When a prominent group of Canadian writers published an “open letter” in November 2016, defending the rights of recently fired University of British Columbia (UBC) creative writing professor and novelist Steven Galloway, I began thinking vaguely of writing something about the case (emphasis on “vaguely”). But I was reluctant. The focus of the open letter was criticism of the university’s handling of the case, and not a commentary, one way or the other, on the charges levelled against Galloway (charges rumoured to be accusations of sexual assault), and certainly not a critique of the women accusing Galloway of misconduct. Nonetheless, it seemed like one of those situations where anything anyone said would only offend or wound others, or simply inflame the situation, an intimation that was borne out a few days later when a large group of academics and others – teachers, students, and various therapeutic experts — produced an angry counter-letter denouncing not the university or Galloway, but the well-known writers and their letter.
The piece I was vaguely thinking of writing would begin with Galloway and his internationally best-selling novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), as a way of introducing the theme that the author was a person with a kind of homing instinct for moral dilemmas, both in his work and life. While The Cellist of Sarajevo is fiction, its title image is based on a true incident that occurred during the Yugoslavian Wars of the early 1990s.
In the wake of a mortar explosion in beseiged Sarajevo that killed 22 Bosnian civilians as they queued to buy bread, a cellist who lived nearby, Vedran Smailovic, decided to defy the city’s tormenters –deadly enemy snipers — by playing his cello for 22 successive days in the rubble of the atrocity. The work he performed is a piece known as “Albinoni’s Adagio,” and it, too, has a story of its own, a morally ambiguous one about whether it’s an authentic or fraudulent composition, which Galloway briefly discusses. The vignette about the cellist of Sarajevo occupies only a few pages at the beginning of Galloway’s novel, and the rest of the book is a fictional exploration of the life-and-death moral dilemmas faced by the citizens of Sarajevo, based, I gather, on extensive interviews Galloway conducted with inhabitants of the Bosnian capital.
An artist-friend of Galloway’s, Deryk Houston, who also happened to know the real cellist of Sarajevo, Smailovic, suggested to the Canadian author, who was 32 at the time, that he should inform the cellist about his literary project, and perhaps offer him remuneration. When Galloway replied that he didn’t see the need to do so, Houston wrote to Smailovic, who had in the intervening years moved to Northern Ireland, where he lived a rather reclusive life, to tell him about the book rather than having him only learn of it when it appeared in bookshops. Though Galloway eventually sent the cellist an inscribed copy, Smailovic was furious at what he regarded as the theft of his name and identity, an act of cultural (mis)appropriation.
The story has a more or less happy denouement. Some time after the personal controversy ignited, Houston offered to accompany Galloway to Northern Ireland to meet the cellist. Galloway agreed, and eventually, in a hotel pub, after some awkward moments (Smailovic refused to shake hands with the writer), Smailovic got some of his anger off his chest, the Guinness flowed, as did the conversation, and in the end the musician and the novelist shook hands. (Cf., Deryk Houston, “Vedran Smailovic – ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’,” The Economic Voice, Jan. 27, 2012; David Sharrock, “Out of the war, into a book, and in a rage,” The Australian, June 17, 2008.)
From there, my idea was to go on to the present moral dilemmas in Galloway’s life that led to his firing after a 15-year teaching career at UBC. In any case, that was my vague idea for shaping a narrative. On my way to the Word.doc file I planned to compose, I read whatever available materials there were about the case, I signed the open letter of the CanLit writers, and followed the controversy on social media (which, like nature, is “red in tooth and claw”). Somewhere along the way, I stumbled into a Facebook (FB) conversation involving, among others, Natalee Caple, a novelist and professor of English at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ont., Julie Rak, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and feminist Dorothy Palmer. The three of them are the primary organizers of a counter-letter to the letter I had signed, the counter-letter I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. The conversation among us, and others on the Facebook “thread,” unlike a lot of what goes on on social media, was civil, mutually respectful despite our disagreements, and my presence – though I’d feared I might be regarded as an intruder (even a hostile intruder) – seemed to be welcomed as an opportunity for discussion. It turned out that there had apparently been few exchanges to date between the groups of letter writers. For their part, the counter-letter writers were quite willing to engage in discussion and debate. I was still uncertain if I wanted to write about the Galloway case, even as I learned more about the issues (naturally, one of the things I often learn in situations like this is how little I know – yes, even at an advanced age). But then, one of the counter-letter writers, Dorothy Palmer, posted a fulsome, 10,000-word essay, not so much about the Galloway case itself, but about the dispute between the groups of writers.
In her essay, “Surrogates, Sycophants, Soldier Ants, and Sheep: Debunking the Steven Galloway Innocence Project” (Jan. 12, 2017), Canadian novelist, teacher, and veteran trade union and social activist Palmer provides a vigorous “close reading” of the “narrative” of the Steven Galloway case and the controversy it has engendered. In it, she argues why the open letter literati defending Galloway and criticizing UBC are not only wrong, but how their intervention in the case is causing damage, offense, and suffering to the complainants who initiated the case that led to Galloway’s firing. (I’ll examine Palmer’s impressive polemic in part 2 of this piece.)
By the way, “narrative,” an alternative term for “story,” was once restricted to mostly literary usage, but has lately become a fashionable word for a whole variety of phenomena. “Narrative” used to be applied primarily to literary works, fictional or otherwise, and discussion of a given narrative usually included an interpretation of the meaning of the story, particularly if the facts or meanings were in dispute. (E.g., “Is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a typical colonialist narrative, or is it in fact an anti-imperialist discourse?”) There is even a sub-genre in literary studies, “narratology,” which deals with the theory of narratives and their construction.
