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Overture from Carmen, by Bizet.

When most of us think of opera we think of rotund, bearded men, gaudily garbed women (or rabbits) with Viking horns, and luxurious theatres filled with the elite. While many of the images we have of the Grand Artform have a strong relationship to the contemporary world of opera, something is…amiss. Fewer people are attending, and the appeal of opera is getting smaller and smaller.

No wonder: the opera has struggled to evolve for at least the last six decades. The major companies wrest with stuffiness and reverence, while their productions skew either too traditional or too abstract and political for the general viewer. New composers are still competing with Mozart and Verdi, and therefore tend to skew avant-garde to stand out; it’s rare to see a “new” opera from the last 60-80 years that has found any footing in the popular canon. We estimate there are as few as six! Meanwhile, many opera companies are being infected with a radical ideology undergirded by a lethal dose of nihilism. As they grow more political, these companies turn away from traditional measures of success/failure, such as audience engagement, ticket sales, and exportability, and dive into the Social Justice metrics of “what are we doing to right the wrongs of our inherently tyrannical society?”, “Are our audience, stories, and artists diverse enough?”, and “Who in a position of authority needs to be destroyed?”

We are professional singers within the Canadian operatic industry and we absolutely adore the opera; and, though we come to it from very different backgrounds – one traditional and one… not so traditional – we both share a passion for it and believe in its future. We also know that in order to keep opera exciting our industry has to make some uncomfortable but necessary changes. Unfortunately, criticism of operatic tradition is sacrilege, and, worse still, criticism of Postmodern (PoMo) ideology is met with hostility (Postmodernism is a movement characterized by skepticism and irony towards grand narratives and rationality). So, we’re in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where “all roads lead to bigotry,” to quote Gad Saad, and severe professional and social reprisals. We’re grateful for the opportunity to write anonymously for Counterweight. It’s our hope that this article can give readers a candid glimpse of what it’s like to be an opera singer in today’s poisonous political climate, the various hurdles that we and the arts face, and, finally, what we think the solutions are.

Ok, showtime! Toi toi![1]


Who are we? We wish we could be more transparent, but we don’t want to damage ourselves or the organizations with which we work – we have no HR departments to report to in the event of discrimination. In the arts, you just stop getting calls.

While we realize that relatively few people identify as WokeTM, (according to recent polls[2] and crushing defeats for the Labour Party in the UK and the NDP in Canada), we’ve observed that the ratio of Woke people is much higher in the entertainment industry…


Nessun Dorma from Turandot, by Puccini.

My path in opera was the traditional route: I sang in choirs as a child, and eventually sought out a private voice teacher. I got hooked on classical technique and left my other interests behind to pursue it. I was fortunate enough to attend an elite institution where I was fully immersed in the craft: I was exposed to studying several languages, to piano training, to ear training and music theory, to reading and interpreting musical scores, to stagecraft and vocal technique, as well as to participating in opera productions and choral ensembles.

I wanted to sing with the gorgeous, flexible tone of Pavarotti, the passion and charisma of Callas, the dignity of Domingo, the balls of Bastianini. I’ve always been quick to latch on to monumental challenges when I think there’s some extraordinary opportunity on the other side, and what I saw was an opportunity to be a modern super-hybrid operatic singer, and to bring a new audience to the operatic world I loved.

When I got out of school, I saw the bigger picture: nobody really cares about opera anymore. I’ve come to see that the whole industry is pouring time and money into works and artistic intricacies that mean virtually nothing to the consumers we so desperately desire. At best, we’re seeking innovation, though with a couple of arms tied behind our backs because of reverence for tradition. At worst, we’re seeking refuge in a destructive ideology… This isn’t something I can just stand back and allow to happen.


Son lo Spirito from Mefistofele, by Boito.

Waving around a toy sword at five, I knew two things: I wanted to conquer the world by the edge of my blade or be an actor. I became acutely aware of how unfashionable the former is, so I chose option B. To this day, I pity my parents and most of my teachers (and secretly my friends) because I was an irascible youth whose respect for authority could be described as “scarce.” Despite defiant tendencies, I did well in school and then trained as an actor.

Being an actor forced me to learn about myself and to inhabit the minds of other people, which improved my Theory of Mind considerably – this means I have access to insights into how others think. I’ve added other credits to my portfolio, from writer to producer, and so I have a fairly comprehensive view of creating art in Canada.

My interest in opera ambushed me at 19, and I was utterly felled. Through a series of generous people and auspicious circumstances, I became a trained singer by my late 20s and was singing professionally in my early 30s – with a steep learning curve.


When I started watching, and then participating in, opera, I began to see why attendance was down and people were unresponsive – or outright hostile. It was the same problem I saw in the other live arts…a problem I intend to remedy.


Dio, Che Nell’alma Infondere Amor, from Don Carlo, by Verdi.

We found each other on a production of a Verdi masterpiece (anonymity demands some reticence). We’re both addicted to thought experiments so we couldn’t help but discuss the quandaries we see in contemporary art, and opera especially. The prognosis is dire: opera has not evolved sufficiently to create a sustainable demand in Canada, and we think we’ve been able to boil down the decay to these essential points:


1. Much of opera is stilted by slavish devotion to tradition and precedence.


2. That which is NOT enslaved to tradition is enslaved to deconstruction (PoMo/Wokism), which is the approach that entirely dismisses human nature and believes that everything can be reduced to its constituent parts – essentially, that things are never more than the sum of their parts.


3. Too much supply and not enough demand in the workforce.


4. Funding subsidies that select for immutable characteristics rather than artistic vision.


And before we proceed, we want to make it clear that no one person or organization is responsible for any of this. This is a diagnosis and prescription, NOT a condemnation. Our respect and gratitude goes to everyone who’s ventured to assume the mantle of impresario (producer of opera) and carry the banner. It’s difficult and almost entirely thankless. This exploration is to help us let go of needless baggage.


Don Giovanni A Cenar Teco, from Don Giovanni, by Mozart.

Opera has an enormous legacy. Its demands on the artist are no less lofty: the multivariant levels of skill required are stunning. Faced with this, one can’t help but develop a sense of reverence. And if one happens to miss that salient point, it will be installed by one’s teachers. Singers are taught that composers are infallible. This is helpful for respecting the material, but it’s a pair of cement shoes for innovation.

Reverence says that if you change the work in any way, you kill the genius. There are good arguments for this, the strongest of which being: if a master’s creation is like a building, and every structural piece depends on every other piece, you don’t take out support beams because you think it’ll look ‘neat!’… Until you do, and make something breathtaking and new. This is the Master’s Conundrum (a term we invented just now) which states that: “in order to create a masterpiece, it’s necessary that tradition is defied.” The details are a fascinating topic for another article, but our view, simplified, is this: learn the fundamentals obsessively and quickly, then ‘forget’ them and play.

What are some of the operatic traditions that get in the way then?

The language barrier: while most operas have English translations, most companies still prefer supertitles.[3] Today, the audience’s eyes flit back and forth between the translation and the stage – because we go to the theatre to read, of course. And, as if this isn’t challenging enough, producers are forced to put the plot in the program. Imagine going to a movie and getting all the spoilers in the pre-roll.[4]

Run times: many pieces are over three hours, and are much better served by being cut to two hours or (preferably) less. But even something as innocuous as trimming the musings of the dead falls under the stern purview of a ‘gatekeeper’, whose prescribed cuts are not to be exceeded.

And nothing keeps more gates than something called Performance Practice: a set of historically derived interpretations from bygone days that aren’t in the score (the “script”) but are imposed by the larger culture and institutions. This ranges from ways of performing the music, to tempo changes, to character choices, and to the Fach system, which categorizes singers and roles according to the qualities of their voices (range, volume, colour) such that only certain singers can sing certain roles, regardless of physical or temperamental appropriateness. While some of Fach is practical (related to the relative sizes of orchestras and voices), much of it is pigeon-holing (in our opinion), which results in creative atrophy and artist anxiety.


Dated plots: many of the plots are so rooted in courtly tradition that it can be difficult for contemporary audiences to appreciate them.

So, slavish devotion to tradition, to teachers, and to performance practice alike eliminate risk-taking and exploration, which are the most crucial components of exciting creation.

Alright then, so let’s make some new operas in English with humane run times and contemporary plots!

Alas, in the last 80 years only a handful of operas have made it into the popular canon, and not a single one has broken into the top 10. In other words, we’re creating new stuff, but it remains slightly less relevant than the average work in the historical repertoire.

New composers feel the burden of operatic innovation, but are seemingly very confused about what to do with it. With such a huge legacy, and the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini effectively being their competition, contemporary composers are trained to pursue the cutting edge of musical and dramatic invention, but they’re not reaching the hearts of regular human beings in opera. Why? Why are these brilliant people not finding their way into people’s hearts outside of popular culture?

We believe it’s because they’re on the edge of an enormous black hole called Postmodernist Deconstructivism.


Ariel from The Tempest, by Thomas Adès.

While slavish adherence to tradition harms the opera specifically, there’s another major blight that’s infecting all the arts: Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theory, or Wokism. CSJ is the active strand of Postmodernism whose tenets are that reality is unknowable, that human nature and objective standards do not exist, that understanding and peace between different (identity) groups are impossible, and that language alone constructs reality.The side effects of this philosophy are the beliefs that: everything can be broken down into disparate parts, and animosity is to be found everywhere. Full disclosure: we are very much against this worldview and will be ruthless when dealing with it – though we have compassion for most of those who are trapped in it. Our criticisms of the ideology must not be confused with attacks on all of its adherents. Many of these are our friends, after all!

CSJ and its framing of the world as a binary hierarchy between victim and oppressor has vehement adherents emerging all across Canada’s arts scene. More and more, the dominant view in the operatic circuit is about demanding the “righting of historical wrongs” rather than (what we like to call) “things for humans.” This attitude is infecting new companies and established entities alike. Organizations are releasing reams of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion statements which declare that the problem is that opera is too “white, elitist, and Eurocentric,” and that the “violence” that opera has perpetrated on visible minorities must be addressed.

The…violence that opera has perpetrated…on the people…who don’t see it…

The standard terms are paraded about – BIPOC, IBPOC, and LGBTQ2S++, while artists draw attention to minorities and the lack of “representation” in large scale productions across the country. In a previous draft we included the relevant websites, but we thought it more prudent to abstain for two reasons: 1) we don’t want to promote Wokism and 2) we don’t want to indict our friends and peers (more on this below). A cursory web search will yield all the Woke mission statements you could ever want.


While we’ll leave the full philosophical litigation of CSJ to the experts (Counterweight’s own Helen Pluckrose prime among them) there are specific problems with regards to opera that we’d like to examine.

CLAIM: The under-representation of minorities in opera indicates underlying bigotry.

Una Vela! Esultate! from Otello, by Verdi.

In a tiny number of houses in a pocket of Europe there have been some credible allegations of discrimination in the name of historical accuracy. Not in Canada though. Here the arts industries are scrambling to hire more “diverse” performers. Let’s do some number crunching though.

The opera is at once shrinking and expanding: there are fewer productions, and fewer performances per production per company, than there were 40 years ago and there are orders of magnitude more trained performers. Add to this Canada’s demography: according to StatsCan, black individuals make up less than 5% of Canada’s population; ditto for Hispanic/Latino, Asian, etc. Canada is approximately 75% white. We take no pleasure in these calculations, but we have to be thorough and look at the data.

