On November 14th, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, and dozens of other celebrated Canadian authors published an open letter to the University of British Columbia. It was an act of protest against the university’s mistreatment of one of their CanLit luminary peers, Steven Galloway, the novelist and former UBC Creative Writing Program chair at the centre of a sex scandal. It’s now known that Galloway had an affair with a middle-aged student in his department, who later accused him of sexual assault; a number of his students also allege that he played favourites, created a sexualized environment, and engaged in horseplay that crossed lines of decorum at the least.
None of these details were available to the public last November, when The Globe and Mail and other major news outlets ran the story that Galloway had been suspended from his job in light of unspecified “serious allegations.” An internal investigation at UBC followed, conducted by a retired provincial Supreme Court judge. Her report found most of the complaints against Galloway, including the sexual assault one, couldn’t be substantiated. Still, whatever was in the report was enough for UBC, and Galloway was fired in June, without severance. There was extensive media coverage, with varying degrees of sympathy for the different parties. Galloway tried to kill himself.
In The Walrus magazine, Margaret Atwood likens the business to the Salem Witch Trials, total reputational annihilation on the basis of whisper campaigns and a guilty-because-accused standard of public judgment. She’s right. Many others on Twitter express concern for the complainants, de-centred in favour of Galloway in the heavyweights’ letter. They’re right. Dorothy Palmer, a union leader and activist, argues on Facebook that the open-letter CanLuminaries are bourgeois stars of the neoliberal gig economy and their weaponizing the media is a form of union-busting: the controversy should be settled through unions’ established protocols, better able to ensure fairness and privacy. In principle, she’s right.
Except the fairness and privacy ship sailed last November, when UBC failed both Galloway and his accusers by allowing his suspension to leak to Canada’s daily newspaper of record and thus to social media. What anybody embedded in the neoliberal gig economy knows is that your union grievance rights are worth shit once your personal brand is dead. Whether you’re a bestselling author or a desperate MFA grad watching your bank balance dwindle (or both), you are your name—or, to be precise, your name’s globally accessible Google search results.
Employment depends on them. Housing may depend on them. Future friendship and romance most certainly depend on them. Someone whose name has been wrecked online must wonder, each time they meet a new person: Do they know the shame my name now holds, and will they abandon me when they find out? To be sure, many victims of sexual assault feel a parallel version of this loneliness when they wonder, each time they meet someone new: Can they tell I’m traumatized, and will they abandon me when they find out? The open-letter-writers may have felt the former horror more acutely. Or they may have felt, as they imply, that Galloway has gotten a rawer deal than the complainants in light of the circumstances that are known. I can’t tell if the CanLuminaries’ demand for a public inquiry into the events is all that coherent; it’s not clear to me that such a thing would benefit the main stakeholders at this point, though unmuzzling Galloway might well benefit his mental health. What I wish is that these exceptional writers had used their collective force of imagination to probe more searchingly the moral, ethical, and legal questions before them.