The Statement of Principles and Inter-Bubble Communication About Racism

First published on slaw.ca

There has been significant controversy in Ontario over the new Law Society requirement that every licensee “adopt and to abide by a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally, and in their behaviour towards colleagues, employees, clients and the public”.

The nature of the Statement of Principles controversy

Much of the controversy has focused on concern that the requirement compelled expressions of belief and accordingly raised the issue of freedom of speech. This was not an unreasonable concern for at least two reasons. As Alice Woolley pointed out in her op-ed column published in the National Post, explanatory materials published by the Law Society said that the requirement was for a “personal valuing” of equality, diversity and inclusion. As well, the requirement contained an ambiguity as the word “promote” could be seen to require more than conduct.

Most of those who raised concern about the requirement sought to make clear that they did not take any issue with the policy goals of the requirement and that they accepted that it was fully appropriate that the Law Society advance equality, diversity and inclusion in the professions. Some of those who raised concern did so in terms and with language which suggested that more than free speech was in issue for them. But it is clear that there was a legitimate free speech issue in play and that, not surprisingly for lawyers, freedom of speech mattered.

There was a less common concern also raised which was that the requirement had the effect, or could be seen to have the effect, of adversely affecting proper client representation in matters involving human rights or harassment issues. Fully accepting that adverse effect on proper client representation would be inappropriate, the validity of this concern was much less obvious to me.

Law Society clarification, debate and decision

These concerns were addressed by the release of a Guide which clarified that the statement “need not include any statement of thought, belief or opinion” and that “reference to the obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally refers to existing legal and professional obligations”. Curiously to me, there continued to be demands for a “conscientious objector” exception to the requirement. While I could understand concern as to whether the Guide was clear enough or authoritative, I continue to be baffled by the concept of conscientious objection to the requirement as clarified. That doesn’t mean that the continued demands were not genuinely made, but I don’t understand them.

Listening to the debate in Convocation, it was clear that the “free speech” issue was not the sole motivation for those supporting the motion seeking a “conscientious objector” exception. For some, the concern seemed to be that the requirement was little more than an irritant for practitioners being a mere “check the box” requirement. Indeed, there was an attempt to amend the motion by those who agreed with this perspective and wanted more to be done rather than less. My view was that the requirement may not be effective for some but that the requirement may be of some help addressing an important problem – and that surely requiring reflection on human rights obligations is no great burden.

A letter to the Middlesex Law Association

After Convocation decided not to adopt a “conscientious objector” exception, there was an interesting series of tweets on Twitter about an six page letter from a London Ontario lawyer published by the Middlesex Law Association. Most were tweets from those appalled by the letter. The letter was taken off the association’s website for a time and then replaced with a limited version of it (although the original is still accessible)[1].

It is not surprising that publication of this letter resulted in strong responses. The writer argues in his letter that (i) the evidence does not support the conclusion that there is systemic racism in the legal professions, (ii) the claim of systemic racism vilifies lawyers and paralegals by labelling them as racist, (iii) the 13 recommendations are a form of unauthorized social engineering, (iv) racism and bullying are just part of life and should be simply be endured and overcome by racialized licensees as others have done before them, (v) the true problem is economic class not race, (vi) white privilege is a ridiculous concept as it relates to white and racialized lawyers and (vii) racialized lawyers who join legal associations based on race or ethnic origin cannot complain that they are not treated equally. In conclusion, the author says that his response to “Diversity, in a Nutshell” is “Who cares about skin colour?” and that he will not draft a Statement of Principles because that is compelled thought and speech and because systemic racism in the legal professions has not been demonstrated.

Alice Woolley has written that she “actually welcome(s) the letter because it reveals the deeper debate, and allows the conversation to be about the real issue”. Proceeding from Alice’s observation, I think that it is worth exploring the perspective and the language used in the letter.

It is useful to recognize that express racism is socially unacceptable in Canada. The social norms of the legal professions do not permit arguments based on claims of racial superiority or inferiority even though some presumably hold those views. These social norms are valuable because they limit offensive behaviour and because social norms can influence cultural values over time. But one of the realities of social norms is that arguments and claims that are inconsistent with established norms are often expressed ways that disguise what is really being said.

