Less than 48 hours after the shooting that killed six and injured 19 in a Quebec City mosque, the war of words and interpretations has begun.
The information that we have at our disposal is too fragmented for a complete analysis. But already a political conclusion must be drawn: it is time to put aside the angelic view that presents Quebec’s society as a sanctuary free of racism, conflicts, and violence.
Premier Philippe Couillard set the tone when he expressed incredulity in the face of a massacre that specifically targeted the Muslim community. “We all say spontaneously: Here in Quebec? Yes, yes . . . here in Quebec!” Mayor Régi Labeaume was even more incredulous, remarking, “Despite the peace that prevails here, we were not safe.”
In various declarations and statements about the attack, we heard surprise and stupefaction. Many voices asked, “How is it possible here?” It’s a question that says a lot about the lack of seriousness accorded to activists who for years have been been working on creating awareness of the ethnic and racial divisions across Quebec society.
A political error
In the hollowness of these reactions, it’s a deformed image of the social reality that emerges. It’s an image of Quebec as a peaceful society, where ethnic relations are in total harmony and where the few episodes of conflict are exceptions to the rule. The most welcoming society in the world, we would say in self-flattery. An El Dorado where “our” minorities find nothing but respect, generosity, and opportunity.
And when a tragedy occurs, we try to hold on to this comforting image in order to sidestep difficult questions. “Quebec is not like this. Quebec is not racist.” Or, we hasten to suffocate all political reflections on the events and camouflage them by diagnosing the acts as those of madness.
Such illusions are contrary to the objectives of the left, which should in principle seek to transform unequal relations everywhere they are found. Pretending these inequalities are practically absent from a given society, however, is to give up having a hold on them. It’s not a matter of determining whether “Quebec” is or isn’t racist. (No society is a monolithic block. We saw it well yesterday with the vigils organized to the four corners of Quebec in solidarity with Muslims.) Rather, it’s a matter of admitting that here, as elsewhere, forces stand opposed for the maintenance or transformation of a social order that reserves the dominant positions for some and the subordinate positions to others.
The role of the media
The day after the Orlando attacks in June 2016, we warned against the tendency to idealize a present where oppression is simply a residue of the past. To our eyes this was a risky, anaesthetized politics in which social struggles were extinguished. The same applies today.
As sociologist Christine Delphy put it, we don’t get to escape the real world without paying a heavy price — that of losing all chance of changing the world. Racism doesn’t exist, they tell us. And yet, it kills.
Since Sunday night, many media outlets have been under fire with criticism. One newsreader was called out for having spoken of “terrorism in reverse,” letting listeners imagine that “normal terrorism” would necessarily be Muslim. The amount of time elapsed before certain outlets began talking about the incident as terrorism has also been denounced. More broadly, some people are asking: Why have such large tribunes been given, in recent years, to figures who have ceaselessly sought to delegitimize the emancipatory efforts of feminist and anti-racist movements? Don’t the big media have to examine their conscience in all this?
These criticisms are welcome and we hope that they will lead to profound debates. We would nonetheless like to push it a step further by recalling that the role of the media is not to produce a pleasing image of society. The main obstacle to achieving an ideal Quebec society consists of those who think that it already exists. The responsibility that befalls media organizations, at the risk of disturbing the powerful, includes focusing on all that disfigures the flawless portrait painted by the social actors whose interests are served by the status quo.
In light of recent events, the words of the late French journalist Albert Londres are more topical than ever: “. . . a journalist is not a choirboy and his role does not consist of walking ahead of the procession, and dipping his hand in a basket full of rose petals. Our job is not to entertain, nor to injure but to dip our pen into the wound.”
Looking reality in the face is sometimes an unpleasant exercise. It is especially so today, when we must remember the victims of an unprecedented racist attack and dress the wounds of all those left standing.
As painful as it is to see the world as it is, rather than how we wish it to be, we think it’s a necessary precondition to its transformation. So we must refuse the status quo which condemns us to maintain a false, idyllic vision of Quebec society. And we must accept profound challenges and begin to struggle, together, to change the world as it is.