There’s much ado among the tweeting heads in Canadian journalism and academia circles today about the (forced) resignation of Andrew Potter from his post as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada after he wrote a column this week for Macleans — How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise — dumping on Quebecers in the aftermath of the disgraceful Highway 13 incident last week.
Not that the vast majority of Quebecers gave a hoot about Potter’s column (or even read it).
But some politicians and various pur laine elitist types of both the French and English variety expressed — omygosh!/merde! — outrage over his commentary, and a storm of controversy erupted with the likes of Premier Philippe Couillard condemning it.
Perhaps Potter made his biggest mistake by apologizing — grovelling, really — in a Facebook post, for which the link doesn’t seem to be available any longer.
But Chris Selley of the National Post says this about it in a column with the headline: At McGill, Quebec’s ultra-sensitivity meets academic cowardice with Andrew Potter’s ‘resignation’:
Then came the obligatory grovelling: in a Facebook post, Potter, also an occasional contributor to this newspaper, disavowed certain parts of the column (and Maclean’s appended some corrections to it) and apologized for “some rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs.”
Today, Potter’s departure from his post at McGill (he is still an associate professor there) is seen by the aforementioned crowd as an attack on academic freedom and free speech — even if he made some factual presumptions in his piece that are easily challenged and disproven.
The pur laine elitist types at McGill were seemingly embarrassed enough by the initial column to distance themselves from it in a tweet saying they were Potter’s view, not theirs. And, whether because of pressure from the likes of the premier or because they feel Potter lacks credibility in light of his grovelling apology and they simply don’t trust him anymore to carry the McGill standard, they seem to have opted for the Red Queen approach: Off with his head. According to a follow-up piece in Macleans, “sources say McGill endured such intense backlash over Potter’s Maclean’s piece that the university left him only two choices: resign or be fired.”
Perhaps Potter should have stood by his initial column and not said another word about it, and let the talking heads and other pur laine elitist types gnash their teeth in social media until something else came along — in a day or two — to grab their attention. Because, let’s face it: the average attention span of Twitter pundits isn’t much more than a day or two.
Do the vast majority of Quebecers care about any of this?
Of course not. Andrew who?
Should we care (yes, I am a lifelong Quebecoise)?
Well, yes, maybe a little bit — but, you know, there are bigger problems in the world today, such as 23 million starving Africans.
It’s questionable whether the consequences of Potter’s actions are an attack on academic freedom and free speech. Certainly not on free speech, anyway. He wasn’t locked up. He had his say, people had their say in response, and yada yada yada.
But should McGill be criticized for its response?
Well, is there an employee anywhere who doesn’t know that what we say or do outside the workplace should not reflect badly upon our companies? But where do you draw the line on what is acceptable and what isn’t?
Considering his position, Potter probably should have had his bosses vet his piece before he submitted it to the editors at Macleans. In other words, if in doubt, ask your boss first.
That’s the moral of the story for everybody who comes across the Potter controversy and wonders what it all means.
You do have free speech in this world, to a point — unless you’re Donald Trump; then you can say any stupid thing and be as offensive as you want and get away with it.
But when you carry the standard of an elitist organization like McGill, your free speech is limited to the type that doesn’t offend anyone.
I feel sorry for Andrew Potter today, because he is a veteran journalist who hasn’t had to function much within the narrow parameters of elitist academia — he was in the first year of a three-year contract at McGill.
The thing about being a journalist is you write for the common man and woman, the salt of the earth, and you don’t care so much what pur laine elitist types think about your opinions (yes, there are some exceptions who use $50 words when they could use 50-cent words).
So, maybe McGill’s loss will be journalism’s gain now, and maybe Andrew Potter will go back to being a journalist of the common people.
As for his post-snowstorm column, it wasn’t his best piece of writing, as Chris Selley points out in his piece in the National Post.
But Potter wasn’t all wrong about Quebec, either.
Photo: Flag drawing from Wikimedia Commons.