Even when ignoring cultural resistance to arts involvement that comes along with some ethnic groups, what we’re really looking at is a numbers game. In our experience, maybe 3 out of 10 self-proclaimed artists are truly professional-grade hire-worthy (and this is an optimistic figure); while it’s a very painful reality for all us struggling out there, it is the reality (and this says nothing about the amount of available contracts, which is significantly less than the available talent).

If 75% of your candidates come from Column A and 5% come from Column B and 5% from Column C… it’s not difficult to see the outcome. The number of minorities[5] getting involved is increasing though, as second and third generation families become acclimatized to “Western” mores; we’ve seen these changes already, and we predict that, even with a hands-off approach, we’re going to see even bigger changes in available demographics in five years or so (though there may be even fewer jobs if the trends don’t turn around).

So, if it’s true that certain groups are underrepresented, is bigotry really the most logical characterization? No.

Largo al Factotem from The Barber of Seville, by Rossini.

Another challenge is that musical artists from classical schools are not trained to think creatively – an acute problem in classical music, but a growing problem in all the humanities (see Cynical Theories). They’re trained to obey. While we know plenty of restive singers who bristle beneath the bloat of the academy, they know that there are twenty singers on their heels. This is yet another blow to innovation: in the Anglo-Canadian arts industries everyone is considered replaceable. Agents and bureaucrats are at the top of the heap here, which isn’t to say they aren’t nice people, but performers are largely regarded as expendable. Such is the danger of not having an entrenched star system with a concomitant culture of deep arts appreciation. The operatic circuit is a little more star oriented here, though very few local singers, if any, are household names.


Additionally, all the innovation that is going on is speeding off in the wrong direction with plots that are more Woke, music that’s designed to disrupt and discommode, pieces being translated into languages that are barely represented in the general population, and subverting exciting plots into cynical commentary on the evils of colonialism, men, and white people.

And we’re not even saying there shouldn’t be an opera in a native language spoken by a minute fraction of the world’s population, but far-left attitudes towards non-Western cultures anoint them as sacrosanct, and you’re just as likely to be accused of fetishizing or appropriating for attending their operatic productions as of being a bigot for not. For a glimpse of how some prominent IBPOC theatre artists think, here’s Yolanda Bonnell in Vice Magazine: “…to decolonize art and foster culturally informed criticism, I [request] that only Indigenous, Black, people of color review the show,” and, “…we are totally fine with a person of color giving us a bad review,” and “white folks do not understand what it is like to walk through the world as a person of color…constantly inundated with whiteness…,” and, “the more work we do in decolonizing and dismantling these structures, the more power we will find.”

Wooooow! Strap on those sneakers, and let’s check this show out!

Or would you rather check out of this show?

Der Hölle Rache, from The Magic Flute by Mozart.

From the tremulous and patronizing land acknowledgements where casts are coerced to apologize for “stealing land,” to the tedious cataloguing of pronouns, to the endless droning statements of inclusion, we could decry until your eyes bled, but behind the whingeing of the dilettantes and the dispossessed is a deeper, more pervasive, but less visible problem: the rejection of human nature, and the attendant oxymoronic misanthropy.

While Critical Social Justice theory preaches paranoia and enumerates the differences between groups of people (because the individual does not exist to them), what they miss (and despise) is that there are things that are universal to humans. Love. Honour. Duty. Freedom. Justice. Hope. Family. Faith. Loyalty. If you’re left-leaning like we are, you can probably feel something uncomfortable stirring within: “these capital letter notions are the province of mystical thinking and only lead to division!”

We, too, grapple with the Postmodern meaning vacuum: we’ve been able to obviate the No-Nos attached to “mythical” thinking by exploring meaning through our work, but for many of us, there’s no meaning left on the table, and no way to find it. We believe it’s time to accept that most human beings crave meaning which is attached to something larger than themselves. The statistics on loneliness are astonishing. We saw one poll that suggested up to 22% of Americans 18 and older have no friends (YouGovAmerica). This “people are an island…but are groups…but…” has to end.

We have two examples to illustrate, in microcosm, the outcomes of using opera against humans, rather than for them. Both are from the Canadian Opera Company (COC). We don’t mean to pick on them because we’re very fond of them, but they’re a big boy, and they can take it. Both of these examples illustrate the dehumanizing (and de-personing) inclinations of CSJ.

Act I Finale from Turandot, by Puccini.

The Old: the COC’s 2019 production of Puccini’s incredible Turandot. This is an opera distilled from a Mongolian legend about the daughter of Kaidu, a second cousin of Kublai Khan, who refused to wed until a man beat her in combat; as the legend tells it, no one ever did, and she rode alongside her father to battle instead. The story passed to Persia and then underwent some Sinification where Turandot was changed into an imperious Chinese princess with an icy disposition who gives out that she will only marry the man who can answer three riddles, and if he fails…death!

Puccini opens this story with a father and son being reunited in Peking after their kingdom is overthrown, and all this while attending the beheading of a failed suitor! A beheading! In the first ten minutes! The music of this opera is worthy of an epic: dense, sweeping strings carve out a river of melody and theme, while the brass rages above in a storm of ineluctable fate! From moments of crushing tenderness and beauty to passages of defiant heroism, the score is life changing.

The COC hired director Robert Wilson for the project, who is renowned for his avant-garde (read: deconstructivist) approach. To his credit, the mise-en-scene and costuming looked beautiful. Opera Canada sums up his influence succinctly: “on the whole, Wilson’s genius lay in his driving a clean wedge between his aesthetic innovations and the musical prowess of the original score.”

Driving a…wedge?

Of the show the official program says: “…Robert Wilson’s signature style embraces…precise, repeated gestures executed in hypnotic slow-motion…” And this is exactly what he did: the performers were meticulously directed to perform unrelated, repetitive motions with the goal being to divorce the audience from the visual, so they could hear the music.

Deconstruction at its height. As if separating stimuli makes for a better or more comprehensive experience. While we understand that certain humans prefer to have their stimuli separated for analysis (and there is real use for people who can do this), for most of us, experiences are multisensory phenomena, and the more senses, the better. Again, we mean no disrespect to Mr. Wilson whose illustrious career commands reverence: we’re sure he’s a capital fellow, but we disagree with his view of the species. As Hamlet says, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” And he’s right.


While the critics largely praised this show for its technical undertakings, there hasn’t been much talk of a moving visceral experience amongst the viewership. But Puccini is a master, and so perhaps it was the score that rescued the show from complete failure. But what about a show without a Puccini?

Plotina’s Aria from Hadrian, by MacIvor and Wainwright.

The New: The COC’s 2018 production of an original opera called Hadrian. (It’s difficult to track down extended footage of this, but we’ve included a sample of a tamer moment.) The COC commissioned the opera and engaged the writing talents of legendary Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, and the musical musings of Rufus Wainwright, with the world renowned baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role.

The story is a dreamscape exploration of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s love of a young man amidst a court displeased with his predilections. Again, while we applaud the use of English for the book, and commend the talents of the artists involved – all powerhouses of creativity, from voice, to performance, to musicianship, to design, to wardrobe etc. – the show was a deconstructed nightmare of incoherence and confusion. The score and the singers seemed to fight with each other to the point that world class singers were barely audible. There was no discernible melody. The story was fractured by intermittent flashbacks wherein one was never certain whether one was in the now or the then.

Thomas Hampson was absolutely wasted on stream of consciousness dialogue set to orchestral barking. It was impossible to connect with the characters because the score and orchestration (expertly arranged though they were) seemed to want to punish the audience rather than invite it. The parts people did proclaim to enjoy were notable only because there was an identifiable key in the music, and the chaos subsided long enough to hear a voice that wasn’t screaming. It’s akin to finding a shock from a carpet relaxing after being strapped in the chair all day.

Here again, we see deconstruction at its most absolute. In our estimation, this production is what an SNL (pre-woke) sketch about a new opera would look like. The real heartbreak here isn’t just the millions of squandered dollars, or the disappointed and alienated audience, or the inevitable demoralization for the creatives, but that there was a really good story in it. Ostensibly an “LGBT+” story, there’s actually a tale of forbidden love at the core that could easily make it in the mainstream. Imagine: a powerful Emperor who controls the world, but can’t control his desires, and must decide between his duty and his heart, all while being surrounded by a hawkish general, a disappointed mother, and a confused wife who all endeavour to separate him from his beau for the good of the nation. If you put a story like this to even the most humble of memorable melodies, you have an international hit.

But why? Why was it that Daniel MacIvor and Rufus Wainwright missed it? Why did it happen like this? Why do some of our best and brightest keep veering farther in the wrong direction when 80% of North Americans are tired of what has essentially erupted as Critical Social Justice theory, opera-style?[6] Well…


Au Fond du Temple Saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, by Bizet

Ticket sales in the fine arts (ballet and opera) have declined considerably: by about 40% over the last four decades. Over the same period, Canadian universities have added and expanded programs for operatic training. Every year, we estimate that approximately 200 students enroll as classical singers in Canadian Universities. Just to give you an idea of what kinds of opportunities there are, we estimate that there are about eight full time Canadian opera singers making a reasonable living, spread over twenty roles annually. Eight singers take the top twenty positions!

This divide between training and employment is a troublesome trend for Western countries, even outside of opera, as 35-50% of post grads are in non-graduate jobs. But we suspect this figure is even higher for professional artists. To give you a taste of the fabled and much feted Bohemian lifestyle: in film/TV, as a principal performer (not background/supernumerary), if you make $35,000 or above a year you’re in the top 5% of earners in ACTRA (film and television union, where at least 21% of respondents make zero dollars)[7], and we estimate that if you make over $10,000 per year as an opera singer, you’re likely in the top 1% of the Canadian industry.

Hebrew Chorus from Nabucco, by Verdi.

And what do these poor artists turn to with their mountains of debt? Critical Social Justice theory. There are many reasons why this authoritarian viewpoint appeals to those who embrace it – a litany we’ll leave to the pros in the psychological literature – but what we see on the inside is this: “eat the rich,” crush the debt, quash the regular Joe job, live in ease and splendor as a world-renowned creative. A delusion so absolute it can’t help but elicit pity.

We’re critical of Wokism because it will, without a doubt, put our industry into a permanent sleep, but we’re also very compassionate about the difficulties faced by our peers. These artists are educated in heavily structured and immersive microcosms focused on Rousseauian ideals of self-expression without any sensitivity to real world practice, only to be thrust into a career marathon that is financially damning in a world that’s devoid of opportunity and is getting fed up with self-indulgent moralizers. Add to all this various curricula infected with an intellectual tradition that rejects objective reality and human nature, and which suggests that life is a zero-sum game between groups, and it’s no wonder so many artists and youth are at once gripped by egregious entitlement and existential dread.

We have solutions. The first we address to the artists, our friends:

A) We must understand that we aren’t owed anything.

We’ll speak from experience: once we accepted this, helpful things started to happen: i) we stopped being angry because we realized we had no actual enemies (outside of ourselves), and ii) because we were able to stop thinking about what we were owed, we were able to let go of ineffective strategies, like making war with everything. Now that we’ve stopped punishing everyone, this has made our work not only more palatable and more interesting, but more fun.