The use of the term has of late been considerably broadened to refer to various real-life situations. Often, “the narrative” refers to the defining or dominant thematic of a particular story or real-life situation, as in: “The narrative of Trump’s presidency will become his conflict of interest problem,” just to cite one example that was repeatedly referred to during the period in which the Galloway case happened to be under scrutiny. Increasingly, “narrative” is used in political contexts, where various interpreters or “spin doctors” are said to be engaged in “a struggle to control the narrative.”
“Close reading” comes from the mid-20th century academic movement known as “The New Criticism,” which advocated analysing a given work of art as a self-contained entity and paying close attention to its internal details, while putting less emphasis on its historical and biographical contexts. I mention all this because Palmer’s essay prominently features the construction (and debunking) of a narrative as she tries to elucidate the meaning of the open letter writers’ efforts to defend Steven Galloway and criticize UBC’s handling of his case. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, even though literary terms are relevant, both metaphorically and ironically, to the Galloway affair.
Galloway, for those who haven’t followed this real-life Canadian academic saga or have dismissed it as merely one of those arcane Ivory Tower imbroglios, is the author, as I’ve noted above, of The Cellist of Saravejo and, more recently, The Confabulist (2014), and was, until June 2016, the chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC). However, some seven months earlier, in mid-November 2015, the university publicly announced that Galloway was immediately suspended, with pay, from his position as a creative writing professor and chair of the department due to “serious allegations of misconduct,” pending an investigation.
Although the university said little more than that, it was enough to fuel speculation that Galloway was accused of sexual assault or some other similar offense. The suddenness and urgency of the suspension (just weeks before the end of the semester) certainly contributed to casual observers regarding Galloway as a likely rapist and/or imminent danger to the community (at least that was my own initial response, as a reader of the news – plus I had some snarkish, mean-spirited thoughts about the whole Creative Writing enterprise). From the very beginning – and I mention this only because it will become a significant point of dispute shortly – some people thought that UBC’s initial announcement of what was going on was badly handled, and that the administration should have reasonably known that the form of its announcement would have the impact on Galloway’s reputation and right to privacy that it in fact had, and instead should have couched its legally-required announcement of the university’s action in other terms. (I’ll return to this point later.)
Shortly after the public announcement of Galloway’s suspension, the university engaged former British Columbia Supreme Court justice Mary Ellen Boyd to conduct an investigation into complaints made against Galloway. She delivered her report – whose contents were supposed to remain secret — to the Dean of Arts, Gage Averill, some five months later, on April 25, 2016. The complaints and the report assessing them (which are often formally described as “primary and secondary disclosures”), plus the Dean of Arts’ recommendation, were passed on to then-acting UBC President Martha Piper. (She’s a former UBC president who had been temporarily called back to office in 2015 after the sudden departure of the previous president, Arvind Gupta, under mysterious circumstances, or at least for reasons that never became clear in press accounts of the affair).
It should also be mentioned that the Boyd Report, though intended to be private to the university’s deliberations, leaked out in dribs and drabs to the media and others, so that much of its alleged contents were reported and became part of the story. Whether its contents were accurately reported is also part of the story. It’s difficult to know how to treat the Boyd Report or, more accurately, the rumours of what it contained as alleged in media reports. Dorothy Palmer’s essay makes a major point in underscoring the uncertainty of the second- and third-hand accounts circulating about former Justice Boyd’s findings.
So, the Boyd report itself, or the rumours of its contents, constitute a kind of “narrative,” too. Though I’m reluctant to create one more meta-account, I think it’s necessary for any readers trying to follow the story. Indeed, one of the main questions people interested in the case have been asking each other is, What is the story all about? What happened? Sometimes they impatiently use a well-known internet acronym to express their frustration (as in, “WTF is the story all about?”) Here, briefly, is my no doubt partial version:
Galloway and a woman student in the Creative Writing Program (I’ll identify her, as do the legal documents, as MC, for “main complainant”), both around the same age (roughly in their mid- to late-30s), both involved at the time in marriages or live-in relationships, began an affair that lasted for about two years, and then ended (presumably unhappily). MC claimed that she was assaulted or harassed by Galloway. Several other people in the program came forward to file ancillary complaints about Galloway that ranged from bullying to creating an inappropriate atmosphere in the Creative Writing department. As I noted at the outset, Galloway’s “instinct” for moral dilemmas includes creating them. However, “after studying the matter,” according to journalist Kerry Gold writing in The Walrus, “Boyd threw out nearly every allegation made against [Galloway], including the assault claim…”
Gold parenthetically added that the Boyd Report has never been publicly released, “but the contents were made available to The Walrus during the course of my reporting.” In the end, “Only one complaint stuck: Boyd determined that Galloway had conducted an inappropriate relationship with a middle-aged student – a relationship that, according to sources, had lasted several years…” (Kerry Gold, “L’Affaire Galloway,” The Walrus, Sept. 14, 2016.) As with many other aspects of the case, whether or not such an affair is illegal and, if it is, whether it’s a firing offense, is also a matter of debate.
A month after the Walrus story, Globe and Mail cultural reporter Marsha Lederman published an exhaustive, 7,000-word feature piece on the case, interviewing and quoting some of the “ancillary complainants,” as they were referred to, who showed Lederman redacted portions of the report referring to them. Again, it was alleged that Boyd apparently found all the ancillary complaints, as well as MC’s claim of assault, either unfounded or unsubstantiated. Lederman also interviewed and cited a wide range of defenders and opponents of Galloway’s behaviour and his treatment by UBC. (Marsha Lederman, “Under a Cloud: How UBC’s Steven Galloway affair has haunted a campus and changed lives,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 21, 2016.) Let me again emphasize that the above three paragraphs are only a version of the story of what happened, and not something that I know.
