Biased? Damn Right I Am

Photo: C Muschi

For the past month, I have been writing almost exclusively on the Québec student strike and social movement, which erupted in February and has resulted in the provincial government of Québec recently passing a law, Bill 78, which severely limits the rights of students to freedom of assembly and expression, imposing harsh financial penalties for practicing our basic rights and freedoms.

I have been writing professionally for four years, and on a wide range of topics, many of them far more controversial than a student strike. However, never before have I experienced such an enormous reaction – both positive and negative – to any other issue I’ve covered. My articles are reaching more people – and more varied audiences – than ever before, but they are also inciting more reactions and responses than I have ever been faced with. I always try to respond to comments and emails, but if I were to do so on this issue, I would never get around to writing anything new. So instead, I would like to address the main critique and complaint of my writing on this issue: that I am – and my writing is – extremely “biased” in how I report on this issue.

First off, I would like to thank all who have sent me words of encouragement and support, and who have been sharing and re-posting my articles, as the English-speaking media in Canada have been almost exclusively terrible in their coverage of the student protests here in Québec. Secondly, I would like to thank all those who have sent me critiques, who have pointed out flaws and problems in various points and arguments I have made, and in doing so, have provided further avenues for research. Without critique, no researcher can make progress. So keep on keeping me on my toes!

I would, however, like to address the most common complaint about my writing and my point of view: namely, that it is “biased.” My simple response to this is: You’re goddamned right it is!

We are all biased for the simple fact that we view ourselves and the world from our own individual perspective. When anyone or any information source claims to be “unbiased,” that is when my internal alarm begins to ring. There are, arguably, unbiased “facts” (as Einstein once said, “facts are stubborn things”), but there are not unbiased “views.” Facts can help inform our views, and what facts we gather, how we gather them and from where can determine the view we take.

So yes, I have a bias. But I am biased in favour of people over power, in favour of the oppressed over the oppressors, and in favour of freedom over domination. I am, however, a researcher. I don’t have many talents: I can barely cook, I don’t speak more than one language, I don’t play sports, I don’t play an instrument, I can’t even whistle; but one thing I am good at is research. I know where to look, how to look, to draw from a multitude of sources, and to put together a massive array into something a half-coherent composition. My writing is almost always heavily cited and sourced. I have even spent hours tracking down original sources in government archives cited by Noam Chomsky, not because I think he is lying or misrepresenting the facts, but because it’s important for me to see the original source for myself. I encourage others to do the same.

My research in history, on a number of different social, political, economic and cultural issues, has not been defined by my bias, but has defined my bias. It is precisely the research and reading and studying I have done that has established, informed and strengthened my own personal bias. That is not to say it is unchanging: with each new subject studied, with new information gathered, I must adjust, evolve and alter my views according to the knowledge I come across. And yet still, I find this central bias remains: that of favouring the oppressed over the oppressor. It is this view that shapes my own understanding of history and the present, and for that reason, this has become my own truth: how I see and understand the world.

Situations which are inherently imbalanced do not require black and white interpretations, do not require an equal presentation for the oppressed view as well as that of the oppressor’s. One does not give “both sides of the argument” on the issue of mass murder, on the issue of slavery, on the issue of domination and oppression. The simple reason for this is that it is morally reprehensible to put the perspective of injustice and oppression on the same moral grounding as that of the dominated and oppressed. A more logical reason, perhaps, is that because of the simple social position of the oppressor – always in positions of power – is that they already have a larger share of control over the discourse: they speak for the state, providing the “official” line; they control the media; they have a monopoly of interpretation and control over dissemination.

This creates an automatic imbalance in how things are interpreted and presented. Rarely are there cries against this information-Casino system (where the house always wins), proclaiming it to be “biased” or “imbalanced.” Instead, publications like the National Post and the Globe and Mail may say anything they like, any way they like, and they are simply “reporting the facts.” Across Canada, newspapers may refer to the students in Québec as “violent,” “thugs,” “spoiled brats,” “wannabe terrorists” and “idiots,” and yet, where is the outcry against their “bias” and lack of balance? The media, almost without fail, makes reference to official statements from the police regarding protests and “riots” without providing any other perspective or statements. We read this in the media as, “a police spokesperson said…” How often do we read, “participants in the protest stated…”? Is that not a lack of balance?

Gary Lamphier writing for the Edmonton Journal referred to the students, in the span of one article alone, as the following: “gangs of kids, buffoons, wannabe terrorists, idiots, miscreants, sanctimonious jerks, selfish, loutish, moronic,” and lastly, “rock-throwing idiots in Quebec.” This is, of course, compared to the “hard-working students and citizens” whose lives are being disrupted by “a cancer.” Perhaps the most common term used to describe the students in Quebec is “entitled.” Of course, this type of elevated intellectual discourse is perfectly acceptable in the mainstream media. When some protesters entered UQAM and disrupted classes, with one report of even attempting to pull two students out of the class, the media reaction was swift, furious, and international. These are not tactics I particularly favour or condone; it certainly doesn’t help the image of the student movement and I think there are more effective avenues for engagement and action. However, the reporting on this incident was almost exclusively in a chorus of condemnation. The students who occupied and disrupted the school were called: “protest gangs,“ “hard-core protesters” and “thugs.”

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AnarchoPanda hugs a protester during the Quebec student protests. Photo: J.B. Staniforth.