The difficulty is in distinguishing between what is sometimes described as “impression management” and genuine attitudes. Examples of “impression management” are obvious. Anti-Semites try to obscure their true views with “evidentiary” denials of the Holocaust. The tropes “I’m not racist but …” and “Some of my best friends are X” are well worn. That racist wolves can dress as liberal sheep is clear.

The “free speech” aspect of the debate over the Statement of Principles illustrated the difficulty in sorting out what is “impression management” and what is true principled disagreement and debate. There was a genuine “free speech” issue to be addressed. Yet it also seemed that some opponents[2] of the Statement of Principles used the free speech argument to avoid saying what they really meant. It is challenging to have genuine good faith debate when one side of a debate legitimately suspects illicit motives on the part of some of the other side and those who are genuinely expressing their views on the other side of the debate fairly consider their views to be disrespected as a result.

The letter to the Middlesex Law Association clearly raises the problem of “impression management”. The core implicit claim is that racialized lawyers and paralegals do not in fact suffer disadvantage in the legal professions and that, if they do, they should suck it up and stop being crybabies. This implicit claim is obscured by a “lawyer-like” analysis of the “evidence” and the claim that the evidence is not persuasive. The writer appears seek to demonstrate “liberal” credentials by asserting that the true problem is economic class rather than racism and by claiming personal “colour-blindness”. As always, it is difficult to know the genuine attitude of the writer. But the letter certainly reads as an exercise in “impression management” in support of a denial that racism exists in the legal professions and, in any event, a denial that racism is worthy of being addressed.

It should not be necessary to have to explicitly say that racism exists, including in the legal professions. It should not be necessary to explicitly say that genuinely addressing racism in the legal professions is necessary. It should not be necessary to explicitly say that white lawyers and paralegals have relative advantages over racialized lawyers and paralegals because racism exists. But it is necessary to do so because “impression management” is a fact of life in discussions about race. The time has come for lawyers and paralegals to clearly acknowledge these truths. The Statement of Principles provides an opportunity to do so and is valuable if only for that reason.

All of this said and meant, I think that there are lessons to be learned from the letter whether one considers the letter to be an illicit exercise in “impression management” or a genuine but misguided attempt to wrestle with difficult issues. The point of the balance of this column is that the Statement of Principles and the other recommendations proceeded on the basis that achieving progress against racism requires cultural change and that achieving cultural change is not possible if one speaks only to those who don’t need to change.

Communication between bubbles

Starting with perspective, the website of the author discloses that he is an older white man in sole practice in London who was called to the bar in 1976. Our society is much changed in the forty plus years that the author has been in practice. The social changes over the decades have not been equally distributed. Toronto, for example, has become particularly diverse as compared to, well, London. Also, it is simply not possible for older white men to truly know the experiences of those who have experienced discrimination or disadvantage on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender. This is not to castigate older white men (of which I am one) but simply to observe that most discrimination is not obvious and is likely not appreciable by those who do not experience it. One of the lessons that I learned as a member of the Law Society working group is that it is important to hear those who are not part of the majority. This is not to say that it is necessary to take everything that is said at face value but it is necessary to listen with an open and sympathetic mind. For those who are prepared to listen, the qualitative evidence of discrimination and disadvantage developed in the working group should be compelling. It should no longer be controversial that we human beings tend to treat those who we consider different than ourselves differently, whether intentionally or unintentionally.[3]

Turning to the language used in the letter, I think that there are important lessons to be learned from the letter if equality, diversity and inclusion are to be better advanced. The author of the letter expresses anger at some of the language used by the Law Society working group. He writes “It is extraordinary to allege that racism is ‘systemic’ in the legal professions in Ontario and an insult to the nonracialized lawyers and paralegals practising in Ontario” and “it is difficult to understand how the Law Society can justify vilifying most of the 58,000 lawyers and paralegals in Ontario by labelling them as racist”. The author also writes “The spectre of “white privilege” is referred to by one of the persons consulted by the Working Group. The concept is ridiculous.”

