The University of British Columbia’s (UBC) creative writing program has been faced with scrutiny in the last while. Steven Galloway was accused of misconduct with students, and the charges range from bullying to sexual harassment. How UBC handled the situation has since come under fire, and many of Canada’s top writers have signed an open letter to UBC criticizing how they dealt with this. There was, according to the letter, a breach of privacy toward Galloway and the complainants, but many read the letter as an act of silencing the victims who had stepped forward and made the initial complaints about Galloway. There has been outrage from both sides, and yet the details of exactly what Galloway was accused of, or what transpired, has been kept mostly silent. The signees of the letter say that their intention was not to silence the victims, but to call for “due process” for all. However, many took issue with how the letter addresses Galloway specifically.
I have gone back and forth on if this is a subject I want to address, because the information is scant at best. However, after observing the discussions on social media about how this was handled. I decided it is something that should be talked about. What has been flooding my social media feeds is not what happened at UBC to cause all of this, but the letter in response; and after reading various articles about the case the details remain hazy. A student accused Galloway of something (what that something is is never made clear in the articles about it) and others stepped forward to back up her statement with their own stories. I have heard that those who spoke were told their words would remain confidential, and yet they were approached, outside of the investigation, by friends of Galloway with detailed knowledge of what they reported. But what seems to be the issue is this open letter. People are feeling silenced by it.
I don’t believe the intent of the letter was to silence the victims. I believe the motivation behind the letter was fear, fear for a friend. However, our society tends to silence women, especially in situations like this. I believe this is the reason so many are speaking out against the writers, even those who have previously written on topics of abuse and inequality, who signed this letter. We can’t just blindly believe, however, and this must go for all parties involved.
The thing that is scary about the letter is that, for many, it told them to remain silent. That’s their interpretation. The impact of our words is important to consider, and, as writers, those who signed the letter should understand that. However, fear is a powerful motivator, and as I have read through the discussions I’ve seen an intense fear about the impact this was having on both Galloway and the students involved. I don’t believe the intent was to cause harm, and there has been some open discussion between parties and this is what is important: the ability to discuss and to understand the other side.
Unfortunately, I also saw a lot of harsh words directed at those who signed the letter. There was no room for understanding in these words, no room for discussion. There was only hatred and assertions that they would be removing every book by every author on that list from their bookshelves and adding them to a “do not buy list”. This reaction is not helpful, it will not open a path for understanding and a want to change, it will cause heels to dig in and hackles to rise.
So, perhaps the letter was written in a moment of passion or fear, fear for a friend. Maybe those responses, which can only be described as bullying, were similarly out of fear, fear for the victims, or fear for those reading the letter and choosing to remain silent in an unrelated situation. In the writing community, there needs to be open discourse. It is a small community, and those within it can make mistakes, act in passion, or misword a letter. Those that read the letter are similarly allowed to respond in the same manner, motivated by the same feelings. But one thing I have noticed is that some of the signatories have taken note of how the letter made others feel, they have pulled their name and apologized; others have taken the time to have discussions and explain their motivation.
I think the most important thing I have taken from this is that you need to stand for what you believe in, but you also need to be considerate and take the time to have open and frank discussions with those who may take exception to your stance. Whatever side of the fence you are on, I’ve found it heartwarming to see so many take pause and want to understand the other side. The letter itself may have had a negative impact on many, and the situation itself surely has, but these conversations are the opportunity for change. Everyone needs to pause and consider the other side, consider the words, and stop from lashing out. Belittling someone’s opinion is not the answer, and will not change their perspective, but talking honestly, openly, and free from judgement will be what effects change.
Change does need to happen. Change in the questionable treatment of those who came forward, speaking against the faculty member, and likewise in the treatment of the faculty member. A situation like this should never come to the point it has, especially when it is within an institution like UBC. I believe we can do better.
Deanna Roney is an AU graduate who loves adventure in life and literature.