Two months after the Boyd Report, in June 2016, the UBC Board of Governors, on the recommendation of Acting President Piper, fired Galloway without severance, on the grounds that there was “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of trust placed in faculty members by the university…” (Canadian Press, quoting UBC Vice-President for External Relations Philip Steenkamp’s press release, June 23, 2016). Galloway, who had received support, including legal counsel, from the UBC Faculty Association, filed a grievance against the university, which is slated to be heard at an arbitration hearing in March 2017.
And there matters might have been expected to stand until the final disposition of the case. Instead, four months later, in November 2016, a group of prominent Canadian writers – the literati, as I’m referring to them — gathered under the banner “UBC Accountable” (UBCA), and published “An Open Letter to UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process.” It claimed that Galloway had been treated unfairly by the university, and it called upon the school to conduct an independent investigation of its handling of the case. The letter (or petition) was composed by Galloway’s friend, novelist Joseph Boyden, author of the award-winning Three Day Road (2005) and a former instructor himself in UBC’s Creative Writing program. Among the signatories of the open letter was a roster of the stars of Canadian literature, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Madeleine Thien, Lorna Crozier, Yann Martel, Susan Swan and about 90 or so others. This display of CanLit Power made the expected splash in the media and the case was newly publicized across Canada. (Cf., Peter Darbyshire, “CanLit stars pen open letter blasting UBC over the Steven Galloway affair,” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 15, 2016, and almost every other media outlet in the country.)
The content of the open letter will be duly examined in more detail, in Palmer’s essay and my comments, but here’s a short version. After citing the memo announcing Galloway’s suspension, which included an invitation to students who were concerned about their “safety and well-being” to seek support through UBC’s counselling services, the open letter went on to note that the “memo was followed up by numerous print, radio and television interviews by the Dean of Arts… although the ‘allegations’ were unsubstantiated and unexamined and Professor Galloway himself was not provided with any details as to the allegations or the complainants.” Making public unspecified, but reputation-damaging allegations, publicizing them, and not informing the accused of the specific charges, said the open letter, “cast a cloud of suspicion” over Galloway, “and created the impression that he was in some way a danger to the university community.” The open letter also observed that none of the accusations had resulted in any criminal charges being laid, either during the university’s investigation or since.
The letter then noted the hiring of former Justice Boyd to conduct an independent investigation, her report, and UBC’s firing of Galloway in June 2016 “without reference to the original allegations.” The letter complains that the Boyd Report wasn’t made public in any form, but cites both a statement from the UBC Faculty Assn. and a story by an independent journalist who allegedly had access to the Boyd Report, which “have since revealed that all but one of the allegations investigated, including the most serious one, were unsubstantiated.” (Boldface in the original.)
The open letter chastised the university for being unclear about the reasons for Galloway being fired, claimed that Galloway had been denied the right to speak while his case is being grieved, and charged that UBC hadn’t recognized the harm done to Galloway’s reputation. In sum, “the university’s willingness to allow the suspicions it has created to continue to circulate is surprising and appears to be contrary to the principles of fairness and justice” that ought to govern such processes. (Since it will soon be evident, I should immediately flag a couple of the letter’s concerns that will turn out to be false, namely, a) the suggestion that the independent Boyd Report was intended to be or should have been made public is incorrect (the report was intended to remain private), and b) the claim that Galloway was wrongly denied the right to speak isn’t true either, given that he had agreed to a gag order as part of the ongoing arbitration process.)
Finally, the letter declared that it respected “the principle of protection for individuals who wish to bring complaints. We also respect the right of an accused to fair treatment.” Given the public attention that the case attracted, argue the letter writers, “the situation requires public clarification.” The open letter writers therefore proposed that UBC “establish an independent investigation into how this matter has been handled.” The letter underscored that it was not requesting that privacy be violated, and recognized that “there are grievance proceedings in process.” Then came the impressive list of mostly literary signatories to the open letter.
As indicated earlier, the open letter was not the end of the matter. In response to widespread media reports of the open letter, a counter-letter and a petition were published, bearing the signatures of several hundred people – academics, students, sexual assault and harassment experts, and the like. In brief, again, here’s some of what the “Open Counter-Letter About the Steven Galloway Case at UBC” said. The counter-letter identified its signatories as Canadian literature scholars, writers, cultural workers, and other supporters – in fact, they could also be described as literati. As well, they identify as “teachers who recognize that our primary duty of care is to our students.” That’s why, they said, “We are shocked and appalled” by the Canadian writers’ open letter. Recognizing that the detailed reasons for Galloway’s firing have not been made public, “and that he has not been charged with anything,” what distresses the counter-letter authors is that the open letter “expresses great concern for Steven Galloway, and no concern for the women who came forward.” (The logic of that sentence, I should note, implies that it might be possible to have a letter expressing concern for Galloway, as long as it also expresses concern for “the women who came forward.”)
The concern for the complainants in the case is underscored several times, as is the counter-letter signers’ anger about the open letter. “We are angered by this letter of ‘support,’ because no support was expressed for the female complainant or for the other female students who felt it was safe to make complaints” after Galloway’s suspension was announced. “We are furious that there is only support for Galloway because he is a fellow writer, and because he is friends with many who signed the letter,” the counter-letter said. One possible rejoinder to the counter-letter, which in due course entered the public discussion, is that the focus on Galloway in the open letter is because Galloway was the subject of an institutional action that resulted in his firing, whereas the complainants’ charges, or some of them, appeared to be sustained by UBC, resulting in Galloway’s dismissal. As for the charge that the open letter signatories were “fellow writers” and “friends” of the fired writer, it’s not clear why professional and teaching colleagues ought not protest what they regarded as Galloway’s mistreatment, and it turned out that most of the signers were not friends, but only knew of Galloway by literary reputation.
