The public damning of Gilmour serves as a cautionary tale to those who treat their position of authority heedlessly. It’s also a warning to any writer or academic who underestimates the role that social media now plays in shaping opinions and instigating dialogue. There’s also a danger in treating Gilmour as an antiquated perspective we don’t have to worry about because the rest of us are so much more enlightened and diverse. It’s important that media does not try to contain views like Gilmour’s by treating them as isolated incidents. The most thoughtful comments came from personal bloggers or freelance writers who demonstrated their commitment towards better representation of women and writers of colour.

Lucia Lorenzi on rabble.ca claims:  “I could talk about how people with Gilmour’s attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom.” In the Huffington Post, Anne Therieux expresses similar concerns.

The public reaction to Gilmour’s comments affords us an opportunity to closely examine the agendas of the publications and organizations that reported on the controversy. They also have a role in framing and disseminating it as a controversy in the first place. The issue of diversity and inclusivity in Canadian writing shouldn’t be treated as a war where none of us emerge without professional enemies and public scars. Neither should it be glossed over with frivolity or superiority complexes. How many are staying silent, refusing to join sides because they see the landscape of our current media as either a combat zone, or a shallow pool?

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