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Peckford: McKenna (and others) are right to take on the trolls

Sep 26, 2017

 

 

NANCY PECKFORD

Published on: September 21, 2017 | Last Updated: September 21, 2017 5:32 PM EDT    

 

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna would probably rather be doing her day job. But she's right to call out those who use derisive, sexist terms on social media. ALICE CHICHE / AFP/GETTY IMAGES?

 

in the middle of one of the United Nations’ largest gatherings to discuss crucial global developments, I have no doubt that it was the last thing Minister Catherine McKenna expected to do: respond to a reckless tweet from a current MP and former minister who decided to deploy the verbal weapon, “Climate Barbie.” 

 

It was one of those moments countless women have confronted, when you’ve been the target of a sexist slur by virtue of simply walking down the street, sharing your views, or just going about the business of being you. And in that moment, making a calculation to address the slur is rife with complexity.

 

Will speaking up embolden the assailant, distract you from the task at hand, or possibly even endanger you? Or will it spark a conversation?  

 

When McKenna made the decision earlier this week to take on the insult “Climate Barbie,” she wasn’t just doing it for herself, but for so many women who confront these treacherous waters.

 

However, in public life, the liability is greater, the price higher.  Everyday sexism is amplified by hyper-partisans, and embittered and polarizing individuals who use the internet as a means to take you down, not just for your ideas but for your very presence.   

 

McKenna isn’t the only one to have been a target, of course. Other cabinet colleagues, as well as Premiers Kathleen Wynne and Rachel Notley, are the subject of an unimaginable amount of internet vitriol.

 

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel has talked openly for years about the online harassment and bullying she has endured, which has resulted in court action. “Barbie” has been deployed against her repeatedly, including in an amateur video. It was part of the catalyst for Equal Voice’s recent online campaign, #RespectHer.

 

We had dearly hoped that in this parliamentary session, it would be different. McKenna, who is one of the prime minister’s heaviest hitters, should be fully engaged in robust debates on combating climate change. Taking time out to address this isn’t part of the job, except when you have no choice.

 

Retracted though it may be, MP Gerry Ritz’s tweet has inadvertently created that imperative. And McKenna has shown courage in exposing not just a slur, but the unruly Twitter universe in which “Climate Barbie” is its own nasty hashtag – intended to undermine, mock, and deride. 

 

Twitter is replete with anonymous users, ideologues and political junkies, so it’s not surprising that “Climate Barbie” was the choice term when Ritz took to social media on Tuesday. Such echo chambers foment feelings of resentment and exaggerate outcomes. They create a seductive culture whereby users zero in on one protagonist. These one-dimensional fora are antithetical to sustaining a healthy democracy in which people use their intellect and experience to disagree. 

 

Cheap, crass and crude shots are the dominant and defining culture. While Ritz himself is unlikely to spend any real time there, the spillover effect from such pervasive negative framing has, no doubt, affected how McKenna is generally regarded across the aisle.

 

So if you think her response has been much ado about nothing, you haven’t been paying attention to the tenacious Twitter trolls and their impact.

 

Fortunately, Ritz saw the errors of his ways. Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has also reached out to McKenna personally to underscore his commitment to promoting a different culture. We wouldn’t expect less from this dad of three daughters.

 

In fact, Equal Voice has been heartened by all those who unequivocally denounced this development. They are challenging what has become normalized on social media.

Ultimately, though, we have Minister McKenna to thank. She, like MPs Michelle Rempel and Megan Leslie before her, has responded in a way that enables more Canadians to speak up about online bullying, and intensify our efforts to reduce harassment and create more inclusive political spaces for women. And for everyone’s sake, we need that more than ever.

 

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice/À voix égales. www.equalvoice.ca 

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Thanks also to the Government of Canada (Status of Women & Canadian Heritage) for their financial support.