“To us, it is outrageous that women in Canada come forward and seek justice,” the letter continued, “for being sexually harassed, raped and bullied… and then they are treated as if they were the perpetrators.” The counter-letter also objected that the prominent writers have focused on Galloway “as the only relevant figure in this case. The women who have come forward are silenced and rendered invisible” by the assumptions made about them in the open letter. The bottom line of the counter-letter: “We support the women who came forward. We stand with them, because it’s right, and because we believe them.”
Again, the suggestion that the complainants were being treated as “perpetrators,” by virtue of the absence of explicit support for them in the open letter could be seen as puzzling, unless one fully accepted the assumptions of the counter-letter writers. I’m not making any claims here other than pointing out that there were plausible defenses to the angry criticisms. Mainly, I was surprised by the unrelieved anger – “shocked and appalled,” “angered by the letter of support,” “we are furious,” “it is outrageous” – of the counter-letter, rather than its arguments (for which I had considerable sympathy). Either, I simply didn’t “get it” (a distinct possibility), or the level of heat directed at the prominent writers was excessive, and in service to the broader political debate about the inadequacy of responses to victims of sexual assault in general.
A parallel petition, titled “UBCAccountable, Stop Making Our Work Harder,” signed by hundreds of people involved in sexual violence policy development and services, reiterated many of the counter-letter criticisms and expressed concern about the impact of the letter defending Galloway’s rights “on survivors of sexual assault” and anyone else involved in such matters, including “administrators working to provide safe ways for students to come forward.” The petition concluded with an invitation for the open letter writers to withdraw their letter. A few original signatories withdrew their signatures, but several more writers signed on to the open letter, so that the number of signatories remained more or less the same.
The open letter writers responded with a new document, presented as an amended statement of their concerns and an apology, headed “Procedural Fairness for All” (Dec. 11, 2016). It began by recognizing the “firestorm of social media backlash” sparked by the literati’s letter. It also complained that the signatories were called everything from “scumbags” to “rape apologists” on the internet, and that even though many of the signers had “strong backgrounds in social justice and feminist issues” they were nonetheless “shamed and defamed in the streams of Facebook and Twitter.” (It should be added that the counter-open letter writers also experienced their own share of name-calling on the ‘net.) After admitting to their own sense of woundedness, the amended statement writers then took responsibility for the literati’s previous actions.
“In light of the confusion and anger generated,” began the apology, “we wish to express publicly our commitment to procedural fairness for all participants in this difficult process.” In fact, in Lederman’s Globe and Mail feature article on the case, some complainants were extensively interviewed and presented their own complaints about the lack of procedural fairness at UBC. The open letter writers said they focused on Galloway because his situation “clearly demonstrated UBC’s lack of procedural fairness,” and they explicitly reiterated, “We took no position about the truth or falsity of the actual allegations.”
After underscoring the importance of the notion of “procedural fairness,” the amended statement pointed out that the majority of open letter signatories didn’t know Galloway. The writers then said what should have been said in the original open letter: “We affirm the right of all complainants to be treated with respect and to have their complaints investigated promptly… We are deeply aware that sexual misconduct and abuse has historically been, and continues to be, a problem of epic proportions. We also understand that the rights of victims have often been shamefully neglected and that victims who have come forward with complaints have often been vilified and undermined, intensifying their trauma.” Whether the “amendment” is satisfactory or not, it does seem pretty straightforward and clearly stated. I quote the amendment at length because it tended to get lost in the general discursive storm.
In case there was any doubt about the statement’s meaning, the literati made their apology explicit. “We also acknowledge that our original open letter did not express explicitly our concern for all victims of sexual assault and harassment.” They recognized that their call for an independent investigation was perceived by many as “an expression of doubt or criticism directed at complainants… we did not intend that implication; we regret that it arose and we hope this statement now makes our intention clear.” The amended statement also included a note to say that the new letter was written in consultation with sexual assault lawyers and survivors of sexual violence, presumably to assure readers that the literati weren’t simply “making it up.” They also pointed to the UBCA website, which provided space for individual signatories to make personal statements.
For those experienced in these sorts of disputes, it came as little surprise that the response of the counter-open letter writers a couple of days later amounted to a sweeping rejection of the amended letter. While offering passing recognition to the new document (“We appreciate that some attempt has now been made to acknowledge the effects of the Open Letter…”), and its efforts to engage in “some consultation” with knowledgable others, the counter-open letter writers judged, “This is a good step, but it is not enough.” In their view, the existence of the UBCA website continues to cause “widespread harm” and “intimidation,” and the call for what amounts to an internal UBC investigation is entirely misguided (and rather amateurish). In the end, the counter-letter writers returned to their basic position, namely, “We believe that the central problem with UBCA’s approach is the ongoing effacing of the complainants. We support the legal rights and privileges of all complainants. We believe survivors and we want justice for them.”
And there the matter stands, pending the grievance arbitration slated for spring. Though some people thought that the two groups, who share rather similar political views, might have made the literati’s amended statement the basis for a discussion that would result in a document everybody could sign, that didn’t happen. Instead, the two sides remained frozen in mutual misunderstanding during a Vancouver winter of discontent.
