Two recent stories show that hurt sentiments are the privilege of a few

Both the Widdowson and Elghawaby cases revolve around freedom of speech and the giving and taking of offence. But who their words hurt and how they are expected to respond is telling, writes Anam Zakaria.

The Widdowson and Elghawaby cases show that not all wounded sentiments are deemed legitimate in the same way

A crowd of students pack a room at the University of Lethbridge.
Controversial academic Frances Widdowson, pictured in the middle of this photo, arrived at the University of Lethbridge earlier this month to heavy resistance, with a large crowd of protesters booing at her arrival. The university cancelled her lecture, called 'How ‘Woke-ism’ Threatens Academic Freedom.' (Ose Irete/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Anam Zakaria, an author and freelance journalist based in Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The tension was palpable on an Alberta university campus earlier this month. 

Frances Widdowson, who was fired from Mount Royal University in 2021, was scheduled to speak at the University of Lethbridge. She has made headlines for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and suggesting that there were educational benefits to the residential school system. 

Widdowson was going to address students on "How 'Woke-ism' Threatens Academic Freedom," but hundreds of students and faculty members protested against her visit, resulting in the university cancelling the lecture on campus. The cancellation has led to deep worry regarding the erosion of free speech. 

The Canadian Association of University Teachers raised concerns about the university's commitment to freedom of expression while Alberta's Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced that post-secondary institutions will now have to report on their efforts to "protect free speech." The argument goes that no matter how controversial or offensive an idea may be, the cornerstone of a secular and democratic society is to ensure space for its expression.

On the other side of Canada, in Quebec and within the federal government, tension is also palpable. 

Two cases with common threads

Amira Elghawaby, Canada's first special representative to combat Islamophobia has, paradoxically, been called out for voicing her concerns about Islamophobia. 

In 2019, Elghawaby co-authored an opinion piece where, citing a poll, she wrote that "the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law but by anti-Muslim sentiment."

Elghawaby was expressing her apprehensions regarding Quebec's secularism law, or Bill 21, which bars certain public-sector employees such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols while at work. In recent days, Elghawaby, who is yet to officially begin her role, has come under immense pressure, leading her to apologize. Calls for her to resign continue.

What do the two cases, spread across western and eastern Canada, have in common?

Ostensibly both the Widdowson and Elghawaby cases revolve around freedom of speech and the giving and taking of offence. But who their words hurt and how they are expected to respond is telling.

On one hand, we have Widdowson and her supporters who fear that wokeness and identity politics are curbing academic freedom, critical thinking and vigorous debate, and becoming, in her words, "totalitarian." In the process, the historical context and significance of the term "woke" is not only trivialized but also turned on its head; wokeness, which originally implied an awareness of racial discrimination and injustice, is now accused of stifling ideas and suffocating discourse. 

A woman with a headscarf and glasses.
Amira Elghawaby was appointed Canada's first representative to combat Islamophobia in January. She has been called out for voicing her concerns about Islamophobia in Quebec. (Simon Gohier/CBC)

To counter these apparent threats to freedom, the expectation is that space must be given to views like those of Widdowson, regardless of how such ideas may hurt people. The way in which Widdowson's comments about residential schools may dismiss and invalidate the long legacy of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that Indigenous peoples have been subjected to must be put aside. 

In the same year that George Floyd's murder was yet again bringing to the fore the ongoing violence Black people face across North America, her comments on how Black Lives Matter had "destroyed" the university must also be put aside. This is after all in the spirit of free speech, the hallmark of a democratic and secular society. 

On the other hand, we have the case of Elghawaby and her comments on Bill 21. But here, conversely, it is free speech that seems to be threatening Quebec's secularism law. 

The fire she has come under from the Quebec government and some opposition members in Ottawa only sends one message: Neither she, nor anyone else in this position — certainly not a Muslim woman — can freely express their anxieties about anti-Muslim sentiment. In this case, her opinions, backed as they may be by polls, do not warrant space. 

A mirror on society

While research shows that Bill 21 is having a "devastating" impact on religious minorities in Quebec, while polls indicate unfavourable views and distrust toward Muslims in Canada, and even as racist attacks have led to the killing of Muslims within and outside of Quebec, she must remain cautious and guarded, she must weigh each word carefully. She, unlike Widdowson, must apologize for hurting the sentiments of Quebecers. Here hurt sentiments take precedence.

Public apologies are an instrumental part of acknowledging historical injustices, validating wounds and offering reparations. But who an apology is expected from, who offers — or is made to offer — it and when, and whether or not it is accepted are not necessarily neutral decisions. They offer a mirror on society, illustrating who is deemed deserving of an apology and who isn't. 

Not everyone's wounded sentiments are privileged or deemed legitimate in the same way. Not everyone gets an apology. The principle of free speech isn't evoked equally either. Some are afforded it; others are expected to mince their words. 

For now, Indigenous people, Black Canadians and Muslims — as well as other equity-deserving communities — have to put aside their concerns and hurt for the greater cause of free speech and secularism. But in comparison, as Elghawaby's apology shows, the wounds of others have to be attended to at once. 

Hurt sentiments, after all, are the privilege of a few.

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Anam Zakaria

Freelance contributor

Anam Zakaria is an author and freelance journalist based in Toronto. She writes about conflict, violence, narrative making and the construction of the ‘other.’