B) Ask yourself: why do opera?

What is it about opera that separates it from other disciplines? What is it that people like? If your answer resembles “changing the world through activism,” or “because it’s better,” you’re in the wrong game.

The second solution we address to society at large: we must begin creating new incentives for realistic employment while finding a fair and efficient way to limit student debt. No longer can we tell children “if you work hard enough, and if you put your mind to it, you can be anything!” without adding “but statistically, that’s pretty improbable.” While debt may seem like a “shouldn’t have wasted money on gender studies” problem, we assert that the debtors are forming a formidable voting bloc, that they feel aggrieved, that they want to tear everything down, and that they may very well one day vote away freedom for security. This is a problem that affects us all.

How does one balance negating the Dunning-Kruger effect (we’re not as cool as we think we are) that’s so rampant in the West with the necessity of giving people hope and a reason to apply themselves? Putting more emphasis on everyday vocations (as we have during the COVID-19 pandemic) could be an answer, but this is the question we need to start addressing now for the generations of tomorrow.

Speaking of debt: where do these companies get their money?


Overture to La Gazza Ladra, by Rossini.

Revenues are dwindling in the operatic world (The Toronto Star recently declared that the COC has managed to stay in the black…because of parking fees and bar concessions…). We can imagine the questions: if opera’s so expensive, and new works are no more popular than the average canon work, how is opera managing to exist at all? And how can we claim that works based in CSJ are not popular when they seem to exist all over the media?

Opera is subsidized mainly by the government and donations from wealthy patrons. The Canadian Association for the Performing Arts says that, on average, 60% of funding for small to mid-sized companies and productions comes from the government. The big companies average about 30% – though, to be fair to the COC, 14% of their budget is from grants. Only 24% is derived from the box office. But let’s be explicit in saying that the arts have always been subsidized by wealthy patrons or guilds; only since mass literacy and disposable capital have artists been able to become the mega wealthy. We don’t contest the subsidizing of art – it’s necessary so that the spectator doesn’t have to pay the full price of a ticket.

What does the government want in return for its resources? Here’s part of the mission statement from the Canada Council of the Arts: “We see our approach to supporting equity in the arts as an issue of inclusion…of building the sustainability of the arts in Canada…it must be intrinsically tied to advancing diversity within the professional arts sector…” Sound familiar, and largely meaningless? This comes from the keynote address from the Council’s 2016 opening gala – you’ll find the speech drenched in all the expected word soup. And here’s one of the main questions from the grant application itself: “If your proposed activity touches upon Indigenous traditional knowledge, linguistic or cultural intellectual property, please describe your relationship to this content and how appropriate protocols are/will be observed or addressed.” (Italics ours.) We’re compelled to ask: would we be as comfortable if the government asked us if we’re properly observing or addressing the appropriate protocols when dealing with Mozart?

The Ontario Arts Council has specific grants for indigenous and culturally diverse projects, and yet their priority groups for all grants are as follows: “Artists of Colour, Deaf Artists and Artists with Disabilities, Indigenous Artists, Francophone Artists, New Generation Artists (30 and under), and Artists living in Regions outside Toronto” (italics ours). The Ottawa Arts Council just announced an Emerging Artist Award that can only be claimed by IBPOC when over 75% of Canada’s capital is white identifying. The granting bodies have even gone so far as to recommend that one of the authors indicates a bisexual status on an application because it will “improve your chances.” We don’t hold the granting officer accountable for this – the officer is just trying to help.

Many of these “priority groups” have to do with identity. We love how generous our government is; however, is awarding money to projects based on the race or ability status of the recipient really the most effective way of encouraging innovation or audience interest? One must always ask: what incentives are we creating? We think it’s pretty obvious what the incentives are, which is why we’re seeing artists and organizations clamber over each other to be the most woke. Even the famous Stratford Shakespearean Festival has issued a harrowing and self-loathing mea culpa on supporting “systemic racism” while headings like “truth and reconciliation” ominously adorn nearly every AGM report in the country.


Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre, by Wagner.

1. We as Canadians have to encourage the government to dispense with priority groups and replace them instead with markers for success like audience engagement, artistic milestones, cross-market appeal, and damn good stories and music. Yes, keep the experimental threads, and yes, be forgiving of the occasional commercial failure, but do not reward immutable characteristics. Reward character. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on arts funding annually (over 270 million is the benchmark for the coming year owing to how punishing Covid has been), and these are your taxes: we think it’s only fair that they be disbursed in such a fashion that no one is precluded from, or shamed for, enjoying their fruits. When it comes to supporting the arts: let your wallet do the talking. Don’t waste your money on the art of identity.


This will, by default, select for artists who are interested in creating stories made for human enjoyment. And, we predict, it will ultimately serve the “priority groups” better because work that targets a larger audience will bring their visions to more people.

2. Be vocal with arts organizations. If you feel like you’re being condescended to or insulted, let the organization know and, conversely, let them know what you liked! Audience support is their heavenly manna and these organizations will listen or they will die. You can send a politely worded email or you can even be proactive and tell them what you would go to see. It’s unfortunate that the Woke crowd is also the one that fills out the most surveys and engages publicly the most frequently (in our experience) so that companies get an inaccurate sense of what people like. In fact, generally get in the habit of doing surveys and offering feedback on as many things as you can – and recruit your friends to do the same. Not just for the arts, but for anything.

3. Do a quick website dive to see a company’s mission statement. If you see the familiar mantras, don’t attend. This one hurts because in a way we’re taking the audience away from our peers who are struggling to get something off the ground, but sometimes some ideas serve everyone best by being left underfoot.

4. Support independent productions. While these will seldom operate at the scale of the big houses, here is where you’ll see artists untethered from the slow, cumbersome machinery of boards, big budgets, and bloat. They’re nimble, fresh with passion, and they’re always where the next big thing happens first. Success here brings them to the big houses. These performances also tend to be more intimate, and the creators are much easier to interact with directly. While you’ll certainly encounter broad fluctuations in quality, you can also have more direct input, and can participate via your feedback in the development of tomorrow’s successes.

And, if you’re sitting in a show and thinking about your To Do list…

5. Never be afraid to leave at intermission. Our friends would club us for this, but it’s true. We urge respect for performers but, if it’s just too much to bear, leave. The organization will notice, it will come up at their AGMs, and it will make them reshuffle their programming.

6. Interested in acting now? A few colleagues will be putting together a website that lists independent opera productions around Canada’s major cities. Even if you’re not Canadian, keep an eye out because many of these will be streaming. The site is still in development, but if you want to receive a notification e-mail when it’s up and running, head to and sign up!

Finale, from Aida, by Verdi.


At the end of this winding journey you might be wondering: is there something worth saving? Yes. Opera changes you, and if you’ve been following along with our playlist, you’ll have heard what we’re talking about.

As was said by the great Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who revolutionized another Italian artform (cuisine!),: “we cannot look sentimentally to the past; we have to look critically, bringing the best of the past forward.” So, that’s what we suggest: we bring the best of the past forward, and leave the rest behind.

Or…we continue with our current plot as we approach the final act and the cis, body-positive, able, female-identifying Soprano is about to sing…

Then, it’s curtains.

Calaf is a singer, pianist, composer, dancer, writer, and overall bleeding heart. He should probably learn some martial arts or something… & Mephistopheles is a singer, impresario, writer, and actor with too much free time on hand. “Idle hands…” as they say…

  1. The “break a leg” of the Opera.
  2. In both the public at large and especially in parents resisting it in schools.
  3. A translation projected above the stage. Invented by the Canadian Opera Company in the 1990s.
  4. There are a few companies in Toronto who insist that pieces are performed in English, many of which are run by a veteran impresario, Guillermo Silva-Marin. These are: Toronto Operetta Theatre, Summer Operatic Lyric Theatre, and Opera In Concert. He’s been an asset to the community for decades and has provided wonderful opportunities for developing talent.
  5. For the record, we strongly disapprove of this word, and question its usefulness. There are no monoliths.
  6. Derived from polls on weariness towards political correctness.
  7. 2019 ACTRA Census Report.


A somewhat tatty beige paper card still lies in a drawer somewhere in my basement. My original Labour Party membership card has survived four decades and several house moves. The lower half of the card reproduces the original Clause IV of the party constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry…upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Classic prose, but it was never literally what the party intended to implement and Tony Blair replaced it while still in opposition with a less dreamy, though more realistic, statement of aims. The modern equivalent speaks, rather more blandly but somehow more realistically, of creating a community in which ‘power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few’.

The year was 1980 and I was turning 17. The previous year Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives had swept the minority Labour government from power and begun the breakup of the post-war social democratic consensus. As a believer in social justice, it felt very natural for me to join Labour. Every piece of equalities legislation had been enacted under a Labour government. I became active in the local party, campaigning in local and general elections and of course setting myself up for the pain and disappointment that followed, shared by anyone on the British left, and amusingly described by John O’Farrell in his 1998 anecdotal Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter.

Although at the time viscerally opposed to everything that Thatcher accomplished I have since forced myself to undertake a more dispassionate analysis of the positives and the negatives. Among my left-wing friends these efforts have not always been well received. Attempts to talk to those with a tribalist mindset are often unsuccessful and lead to suspicions of character. In such an environment one is no longer optimising for truth, but for the acceptability of an argument.

I did of course enthusiastically welcome the arrival into office of Blair’s New Labour in 1997 and the dramatic increase in the female representation in Parliament. The all-women shortlist policy of Labour during the 1992-97 Parliament had a profound and irreversible effect. The Blair government gave prominent positions to women, members of ethnic minority backgrounds, and had in David Blunkett the first disabled Cabinet minister.

Since 2010 Labour has been once more in opposition, but this Conservative government has a different face. To his credit, David Cameron piloted the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 through Parliament, which on a free vote split the Tories fairly evenly but was carried easily on overwhelming Labour and Liberal Democrat support. The ethnic makeup of the MPs on the Tory benches was unmistakeably changed, and with the election of Theresa May in 2016, David Cameron could at his final parliamentary questions taunt Labour that his party had gone “two-nil up” in the female leader count.

It is therefore less obvious that Labour is the clear choice for those who value fairness and equality of opportunity. Labour, and the left more generally, has not reacted well to having to oppose a governing party with non-trivial numbers of MPs from ethnic minorities on its benches and within the government. With the reintroduction of Sajid Javid into the Cabinet as Health Secretary during the current health crisis, three of the top five positions in the UK government are held by members of racial minorities. Further non-white MPs occupy more junior positions, including the extraordinarily eloquent Kemi Badenoch, whose dismantling of the arguments for ‘decolonizing’ the school curriculum in the House of Commons in October 2020 made for viral viewing. The response on the left is often unpleasant and bears the unmistakable undertones of perceived betrayal, as if Labour were somehow ‘entitled’ to certain people’s votes based on their ethnicity. All politicians must remember – the people owe them only the respect and credibility they can inspire by their own actions.

