There are certain words that journalists dance around when discussing public figures. Rob Ford, for example.
If you sat down and skimmed any of the couple of dozen columns and editorials about Ford in the past few months, youâ€™d probably find a lot of derisive adjectives. Heâ€™s a joke, heâ€™s a disgrace to Toronto (or to all of Canada), heâ€™s an embarrassment, and so on.
But you will find only a few people outright labelling him a racist, or a homophobe, or a bigot.
This is one of the strange things caused by the intersection of modern culture, libel law, and journalistic practices.
Ford is far from the only public figure we could talk about when it comes to this, but heâ€™s a useful example. Ford has said outrageous things like â€œthe Oriental people, theyâ€™re slowly taking over,â€ heâ€™s said the mostly black football players he once coached are â€œjust f***king minorities,â€ heâ€™s opposed having anything to do with Gay Pride celebrations, and the list of things heâ€™s said about women, including his political opponents and his wife, makes for lengthy reading.
So why do news stories about Ford not begin with â€œWell-known bigot Mayor Rob Fordâ€¦â€?
Basically, unless you are caught red-handed spray painting swastikas on a synagogue, or lighting a cross on fire while wearing a white hood, youâ€™re probably never going to be classified as an outright racist in a mainstream Canadian newspaper. If youâ€™re a politician or major public figure, the chances of you being labelled a bigot is even lower.
I think there are three reasons for this.
First, newspapers donâ€™t want to be sued. This is especially true in the modern era, in which papers struggle to simply remain profitable. Even winning a lawsuit can be expensive.
Second, and related to this point, we are still consumed with the simple minded idea that there are two sides to every story. No, no there arenâ€™t, but the crude version of this means that the media feels duty-bound to allow half-wits who have said idiotic things in public to respond. So they can say they were misquoted, or were drunk, or it was just a joke. See also: Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Donald Sterling, etc.
Third, we have the illusion that racism is a discrete thing, something you either are (in which case you are a Nazi) or something you are not. There are no shades of grey in this idea of bigotry â€“ you canâ€™t be sorta racist, or sexist, or homophobic â€“ can you? If you can be, what does that say about us? Maybe weâ€™re not quite as colour-blind as we thought.
Ford has repeatedly said heâ€™s not racist.
â€œI deal with these black youth day in and day out and nobody supports the black youth more than I do in this city,â€ Ford recently said. He really and truly believes this.
The Toronto-based journalist Jeet Heer has written at length and with wisdom about this topic. Notably, he recently said â€œFordâ€™s racism is of the patronizing/paternalistic type, with a mixture of fear and envy. He thinks heâ€™s helping benighted folks.â€ Of course Ford doesnâ€™t think heâ€™s racist! How could he be? Heâ€™s helping, right?
People who say racist things are racist people. It doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™re beyond saving or that they never do anything good. Getting over that all-or-nothing attitude would help us assess things more realistically. Heer and others have tried to reframe the discussion.
Itâ€™s not so much about â€œIs X racist?â€ which is usually very obvious, itâ€™s â€œWhat are the impacts of Xâ€™s racism? How is it damaging people, and communities, and what can we do to fix it?â€