Skip to main content

The view from the other side of the image.

By Elliot J. Nitkin

uring the recent Canadian election, Canadians faced some of the racist, xenophobic rhetoric permeating modern conservative politics.

I decided not to weigh in on the issue of Muslim women's rights to wear a Niqab during a citizenship ceremony.  With so many people talking about it I was certain my voice would not be heard. 

Now, with all the recent attacks in Europe and the Brexit vote, it is even scarier to me to voice what for some will be a contrarian opinion.  The human reaction to such horrific events is to become paranoid and defensive. 

But my greatest fear is that all we will accomplish from staying silent when confronting those who blame the innocent and perhaps victims themselves, is more suffering and more violence.

Make no mistake, there will be suffering and violence.  The fact that the "leave" camp used imagery reminiscent of the second world war shows that the new right of Donald Trump and anti-establishmentism wants to breed violence.  To counter this disturbing act of "success", I hope to motivate many to use art to counter this racism.

From personal experience I know how hard it can be to exercise your individuality in a society vehemently conformist. I have a more unique view on the subject than some; as a Jew I have experienced racism first hand.  So let me assure you, demeaning a person leads only to more animosity and anger. 

What motivated me to start this piece was a letter to the editor printed in "The Province" newspaper during Canada's recent election called “Don’t let ‘fanatics’ set rules”.  The author (I have no idea who she was) called the women who desired to wear a Niqab while taking her citizenship oath - and who had to fight the Canadian government in court to do so - a dictator trying to force Canadians to accept a nefarious foreign culture. 

In point of fact the woman at the center of that national controversy was not trying to force anyone, most especially the Government of Canada, to do anything.  She wanted to put a piece of cloth on her face; a religiously motivated sartorial choice that has no more effect on her neighbours than if she wore that cloth on her shoulders or her waist.

What has motivated me to post this piece here is the vile nature of the image that was used to help sell "Brexit" to the "leave" camp.  The image above was created to strike fear into the heart's of Britons and by all accounts it worked.  Imagery is art and very powerful.  Obviously it can be used for bad, but it can also be used to affect peaceful change.

The walls in your home and your office can tell many stories.  They can certainly convey how you feel about moving society forward.

Change in the reality of this day will be achieved through a multitude of efforts.  But if you think imagery cannot affect change in society, consider how the fear mongering in the image above helped persuade a nation to alter the course of it's history. 

Then try to see life through the eyes of the people in that long line.

Now more than at any point in history, the world is battling the dangerous notion that tyrannical religious precepts can constitute a viable, national social order.  I am not talking strictly about the Muslim world.  Fundamentalists of all stripes entertain similar thoughts.  Right wing political fanatics refuse to differentiate extremists from the main stream members of a religion, painting them all as evil.

In truth, the reality we face today from our right-wing nationalistic neighbours, who are often anti-Muslim fanatics, is that they are probably so predisposed to racial animosity they could not find Barak Obama in a bowl of steamed rice. 

They are just as bad as any other extremist.

Canada stands, after the election and now after the terrorist attacks and Brexit, on the precipice of history.  With the world watching, and the world is watching, Canada has the opportunity to redefine humane and progressive coexistence in a religiously and culturally diverse society.

Canadians are universally responsible to demonstrate that a nation can elevate humanity.  Accommodating our neighbor’s personal choices is not a sign of weakness or capitulation. It is a sign of moral courage and intellectual strength.

Harper may have dressed his concerns as an act of liberation in much the same way that America did with communism in the cold war. But neither Stephen Harper nor the Americans of the cold war era cared as much about the people they were trying to affect as they cared about invoking conformity.  This lady was used (unsuccessfully) to promote social control among the populace, just as McCarthyism was used to scare free thinkers after the war.  Joseph McCarthy went after Hollywood with a particular vengeance, because artists are free thinkers.  He did not like that at all.

Hitler and Goebbels went after the German Jewish intellectuals and other dissenters because they were scared of them.  Those people questioned things, any things and the Nazis made their point with a plethora of imagery.  And think about how they did it:  with horribly racist posters about Jews that incited hatred and violence.  Stalin did it, Kim Jung un does it.  Presenting patriotic posters of the ideal....whatever.

The reason: it takes the viewer's "gaze" away from the person being hated.  You see life through the eyes of the bully, not the bullied.

I have tried to understand how Harper’s efforts might look from behind the veil of the women at the centre of the issue.  You see life through your eyes, I see life through my eyes.  She sees life through her eyes.

This is some of what my eyes have seen.

During the 1978/1979 school year I was subjected to horrendous racism from my classmates.