I stuck with Labour throughout the Brexit period because I viewed the referendum question as dubious, without a clear explanation of what would realistically be the outcome of such a dramatic change. Without wanting to re-fight the Brexit debate here, I was deeply suspicious of any claim that the withdrawal deal that was eventually agreed on was something that the population would have supported against the single competing alternative of remaining in the EU. Even at the December 2019 election I was pounding on doors in the winter rain and early nightfall in the vain hope of depriving Boris Johnson’s Tories of the ability to inflict what I saw as unprecedented self-harm onto the country. In the leadership election that followed Labour’s colossal defeat, the party once more spurned the chance to elect a female leader, despite the fact that all the main candidates, barring the one that won, was a woman.

The Brexit fox is now shot, and Labour has to think of something else to talk about. The nonsense of its position on race and gender issues is what has finally moved me to sever my connections. Two moments are key.

In March of this year the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, set up the previous year in response to the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, published its report. Leaving aside some unfortunate phrasing about the mixed legacy of empire, the report highlighted many examples of racial disparities in the UK, none more shocking than the finding that young black men are 24 times more likely to die through homicide than their white counterparts. However, in its introduction, the report, while of course acknowledging the continued presence of racial prejudice in the country, rejected the notion that the UK is ‘systemically racist’.

This is obviously an immediate disqualification from credibility for anyone who accepts the key tenets of Critical Social Justice (CSJ). CSJ teaches that all human interactions are governed entirely by membership of dominant or marginalised groups and that these have deterministic qualities related to success. People who believe simplistically and uncritically in the notion of white privilege are going to have difficulty accepting the ability of non-white people to rise above their disadvantages and make the best of their lives. Their whole philosophy requires this to be impossible and this can lead them into the pursuit of a self-fulfilling prophecy which trashes the legacy of the gains that have been made by black and pro-black campaigners in the last fifty years.

Labour do not have to take this self-defeating attitude, and I am not saying that all of its members do. But the influence of CSJ in its ranks is clear. It would have been a more constructive anti-racist position to swallow the uncomfortable portrayal of Britain as a basically decent society, focus on the report’s recommendations, and hold the government’s feet to the fire in implementing them. But the big problem with the report for the CSJ-orientated is that most of its proposals are not even couched in racial terms. An enduring theme of the report is to highlight a racial disparity and then propose a non-racial way of tackling it, one that assists single mothers, or low-income families, or urban youth, without reference to their race. The report proposes other more significant determiners of outcome in our country than race – such as geography and class. This is very unwelcome to the CSJ campaigners because these groupings are not immutable and do not fit within the oppressor-oppressed power group schema. Within the CSJ pantheon of oppression, the neglect of class is the most conspicuous differentiator from the traditional left-wing societal critique.

The report’s other crime is to question the wisdom of thinking of black and minority ethnic people as a homogenous group. It points out the difference in educational outcomes between black Caribbean and black African schoolchildren, the latter of which are easily outperforming white children. A similar story could be told about the patterns of homeownership between Asians of Pakistani and Indian heritage, who stand at opposite ends of the spectrum with white people between them. All of this is ‘problematic’, to use the CSJ cult’s own phrase, and they do not wish to have to confront the disconfirming evidence against the reductionist identity-based oppression model put forward by Critical Social Justice concepts of the world. Until they are willing to expand their current philosophical stock and recognise the greater complexity of social reality, Labour are simply not equipped to tackle questions of social equality in a way that will convince enough people who care about social equality to vote for them.

I am equally dismayed by Labour’s simplistic position on the complex issues surrounding the rights of transgender individuals. I respect anyone’s right to live as they choose, to dress as they choose, to identify as they please and I will use their preferred speech forms. But as expounded in Kathleen Stock’s brilliant work Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, there are conflicts between accepting trans women as women in every situation and preserving women’s rights which urgently need to be resolved through thoughtful and practical negotiation in a spirit of problem-solving. Labour has not grasped the nettle. The feminist movement is divided as to what extent a male to female transitioner can be regarded as a woman. Labour has so far sided with those who assert that there is no difference between cis and transgender women. They seem to have taken on the belief that being male or female is something one is ‘assigned at birth’ rather than determined at conception, with frontbench spokesperson Dawn Butler once stating on live TV that “babies are born without sex”. Are they happy for male prisoners, including those convicted of sexual offences, to self-declare as women before sentencing in order to be sent to women’s prisons, for women’s sports to be accessible to individuals who benefited from the strength and bulk gains of male puberty, for women’s toilets and changing rooms to be accessible by anybody who identifies as a woman? It seems that they are.

Thus, the second and decisive moment in my decision to leave Labour was Keir Starmer’s announcement at the Pink News Awards 2020 that Labour would reform the Gender Recognition Act to accept self-identification with no requirements for official diagnosis of gender dysphoria or to live for a qualifying period in the acquired gender. This happened at the same time as the rights of gays and lesbians to define themselves as attracted to people of the same biological sex are coming under attack, with lesbians in particular facing ostracism for declining sexual relations with people with male bodies who identify as women. Quite apart from the inherent repulsiveness of allowing anyone to feel pressured into having sex with another individual that they would prefer not to for any reason that might be real to them, this is only a logical consequence of changing the definition of ‘lesbian’ from ‘a woman who is attracted to other women’ to ‘a person with female gender identity who is attracted to other people of female gender identity.’ This approach has been favoured by the Stonewall charity, once giants in the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but who now appear to have realigned themselves in support of a particular form of transgender activism which again does not allow for the complexities of reality or the different values and beliefs among transgender people. Stonewall are explicitly campaigning for changes to the law to protect male to female transitioners from charges of sex by deception. In other words, Stonewall says that transgender people should be allowed, under privacy considerations, to initiate a sexual relationship with a lesbian while claiming to be of the same sex: indeed by Stonewall’s definition, they are.

Labour, if they have a problem with any of this, have so far failed to make it known.

My email to the party resigning my membership was acknowledged, with a polite request for an explanation. I obliged with a shorter version of the reasoning I have given here.

Where am I now? Do I still consider myself to be ‘on the left’? Possibly I do, but more important than my position on the left-right spectrum is my adherence to liberalism in a general sense. A liberal is one who believes in reason, progress, the scientific method and debate. We believe the truth is ‘out there’ and will never accept the quasi-religious determinism of the mixture of bastardised Marxist and postmodern philosophy that underlies Critical Social Justice. We recognise the existence, and the limits, of agency. A liberal acknowledges that disadvantage exists but believes in the possibility of minority groups progressing towards equality and sharing in the benefits of the wider society, and campaigns to this end. Liberals optimise for truth, accept that no one has all the answers and do not insulate themselves from debate on the grounds that they or someone else could feel offended or ‘unsafe’. Liberals treat people like adults, they accept and demand co-responsibility with their fellow citizens for their actions. They believe in people.

And from now on that is the corner in which I will stand.

Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.
 -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I was getting comfortable in my home office when the yelling started. It sounded like it was right outside my door, but everything sounds loud in our community, a popular walking neighborhood. The sounds of the neighborhood are typically ones of carefree carousing. Couples laughing. Dogs barking. Bicycle bells ringing. All often punctuated with the sound of a woodpecker or more commonly the coo of a dove. This staccato interruption was an exception, but I was busy and chalked it up as an anomaly and carried on.

A few minutes later and just as I was about to start recording a podcast, I heard yelling again. This simply wouldn’t do for a recording. Now I had to investigate. I went to the front window to find a white hatchback screeching away as a woman yelled, “people are dying.” That was curious, but there is a mental hospital not too far away and every now and again a patient breaches their walls, usually without keys to a car, but I was on a deadline and didn’t have time to give it any more attention.

Allow me to rewind for a second before continuing this story. Back in July 2016 there was an ambush that killed five police officers and wounded nine others in Dallas. On that day, my husband, a law enforcement officer (LEO) himself, bought a blue line flag to honor the fallen. We have had it hung outside our house, next to our American flag, since then. At this time, under President Obama, the flag was innocuous. A symbol of support as well as respect for fallen LEOs.

As a new administration came into office, this symbolism shifted.

Almost overnight, the original symbolism was hijacked—by those on both sides of our political spectrum. The extreme right saw it as a symbol of Trump support and the extreme left fashioned it as a beacon of the new “stars and bars” (i.e., Confederate flag) and a symbol of racism. It was a tense four years for our flag. She was stolen (and replaced). She was dumped in our fishpond. She was slashed down her middle. But she remained.

What started as a symbol of respect and mourning for five police in Dallas, became political even in our own home. Not that her meaning changed for my husband, but as the public square turned its anger towards the police, my husband became hardened. Here was a man, who for half of his 28 years of service and counting, protected the streets and the people of a large and violent southern metropolis, and mostly those who had more melanin than himself. He was stabbed, shot at, and run over, and he continues to serve. I will never forget the evening that this man, who is not well-versed in emotion, a drink or two working its way through his stocky frame, with watery eyes saying he couldn’t understand how the people he once protected now likened him to the vile Ku Klux Klan.

It was like the world turned around and dumped on his lifetime of service in a poorly maintained public restroom where the scat of humanity clogs the drain. He didn’t know how to not make it personal. And so, like the rest of the world, he increasingly became angry. The angrier he got the more the symbol of the flag morphed into one of defiance.

We don’t agree on a lot, including the flag. Often our own discussions reflect the heated moment of our current national discourse. But like the flag, we remain. I even had to take a breather after the George Floyd murder when I suggested that perhaps the flag could use a rest from decorating our porch. The perceived betrayal that I saw reflected in his eyes was too much. It was like his one safe harbor was just bulldozed, and I had joined the demolition team.

Fast-forward a few years, but still not to our current cacophony. Our house was chosen for our historic neighborhood’s annual home tour. We agreed, but with the caveat that we wouldn’t take down our flags. The Trump administration sat in office and the flag had become politicized, but it still hadn’t reached the level of stigma that it holds today. The home tour curators shrugged their shoulders, not seeing an issue.

The day of the tour came. Although volunteers dotted our house to show visitors around, I chose to hang out. I only left for a short time to visit some of the other homes, but my timing was off. While away, she came. Accosting the unsuspecting volunteers, she condemned them for spreading fear in our “hood”. “I live here too”, she proclaimed. And living in a community with an LEO was frightening.

Apparently, it was so frightening to this young, affluent pale-skinned woman that she decided to lodge a complaint with our neighborhood association, asking for an apology for putting our home on the tour.

And now I bring you back to the screaming banshee. As professed, I chalked her up as an escaped mental patient. The next morning, as I headed across my lawn for the first time in twenty-four hours for a highly anticipated brunch, I noticed a collection of trash within the fence. Trash pick-up was just the day before and sometimes this happens as the winds blow debris into our corner lot. It was a bit more than normal, so instead of ignoring it until later, I decided to address it immediately. It has been quite dreary lately, so I blamed the weather for the unusual collection.

In addition to a collection of cups, an empty wrapper lay under the flag. Picking it up I noticed it was a pork rinds bag. I normally wouldn’t think anything of this either, but aren’t pork and police synonymous in some circles?

After our various flag trespasses, we had installed security cameras for our own safety (never mind that we sleep with a fire extinguisher next to our bed or my husband has to vary his routes home so those canvassing his office don’t follow him to find his personal abode). After a little investigation we identified the litterer. Now the pieces started to fall into place. Our suspect, as caught on camera, was also the screamer. As I sat inside interviewing the Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, our own rights were being violated.