The above paragraphs and pages are, obviously, a “narrative” of the Galloway case and of an apparently irreconcilable dispute taking place in conjunction with it. The thing to notice is that narratives of this sort are idiosyncratic to their narrators, they build-in possibly unstated ideological premises, they adopt particular tones and rhetoric. The above narrative, if I were to self-reflexively describe it, attempts to present itself as a slightly flat, “just the facts” style of account that readers might see as “fair-minded.” It is self-aware enough (or “postmodernist” enough) to recognize that it is engaged in narrative construction and isn’t claiming to be a form of “objective truth,” since that isn’t epistemologically possible. It cites objectively true facts (i.e., it isn’t a form of “fake news” as we currently call such fabulations), but still it gives edited or redacted accounts of various documents, it suggests interpretations, it is couched in a particular rhetoric (that favours itself), etc.
Dorothy Palmer’s essay, “Surrogates, Sycophants, Soldier Ants, and Sheep: Debunking the Steven Galloway Innocence Project” (Jan. 12, 2017), which can be found at “dorothyellenpalmer.com,” is also a constructed narrative. It is slightly more elaborate than the one I offer above, in that it ascribes a narrative line to a group of people (the open letter writers) and then proceeds to debunk the putative claims of the narrative through a “close reading” of the facts. In other ways, though, the version Palmer constructs is fairly straightforward.
She suggests that a group of Canadian literary stars believes that Steven Galloway has been falsely accused of serious sexual misconduct; they further believe that he was “proved” innocent by an independent investigation by a former B.C. Supreme Court justice; nonetheless, they claim, the institution which employed him, UBC, wrongly fired him, while at the same time denying him fair treatment and, worse, damaging his reputation, perhaps irreparably. The motivation for the open letter, it is suggested, is a tactical bid to secure Galloway a substantial monetary settlement from UBC and thus obviate the need for a grievance hearing. Even beyond influencing or forestalling the grievance procedure, it is further suggested that the UBCA website and the open letter were designed as publicity meant to stir up a ruckus that could be used by Galloway’s legal team in a future defamation suit against UBC. Palmer calls this the “innocence narrative” promulgated by the open letter writers, and proposes to “debunk” it.
One possible problem that Palmer faces in making her case is that those engaged in the “innocence project” explicitly deny that that’s what they’re doing; moreover, they have self-generated documents supporting their claims (e.g., “We took no position about the truth or falsity of the actual allegations”). Of course, people often deny claims about their motivations, so it may be that the literati implicitly believed Galloway innocent and attempted to conceal that belief through diversionary tactics (e.g., complaining about lack of due process). Clearly, the open letter writers give weight to what they believe is in former justice Boyd’s report, including the belief that Boyd found most of the allegations unsubstantiated, as part of their own claims about due process and principles of fundamental justice.
Palmer opens by saying, “Before we smugly tell ourselves that the spinning of fake and cherry-picked news ends at our Canadian border, let’s reconsider the story telling of Steven Galloway’s dismissal… It reveals our own equally uncomfortable post-truths.”
The rhetoric of this approach is a tough, no-punches-pulled, no fooling around style, laced with sardonic quips (and other rhetorical devices) meant to impugn the “innocence” of the innocence narrators. “We have our own huge celebrities with an aversion to apologies,” Palmer says. Worse, they’re given extensive media coverage, “even on topics where they have no more expertise than actress anti-vaxxers.” (Palmer is here referring to – for those who don’t follow these things — various celebrities, including actress Jenny McCarthy, who are opposed to the mandatory use of disease-preventing vaccination.) Adding to our woes, says Palmer, a celebrity-scandal-obsessed media “legitimizes leaked documents and lazily conflates interpretation with fact.” Finally, “this punches the ticket for social media to rev up its own bandwagons.” In addition to the alliterative assembly of social actors Palmer has invoked in her title – those “surrogates, sycophants, soldier ants and sheep” – we should also be wary, she says, of associated “anonymous axe-bangers, sniper trolls, and an emboldened alt-right” who “all jump into bed with the just plain wrong.” Put together these “post-truthers” and what we get is “a narrative absolving a powerful man accused of harming women” that is “shaped, spun, and swallowed.” You have to remind yourself that the “sycophants and soldier ants,” that Palmer conjures up, as well as the “axe bangers and an emboldened alt-right,” is her colourful way of referring to the literary letter-signers with whom she disagrees.
Palmer asks, “How does a successful single narrative get constructed – in this case, one which paints Mr. Galloway as an innocent victim – when today’s public is more plugged-in than ever before?” More important, “how do we debunk an Innocence Project?” At this point, Palmer descends from her rhetorical flight of fancy, and recalling her early education in the discipline of history, offers some sensible, practical advice in favour of “close reading” in order to answer the questions, What do we know?, and How do we know what we know?
I think this section of Palmer’s essay makes a lot of sense, and it applies to everybody involved. In addition to asking, What do we know?, a close reading, she says, requires we also ask such questions as “Where did this ‘fact’ come from?”, “Is this a primary or a secondary source?”, “Is it reliable?”, “Has it been re-interpreted, or misinterpreted?”, and the like.
Palmer points out that “there are no primary sources available to the public.” What’s more, “Nor should there be. Primary sources are the raw data, the first-hand, first-person accounts of the participants – in this case, statements from, and interviews with, both the accused and his accusers.” Given the “confidentialty requirements of privacy law,” and much other legislation, regulation, and agreed upon procedures, “the public rightly has no legal access” to any of this material. I don’t think there’s anything contentious about what Palmer is saying here.
“From this primary disclosure,” Palmer continues, “came one authoritative secondary source: the Boyd Report, a summary of evidence and legal opinion.” Palmer rightly points out that the full body of disclosure material is larger than the Boyd Report, and all of this material as well as possible other items feed into the deliberative process undertaken by the relevant authorities (the faculty dean, the university president, the board of governors) who make the actual decision. Although the university commissioned Boyd’s report, they are not necessarily bound by its findings, although of course, a rejection of its findings is going to be awkward (especially if those findings have made their way, via leaks and media reports, to the public).
