In Canada’s 2015 general election, more than a dozen parliamentary candidates from all major parties were forced by their leader to resign mid-campaign after various old embarrassments were unearthed by opponents, including vulgar tweets, bigoted Facebook comments and obscene phone calls. In a campaign that officially lasted 78 days, it was a disqualification rate of at least one a week.
Mere days into the 2019 Canadian general election, the purges have resumed apace. A Conservative running for a Winnipeg seat was forced out for sharing anti-Muslim memes, a New Democrat resigned in British Columbia for once threatening a journalist on Facebook, and a Green stepped down following revelations of an Islamophobic joke he made in 2007. The Liberal Party, in particular, seems to have something of an active war room exclusively devoted to digging up embarrassing social media posts from rival candidates, given the coordinated efficiency with which they’ve been sharing them.
It’s into this environment that a string of images of Justin Trudeau in black- and brownface have exploded. Now that even Canada’s righteous king of wokeness has proved unable to escape the embarrassments of his past, a reexamination of the merits of shame-based politics is hopefully destined to follow.
That’s Trudeau’s best hope, at least. To escape the charge that the perfectly progressive prime minister once mocked as the world’s “woke boyfriend” is actually a staggering hypocrite of bigoted insensitivity, Trudeau must become a hypocrite of an entirely different sort and turn sharply against the culture of zero-tolerance judgmentalism his party has been so active in encouraging.
The unanswered question at the heart of shame culture has always been whether anyone actually cares. When a public figure’s long-forgotten misdeeds are dug up and paraded across our digital public squares, are the horrified onlookers really horrified, or merely affecting reactions they assume they’re supposed to have? When the powerful assign life-altering punishments to offenders — lost jobs, ruined reputations — do they genuinely believe such retributions are proportionate, or are they too just fulfilling some assumed expectation? It’s hard to be sure whether anyone truly believes a civilized society judges people by their worst deeds in isolation, rather than in the full context of their elaborate lives. The truth is masked by a fog of peer pressure and social obligation.
“I’m going to be asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did,” Trudeau said to reporters shortly after a 2001 photograph of him dressed as an Arabian prince with dark face paint went viral. In doing so, he unintentionally echoed the words of his Tory rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who just days earlier had announced he’d be pumping the breaks on the traditional practice of throwing publicly shamed candidates under the campaign bus.
“As long as someone takes responsibility for what they’ve said … and have apologized for that, I accept that,” Scheer said on Sunday in response to a recent barrage of Liberal shame campaigns against Tory candidates. In theory, this means there’s now a rough consensus among the two men most likely to run Canada that it’s unreasonable to hold past sins against politicians in the present, and that forgiveness and sensitivity to context are virtues a sensible press and electorate should be able to summon. Trudeau can remain in office, and public shaming can be retired as an acceptable tactic in Canadian politics, or he can leave to keep shaming viable. But something will have to be sacrificed.
My suspicion is that Trudeau chooses to weather this controversy, just as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) did before him. As grotesque as the photos and videos of him in colored face paint are, voters moderate enough to be on the fence about Trudeau’s desirability as prime minister are probably also moderate enough to dismiss the pictures as a distraction for the overly sensitive. It’s similarly hard to imagine the images creating much of a backlash in vote-rich Quebec, a Trudeau-friendly constituency where public opinions on what is and isn’t racially insensitive can be fairly forgiving (to say the least). Like Donald Trump and the “Access Hollywood” tape, Trudeau may ultimately call shame culture’s bluff and simply let the people decide, confident that voters are far harder to offend than the Twitter mob presumes.
If that’s indeed the case, then Trudeau’s implausible legacy may ultimately be as the man who initiated a detente in the shame wars of Canadian politics — a puritanically progressive leader forced to ponder the impossibility of the tests he so eagerly assigns to others.