The pictures, names, and detailed resumes of students involved in the contentious Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign in North America are now easily compiled for your convenience in a website called Canary Mission.
The purpose of Canary Mission is to identity individuals who engage in activities that are “anti-Freedom, anti-American, and anti-Semitic,” so that these “radicals” don’t become the “employees of tomorrow.” In a response to the backlash it has received, Canary Mission says that its real end goal is to act as a deterrent for students who spend their undergrads campaigning in favour of boycotting the state of Israel.
It’s not the public nature of the website that’s predominantly worrying. All of the people featured on the website have likely already made their opinion public through Facebook posts, tweets, videos, and rallies. Any employer can easily do a background check and uncover the same information. Public shaming is a tactic that takes place everywhere along the entire political spectrum. The social justice left has ended careers of those who have recklessly tweeted out offensive statements, and similar things have happened on our campus as well.
So while the public shaming aspect of it is concerning, it’s not what I find most frightening about the website. If the information they have compiled about each activist is false, they will most likely face legal action, and if it is not false, then all they have done is compile already available information.
However, the website is part of a disturbing pattern of deterring public speech in the West, that lies beyond the BDS movement and its critics.
It warns anyone who criticizes Israeli policies and occupations to think twice or find themselves featured on a website that will forever associate them with anti-semitism. In doing so, it silences those who question these ideas, by threatening to destroy their public image.
“The website is part of a disturbing pattern of deterring public speech in the West, that lies beyond the BDS movement and its critics.”
Another instance of this sort of public speech being deterred through scare tactics happened recently in Canada. When the email exchange between a CBC reporter and a public relations staff for the Minister of Public Safety that suggested campaigning for BDS could be seen as a hate crime under Canadian law became public, the MSU quickly released a statement dismissing the claims as “egregious.”
Radical acts are vilified as being anti-Canadian and anti-American. A valued cultural identity is used to make the radical act appear as a foreign act that someone who is Western, in support of freedom, in support of these two countries, would never do. Whether this fits into the American or Canadian identity is decided by a select few people with a lot of power and a large audience to legitimize their words.
McMaster is no stranger to the complexity of the Israel-Palestine and BDS debate. People from both sides have complained about the animosity they have felt on campus throughout the discussion. These feelings are even more impactful in a university the size of McMaster, where you’ve probably met someone who strongly stands with either side. However, while we should be cautious that only non-violent, peaceful, and non-hateful activism takes place on our campus, knee-jerk reactions to activism as being hateful only further reinforces its initial goal to change the way we talk about an issue in the first place.
Deterring activism through a negative platform such as Canary Mission is a way of maintaining a specific political stance as the only correct stance, and erasing the other sides of the discourse from the public sphere. It cuts activism at its root by threatening the livelihood of potential activists.
The activism that BDS campaigners partake in is not criminal. This logic of deterring an act by threatening someone’s livelihood applies to crimes, not non-violent activism. That’s why it is left in the hands of the judicial system, not to the whims of the public and individuals that can possibly benefit from silencing certain viewpoints.
Given the lack of consensus among experts and world leaders on the Israel-Palestine conflict—I’m not suggesting that they are the epitome of moral and ethical guidance but rather a good sample of the complex nature of the conflict—it is illogical to deter activism and debate as if the right answer has already been found, and it is illogical to claim that anyone who disagrees needs to be punished publicly.
The website, along with the recent Canadian story, is an incredibly concerning method of control and silencing. As long as an activist group isn’t encouraging hatred and violence towards a group of people, why is their activism harmful, and who’s to say it is?
The ability of groups to silence with subtle threats of losing one’s place in the world, of having fewer career options and a bleak future ahead, is detrimental to the open nature of our academic environment. If we can’t have these discussions in the Western world, where we pride ourselves of being champions of freedom and human rights, then when can they happen?
The discussion isn’t about choosing one side over the other. I hope that even after the vote in favour of BDS at this year’s General Assembly, respectful discussion can continue at McMaster about international issues that, in one way or another, affect us all.