Palmer makes a big deal of the “unknowability” of the Boyd report, and especially of the unreliability of leaked media accounts. She emphasizes that only Boyd, UBC, and Galloway got legal copies of the Boyd Report, which can only be legally shared with legal counsel. “The Boyd Report got leaked illegally and selectively,” says Palmer, and the clear implication is that Galloway leaked it, given that it was in his interests to do so. “Accordingly, any social media commentary on it, any articles that cite it, are all secondary sources twice removed. They are secondary sources quoting a leaked secondary source. None of them are authoritative… And they are unverifiable. Because the Boyd Report was leaked, no article that cites it can be fact-checked to it.” Palmer goes on in this vein for a while, but I think the line of argument is clear. Sometimes, she’s carried away by a kind of reductio ad absurdum: “Someone could ‘leak’ anything they wanted and call it the Boyd Report. Who could prove them wrong?”
Let me depart from Palmer’s text for a minute in order to comment on it. She tends to view the situation, a bit idealistically perhaps, but understandably, from the perspective of the hard-working, solid, union representative that she’s often been. Having occasionally served as a “shop steward” myself, as well as a member of negotiating and dispute committees, a picket captain, and simply an ordinary member at the union plenary meeting, I’m sympathetic to Palmer here. If only people would stick to the facts and procedures, and not drag in other aspects of messy human life, we could arrive at competent outcomes (and save a lot of time, too), people like us are inclined to say (or mutter under our breath).
I’m also sympathetic to Dorothy Palmer’s knowledge concerns, given that I’ve had a long, happy career in a university philosophy department teaching epistemology and metaphysics, where we try to figure out, in our bumbling ways, what there is in the world, and what we can know about it. And for all our quibbling, we agree that what we can know always matters – matters to what we do with our lives. What we union rep and philosophy teacher types also know is that the real world is more pragmatic than our idealistic models.
We can construct an imaginary mini-narrative here. Let’s say there really is a Boyd Report. Various people, including Galloway, receive a copy. After months of waiting around, his academic fate and even the image (and self-image) of himself hanging in the balance all this time, he reads it and is relieved to discover, at least by his interpretation, that he’s been more or less exonerated, especially of the most serious charge (of assault). His union legal counsel gets to see it. His faculty association president makes a statement. His specially-hired lawyer makes a statement. A close friend or two gets to read it.
Once the university subsequently makes its surprising, or deeply disappointing decision to fire him despite the report’s findings, other wheels begin to turn – friends, such as former UBC student and now Governor-General’s and Giller prize-winning author Madeleine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing, 2016) writes an angry letter to the university; Joseph Boyden drafts an “open letter”; people go to the press (including some of the complainants). Naturally, I’m not saying this is what happened. I have little idea of what actually happened. I’m making up a plausible scenario, which is a way of saying there are other possible ways of looking at this. And I would also point out that all this external, extra-curricular, possibly unwelcome activity came well after the university has conducted its deliberations and before the case goes to quasi-judicial grievance hearings (and thus should not be construed as interfering in the university’s investigation).
While Palmer is right, that a lot of this speculation rests on “secondary sources quoting a leaked secondary source,” I think there is actual knowledge that can be sifted from this formally unsatisfactory, all-too-human, messy set of procedures, and in ordinary life, we do it all the time. There are conceivable alternative narratives (although we’ve learned to be wary of people who claim there are “alternative facts”). The knowledge derived is ambiguous (perhaps, so is the Galloway case).
But ambiguous doesn’t mean there’s nothing. It’s not authoritative, but there are degrees of probability. I’m not inclined to exclude the possibility that media and other accounts of the leaked Boyd Report might well be reasonably accurate. Even in terms of the “what do we know?” question, the consistency of the reports about Justice Boyd’s findings and the logical inferences we’re able to draw from those reports and the testimony of those claiming to have read Boyd’s text would count, at least in philosophy debates, as claims to knowledge
The ambiguities of the back-and-forth show up in even smaller details. For instance, Palmer makes a point of chiding the open letter writers for naively asking the university to investigate itself, something she thinks politically unlikely as well as useless, rather than seeking a formal public inquiry of some type. If only the letter organizers had done five minutes worth of research, sigh the lawyer, the rep, the litigious-minded, exasperated over the amateurish writers playing legal-beagle-for-a-day.
Similarly, as one former lawyer and law professor in the discussion pointed out, Why are they (the open letter writers) going on and on about “due process,” primarily an American legal concept, when we in Canada focus on “principles of fundamental justice” instead? (We’ve even stuck the phrase into section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms where everybody has the right not to be deprived of life, liberty, and security “except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”) And anyway, it can be argued that “fundamental justice” is a broader concept than “due process,” which may be limited to mere procedure. Fundamental principles require that “the more a person’s rights or interests are adversely affected, the more procedural or substantive protections must be afforded to that person in order to respect the principles of fundamental justice.” That applies to Galloway and the complainants equally. (The quote is from Wikipedia, “Fundamental Justice,” but is derived from a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada case called Charkaoui vs. Canada. Wait a second. I just remembered that I had a finger in the proceedings, as a former member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association board, when we decided to send our lawyer to Ottawa to intervene in the case.)
Again, what I’m saying about these matters is that there are other ways of looking at them. Yes, maybe Boyden should have leaned on more legal advice (maybe he did, for all I know) when he proposed an independent investigation of how UBC handled the case. What most signatories probably had in mind was a colloquial usage of “independent investigation” rather than thinking about legal formalities and public inquiries. What they may have been thinking was that UBC could hire someone independent, comparable to former Justice Boyd, to investigate the university’s handling of matters, and produce a report like Boyd’s, with the exception that it be a public report to satisfy the watchword of our era, “transparency.”
