Is it the start of a social justice revolution? Fueled by the societal, political, and economic disparities laid bare by things like Donald Trump’s presidency, many voices are loudly calling for things like equal protection under the law, reduced economic inequality, justice for Indigenous Peoples, and an end to systemic racism.
Fever for change is in the air.
But are these heady times making us trigger-happy in our zeal for long-delayed progress? In particular, are our attacks on publicly visible individuals always justified?
In June of 2020, Dr. David Lesbarrères, Laurentian University’s dean of graduate studies, posted two ill-considered, late-night tweets about racism, and used the hashtag, #AllLivesMatters [sic], without knowing it was explosive. His mistakes were quickly condemned by the Laurentian community and he deleted the tweets.
Angry public condemnations from prominent “social justice warriors” continued and several days later he was suspended from his position at Laurentian.
In my view, anger was the understandable response from people who did not know David and his history. Many of us are on social media countering posts from people who deny the plainly evident idea that systemic racism was rampant, and that justice was not equal.
Our hunger for change harkens back to revolutions of the past, but care is needed. During both the French and Russian national revolutions, many allies of those same movements were famously beaten or executed because of the blind rage and righteous zeal of the revolutionaries.
In David’s case, we have put the wrong person on the guillotine.
A central principle in civil society is to regard others without undue suspicion. To give people unknown to us the benefit of the doubt.
In the case of Dr. David Lesbarrères, there is no doubt. David’s tenure as Laurentian’s dean of graduate studies has been a resounding success, particularly for students who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), and women. Under David’s leadership, Laurentian has seen unprecedented growth in the number of graduate students, the range of countries from which they originate, and the breadth of graduate programs in which they are enrolled.
It’s David who helped get Ontario Graduate Scholarships extended to international students. When Covid-19 forced the campus to close, our Canadian students could safely return to their homes, but our foreign students were trapped here. These international students became David’s responsibility and he worked tirelessly day and night to make sure that each one was well taken care of.
When the campus residences were closed, David and his family housed an Iranian student until they could find another apartment. He also helped a refugee student find a safe Sudbury shelter home for his whole family.
David has been a strong voice for students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), an ally in the fight for equality, and a person in a position where his ideals and energies can be transformative. When his position was suspended, groups such as the Laurentian University African and Caribbean Students Association rushed to his defence.
A petition initiated by Laurentian’s graduate students gained more than 100 signatures, including many professors. They knew that David’s convictions about equality were not just in the office. An ugly aspect of “the beautiful game” of soccer is the racism directed at Black players such as Kylian Mbappé who wears No. 10 on the team Paris-St. Germain. It is Mbappé’s jersey that David wears when he himself is on the field.
When does a social justice movement become a mob? David’s reputation has been besmirched. Sadly, the work he has been doing to create life-changing opportunities for BIPOC and international students has been paused.
All of this for the sake of a sleepy, late-night social media misstep not unlike those made even by the media-savvy corporations such as Disney and Zara. We who clamour for societal change call for justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion—is this our idea of justice?
Dr. Lesbarrères should be reinstated. Laurentian’s confidence in his abilities, accomplishments, intentions, and convictions needs to be publicly expressed. And, we should all take lessons about the value of empathy because behind social media usernames are real people. In the end, aren’t empathy, kindness, and mutual support for different people what we are really fighting for?Charles Ramcharan