Let me get real here for a second. I get it. As a firm proponent of liberalism, I promote free speech and protest. You can yell at me and my house all day long. You do you. If I was outside, I would’ve invited this woman into conversation, much like I invited the anonymous home tour protestor into conversation through the association. But I can’t help but wonder, if I were sitting here on the porch as I am now, would this woman have the courage to scream profanities at my house? Was this a safe space for expressing her daily angst, screaming at what seemed to be an unoccupied home? Is this how we dialogue these days?

From the camera footage, we could clearly tell that she recorded her rant. I use that word deliberately—when you throw trash and scream falsities into the air that qualifies as a rant. Although to be honest, people are indeed dying, but as much or more so as a result of this insanity and profanity as racist tropes. In 2019 police killed 11 unarmed black men and one female. In the same year, 48 police were killed as the result of felonious acts. We won’t even go into the rising crime rates in 2020. And yet, this young woman’s virtuous social media post will likely hold more weight than the carefully curated numbers of authors like Wilfred Reilly, who has an unnatural passion for crunching data.

All the while, somewhere, someone who is vulnerable is calling my husband for help. But LEO numbers are dwindling, as the dominant narrative increasingly makes the profession a liability. Will they make it there in time?

Calling out abuses in any organization with authority is necessary. Foundational to our democracy even. We must persist in this pursuit. But how we do it matters if we are to keep our social contract intact.

Demonizing and hijacking symbols doesn’t bring us closer to this ideal. The littering of empty pork rind bags doesn’t build empathy. Yelling into the void for your own audience doesn’t build bridges.

And so the flag, with all her knife wounds, remains. Not as a symbol of hate, but instead, for me, as an invitation for conversation. In defense of freedom of speech, both of unhinged rants and uncomfortable truths that must be addressed, if we are to walk forward into the future as neighbors.

Jennifer Richmond is the founder of Truth in Between and the host of the Hold my Drink podcast. Her forthcoming book of letters on race with W.F. Twyman, Jr. will be published later in 2021. She is in constant search for context and connection through correspondence and conversation.

For many people, a union meeting conjures up images of flat-capped miners around an oil drum full of burning wood. The reality is that our industry primarily contains those who are self-employed on short-term contracts but paid standardised rates – so the political viewpoint swerves wildly depending on what’s going wrong for who. While those with left-of-centre views have always been safe in voicing such views within a traditionally leftist union, there had been no obvious intrusion of identity politics or critical theory until recently, and I’d have only vaguely recognised the terms.

My education in the field began in a function room at a pub off the Old Kent Road in early 2020. I was listening to a woman I’d known for ninety seconds tell me about her gynaecological problems. Still, Miss Overshare was new to the organisation, and as a twenty-year veteran, I wanted to extend the olive branch. Also, she was next to the best-stocked part of the buffet. As I tried not to drop crumbs on my shirt, she complained of dysmenorrhoea and the necessity of breaks every two hours to deal with personal hygiene. I sympathised vaguely between corn chips but found it difficult to stomach any more of the chunky red pepper and tomato dip.

That day, Overshare subjected us to strident and inaccurate diatribes on employment law, arguing with union specialists of tremendous experience who work with the advice of legal professionals. As a junior worker with no specialist expertise, she argued that the union’s failure to adopt her misinterpretation of the law was misogynistic. I was shocked by her vehemence, quickness to anger, and the religious intensity with which she held clearly counterfactual views. I was not alone but left feeling uneasy – not because of what she’d said, but because senior people had failed to control it as they usually would.

Subsequent meetings saw repeat performances and highly charged accusations of misogyny and prejudice. These were never questioned. I was comforted, though, that everyone else seemed to find her as caustic as I did. Privately-expressed opinions included “she’s a f****** nightmare”, “completely poisonous”, and, memorably, “a one-track mind and the train’s late”.

“Caustic,” incidentally, was her proud self-description. “I know I’m caustic, but…”

Inevitably, it came to a head during a discussion of gender representation, in which I asked, “why is fifteen per cent women not enough?”

Such a loaded question was probably a mistake, albeit designed to provoke a useful answer. The most obvious answer would be something we’d known long before Overshare’s arrival. At entry-level, women are better represented, but the numbers free fall as people hit their late twenties. Self-employment rarely provides meaningful holiday or sick pay, let alone maternity or paternity leave, and a who-you-know approach to recruitment makes even a short absence career suicide. Fixing those issues might have helped everyone. New ideas were welcome.

But Overshare didn’t have any new ideas, nor did she mention any of the other several things that might have led to a rational discussion.

She did say that we needed to reject new-entrant men from union events until representation was 50%. When I pointed out that 50% representation would not occur even in a discrimination-free society, and thus risked looking like prejudice by another name, I was told that I was “not capable of listening to women”, that “all women live with the reality of this discrimination every time they go to work”, and that “every woman had watched a less-experienced, younger man be promoted over her”.

In her self-appointed role as spokesperson for all women, Overshare went on like that for ages, as if trying to fulfil a word count of trivially disprovable nonsense. Having never even skimmed the literature, I wasn’t used to someone expecting this stuff to be taken seriously. It felt like arguing with religion. I feel like 15% is probably a bit low, too, but I wouldn’t use what I feel to exclude people of the “wrong” gender. I offered to help research it and was rudely rebuffed; as a man, my research could not be representative. Eventually, I was told I also had “white privilege”.

Ah. The penny finally dropped. This was a religion, or something like it.

We argued; I didn’t swear, and didn’t raise my voice. Overshare called me a “f****** misogynist c***”. I waited confidently for the chairman to intervene.

Head bowed, scarlet-faced, he didn’t. Even after direct appeal.

I could go on, but really, the problem isn’t Overshare. Unpleasant people with unpleasant views exist. The problem is how easily people are cowed by the politics, unwilling to push back against the most blatant misbehaviour if it’s fashionable enough. I’ve since had some deeply heartwarming support, but all in private and prefixed with “just between us…”

Further involvement in an organisation with no respect for simple rationality seemed pointless, and I felt forced out of a near twenty-year membership. Massive effort spent on a couple of initiatives–things that might have helped young new entrants of all genders–will go to waste. Still, if the officials’ support for Overshare is their crime, I’m satisfied her continued presence will also be their punishment.

Nick Lambert is a freelance creative with twenty years of experience in technical and production roles in the UK media industry.


Even if it seems like the shadow of Critical Social Justice hangs all around you, and has captured the minds of those you work with, do not abandon hope. Its apparent influence may be readily dispelled with a dose of courage and a word of truth. You may be surprised at who and how many agree with you.

Stand up. Speak out. The time to chase back the shadows is now. Perhaps my own account can offer some encouragement.

My own position on Critical Social Justice takes me back to the mid-2000s when I encountered its progenitor, postmodernism. I was studying literature at university, where my cohort and I were force-fed a diet of cynical and joy-killing literary criticism. There was nothing beyond the text, we were told. The author was dead, we were told. Ergo, all that mattered was the reader’s interpretation, and that could be taken to any extreme – far beyond the original literary, social and historical context, or any logical inference. It was a wholesale massacre of truth, tradition and aesthetics.

Feminist theory, Marxist theory, Freudian theory, poststructuralist theory… One lecturer had the gall to make the analogy of pasta sauces, claiming that a theory was something you added to a text in order to give it a particular flavour – as if the works of the literary canon would be drear and flavourless experiences without them. He would have been more accurate if he had likened theory to cyanide.

Thus, it did not take long for me to become disillusioned with my studies, though linguistics and medieval literature provided at least some sanctuary. I graduated, life went on, and I assumed that I was rid of what I considered to be pretentious, untalented literary criticism.

Many years passed. However, from 2017 I became increasingly aware of a rising tide. Postmodernism had filtered out of the ivory tower, I realised, and had manifested in strange new forms. No longer confined to literary studies, it was now seeping into the fabric of society at large.

I learned of the fight against Critical Social Justice by listening to YouTube videos while doing housework. Like many others, it was through Jordan Peterson especially that I became aware of the problem, with his accidental emergence in the eye of a cultural storm. I followed his videos with fascination, listening to his Biblical lectures, interviews and classroom clips while mopping the floors and cleaning the bathroom. At the same time, I began tuning in to the cultural commentary of other figures from Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Bret Weinstein and Camille Paglia to Stephen Hicks, James Lindsay and Counterweight’s own Helen Pluckrose, combining their insights with my own personal contemplations.

Epiphany struck one afternoon while gardening. The French intellectual Michel Foucault, a darling of CSJ proponents, had championed the concept that the use of language and categories were, primarily, exercises in power; his ruminations led him to write studies on the history of prisons, madness and sexuality. Yet for all his dabbling in history, I mused, he and the rest of his ilk had more in common with the Metaphysical poets than they did with historians (or indeed philosophers) – putting forward propositions that are either far-fetched or outright absurd, and then undergoing a series of rhetorical acrobatics in order to make them seem plausible. The comparison pleased me. I had denounced the tenets of postmodernism back when I was eighteen; it was never going to convince me now.

Nonetheless, the threat of Critical Social Justice remained distant to me until January of this year. An email was sent to all staff within the university school where I work, stating that we had to undergo mandatory “anti-racism” training delivered by the charity Show Racism the Red Card: a one-hour recorded workshop, as well as two or three hours looking at items from a recommended reading list (Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility being first among them). This would be followed up in May by a meeting for all school staff to discuss their views and what steps the school should take going forward.

The spread of Critical Social Justice was now infiltrating my own workplace.

I was not unaware of the problem, and not unequipped with arguments against it, but I was still worried. How many of my colleagues, both within my team and the school more broadly, were on board with this ideology? Was the doctrine of CSJ “anti-racism” something they already took as a given, unbeknownst to me? I wondered if I alone was the Resistance, a one-man guerrilla cell stuck in hostile territory. It seemed as if I was enveloped in the shadow of CSJ.

The one-hour workshop recording was difficult to watch, both patronising and specious in its reasoning. We were asked to reflect on what parts of our identity afforded us ‘privilege’. We were told a fairy tale-esque story, followed by a quiz designed to expose our alleged biases. We were introduced to Robin DiAngelo’s idea of “morality” and the racism apparently evident in unequal outcomes. It was suggested that we are all complicit in creating the bars of a racism cage that imprisons non-white people. It was claimed that we live in “a society that is overall racist”. I expressed my irritation in one of my team’s regular video meetings. I wanted to know if my fellow team members had seen it, and what they thought of it. I was not shy about my own opinion. Concerned as I was about where other people stood, I could not – would not – hold back on what was anathema to me.

Their response was vindicating. One of my colleagues had finished watching the video and admitted that it filled her with a similar repugnance–and that she wouldn’t have been comfortable admitting it if I had not declared my own position so emphatically. As a team, we had a cathartic discussion about race, racism and the complexities of individual identity. Another colleague referred to the online unconscious bias training module we had to complete previously, voicing scepticism about its usefulness.

In the wake of the meeting, I felt emboldened. It felt like something had changed a little inside me. It was like I had a greater level of respect for myself.

Since then I have spoken to them a couple of times about the training video. They have not followed the permutations of CSJ as I have, but their reactions have ranged from unimpressed to feeling patronised.

I am safe within my own team. And I would not have known if I had never spoken up.

Yet that was only a start. Would I be safe beyond the confines of my immediate team? Would people be “allowed” to speak against CSJ’s anti-racism ideology? Or would they, as has happened in other workplaces, face condemnation, disciplinary proceedings and even sacking?

