We need to talk less about the perpetrator and more about his victims.
In one of his very few post-rehab interviews, with the CBC’s Dwight Drummond, Rob Ford tried repeatedly to blame his years of racial slurs, homophobic insults, and misogynistic denigrations on his “disease,” by which he meant his abuse of drugs and alcohol.
While doctors continue to search for a cure for Ford’s racism, the mayor explains that he cannot be held accountable for any of his hateful slurs: drink and drugs poisoned his brain, hijacked his lips, and formed words that mimic the historical discrimination of queers, women, and people of colour.
What disease prompted Ford to demand that the Pride flag, which celebrates queer communities and their allies, be taken down? What ailment caused him, year after year, to vote against community grants that largely support racialized people? Was he drunk when he stood before council in February and proclaimed that the “taxpayers” (not residents or Torontonians) did not want the City to fund Native Child and Family Services, a multi-service centre for First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and Aboriginal people? And if, say, he was drunk at the time, would his claim now be that the alcohol somehow took over his brain, revised his views on the subject, and forced him to proclaim something that on some level he didn’t fundamentally believe in?
Even if we could accept this dodge—and we cannot—that isn’t the point. Ford’s excuses make no difference to the targets of his vile words and actions. It doesn’t matter if you are born a racist, or contract the disease in adolescence or in a drunken stupor: the damage to the people you target is still real and lasting.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to address bigotry is that we tend to focus on the abusers rather than the abused. We spend a lot of time debating whether individual people are racist, misogynistic, or homophobic; we parse their words in search of hidden meanings, dispute whether there’s a difference between making a racist remark and being a racist. Meanwhile, the legion of real people who have been slurred fade into abstraction. Victims of discrimination become points of reference instead of individuals whose vilification deserves immediate attention, opposition, and remedy.
After refusing to address his countless insults and denigrations, and in the face of years of evidence to the contrary, Rob Ford and his say-anything brother Doug are now claiming that the chief magistrate of Toronto is not a raging bigot. Rob Ford is, of course, a world-class bigot. About this there can no longer be any dispute.
Instead of trying to get him to admit this, as flabbergasted reporters have been attempting in vain to do, we should focus on the damage Ford has caused by promoting hatred—the damage done not to him, but to his victims.
Any fool can deny he hates women, Jews, blacks, the homeless, or children with autism (all groups the Fords have targeted) and mouth a meaningless apology in the aftermath of his insults. In large part, what makes a bigot a bigot (what distinguishes him from someone who is not a bigot but has misspoken) is the inability to put the suffering of those he harms ahead of his own shame or inconvenience at being exposed.
Rob Ford has referred to the black children he once coached in football as “fucking minorities.” He has said most of these young men would be dead or in jail without him. He and his brother have repeated the patronizing mantra that no one has done more for black people than the mayor. He will never confess that he thinks of these students as a special class, intrinsically prone to different types of psychology and behaviour than “the rest of us” (that is, than people like Rob Ford). So instead of playing crown prosecutor and continually inquiring about his “real feelings,” the media could simply ask, “What impact do you think your words have had on black Torontonians?”
To supplement this inquiry, we could seek out real people who have felt the sting of the Fords’ prejudice, and deliver their testimony directly to their aggressor. CBC’s Dwight Drummond solicited questions from the public ahead of his feature interview with Ford. Imagine if he had also solicited, and then read to the mayor, the equivalent of victim impact statements for Ford’s use of language like “faggot,” “wop,” “dago,” “nigger,” and “kike.”
Torontonians elected 15 women councillors in 2010: a record for our amalgamated city. Ford did apologize to one of them, mayoral candidate Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), for what he described as his “hurtful and degrading remarks” about her. (What he said: “I’d like to fucking jam her.”) He did not explain how women on council, or in the public service, or across the city, could ever feel safe working with him after his disgusting comments. He did not say anything about how he might try to make amends—beyond the mere statement that he was sorry—or alter the atmosphere at City Hall.
In focusing more on the victims of hateful speech and less on the victimizers, we can acknowledge that the cost of bigotry is not just—or not primarily—that someone labelled a bigot might find that personally uncomfortable or professionally damaging. It is real suffering visited upon people who have historically endured violence and marginalization just by virtue of their identities. There is a real danger in focusing too much on the awareness or intentions of the speaker: the words always hurt, whether calculated or uttered in ignorance, whether spoken while sober or drunk or high.
Rob Ford cannot admit to being a bigot, because he does not understand what bigotry is. All he knows is that someone is trying to hold him to account, and that he must cling to power at all costs. Ford plays the victim, and leaves the real victims in his wake.