| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 01, 2012 06:00 am
A week ago Saturday, the Gazette ran an opinion piece by regular contributor Dee-Ann Schwanke in which she lamented the relative scarcity of visible minorities in this city. In comparison to most parts of the country, she wrote, St. Albert is “rather pale.”
Schwanke’s piece also appeared in the electronic version of the Gazette, which allows readers to submit electronic comments from their home computers or portable devices. Yet all through Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the piece sat unnoticed.
Then, on Tuesday, the comment box began to bulge with submissions, some of them local, but most of them from further afield, notably the United States. And by a margin of about 10 to one, the comments were offensive, many of them deeply so.
Schwanke was dismissed as a head-in-the-sand liberal. She was invited to move from St. Albert to some place more to her liking. There were slurs against visible minorities, blacks especially, and there were repeated warnings about declining property values, rising crime and so on. After a while, the comment box took on the odour of a manure pit, which is why the Gazette took the decision to shut it down and erase the comments that had already been posted.
Make no mistake: This is not about freedom of expression, a right this newspaper considers fundamental to democratic society. Freedom of expression may indeed cause upset or discomfort or even anguish to some, but it is not a license for bigots or hate-mongers to spew their filth. Nor will the Gazette allow itself to be used by those who espouse such views. The Gazette believes in tolerance, inclusiveness and, of course, diversity. Whether it’s in a classroom or a community, diversity brings new ideas, challenges stereotypes and promotes critical thinking – all good things. And for all for all these reasons, the comment section was shut down.
It is reasonable to assume that much of this electronic hate mail was generated by a white supremacist group in the United States. Gazette reporter Ryan Tumilty found Schwanke’s opinion piece on the group’s website, which means it was probably available to a wide audience that needed no further goad to action.
The whole episode was a sharp reminder of how fast information travels in the age of the Internet. This is not news, but it does remind media outlets like the Gazette of the need for constant vigilance. Drop your guard for a moment or two and you may be hijacked. Quickly.
It’s worth noting too that the episode produced a strong measure of comfort. Yes, the comments were largely bilge and filth, but there were also those who wrote in defence of Schwanke, of St. Albert and of visible minorities. For those who might have missed them, we offer a sampling of their views. (They have been edited, mostly for brevity):
• As a single mom, visible minority living in St. Albert with children whose father is Caucasian, my impression of St. Albert is one of a friendly, caring community where my neighbours, the schools and community are like a family to me. I contribute to the wellbeing and success of my community and in return my community takes care of me and makes me feel like I belong.
• As a white girl living in a very diverse part of New York City, I just want to say that the only time I’ve been assaulted or threatened, it’s been by other white people.
• I’m hesitant to comment because I usually try not to feed the trolls. Do I wish there was more diversity in St. Albert? Yes. But I go out of my way to ensure that my children have an opportunity to learn about other cultures and interact with people who live in different circumstances (better or worse) than they do.
• This article (by Schwanke) is a positive thing that many people in St. Albert should read. The comments, however, are disheartening in the extreme. I was unaware bigotry was still acceptable.