I knew that before the school meeting in May, I would have to speak directly to senior management about my concerns. I did not expect it to make any difference, but it felt like a necessary and appropriate step in my official “resistance”. For weeks, however, I procrastinated: doing additional background reading, gathering evidence and further marshaling my thoughts (Counterweight’s support in this has been precious). I was dreading the conversation; it was the head of school who had mandated the staff training in the first place. I was probably about to create a whole world of trouble for myself.

I finally raised the matter just before the Easter holiday, joining one of the regular “drop-in” meetings on Microsoft Teams held for colleagues in the school who have something to discuss. I voiced my concerns, making very clear my own antipathy to racism.

The reaction I received?

It turned out that the head of school had not yet watched the training video. I surmised from our conversation that she had in fact had little direct input regarding the content or implementation of the anti-racism training. Far from being a champion of CSJ ideology, she mentioned personally operating on a principle of colourblindness, and that she had raised her children to do the same. She was very open and sympathetic to my concerns and welcomed me sending her a link to Counterweight’s video of alternative anti-racism training sources. She also encouraged me to contribute at the school meeting in May.

Since that conversation, I have felt very much relieved. It no longer feels like I need to wage a secret war against an all-pervading force. The shadows I had perceived around me were in fact just that – shadows. On closer inspection they had melted away, revealing nothing.

The struggle is not over, of course. Inevitably there will be those in the school who do support the CSJ ideology, and the meeting in May continues to loom in my mind, but it no longer feels so much like my own personal D-Day. I would prefer for us as an institution to show “Show Racism the Red Card” the red card, but I am at least confident about two things: that it will not cost me my job to express my views, and that my workplace is not (yet) destined to become its own oppressive little totalitarian state.

And so that is why I say: even if it seems like the shadow of Critical Social Justice hangs all around you, do not abandon hope. Its influence on those around you may be just an illusion. Stand up. Speak out. The time to chase back the shadows is now.

Pierre Gaite is a medievalist and education professional. After teaching English in secondary schools for a number of years, he now works in the higher education sector.

When reading about speech censorship on university campuses both in the UK and across the pond, I wondered if it was all just catastrophising based on a few outlier events. This was until I began my master’s degree and I realised we may indeed be heading towards a semi-Orwellian nightmare. References to Nineteen EightyFour and Orwell’s writing more generally seem to be rather fashionable at the moment and are becoming somewhat of a cliché. Nevertheless, Orwell’s Newspeak seems like the perfect term for the phenomenon occurring on our campuses.

Newspeak is a language invented by the fictitious totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four, designed to restrict the vocabulary of citizens. Syme, one of the protagonist’s colleagues in the book, says:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

This is beginning to feel oddly familiar. In one particular master’s module, my lecturer gave us a snowballing list of words we were no longer allowed to use. “Global” and “local” are two words on the taboo list. Apparently, the words “global” and “local” are offensive to locals, as it implies the superiority of cosmopolitan “global” elites. Ironically, this seems to mean that I am no longer allowed to utter the name of the department in which I am studying: Global Studies.

In one class, I used the phrase “developing country” and was chastised by my lecturer, who saw this as an opportunity to educate me on the evils of the paternalistic language of our colonial legacy. In progressive parlance, the terms “developing/developed countries” have now been replaced with the “global South/North” (am I allowed to use “global” in this setting?). Confusingly, these new terms do not even correspond particularly coherently to a geographical North/South divide.

Many foreign students seem baffled by this type of censorship. Some of my classmates from the “global South” still refer to their countries as “third world” and seem to have little interest in learning the “correct” jargon designed by elite academics to avoid offending this very same group of people.

On another course, students were told they must not use the phrase “poor people” when discussing, well, poor people. According to lecturers, this phrase imposes western standards of what “poor” means on those who may live very “rich” lives in terms of family, happiness and community.

This culture of vocabulary suppression that is being bred in universities does not stay within the campus gates. Last December, I mentioned that it was the start of Hanukkah to some friends, as I was writing a short story aimed at teaching children about the holiday. In doing so I referred to Jewish people as “Jews” and was advised that this might be considered an offensive slur. I was stunned by the idea that using the word “Jews” in the context of celebrating Jewish culture could be considered “harmful”. Even this is not where the problematisation of regular discourse stops. Far from it.

In fact, the phenomenon is gradually seeping out of academia and into the mainstream. Across the pond, as of January this year, the US Congress Standing Rules now use only gender-neutral language. “Mother”, “uncle”, “sister” and “nephew” are amongst the banned words. In the UK, Brighton’s NHS Trust now advises health workers to use gender-neutral language, particularly when discussing motherhood… uh, sorry, parenthood. Maternity unit staff should refer to breastfeeding as “chestfeeding” and breast milk as “chest milk” in a bid to become more trans-inclusive. Although the Trust has emphasised that the language guidelines are not compulsory, I worry that rules limiting vocabulary may spread to more and more domains.

Note: the NHS Trust report also contained the following passage:
Please note that these language changes do not apply when discussing or caring for individuals in a one – on – one capacity where language and documentation should reflect the gender identity of the individual. When caring for cis women it is good practice to use terminology that is meaningful and appropriate to the individual; this may include terms such as woman, mother or breastfeeding.
*This passage was added after publication. The author already specified that the language guidelines were not compulsory but this passage seems important for extra context.

Of course, certain phrases may go out of use as public sensibilities adapt. I understand this and think that it can be a good thing – we alter how we speak in order to reflect our ever-expanding perspectives. However, this language censorship goes beyond this. It stems from an over-zealous attention to discourse and the problematisation of any vocabulary that might not be in line with the Critical Social Justice agenda. In such a worldview, any language that may be deemed offensive to someone or that supposedly reinforces existing power hierarchies is absolutely verboten. Unfortunately, the criteria that these academics use to determine whether language is offensive or hegemonic are usually informed by a cocktail of identity politics and self-flagellation from which almost anything can be seen as problematic. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Treading on egg-shells when trying to discuss complex topics in class is not conducive to learning. Neither is making language more blurred and confusing than it already is. Perhaps in twenty years’ time, I will be required by law to refer to my niece as “my sibling’s offspring”. Or perhaps we will all realise this is bonkers and manage to pull back from the brink before we are all dominated by a (new) Newspeak.

After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She is currently studying a masters in Human Rights, during which she has become increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.


I never believed I would have a negative word to say about the transgender movement. I was born into a middle-class family of liberal Democrats. My grandparents emigrated from Europe in the 1920s to escape fascism. My father was a small business owner who lobbied for socialized medicine in the 80s due to his health issues. I was a nerdy science girl who loved the outdoors and earned a degree in environmental science in the 90s; my liberal roots run deep. I’ve been a fan of the Squad, have a Black Lives Matter flag flying in my front yard and a garden of native plants to support wildlife in my backyard. I was appalled at the bathroom bill business in North Carolina a few years ago. Of course, my thinking was that transwomen are women, transmen are men; who can that possibly hurt? (As it turns out, the answer is my family and me.)

My son has always been a bit of an outlier. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (now autism spectrum disorder) at age five. As part of the diagnosis process, his IQ was measured, and the results classified him as highly gifted. He was my first child, so I did not know what ‘normal’ development looked like. My sister was shocked when he was reading signs at the zoo at only two years old. As he grew, he became obsessed with farm equipment, then aircraft, then arachnids, then ancient Egypt. That year he was a Bastet cat for Halloween (look it up, I had to!). He was different, but to adults, different in the best possible way. To his peers, not so much. He was physically clumsy, did an inordinate amount of unexpected humming, and had absolutely zero interest in tossing a ball back and forth.

Elementary school was a slog. In kindergarten, he refused to do the “choral reading” (because he had read the entire board upon entering the classroom, including the teacher’s personal notes about meetings and schedule changes). In later grades, he would walk around and look out of the window to get some sensory input but could still turn around and answer any question the teacher asked. Teachers and administrators did not understand or tolerate this. They saw it as a “behavioral issue”. Fortunately, my husband and I found an excellent charter middle and high school for smart kids. Our son thrived there, reading Shakespeare in sixth grade, placing in the county spelling bee, winning the school science bee, hanging with other quirky outliers. He was finding his groove and finally making friends.

Then came high school and puberty. At age 15, my quiet and anxious—but generally content—kid became extremely moody, isolated, and generally miserable. I finally did a mom-snoop of his computer and saw he was declaring online that he was “TRANZ”. My first instinct was to believe this. I must have one of the one-in-a-zillion kids who was “born in the wrong body”. I didn’t pay much mind to the pictures of anime girls that I’d also seen on his computer or the questions about “feeling weird in my body” that were posted on forums and answered with “You’re probably trans, hormones will make it better”. I did inwardly question why I’d never seen any typically feminine behavior or interests from him. Still, then I told myself that I was stereotyping women. I was a liberal democrat! The articles I’d skimmed on NPR and MSNBC seemed to indicate that transgenderism was a real, medical thing. Even though I have a science degree, I blindly assumed that the science behind this was correct because it was all over the mainstream media. Dwayne Wade, an NBA star, had a trans kid!

When I pressed my son about not ever seeing earlier signs of this desire to be female, he agreed. Somewhat strangely, a day later, he told me that he had “always felt this way.” (Look up transgender online influence.) I had seen a female name he was using online and asked him about it. I then began to address him with his preferred name and pronouns. I asked a million questions. He had no desire to change his clothing choices; he’s a sweatpants and Star-Wars-T-shirt kid. He had no interest in makeup or nail polish. He didn’t know yet if he was attracted to girls or boys. I thought I was being supportive by asking all these things! My son’s answer to how he knew he was transgender was that it just “feels right.” He said he would “definitely like to start hormones someday”.

For an extremely specific reason, that’s the comment that led me to do some deeper research.

At age 49, I have stage four autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. It’s a hereditary disease that killed my paternal grandmother (before the invention of dialysis). My mother was on dialysis for eight years before receiving a transplant that lasted another eight before comorbidities of the disease led to her death at 57. Science has come a long way, and my older brothers live with transplanted kidneys and are doing well. I am on a new medication that may extend my kidneys’ life, but eventually, likely in the next decade, I will reach stage five and need dialysis and/or a transplant. My three children have a 50% chance of inheriting this disease. We watch their blood pressure as an indicator, not wanting an official diagnosis with imaging until we see signs. Once diagnosed, it can be challenging to get insurance, and we never know what the next administration will change about the American healthcare system.

All this to say that we don’t need any extra medical interventions in our lives. So, I went looking into what it really means to be transgender. There are very few studies, but I found that if you take your child to a gender clinic, it appears to mean your kid steps on a conveyer belt from puberty blockers to cross-sex hormones (98% did so according to one study), to potentially multiple surgeries (current evidence for this is anecdotal, but the ranks of detransitioners telling their conveyer-belt stories are growing). All of this has been shown to be potentially damaging to human bodies, with long-term effects (such as decreased bone density and sterilization) especially for those with pre-existing conditions (like hypertension, which is comorbid with polycystic kidney disease).

My kid may not have gotten the green light for these hormonal and surgical interventions because of our family’s medical history; however, I’m nowhere near certain of this. The one therapist we contacted to help us gain some extra understanding showed my son the genderbread person at the first meeting and told me a gender clinic would be our best bet. I almost went with it, but I was becoming more and more confused and uncertain.