Now, these tactics may not have been helpful, but perhaps a little context would be important: for three months of striking, the government spent two months ignoring and dismissing and refusing to talk to the students before attempting to divide the students against each other. The state has intervened to provide legal injunctions to even small groups of students in an effort to use them as “strike breakers” by legally enforcing their return to the schools (as the state does not recognize the legal right of students to strike), and it has been enforcing that with the blunt force of the baton, the sting of pepper spray and the taste of tear gas. The state has repeatedly used violence against protesters: pepper spray, beatings with batons, tear gas, smoke bombs, concussion grenades, driving police trucks and cars into groups of students, shooting them in the face with rubber bullets, and undertaking mass arrests. One student lost his vision in one eye after being shot in the face with a concussion grenade, another lost his eye after being shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and another ended up in the hospital with a skull fracture and brain contusion, also after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet. When a few students threw smoke bombs in the Montreal Metro, they were charged on “anti-terrorism” charges, and the national media loudly condemned them. Again, the tactics were not helpful, but this also followed the Victoriaville violence against students, where several were almost killed (which did not get anywhere near the same national and international media coverage). Violent actions create increasingly violent reactions. While throwing smoke bombs in the metro is a bad tactic, police shoot smoke bombs at students on a regular basis, but the students are “terrorists” and the police are “restoring order.” All this context does not exist in the media discourse.

And now, with the passage of Bill 78, which is patently unconstitutional, the situation has become more intense, the risks are greater, and the state is all the more oppressive.

So the situation between the students and the state in Québec is inherently imbalanced. I see no value in presenting a “balanced” argument about a circumstance in which no balance exists. I see no value in presenting oneself as “neutral” in situations of oppression, exploitation, and domination. The perspective of the state is given by the state and its spokespeople, is repeated in the media, and backed up with the economic power of the corporations and banks (who own the media). It’s always easy for power to speak in support of power. Nothing is demanded of them, except for allegiance. They are held up to low standards, require little to no proof, and can even openly call for violence to be used against students, and it all goes unquestioned, their views are “facts” and their “bias” is overlooked.

I may use harsh rhetoric, but I back it up with hard facts. I may write that the National Post knows nothing of democracy, but that is because I have never seen that publication support any grassroots, indigenous, or social movement for democratic progress: I have seen that publication support war, justify empire, encourage violence, condone oppression and demonize progression. Respect must be earned, and I have never read anything worthy of respect out of that publication, worthy of the values and ideals I hold dear. So yes, I do not restrain my rhetoric in describing it. Is it inflammatory? Perhaps. But I believe it to be the truth, at least as I see it.

What we, here in Québec, see and experience in the streets is a world away from what we read in the English media across the country. The disparity is so vast, the misrepresentation is so consistent, the rhetoric is entirely dismissive, insulting, and even hateful, the discourse is vitriolic and ill-informed, the lies are expansive, and the presentation is perverted. I will always stand with the people against the violence of the state, against the lies and misrepresentations of the media, and the abuses of authority. What others call neutrality, I call cowardice. I do not pretend to be or present myself as an unbiased or “dispassionate” observer. I have marched in the streets, I have friends far more involved at every level of the protests than I have been, I know people who have been arrested, attacked, and gassed; I marched in peace with peaceful friends, and we were charged by riot cops. I watched as the police threw students face first into the pavement and ran out of the way as the riot police drove their van through a crowd of students. I listen to more intense and infuriating stories from friends and others. We see the images and hear the stories and watch the videos of those who have been seriously injured. We are pepper sprayed, gassed, beaten and bruised, we are insulted and degraded by the national media. We are referred to as “spoiled brats” and “entitled” fools.

Am I biased? You’re damn right I am!


Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer in Canada.

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  • Louise Picard

    Bravo!

  • lauren

    It’s really important that we strive to clearly define terms like bias. I teach at small colleges in rural CA, and constantly struggle to make clear such terms (including the vast gulf between fact and opinion!).

    You said, “My research in history, on a number of different social, political, economic and cultural issues, has not been defined by my bias, but has defined my bias. It is precisely the research and reading and studying I have done that has established, informed and strengthened my own personal bias.”

    From Merriam Webster online: Bias – an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice

    From Wikipedia, on their Bias page: A cognitive bias is the human tendency to make systematic decisions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence.

    And Oxford: inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair:

    Bias (and opinion) are such loaded words that we need to use them sparingly, I think. Especially, the especial case (!) when lack of (counter) evidence is given to be the basis for bias. I take it, that the use of especially, means general knowledge of, and use of the word?

    “Especially” at Merriam Webster, first definition: in particular : particularly I’ve looked up particular, but will stop now!

    I really get what you’re trying to do here, and you provide lots of evidence for your view. But… are you really biased?

    Thanks for the work you’re doing to keep us informed,
    Lauren

  • Joel Roache

    Good onya, brother! A lot of us down here in the states are watching and, I hope, learning.

  • Jfkatlanta

    I am all for non-violent protestation, but this has not been that. Plus, they are striking over an increase of $320 a year. How is shutting down the Metro, mass destruction of property, and physical violence (done by, not too the protesters) really a properly measured response to what boils down to little more than an adjustment to inflation? Seriously; how great would it be if the cost to send your kid to a US college only went up $320/year? Get over it and move on. There are a heck of a lot more important things that they should be protesting, like being persecuted for speaking any language other than French.