Friday, May 11, 2018

Douglas Todd: rational talk about controversial topics

What is real? How then shall we live? These are the great questions that guide Douglas Todd as he attempts, through his columns, to generate rational discussion about controversial issues. Todd's column in the Vancouver Sun mainly covers issues related to spirituality, migration, and diversity. His May 9 talk to Canadian Authors covered five themes: Foreign capital, Sikhism related news, Men's issues, Ethnic Diversity and Flirting versus Harassment. He also read snippets from recent columns and invited participation from a keen audience.

To write what he does means Todd must find courage to stand up to a lot of flak. Some of his columns have generated fear and hesitation before going to press, and Todd had to learn that his skin "is only so thick."

Today, many well-meaning people think certain topics are off-limits. Just as Victorians felt it was not nice to talk about sex, contemporary journalists fear conversations about race, lest they be called racist or xenophobic. When diversity journalism is expected to cover "just the positives," writing with rationality and balance is "risky." A major factor is identity politics. Putting group identity first "divides us, and hides the common good." Indeed, opines Todd, the liberal elite has "led to strongman figures like Trump and Doug Ford."

But there's more at stake than "political correctness" or "virtue signalling." In the nineties, when the first big influx of Hong Kong real estate investment dollars arrived in Vancouver, white real estate developers pulled the racist card to silence critics of their policies. This went on "for three decades." Former mayor Sam Sullivan, now housing critic for the BC Liberals, came after Todd for revealing facts the real estate industry wanted kept under wraps. Tycoon Bob Rennie threatened a SLAPP suit.

This, in spite of Todd's meticulous journalistic accuracy, and his inclusion of opinions from varied sources. One way to protect himself is to quote local Chinese on real estate prices, and Sikhs when he discusses issues in their community. With only 1% of Canada's population, they are "hugely important politically," and currently hold 12% of the seats in Parliament. Columns have involved in-depth interviews to unearth inside views of Sikh psychotherapists about their own culture.

Long a fan of his columns, I've found them meticulously researched and eminently rational, fair and balanced. I learned a lot from his talk, and enjoyed meeting Doug Todd in person, the more so when I learned he doesn't often give public talks. From a recent column, I knew that at UBC, we had shared a favourite professor -- the late Dr. Hanna Kassis, remembered by Todd a "Canadian pioneer in Islamic Studies" who "crossed tense boundaries." I've since discovered other parallels, including the fact that like me, Todd studied Arts I at UBC.

I also learned some hard facts. Here's a fascinating example. Excluding foreign-worker-fuelled Brussels and Dubai, Toronto and Vancouver are the two most hyper-diverse cities in the world, with about half their people foreign-born. (New York has 25% and LA 30%). In sharp contrast, in China, Mumbai and Manila, only 1% are foreign born. This is interesting. What might be the implications of the fact that many of those settling here have so little experience in living with diversity?

"I want to write about things people avoid, but it gets me in trouble." Seems that's the cost of honest dissent. To find the common good for society, we need to have difficult conversations about hot issues that affect us all. Keep up the good work, Douglas Todd.

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