As for fundamental justice, what could UBC have said to make sure Galloway’s interests, as well as those of the complainants, weren’t “adversely affected”? After all, UBC had to say something – as Palmer says, they were in a Catch-22 situation – and no, I haven’t looked up UBC’s policies and regulations about these matters. (Apologies.)
Again, from an “unreliable narrator’s” perspective, I can imagine the relevant authorities knowing just enough about the accusations to decide there wasn’t an imminent danger, and to wait a couple of weeks until the semester ended, and then, instead of creating the alarm of announcing “serious allegations” against, and immediate suspension of Galloway, there could have been a Christmas-season notice that Professor Galloway would be on paid leave as of January 1, while undergoing a “performance evaluation review” or whatever UBC calls such things. As for ensuring students’ security and well-being, couldn’t all of that been handled internally? Again, I’m not making some sort of formal proposal (since I’m not competent to do so), I’m merely suggesting, common-sensically, that there might have been other and better ways to protect the principles of fundamental justice.
I should also note, as a possible way of understanding UBC’s initial handling of the case (and its conclusion, which I’ll get to in a moment), that the university was operating in a larger national climate. A sexual assault case involving a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, had ended only a few months earlier (in Feb. 2016) with Ghomeshi’s acquittal. Although the prosecution case had been weak in legal terms, the particulars of the case were ugly, centred around the defendant’s propensity to engage in “rough sex,” and the acquittal decision had provoked a great deal of understandable anger — certainly among feminists dealing with the issue of sexual assault — across the country. The case created an atmosphere that put institutions on notice that claims of assault ought to be handled promptly and firmly, and UBC, which had been rather dilatory on previous similar cases, was under pressure to act decisively in the Galloway matter. That may in part explain the slight air of panic that attended the initial framing of the case, as well as the sensible decision to bring in Justice Boyd to investigate the claims.
One other thing that Dorothy Palmer makes much of is UBC’s announcement of Galloway’s firing, June 23, 2016: “Coupled with the dean’s recommendation and the investigative findings… the President concluded that there was a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members by the university, its students and the general public.”
“Please read this statement aloud,” Palmer instructs us. “Then ask anyone who has followed this story why Mr. Galloway was fired. They’ll confidently say, ‘For a breach of trust.’ And they will be wrong. Please see UBC’s reason for dismissal: ‘A record of misconduct.’ [UBC VP External Affairs Philip] Steenkamp stipulates that it was this ‘record,’ defined as multiple instances of ‘misconduct’” that resulted in the “irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty” that led to Galloway’s firing.
“How did the media get it wrong?” Palmer asks. “In search of a soundbite, the media swapped cause for result. They ignored ‘a record of misconduct,’ to embrace a recognizable, but in this case erroneous and invented soundbite: ‘a breach of trust.’” Oddly enough, although Palmer pursues this alleged distortion chapter and verse through a heap of media reports (and even admits that she herself fell into this apparently false shorthand usage), she doesn’t really explain what the legal difference is between “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty” and an act that resulted in “breach of trust.” This is the one place in a long essay where I would have appreciated more explication, now that I’ve become interested in the case.
I guess a “record of misconduct” implies multiple instances, as Palmer says. It’s not clear whether these were serial instances for which Galloway was warned or reprimanded, or whether these are several instances that were retrospectively discovered all at once. I mention this because there’s one bit of circumstantial evidence that undercuts this “record of misconduct” claim (I’ll resist calling it a “narrative,” or maybe I should: how about, in contrast to the “innocence narrative,” we call it the “guilty-as-sin narrative”?). The bit is Galloway’s “record” rather than his alleged “record of misconduct.”
Galloway has a long history at UBC, as a student, a teacher in the Creative Writing Department (beginning in 2001), acting head of the department (as of 2013), and finally, head of the department, as of summer 2015. There were also corresponding promotions and tenure, and the usual amount of evaluation (I haven’t seen his student evaluation forms of course, but according to the ubiquitous Rate My Professor.com site, Galloway scores quite well in the anonymous reports collected by the website). As well, Galloway was praised by his employers for figuring out how to increase revenues in the Creative Writing program (and these corporate-oriented days at universities, there is no higher praise). So, Galloway was promoted to head of the writing program in July 2015, only to be summarily suspended four months later. It’s not a lot of time to pile up a “record of misconduct,” especially if you deduct a couple of months for summer holiday or “professional development” or whatever those cushy academic jobs provide for. Plus, several of Galloway’s colleagues are signatories to the open letter and were, in several instances, extensively interviewed in the press, and posted personal statements on the UBCA website.
Okay, I’m playing unfair. I don’t know any more about Galloway’s conduct than anyone else on the outside of this case, as Dorothy Palmer might be the first to point out, even though the facts in the above paragraph are true. But I’m not sure Palmer is playing entirely fairly either, since she doesn’t mention Galloway’s record in her essay. I think the omission is in unconscious service to the construction of a narrative.
Any observer examining the case would certainly ask about Galloway’s record. He managed for 15 years not to “blot his copy,” as people used to say about such things, so what happened? Presumably potential open letter signatories would ask such a question, just as potential counter-open letter signatories would ask similar questions about the complainants who they “believed.” I’m being slightly ironic here. Despite Palmer’s call for people to engage in close reading and to do their homework, I assume that most signatories of both letters didn’t do exhaustive research, and probably regarded that as the job of the letter originators and organizers rather than being their own moral obligation. If there was a “record of misconduct,” wouldn’t that also have been discovered by the nosy media who are always poking into people’s private lives?