I also began to question what seems to be a societal shift back towards antiquated gender stereotypes and clichés. My son seemed to be questioning his manhood, possibly because he is an autistic, non-athletic, socially awkward boy. It appears that those qualities, rather than being part of the spectrum of being a human male, are now being seen as a reason to eschew maleness and instead conclude that your body must change. This did not jibe with my liberal ideal of individualism and self-determination.

Around this time, I learned of my son’s two schoolmates who had also announced that they were transgender girls. These are quirky, intelligent, boyish boys. I connected with their moms, both of whom are liberal Democrats. They seem not to have questioned the party-line concept of being born in the wrong body and have already taken their children to the gender clinic in a nearby city. Both boys are now on puberty blockers and female hormones, as well as taking voice lessons. Little therapy was involved in their support; instead, they were provided primarily with gender affirmation. And these kids want it so much. They think it will make everything they dislike about themselves go away. Both these moms say the gender clinic is the most wonderful, accepting place, and they just love going there. Their insurance covers everything, even the expected surgeries! I began to feel like I was in a sci-fi novel. How are these kids all in need of medical intervention to try to change their sex? How come therapists weren’t going deeper with questioning their motivation? What kind of temporary-happiness-pushers are these gender clinics?

I still don’t have answers to those questions. However, I have awakened from thinking that affirmation of everything my pubescent, autistic teen feels is the way to be a supportive parent. My husband and I have agreed that until we can find a therapist who can go deeper than the genderbread person and unquestioning affirmation, our son is better off without therapy (though the search continues). We now use only our son’s given name and male pronouns. We spend time together as a family and try our best to limit screen time. We are approaching this as a stage of self-exploration and questioning that would be typical for teenagers if not for the intense online and suburban liberal pressure to push instant happiness and “problem-solve” in the form of taking hormones and planning for surgeries.

So here I am, in my lovely suburban neighborhood, wondering what it means to be a liberal who is committed to protecting confused children, whether autistic or neurotypical, who have been led to believe they were born in the wrong body. I wonder when more of my generally like-minded, politically aware friends and neighbors will begin to question where things went wrong. I never thought I’d feel politically homeless. I’ve joined groups of other parents who are in the same place, with nowhere to go but to the other party. I began to connect with others whose families were being hurt, torn apart even, by transgender ideology. I feel I’m still holding onto my liberal democratic values, including following the science and protecting the vulnerable. But I may have to hold my nose and pull the ballot lever for the other side because the Democratic party is systematically ignoring the absence of solid science on this issue. They are dismissing the concerns of families of autistic children like mine. I cannot allow more children to be damaged.

Ellen McEvoy is a former environmental scientist and full-time mother who writes about the challenges of parenting in the 21st century.

My first encounter with Critical Race Theory (CRT) diversity training was in 1999. Yes, it’s been around that long. I doubt it was known as CRT training then but the underlying ideology was the same. I was a young non-profit executive participating in a leadership program that included an intensive three-day workshop on diversity.

I didn’t plan on resenting diversity training. I worked for a Jewish organization that combats racism and bigotry and builds relations across religious and ethnic lines. I was an organizer of regular Black-Jewish dialogues and helped build a program to recruit African Americans into the commercial real estate business. I believed then, as I do now, that black people have gotten a raw deal in America, and that we have an obligation to provide every opportunity for underrepresented minorities to achieve the American dream. I saw modern America then as I do now: deeply flawed yet not oppressive.

The session opened with a viewing of the 1994 film The Color of Fear made by “master diversity trainer” and filmmaker Lee Mun Wah. The film portrayed four men at a weekend retreat talking about racism: one African American, one Latino, one caucasian, and the filmmaker himself, who was Asian.This was a real, unscripted interaction, as far as I could tell. But from the very beginning, it was obvious it was a setup.The three men of color were all well versed in the language of multiculturalism.The white guy, however, was a total nitwit. I doubt he’d had a serious conversation in his life, let alone one on issues of race and racism.

The three trained diversity hands took turns browbeating the simpleton on how very clueless he was on race.They insisted that his “colorblindness” was a sham and that it was high time he recognized that his whiteness was a bonafide ethnicity essential to his place in the world. By the time they were done with him, he broke down in tears, finally recognizing his own racism and the role he’d played in perpetuating an unjust society. I was revolted by the display of performative cruelty masquerading as enlightened diversity.

When the film was over, we broke into groups of eight to discuss what we had just seen.The facilitator of my break-out session, who also happened to be the main organizer of the program, was Howard Ross. You may have heard of Ross. He was organising the federal training when Donald Trump issued an executive order to end all CRT diversity programs in the federal Government. He was the diversity trainer of the stars, having been assigned to, among others, John Rocker, the professional baseball player who scandalized the sport with his unfiltered bigotry.

Ross began our group session with a question: “How did the film make you feel?” After three others shared their deep-seated feelings about our fallen society, some angry and some sad, it was my turn. “I don’t know how I feel, but I do know what I think,” I stated. “I think it was a terrible film that says nothing about racism.” This did not ingratiate me with the group. I soon found myself in a sequel to the movie itself, and I, the swarthy son of an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who never saw himself as white, was the white guy.

An African American pastor of one of the largest congregations in the metropolitan area began to cross-examine me. He asked me if I thought I was a racist. “I try hard not to be,” I stated, continuing: “In my teen years, I told tasteless ethnic jokes, but made a very conscious decision not to do it anymore.” I said that while I fully recognize the ongoing reality of racism, I didn’t think it explained all the problems facing black people in the inner cities.The pastor, who clearly did not appreciate being challenged, bellowed: “What else explains these problems?” I blurted out: “How about young black school kids who make fun of other black kids for being too studious? Isn’t that a problem too?” There had been a few recent high-profile stories about this phenomenon.The pastor glared at me with a mixture of disgust and resignation, but he didn’t argue back. A black female participant sitting next to me quietly nodded in apparent agreement.

It hit me that this diversity training was actually a group therapy session for the mental illness known as white racism, and I was a patient.The therapist—one Howard Ross—was there to get us to recognize our own racism, the first step in overcoming any psychological ailment. My non-doctrinaire view on race was a cognitive distortion that could only be remedied through an intense course of diversity therapy. I was not an easy patient.

I didn’t know a lot about diversity training at that time but I did know this was no way to create a just society or a more collaborative workplace. I vowed to stay away from what I considered coercive diversity training programs.

Since that time, I have had several interactions, including a very pleasant lunch, with Howard Ross and consider him a decent human being. I have no doubt he believes that his work advances equality. He cheers for the underdog, as do I. Ross now acknowledges that the old style of diversity training was alienating and that more updated forms, focusing on implicit bias, accord greater respect to people’s varied life stories. But I see nothing in today’s training, based on the new canon such as White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, which bears this out. Moreover, extensive research shows that these newer forms are no more effective and every bit as alienating as the earlier versions.

Regrettably, I could not keep my commitment to never again participate in this type of diversity training. I found myself in other such settings on multiple occasions, as work demanded, though chastened and more reticent than before. On one occasion the diversity trainer sent us into small group discussions after a typically dogmatic presentation telling us exactly how racism shows up in our workplaces.

When our breakout group sat down together, one man, my senior, stated: “That was unbearable, and that’s not how I fight racism!” “Me neither,” I exclaimed, feeling validated. The others in the group nodded. Finally, I wasn’t alone.

If you are uncomfortable with CRT based diversity training, you are not alone. Join us at Counterweight as we explore alternative ways to enable diversity, including viewpoint diversity, in the workplace.

To find out more about Viewpoint diversity consultancy services please email David Bernstein at

David Bernstein is an Affiliate at Counterweight and Principal of Viewpoint consulting. Follow him on Twitter @Blogunwoke.


I interviewed Jennifer Friend, a clinical social worker who opposed a coercive and demeaning government-sponsored diversity initiative. Jennifer’s opposition provides a roadmap for how others might counter such policies in the future.

Jennifer Friend’s saga did not begin with an enmity-filled diversity policy in Fairfax County, Virginia. It began with her reading about the growing scourge of coercive diversity training:

I had been seeing accounts of people being fired or pushed to express beliefs that weren’t their own and felt concerned. I hoped that it wouldn’t happen at the Fairfax County Community Services Board.

Nevertheless, when it did intrude into her professional life, she was ready. For the past 15 years, Jennifer had been a clinical social worker for the county’s Community Services Board. She provided therapy and case management for county residents with severe mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders. About a year ago, her manager informed the team at a staff meeting of the One Fairfax Equity policy, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program, and discussed the impact of systemic racism in the county. Uncharacteristically, Jennfier raised objections: “I challenged him to identify any laws or policies that were discriminatory in nature so that I could oppose them,” she said.

Several days after Jennifer raised objections in the staff meeting, her manager asked to speak to her privately in his office. In the meeting, he asked her directly if she had a problem with One Fairfax. Jennifer was prepared:

I explained that while I support improving outcomes for everyone in the county, I do not agree with laying the blame on institutional racism. I told him that I liked working with him but was going to continue to challenge his narrative. We parted the meeting on good terms.

This past September, Jennifer and her colleagues received an email from the manager with links to the One Fairfax Equity webpage asking them to view the material to prepare “to learn about equity.” What Jennifer saw shocked her. She decided to share her concerns with her colleagues on her immediate team. She explained that the One Fairfax website contained blatant negative stereotypes about white people and accused white people of perpetuating racism and oppressing minorities.

A couple of days later, she received an email from her manager with a date and time for a Zoom meeting with him and a human resources staff member to discuss her “communication around a very sensitive matter of race and equity.” It was a meeting that would never take place.

Jennifer then spent the weekend delving into the One Fairfax Equity website and further uncovered highly inflammatory material:

I felt a profound sense of betrayal. I had been a committed professional in the county serving a diverse population and now was being portrayed by my employer as a perpetrator of racism […] I was very committed to my clients and felt that these materials ultimately harmed them […] how would community services treat clients if they held some of them in contempt and others without agency?

Jennifer then sent an email to the entire Community Services Board stating her concerns, highlighting some of the most troubling material on the website:

Many of the articles on this list contained racist statements about persons with white skin, misogynistic insults and anti-police sentiments.There was an article entitled “Save the Tears: White Woman’s Guide.” The author Tatiana Mac refered to white women as “Karen” and went on to say “White women’s weapons are microaggressions and a direct line to the police murder hotline.” Ms. Mac accused white women of manipulating police into killing for them. “You have a nation state that will murder for your tears and your fear, real or not.”

The following day, the head of the Community Services Board sent a message to the whole agency asserting that Jennifer’s email:

contained multiple inaccuracies…One Fairfax focuses on recognizing the presence of institutional and structural racism in our organizations and how systems and structures interact in ways that preserve and reproduce disparate impacts and racialized outcomes.

Upon seeing this email, Jennifer publicly resigned to the entire Community Services Board, indicating that the agency no longer reflected her values. She had long planned to open her own clinical therapy practice. After the resignation, she was promptly cut off from further internal agency communication.

