It wasn’t called “The Weinstock Affair” yet, but all the ingredients were in place for it to become one very quickly. On February 20, 2020, leaving a morning meeting, the philosopher saw his world crumble. A columnist was dragging him through the mud, for no reason. The government repudiated him, without further verification. It was perfectly surreal. Absolutely absurd.
Daniel Weinstock spent the morning on the phone, trying to extricate himself from this waking nightmare. He didn’t have time to prepare for the ethics class he was giving at 1:30 p.m. at McGill University. He showed up to class, dumbfounded, when a female student said, “Hey, Prof. Weinstock, you’re trending on Twitter!” »
Three years later, Daniel Weinstock has moved on. He confides to me all the same that the case left its marks. “I didn’t do a Ph.D. to trend on Twitter. My natural place is not in the media. It was quite a traumatic event…”
Enough, in fact, for the Montreal philosopher of international reputation to retire, for a time. After the shock, he had less desire to debate secularism, pluralism or language and identity politics. His favorite subjects, which have become hot in Quebec for a few years. Daniel Weinstock needed a break.
But here he is back. Because the state of public debate in Quebec worries him.
Daniel Weinstock arranged to meet me at Café de Mercanti in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district of Montreal. He arrived in a cold rain, a hat on his head, a full beard on his chin. The philosophy teacher has the physique for the job. We sat near the window.
“The vision of Quebec, in government policies and in the mainstream media, has become a bit consensual,” he laments from the outset.
These intellectuals consider that they have a duty to respond to the prevailing discourse. They undertake to do so in a constructive way, respecting the facts, refusing to caricature or overbid.
Vast program, in these times when invective and personal attacks too often seem to have become the norm.
Daniel Weinstock’s world was turned upside down days before the whole world was turned upside down.
On February 20, 2020, in Le Journal de Montreal, Richard Martineau accused this “disturbing specialist” of having “proposed that Quebec doctors perform ‘symbolic excisions’ on young girls”.
Never mind: the Ministry of Education had rushed to withdraw its invitation to a forum on the reform of the ethics and religious culture course…
The case had caused an outcry; the philosopher had quickly obtained an apology.
“A few days later, the world was changing, we were in lockdown,” he recalls. I was concerned about how society was going about responding to trauma like the pandemic. I thought about it a lot. I turned away a little from the issues on which I had always intervened in the public sphere. »
But it wasn’t just because of the pandemic. In the wake of the case that bears his name, Daniel Weinstock had received “pretty disturbing emails”, to the point of wondering if he should call the police. “You don’t necessarily want to go through that over and over again. Has there been some pullback? Probably yes. For me, personally, this Quebec otherwise initiative is a soft way of trying to regain a place in the debate. »
A debate that he sometimes feels he has lost.
Daniel Weinstock has been in all the debates since the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation in 2007. He had never had this impression of defeat.
“Among the things that concern me is the extremely light-handed way the government uses the notwithstanding clause, which to me is a legitimate mechanism of the Canadian Constitution, but a mechanism of last resort. »
This provision (the “notwithstanding clause”) should be invoked when all other remedies have failed, he believes. It should have been proven that restricting individual rights is the only way to achieve a collective end.
“When the government of Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause for Bill 21 and then for Bill 96, agree disagree with the content, I would have hoped for a bigger reaction, like: ‘hey, that’ what you are doing is serious, these are fundamental rights”.
But no. No one reacted, or else, limply. “That’s when I thought, maybe we’ve lost the debate. Perhaps we have reached a societal consensus around a nationalist conservative vision of Quebec.
Looking back, Daniel Weinstock thinks his camp adopted a poor communication strategy to denounce Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause for its Bills 21 and 96. “We presented the importance of protecting individual rights as a legalistic and technical question, a question of judges. So we are a little on the defensive when, on the other side, there is a more exciting vision of what a good, French-speaking society should be – an objective that I share 100% – which defends its cultural specificity” in a Anglo-Saxon Sea.
But a society that upholds individual rights is also a good society, he argues.
And who could, he hopes, become so again.
His parents, Jews, were born in Warsaw and Budapest. They met in Montreal. “They sent me to the French school when they weren’t under any obligation to do so at the time. My children went to [neighbourhood public] school. For them, Warsaw and Budapest are on the other side of the world. They are French-speaking Quebecers. »
He does not believe in catastrophic talk about the waves of immigration that will engulf Quebec society.
These things are studied. They measure up. The members of the forum intend to tackle it. “In our counter-narrative, it is important that there is supporting evidence, not just abstract philosophical principles. »
It is still necessary to be able to discuss it calmly.
On April 2, 388 intellectuals co-signed in Le Devoir a “call for vigilance in the face of hatred and violence in the media and online”. Among them are several forum members, including Daniel Weinstock.
The letter denounced the personal attacks, the sentences diverted from their meaning and the tweets collected on Twitter and spat out with contempt to fuel the discontent and create a pack effect against their authors.
She attributed this behavior to some columnists and hosts and urged their bosses to call them to order. Some saw it as a call for censorship.
Daniel Weinstock sees it rather as a call for openness.
Coincidence: the day we met, a column in the Journal de Montréal came to the same conclusions. She speaks of a truth that “social media and echo chambers have managed to bury under a ton of prejudice and stereotypes: people are always richer and more complex than their political views.”
The chronicle is signed…Richard Martineau.
When I point out this coincidence to him, Daniel Weinstock is delighted that we have – perhaps – come to this. To realize, on both sides of the political spectrum, that we no longer speak to each other, or almost. And to wish to resume the dialogue, finally, with respect. “I am ready to debate with everyone. »
1. Coffee and me: I drink a lot of coffee, probably too much. In Montreal, I have favorite cafés for writing and meeting people. I like to work in places where there is a kind of general noise. I am not a solitary philosopher.
2. People I’d like to meet at the table, dead or alive: I’m a big music lover, so… Bob Dylan. The novelist Hubert Aquin, a fascinating personality. And my favorite writer, short story writer Alice Munro, 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.
3. On my bedside table: My wife would tell you it’s not a bedside table anymore, it’s more like a bedside mountain! I’m overwhelmed with books, it’s becoming almost structurally dangerous for our house… I’ve just finished Nightcrawling, by the young African-American novelist Leila Mottley.