Another thing that Palmer doesn’t mention in her essay – a large portion of which is given over to a critique of what she regards as misleading media accounts of the Galloway case – is the “amended” letter that the open letter writers produced in response to the justified claims that the open letter wasn’t sensitive to the sufferings and fears of the complainants. Even though Palmer and her colleagues rejected the amended letter, it’s odd that it isn’t mentioned. Of course, it doesn’t conform to the “innocence narrative” she sets out to debunk, since it suggests that the reviled literary lions and lionesses aren’t monomaniacally fixated on Galloway, but are willing to address the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and show some empathy for the victims and/or survivors of those assaults (and indeed a number of the signatories have themselves experienced such assaults, and have been activists in political causes designed to stop those crimes).
Palmer sets out rigorous standards by which she believes signatories to open letters ought to conduct themselves, but it’s not clear that she would apply those standards even-handedly. “How do the signatories know what they know?” she asks at one point. “They don’t. They just believe it.” While that’s not good enough for Palmer, when she refers to her own position, she declares, “I’ve taken sides. I freely admit that taking sides in this story is an act of faith, not of evidence. I make that choice when I say I believe the complainants,” Palmer says, and then offers a connected set of reasons for that belief, closing with, “And, most importantly, because disbelieving women is the very first phallic thrust of rape culture.”
I’ve been intentionally diffident about saying anything much about the complainants, or sexual assault, or women in general. (I’ve even been hesitant about what term to use when referring to the participants in this case, finally settling on “complainants” as the most neutral term, rather than “accusers,” “victims,” or “survivors.”) Partially, that’s because I don’t know enough and partially it’s because I don’t want to make things worse. But I am able to recognize that there is, currently, an “I Believe Women” meme, complete with hashtag, that is not a result of some arbitrary imposition of “political correctness,” as opponents often allege, but because so many women for so long have not been believed. I prefer a slightly alternate formulation I’ve heard from one of the signatories of the open letter, a woman who’s experienced both sexual assault and life under a dictatorship. She says, “I listen to women.”
Nor do I say anything here about the status of claims that the open letter had the effect on complainants and other women of “damaging,” “intimidating,” “effacing,” and “silencing” them, or “triggering” (traumatic experiences). Again, this is way beyond my competence.
I’m aware that such claims are part of a debate about life on university campuses these days. I know about and have read the notorious essay by feminist author Laura Kipnis (Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, 2014), a professor of cultural studies at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). In February 2015, she published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an academic trade journal, an essay titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” which is directed against what she sees as a present-day sexual panic on campuses. In addition, she opposes prohibitions on faculty-student dating and what she sees as the tendency to over-sensitize students and treat them as potential traumatized victims in need of therapy and protection. For writing the essay, Kipnis faced demonstrations by feminist students at her university and was eventually charged with sexual harassment for writing the essay. (In the end, she was found not guilty.) I mention this only to indicate that there’s a debate among feminist theorists rather than an absolutely settled position about these issues.
Dorothy Palmer is kind enough to refer to me a couple of times in her essay as a polite and thoughtful participant in the discussion. One of the other discussants in our Facebook conversation asked, Could you be wrong?, a question I often pose to others. And my reply then (and now) is, Yes. It’s possible I could be wrong, completely wrong, about my views about the Galloway case.
In the presence of Palmer’s strongly-reasoned polemic, I’m frequently almost persuaded. Then, I pull back, and say, No, there’s something wrong here with UBC’s handling of the case, even though I know that Palmer believes that UBC handled the case with meticulous care, making only inadvertent errors that are relatively inconsequential (and remember, Palmer is an experienced trade unionist who has dealt with malevolent administrations on more than one occasion). So, that gives me pause.
But UBC’s handling of various related situations has been shaky. The latest dust-up was whether to invite, dis-invite, or re-invite former Vancouver winter Olympics organizer John Furlong to speak to a sports fund-raising event at UBC. The university in fact did all three. After inviting, then dis-inviting Furlong, who had been accused,but never charged or convicted, of child abuse or anything else in a case going back 40 years, the new UBC president Santa Ono apologised and then re-invited the sports executive to speak at the university. As a UBC alumnus myself, I would have to admit that UBC’s record in these matters is not impeccable. Maybe the university really tried its best in the Galloway case, but simply got some of it wrong.
Palmer cites a question I raised with her, Why are potential allies attacking each other? “As [Persky] so fairly points out, many of the signatories have feminist experience, and should be allies against sexual harassment and assault.” Indeed, I’ve already seen Facebook-posted photos of several of the signatories among the millions of people who participated in the Women’s Marches around the world as recently as January 21, 2017, marches in which counter-open letter signatories also participated. To my question, why aren’t potential allies making alliances?, Palmer replies, “I agree, they should.” And then adds, a bit acerbically, “Once they [the open letter writers] drop a harmful, ineffectual, dubiously-conceived tactic, I welcome their voice and their work.” Well, it’s a start.
A bit further on, and somewhat more hopefully, Palmer says, “I agree again with Mr. Persky, our positions are not mutually exclusive. Supporters and critics may face off from a seemingly uncrossable distance, but I suggest the mind-shattering possibility that both versions of the story might overlap. The ‘record of misconduct,’ the ‘one’ allegation Justice Boyd allegedly supported could very well be the same thing: the ‘relationship’ that Mr. Galloway calls ‘a consensual affair’ and that the MC calls ‘sexual harassment and abuse.’”
Palmer adds, and I’m inclined to let her have the last word here, “We don’t know. We do know that a person can have honest concerns about the way UBC handled this matter, and on-going concerns about how universities on both sides of our borders have handled sexual harassment and assault. Surely, we can challenge university policies and procedures without causing further harm to staff, students, complainants and survivors?”