The author apparently understands that the assertion that there is “systemic racism” in the legal professions to mean that most lawyers and paralegals intentionally discriminate on the basis of race. Similarly, the author apparently understands the claim of “white privilege” is a claim of intentional subjugation of racialized people by white people. Assuming that the author is genuine in these understandings and that he is well intentioned, his reaction is understandable.

But the concept of systemic discrimination (or systemic racism where race is the particular focus) is not about individual intentional discrimination. As the Ontario Human Rights Commission puts it “Racial discrimination can result from individual behaviour as well as because of the unintended and often unconscious consequences of a discriminatory system. This is known as systemic discrimination.”

The phrase “white privilege” is not a legal phrase like “systemic discrimination”. There are no doubt different meanings given to the phrase by different writers and over time. But (as I understand it) the phrase does not necessarily connote intentional impropriety. Rather, “white privilege” is logically the equivalent of “non-white disadvantage”. In a sense, “systemic racism” and “white privilege” address the same thing from different perspectives. Still, it seems easier to accept that others are unfairly disadvantaged than to accept that one is unfairly advantaged.

So one interpretation of the author’s response to assertion of “white privilege” and “systemic racism” is that he is ignorant of what is actually being said – and that it is presumptuous to for him to castigate as he does without spending time to actually understand what is being said. Another interpretation is that the author actually denies that there is disadvantage as a result of race in society rather than just being offended by a wrongly perceived claim of wide spread intentional racism. And of course, these parts of the letter may simply be an exercise in “impression management”.

But it may not be wrong to perceive that there is intended to be some sting in the language of “white privilege” and perhaps even in the language of “systemic racism”. Naturally, those who spend time and thought addressing unfair disadvantage are more likely to have suffered disadvantage themselves or, at least, to be sympathetic to those who have. It would be too much to always expect the language of a Mandela or of a Martin Luther King, or clinical academic language. The unfairness and wrongness of racial discrimination will out in the language used. And no doubt some racism is intentional and the failure to address unintentional racism is itself an ethical failure. Language choices fairly reflect these things. Those like me who are in a position of advantage are not well placed to criticize or to complain.

But the problem is that we are mostly in bubbles. Our perspectives and our language are different in our respective bubbles. This matters because culture change requires that communication between the bubbles. Those who have suffered unfair discrimination need no persuasion nor reminder of that reality. It is those who have advantage from whom assistance is sought. And those who are actually racist will not change. The goal must be to better enlist those who already want to help and to engage with those who have not thought much about these things but are people of good will.

It is not possible to know which category our author is in fact. While it is tempting and may be right to assume the worst, recognizing differing perspective and use of language opens the possibility that we can be too quick to dismiss the possibility that someone prepared to spend time and thought writing about this issue may want to do the right thing but be angered by what feels to be unfair castigation. In any event, it actually doesn’t matter what the right answer is for any specific person. What matters is failing to enlist the support of those whose support is possible.

On that note, I recently attended an educational session that addressed diversity and inclusion. A presentation entitled How microaggressions are like mosquito bites • Same Difference[4] was shown. The presentation is masterful and is well worth listening to. With grace and good humour, it allows the perspective of the disadvantaged to be better appreciated by the advantaged.

Going forward

To return to the Statement of Principles controversy, there seems to be broad consensus that the equality, diversity and inclusion ought to be advanced by the legal professions. No one who I have heard argues that there should be any compelled speech. My view is that the ambiguity has been removed about that. What is now needed is to return to the beginning which was to enlist the help of those who already share the goal and to encourage those who might be persuaded to share the goal to help as well.

_________________________

[1] See the December/January Middlesex Law Association newsletter at page 30. Presumably in an attempt to somewhat distance the Association from contents of the letter, the index to the revised newsletter now lists the letter under “Opinion and Letters to the Editor”.

[2] Particularly the more hyperbolic ones.

[3] Robert Sapolsky has recently published Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Chapter Eleven entitled “Us versus Them” which is a compelling discussion of “The Strength of Us/Them” and the reality that we humans are programmed to react differently to those with whom we identify and those who we see as “others”.

[4] The term “microaggression” is another term that seems to me to risk loss in inter-bubble translation highlighting as it does malignant intentionality rather than adverse impact. I say this at risk of being thought to demonstrate “white fragility” which is another phrase that bears similar risks.

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