Undaunted, Jennifer created two videos revealing the content of the One Fairfax Equity website and posted them to YouTube and Twitter. She proceeded to send copies to the County Chief of Police, County Board of Supervisors, the County Executive, and “Bolster the Blue,” a police support network.

“This whole time,” she stated, “I expected someone to immediately apologize and retract the offensive material. I couldn’t believe that they doubled down on it.”

Seeking support, Jennifer reached out to Carrie Clark of Counterweight to talk through what she was going through. Carrie followed the incident closely, offering guidance and solidarity.

Jennifer also informed county elected officials of the following:

Fairfax One has earned an honorable mention in the Bolster the Blue newsletter for its racist, misogynistic anti-police approach to equity and diversity. I exposed this due to my concern that the approach of One Fairfax is sowing racial strife and endangering police safety. I have been transparent with CSB leadership about my efforts to bring awareness to their misguided and non-productive approach.

Jennifer received a reply back from the County Executive, stating “I will review what is posted on YouTube and speak with the appropriate staff. I am hopeful the posting of internal documents does not violate our use policy signed by all employees.

Jennifer replied:

I am likewise hopeful that Fairfax County Government posting racist, misogynistic and anti-police materials and encouraging government employees to view these materials is also not violating any rules.

It was clear that Jennifer’s videos detailing the offensive material were making the rounds. One garnered 4,000 views on Youtube. While she did not know what was going on behind the scenes, it was hard to imagine that the Fairfax police were happy with county materials openly disparaging them.

The head of the Community Services Board sent another email to the entire agency, contradicting his previous full-on defense:

I want to acknowledge that a link on CSB’s internal One Fairfax page, one among many important and useful resources on equity, referenced information that is not reflective of my views or the One Fairfax vision. Out of an abundance of caution, I instructed the CSB communication team to temporarily take down the agency’s One Fairfax page.

Jennifer’s former colleagues informed her that the offensive material never re-appeared on the One Fairfax site again.

Lessons learned from Jennifer’s experience

While no two situations are identical, Jennifer’s defiant and assertive course of action provides a roadmap for how to respond to other such situations. As an advocacy professional most of my career, I can attest that Jennifer’s was a textbook response on how to challenge a system. Here are a few key lessons:

  • Educate and provide tools to the public. Jennifer was ready and understood what was happening when the controversy hit. The more people understand these issues before they are confronted with them, the more prepared and effective they will be when they are.
  • Do not back down or apologize for doing the right thing. Jennifer never wavered and her steely resolve must have sent shock waves in the system. Her clever and forceful response to the County Executive for his thinly veiled threat that she might have violated personal use policy must have been sobering.
  • Escalate up the hierarchy. Jennifer did not immediately send out a letter to the entire Community Services Board or otherwise go public. She gave management a chance to rectify the situation, appearing controlled and thoughtful, giving the complainant credibility in the eyes of the public. Only later did she ratchet up the interventions.
  • Consider Using digital tools such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. This is a tactic of last resort and may not be warranted in every circumstance. In Jennifer’s case, it’s hard to know who saw the YouTube video and how it influenced the various decision-makers. The video existed beyond the control of county leadership, who must have known that growing exposure could do more damage if they failed to respond appropriately.
  • Intervene at multiple points. Jennifer understood how the system worked. She immediately saw that the One Fairfax initiative’s comments on law enforcement would be deeply offensive to the police force, which was, after all, part of the same county government. She also brought it to the attention of elected officials and, while she never received a satisfactory reply from any of them, it’s possible that one or more had intervened.
  • Get emotional and practical support. During the entire episode, Jennifer’s family and friends, both inside and outside of her workplace, supported her. The Counterweight team offered her tactical advice and emotional support. You do not have to do this alone!

Jennifer now volunteers on the Counterweight team, offering support for others going through similar situations. Despite being understated and compassionate, she is regarded by the rest of the Counterweight team as “a total badass.”

David Bernstein is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive. Follow him on Twitter at

A great number of organisations and institutions in the global north, whether they make ice-cream, manufacture pillows or deliver healthcare in warzones, are suddenly making public commitments to rid themselves of racist bias. This raises important questions that have strangely become taboo, such as: Is this our primary charitable purpose? How feasible are our plans? What does success look like? and What will this cost?

To be clear, I do not deny that racism exists and that there are improvements to be made in the sector. I acknowledge that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been on our agendas for years and that progress has been made. I also recognize that health, economic, academic and social outcomes have complicated underlying causes. These causes include, but are not limited to, race and ethnicity. I also acknowledge that attributing value to the melanin content in someone’s skin is irrational and morally wrong.

But other concerns must be considered alongside the quest for racial progress.

I dislike feeling an obligation to declare that I am female and mixed-race, but unfortunately, this makes a difference in how this contribution will be interpreted. The problem has gone that far. More importantly, I am an experienced humanitarian who is becoming increasingly concerned about anti-racist ideology in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector. The humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence align more strongly with a humanist approach to social justice. Moreover, a liberal and evidence-based approach opens itself up to feedback, resulting in a more effective mechanism for social progress that has less chance of causing negative consequences.

Complex social problems have a range of possible solutions and usually require multiple, varied responses. Broadly speaking, two approaches that aim to address racism seem to be dominating our field. One encourages debate, accepts diverse worldviews, recognises people have autonomy, values science and evidence and focuses on unity and humanistic values. This is called liberal social justice and is responsible for much of the great progress in social justice we have seen over the past few decades. The other approach places society into two broad groups of white and non-white (with some varied terminology: BIPOC, POC, BAME etc.), demands ideological conformity and divides us into simplistic categories of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is called Critical Social Justice (CSJ) and the benefits have not been demonstrated. CSJ is on the rise in the humanitarian, development and charity sector and is being promoted as the best and sometimes the only approach to addressing structural racism.

So, to help highlight some of the problems that might come with the growing influence of CSJ in these sectors, here are six concerns about the CSJ approach to addressing racism in the humanitarian, development, and charity sector:

1. Over-investment in expensive DEI consultancies and training with questionable benefits.

The DEI consultation and training industry is expanding exponentially. It is not regulated. Some trainers have little formal education and experience in their field. Some push a particular overly race-conscious form of anti-racism that is not inclusive of diverse worldviews that exist in the charity sector. Worldviews from culturally and linguistically diverse groups and ethnic minorities can be quite conservative and oppose the CSJ doctrine. There is little evidence that this training changes attitudes or behaviour and there is some question as to whether they may make the problem worse. The ideology underlying some DEI training diminishes ethnic minorities as powerless and lacking in agency so that some minority groups oppose this training. Others object to the exploration of their unconscious mind, a fixation on invisible power systems or the acceptance that discriminating against certain groups is necessary to empower others. The underlying ideology to CSJ originates in Anglo-countries, therefore, the terminology and concepts tend to focus on home societies or global north based HQs. Therefore, their relevance is questionable for international organisations with very diverse workforces.

2. Unsuccessful conversations:

A great deal of time and resources are invested in the struggle to clearly articulate the DEI problem, with a lack of consensus and clear identification of the underlying causes. Lengthy debates focus on term definition, which can at least in part be explained by concept creep. Concepts that were once clear and almost universal like ‘racism’ are losing their meaning as the ground shifts with new terminology rapidly arising (microaggressions, colour-blind racism, dog-whistling) and then there are the new applications of old terms (white supremacy). Adding to this is a form of catastrophization where robust debate is suddenly considered ‘unsafe’ for some, and people refer to threats to their very existence. Emotions are driving much of this discourse whilst our rational minds struggle to catch up with the unfalsifiable doctrine that considers lived experience to be high-level evidence. Many organisations have a culture of diverse thinking, debate and constructive dissent, yet this topic tends to silence even the most outspoken. Some people do not wish to be seen as opposing any DEI efforts (no matter how radical or resource-intensive) whilst others are actively silenced due to their skin colour, or for not fully and immediately subscribing to a specific worldview.

3. Funds being diverted from communities in need and instead used for social problems in HQ.

An inconvenient question: How much donor money is spent cumulatively on DEI and how has it benefited the people you serve? Spending donor money to eliminate the remnants of a bug in human evolutionary psychology seems unwise at best and unethical at worst. With needs being sorely underserved as well as on the rise, aren’t there much better uses for this money that aligns more clearly with our charitable purpose?

4. Racialisation further entrenches perceptions of racism:

Despite heavy investment in DEI, some organisations are finding that staff are increasingly reporting that they feel unheard or discriminated against; these increases cannot be fully explained by the improved reporting mechanisms. Is it possible the racialisation of our sector is encouraging people to feel oppressed, or discriminated against, in a way that cannot be sourced to their objective circumstances? What is the impact of CSJ activities on mental health? Some reputable cognitive psychologists are concerned that the CSJ ideology is encouraging unhealthy thought patterns and can therefore have negative mental health consequences.

5. The evaluation challenge.

With many organisations spending a great deal on DEI plans there is significant confusion regarding how to measure success. HR heads struggle to quantify/qualify progress towards DEI goals and the overall feeling seems to be that it is never enough and never soon enough. In other cases, invalid surveys are developed by inexperienced HR teams uncovering problems that are not well defined or are less significant than the results suggest. Concerns are raised that with increasing awareness of racism, combined with concept creep, and with more DEI activities, more (often nebulous) racism will be uncovered, making the endeavour self-defeating.

6. Public positioning and messaging.

Many charitable organisations attempt to communicate complex social phenomena in social media short form and so it is not surprising they are misleading, inaccurate or attribute undue causation to race. These messages have a divisive effect and are often not helpful or actionable. A few examples: “The COVID19 pandemic is demonstrating what we all know: millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, which damages everyone – women, men, girls and boys” (United Nations). “Poverty is an institution of white supremacy. Inequality is an institution of white supremacy. Injustice is an institution of white supremacy”(Oxfam International). These messages fail to recognize multiple complex contributing factors to social outcomes and such simplistic and overly race-conscious narratives can further divide staff, donors and the general public.

The examples and concerns expressed above may or may not be affecting your organisation. However, regardless of the degree to which your organisation is currently affected by these issues, it is important to be aware of the differences in these two main approaches to addressing racism. That way, you may determine what is the best fit for your particular organisation and which best aligns to your charitable purpose, for which you collect funds. Some efforts can make gradual but continual and feasible improvements to organisations and others seek to divide, divert funds and may not contribute to achieving DEI goals- or even damage efforts to do so. It is important to consider the underlying ideology and academic theories of anti-racism and be aware of the risks before making strategic and operational decisions.

Those of us that work in charity perhaps know better than most that the world is not perfect, just like humans are not perfect. We may be especially fearful of being seen as racist or bigoted because it is what we despise most. Yet we also know that funding is tight and spending in one area will mean cuts elsewhere in a context of overwhelming unmet needs. This is our responsibility, and it goes beyond us as individuals and our feelings and personal experiences.

We know that the real suffering in the world occurs in developing countries where people do not have access to healthcare, employment and a level of income that can ensure dignity, education, basic needs and security for their loved ones. There is a need for honest, open conversation about the benefits and risks of various DEI approaches. We need to be humble and realistic and draw some lines in terms of spending limits and feasible outcomes. In doing so, we can continue to make meaningful improvements to organisational culture, while still keeping the lights on for the people we serve.

This piece was written by a qualitative researcher and social scientist committed to intellectual honesty who wishes to remain anonymous.