My fourth grade year was spent at Quilchena Elementary School. For grade five and six we moved to Edmonton.  My personal hell started the first day back in Vancouver for grade seven.  When I arrived again at Quilchena Elementary, one of my previous classmates said “oh….the Jew boy is back”.  Actually there were a few added expletives thrown in for good measure.

This inaugurated a year of racial hate, Swastika drawing contests on chalk boards, damaged personal items and constant threats of violence.   I can forgive the children.  It was our teacher who should have worked to correct the situation.  Instead he castigated the class once or twice and from then on did nothing.

He damaged my psyche, my sense of belonging, my trust in others.

Were I to meet him now, I might be inclined to tell him this.  I might be inclined to tell him that the mind set he allowed to exist in that class is the same as the one that has created extreme persecution, mass murder and the viscous bullying of a 13 year Jewish boy in a Canadian school, 37 years ago.

Then again, perhaps I would commit some awful act of violence.  I really do not know what I would do and doubt I ever will.

It has taken me 37 years to say this out loud, such as it is.  If he is alive, he would be in his late seventies or eighties.  He may be dead and unable to defend himself.  Certainly, his family - I am certain he had children so perhaps now he has grand-children - are innocent and I will not ruin their memory of him. 

This is more humanity than he offered me. He saw how it affected me.  He could have called the parents of those children together and, along with my parents, demanded that they teach their children a proper moral code.

He could have but he didn't and it lead to the worst school day of my life.

My mother’s parents, who had made it out of Poland on the last boat, came to visit me.  They valued education highly and were filled with the pride any grandparent feels.  I stood on the playground waving to them on the street, praying with my entire being that my classmates would not yell out an anti-Semitic comment. 

I feared they would be crushed to learn their grandson faced the same religious hatred in his school that they faced in their school.  What I experienced was an irrational sense of shame that I had to protect the older generation from horrifying pain; two people for whom I would rather have born the pain than have them inflicted with more torment.

But my teacher did not help prevent any of this.  I hope adulthood has taught them better.

Why am I leading the reader to this point?  I am hoping you will think about reality through the mental imagery of one child's experience.  Imagery creates emotion and empathy.  Empathy can start to suggest a solution to the problem.

Former Prime Minister Harper tried to dress up his attack on the Niqab as a moral issue but it was to create a scapegoat to affect his re-election.  Trump is doing it with the verbal imagery he uses too.  But with the advent of lone-gunman attacks, I think we can agree, scapegoating is a dangerous course of action.  We could chat about what makes people do that, but that is a long conversation and I am no expert. 

One thing is clear:  People are motivated on social media by words AND IMAGERY to join ISIS.  The imagery of those who post radicalizing rants on social media is strong and well thought out. The experience of art in many forms is powerful.  It can also be toxic and motivate people to hate-filled action.

Consider this:

  1. The kids in my class used Swastika drawing contests to taunt me - imagery.

  2. The media employees many photographs every day to interest readers -   imagery.

  3. In a different era, dictators created artful posters to create national fervor - imagery.

  4. Social media is brimming over with photographs that attract readership -  imagery.

  5. No advertising appears without photographs and logos - imagery.

  6. Some of the biggest controversies we have had has been around suggestive art shows - imagery.

  7. Pornography as an experience in society has captivated the left and the right for years - imagery.

I could go on of course but clearly imagery, art and it's message has a major impact on the viewer and even in business settings, this can be used to effect positive change.  So what is the nature of the imagery we should promote?  What is the "goal"?  What, in my opinion, is "the ideal" message?

The indivisibility of humanity as a choice.

Human rights are something we have in Canada because we have made a choice.  A choice, a conscious review of all of the pertinent facts that bear on the issue leading us to the communal conclusion that what we call human rights defines us as a nation.  Human rights are by no means inherently experienced in our country. We must choose to invoke them, match our intent with our actions.  Show our intent in our actions, wear our hearts on our sleeves.

In fact we have a right to expect them from our neighbours only in direct proportion to our own contribution to their preservation.  Human rights are a debt, an investment in the quality of our lives. 

To the women of the Muslim community and the Muslim community in general who might read this, I want you to understand you now owe us, the rest of Canada, a debt.  We did, on the whole, fight for you.  Now you must fight for us.

You are now obliged, as we are obliged, to help Canada maintain women’s rights and gay rights, religious rights and language rights, reproductive rights and working rights.  When presented with a contentious issue, it is as incumbent on you as it is on us to listen with an open mind.

You must show you understand that human rights are indivisible.  We can no longer afford to apportion them according to political resolve.

The future for which we should be acting should be the culmination of our collective efforts to define and protect individual freedoms and the acceptance that what is in the common good, is the successful preservation of universal individuality.

By choosing to celebrate individuality in our spaces, we are promoting free expression.  Imagine the power of that message when you greet someone!