We are living in very tense times, there is no doubting that. The past 20 months of COVID has raised all of our anxieties, and on top of that you can layer on other issues that haven’t gone away, operating in that anxious environment. It’s all making for a lot of noise, anger and tension that isn’t exactly helping move anything forward.
It’s within that context that I write this tonight, and comment on the words of someone whose work I’ve had a great deal of respect for. I believe that we need to hold everyone up to the standard that we expect in society, friend, foe or anywhere in between. When someone who you respect messes up, I believe we need to call it out. Tonight that’s what I need to do, based on a story from the weekend that left me shaking my head:
David Suzuki, man…. When I first read this story, a lot of four-letter words came to mind, trying to figure out what in the Hell he was thinking or if he even was. There isn’t a lack of hotter takes on this story out there, so fill your boots with those. For those who have always had a bone or a dozen to pick with Suzuki, this is easy pickings for them and I’m not going to add into that pile on. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be critical of whatever the Hell that was.
In the end, my astonished criticism comes down to two major points: the words and the audience. Let’s start with the obvious and point out that you just can’t say anything close to the words that he said in that context. You just can’t, it’s very much the equivalent of “yelling fire in a burning theatre”. No one should be saying that, let alone someone with the prestige, notoriety, and respect of David effing Suzuki. I would argue that the list of circumstances where it would have been okay for Suzuki to say what he said would be small and would involve alternate universes. You know, like instead of becoming a world-renowned environmentalist, alternate David Suzuki became a world-renowned expert in public safety, and instead of being at that protest, he was testifying at a House of Commons committee meeting warning about the dangers in the world. In that place, yeah uttering those words would have been alright, as that would be the person and the place to say it. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
The second and maybe most damning part of this story was more about the audience. Suzuki said this at an Extinction Rebellion protest, a group that I’ve written about here before. Remember it was back in the pre-COVID days, in February of 2020 that this group tried to “invade the home” of BC Premier John Horgan, while also insulting & disrespecting local First Nations. They are an offshoot of a group of the same name in the UK, which have taken to massive, disrespectful civil disobedience actions that have gone far beyond the pale. As a group, they are not viewed in a positive way, and I can’t help but think of them as being like a climate change version of “PETA”. Not exactly the kind of group that any respectable or respected person would want to be associated with.
Yet there was Suzuki, at their event, speaking to them and even praising them. He was quoted by CHEK News in Victoria saying that “People in Extinction Rebellion are saying we’re headed in a direction of extinction and we’re rebelling against it. That’s why I’m here.” That’s why he was there he says, leaving one to assume that he agrees with them, their approach, and their tactics. Needless to say, that blows my mind because Suzuki has earned a good reputation for being a credible expert. He’s been long seen as a voice of reason and someone who could reach across the partisan divide to shine a light on this very issue. He never should have agreed to be at or speak to that group, period. And yet with that one move, boom, he comes off like a wacked out radical. With those words, he sounded more like Weibo Ludwig than anything else, which is exactly the last thing that was needed right now.
That makes those words all the worse. You knew that Suzuki’s opponents would take those kinds of words and use them to their will right away. Jason Kenney’s government in Alberta has jumped on them with a horny froth of desperation. They never miss a chance to make hay out of such a mistake. But when he says those words, to that group, it takes on a totally different importance and interpretation. If alter-world David Suzuki said that in that hypothetical House Committee, the odds are very good that someone in the audience wouldn’t be pre-disposed to take them as a suggestion or a potential action to ponder. It would likely be taken as the warning that I assume the real Suzuki intended it to be. But when you say those words, in front of that group, with their track record and you give them an attaboy while you’re at it, it is totally different and completely irresponsible. That must be called out and an apology demanded, because that’s exactly what we’d do if it was someone on the other side saying something as irresponsible and incendiary.
But to be fair, I don’t expect that apology to come. As the years have gone along, Suzuki has waded more and more into the political. With statements like that one, he strikes me more and more as someone who knows his days on this planet are fewer and fewer and he has fewer and fewer fucks to give about how his words might be taken. While that may be understandable on a human level, that doesn’t make it right. In a time when opponents of fighting climate change want to make those who want to stop it look like radicals and extremists, this is just feeding them months worth of quality grist for their mill. They’ve made much out of far less than this, so these irresponsible words will keep them going for a long time. The only way that Suzuki can limit that will be for him to issue a full apology, period. That won’t make it go away because these words will dog him for a long time to come. But what it could do is take down the temperature a bit, release some of the tension and send the clear message to those who think his words sounded like a good idea. We’ll see if that happens but, in the meantime, I can’t hide my disappointment in all of this. Those words did nothing to help and the sooner he takes them back, the better for us all.