Letter to an Icon

May 13, 2020

Dear Bryan,

I see you’ve stepped in the doo-doo. In the last 24 hours, your brand as Order of Canada-holding, All-Canadian-Guy-Next-Door rock star has taken a beating because of something you said on social media. And your attempt to walk it back has landed with a big thud. As your friendly neighbourhood crisis communications professional, I’d like to assist you in unpacking your offence while offering some free advice on what you might do next.

First, let’s take another look at that Tweet: Tonight was supposed to be the beginning of a tenancy of gigs at the @royalalberthall but thanks to some fucking bat eating, wet market animal setting, virus making greedy bastards, the whole world is on now hold [sic].

On Instagram, a lengthier version of the same message included this:

My message to them, other than “thanks a fucking lot,” is go vegan.

Let me guess: you were drunk. I can’t think of another reason that an intelligent person would tweet something like this unless drink were involved, and a few have made that suggestion. But then, that would hardly exonerate you: we all know that liquor is an infamous lubricant for truth-telling, and there are a few problems with this particular ‘truth’ you were telling.

Let’s start with the global political climate around COVID-19, the subject of your rant. The jury is still out on the exact origins of the novel coronavirus that has, to date, infected more than 4.3 million people and killed nearly 300,000 worldwide. Yes, scientists agree it probably began with a leap from animals to humans, likely in Wuhan. But the notion that its origins were by design—that it was manipulated or produced in a laboratory—has become the stuff of alt-right conspiracythink, rather than science.

If you take a look at some of the people who’ve been peddling this theory and others around COVID, it’s pretty clear what they’ve been aiming for: vilification of Chinese people everywhere, to be scapegoated as the source and deliberate cause of the pandemic and all forms of misery associated with it. Putting aside legitimate critiques of the Chinese Communist Party government’s initial response to the outbreak, the racists prefer to characterize COVID as a pan-Chinese contagion that ought to put a target on the back of every Chinese person who happens to come into their midst—including people they mistakenly assume to be Chinese.

By repeating the conspiracy theory, your tweet played right into this blame game, enabling the worst instincts of white supremacists and every-day bigots who don’t need much prompting to vent their toxic Sinophobia. Perhaps you haven’t been following the news in Canada and B.C. lately. Maybe you haven’t heard that, in Vancouver alone, 20 anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported to police this year as of last week, compared to a dozen for all of 2019. Targets have included a woman at a bus stop, another woman on Skytrain, another woman on a bus who stood up to racist attacks, an elderly man with dementia at a corner store, and the Chinese Cultural Centre.

The situation has gotten so bad that Asian people of all nationalities say they’re afraid to take public transit. B.C. Premier John Horgan has sounded the alarm about these attacks, drawing a clear connection to COVID-inspired bigotry as the motivation. Bigotry, as we know, is fuelled by misinformation. And that can include ignorant comments by celebrities whose influence has global reach.

Your Instagram post was also a problem because it mentioned your cancelled gigs in the same breath as “the thousands that have suffered or died from this virus.” It was also a problem because of that sign-off, “Go vegan.” (I mean, how big of you: not only to have a superior diet but to casually prescribe it to people you’ve just finished calling “greedy bastards.”)

You seemed surprised that the whole Twittersphere lit up in response, your tweet drawing a serious rebuke from the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice. So you did what every good Canadian boy does when he screws up: you went back onto social media and said sorry. Well, kind of. Here’s what you said:

Apologies to any and all that took offence to my posting yesterday. No excuse, I just wanted to have a rant about the horrible animal cruelty in these wet-markets being the possible source of the virus, and promote veganism…I have love for all people and my thoughts are with everyone dealing with this pandemic around the world.

Oh, Bryan. Where do I start? Well, that “any and all that took offense” bit is a classic “whatever,” completely devoid of accountability and as convincing as the agent-scripted grovel issued by former Vancouver Canuck Brendan Leipsic last week (only after he was caught in a hacked—and career-ending—Zoom chat, dissing his teammates and their girlfriends with a misogynistic tirade). How about specifying the “any and all”? You know, like, Chinese people in Wuhan, Chinese Canadians, Asian people in general? Plus anyone who has ever been harassed or assaulted for no other reason than the colour of their skin? Even that “No excuse” seemed disingenuous, coming as it did right before an excuse. As for the excuse itself? Well, I’m sure your heart bleeds for those wet market bats, Bryan, but the tweet didn’t strike me as an effective awareness-builder for animal cruelty.

So no, the apology was a flop. And I’m afraid you’ll be sitting in the penalty box for a good long while. If there’s one kind of celebrity role model people don’t like, it’s the kind who doesn’t admit his mistake and own the consequences. The kind who doesn’t show contrition or express a desire to make amends. And you are checking all those boxes right now.

Of course, I could be wrong about the consequences. Perhaps I’m making too much of the need for damage control and you’re already on the upswing. (Twitter will move on, etc.) After all, one of the most popular traditions in Canadian racism is cutting our heroes a lot of slack when they screw up. But allow me to dream in technicolour for a moment: allow me to assume that the outrage continues, that the damage to your brand is real, and that you start feeling something other than wounded pride for having been called out. (Like, say, sincere regret for the damage you’ve caused.) How could you make amends? I have three suggestions:

  1. Start with a real apology. Something like: “I sincerely apologize for my thoughtless comments, which were damaging and hurtful to people not only in China but also in Canada and around the world. I acknowledge that such comments are racist and enable a climate of bigotry that only increases people’s anxiety while putting them further at risk. This pandemic has caused unbelievable suffering and death, and pointing fingers is no way to get us past the crisis. We all need to work together to stop COVID-19, and if that means I can’t perform again until we flatten the curve, then so be it. Meanwhile, I commit to better educating myself about the issues so that I never make such careless comments again.”
  2. Organize an online anti-racism concert/forum. Follow up on the apology by reaching out to fellow performers, especially in the Chinese-Canadian community. Find out if there’s an appetite for doing a Zoom event about racism and COVID-19. Offer to lead the discussion by suggesting ways to fight racism in social media. If your fellow performers are willing to be seen on the same screen with you, then voila: you’re on your way to rehab—especially if you turn the event into a fundraiser for the Chinese Cultural Centre.
  3. Write a song about COVID that proves you “have love for all people” and that your “thoughts are with everyone dealing with this pandemic around the world.” Prove it by writing an aching melody about the injustice of Chinese people being attacked because of their race, yes, but also write about the separation of families, about people dying alone without their loved ones, about the courage of front-line health care workers and other essential employees helping others while putting themselves at risk. Prove it by writing a haunting ballad about the struggle to find a vaccine and for science and reason to triumph over fear and misinformation. And prove it by writing about people who’ve lost their jobs or businesses and can’t afford to pay their rent or mortgage, about cash-strapped, anonymous musicians who can only dream of ever playing at the Royal Albert Hall, about the disproportionate number of people of colour struck down by COVID, and about the dangers of unchecked privilege.

Because when it really comes down to it, it’s casual racism that cuts like a knife.

And no, Bryan, it doesn’t feel so right.

You’re welcome.

DG

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