Last Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered in Winkler, Manitoba to publicly oppose their school division’s COVID-19 precautions, including mandated mask-wearing for students. This was the latest anti-mask rally in a string of demonstrations across Canada in recent months.
While the rallies themselves aren’t particularly threatening (there have been many and politicians generally denounce them) the messaging being used by demonstrators is concerning because its plucked straight from the lexicon of progressive social justice movements.
In Winkler, one young girl held a sign that read, “My body, my choice” and another girl’s sign said, “Freedom to choose.” Another protestor waved a placard with a photo of a person wearing a mask with the writing over top: “We can’t breathe.”
Following the American alt-right’s playbook of cherry-picking language from the most popular social justice movements to fit their own propaganda campaigns, anti-maskers are now co-opting leftist messaging.
This co-optation of language from other movements to boost a reactionary ideological platform is known as “cause-stacking,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and it’s been a successful strategy of the far-right for years.
The anti-abortion legacy of stealing from leftist movements
Following a series of killings of Black people in 2015, American anti-choice leaders recognized the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and capitalized on it by using the same talking points that promote racial equality to argue against abortion.
In an article published by the Washington Examiner, conservative activist Star Parker wrote, “We can talk all day about ‘black lives matter,’ but if we exclude abortion from this discussion, we’ve excluded the fundamentals of this discussion.”
In 2016, then Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed new restrictions into law that barred “the knowing provision of sex-, race-, or disability-selective abortions.” Subsequently, the president of Indiana Right to Life, a conservative political action committee, announced, “We are pleased that our state values life no matter an individual’s potential disability, gender, or race.” Planned Parenthood challenged the law, and in the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that abortion is “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” arguing that the law, and others like it, would prevent modern-day eugenics.
This wasn’t a new argument. Republican Senator Ted Cruz had cried eugenics before and former presidential candidate Herman Cain had even called abortion “planned genocide.” But as BLM made waves in the US, anti-abortion advocates rode its momentum—claiming their work furthers racial justice—all the way to legislative and legal victories.
Today, as the United States and Canada see another wave of support for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, anti-choice figures have been revitalized, claiming they are fighting against reproductive rights in the name of equality.
Just last week, British Columbia Liberal Party candidate Laurie Throness accused the NDP of promoting eugenics with their plan to provide free contraception, saying “it contains a whiff of the old eugenics thing where, you know, poor people shouldn’t have babies.” Throness has since stepped down and will run as an independent.
Everyone is talking about race, and anti-abortion activists know the drill: appeal to the masses, tug on their heartstrings, and guilt them into agreeing. What better way to do this than to say, I thought you cared about Black people, don’t you care about Black babies?
Similarly, abortion opponents have also long co-opted feminist theory and messaging. NARAL, an American lobby group dedicated to expanding access to abortion, has identified this as a textbook move in its Anti-Choice Propaganda Playbook, documenting how a strategy of appropriating the language of women’s liberation is used by abortion opponents. NARAL notes that anti-choice leaders have argued that the anti-abortion movement empowers women, that historical feminists were anti-choice, and that access to abortion perpetuates oppression. In fact, the theme of the March for Life 2020—an annual rally organized by the National Right to Life, America’s oldest pro-life organization—was called “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman.”
Anti-abortion leaders never go into detail about how restricting a person’s bodily autonomy empowers them, or how forcing a Black woman to go into labour helps their community, but that’s the point. The logic is skewed, but the buzzwords are there, and that’s what matters. This tactic has proven to be an effective messaging tool in the abortion wars down south, and right-wing pundits continue to capitalize on it
Anti-vaxxers co-opt leftist language too
Just as anti-choice leaders have capitalized on progressive messaging, anti-vaxxers have long cherry-picked leftist terminology to further their cause.
Specifically, the anti-vaccine movement consistently weaponizes the feminist language of ‘choice’ to further its cause by arguing that refusing inoculation is an exercise in bodily autonomy. Last spring, at a demonstration organized by InfoWars against public health regulations in Texas, anti-vaxxers attended in large numbers, holding signs that read “vaccine mandates violate bodily autonomy.”
Anti-vaxxers have also stolen from the civil rights movement. Last year, in response to California passing a bill that restricts the medical exemptions parents have used to avoid vaccinating children, a group of mostly white women stormed the California State Capitol building. They bellowed the civil rights anthem “We shall overcome” and paraded through its corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination,” insisting their plight is equivalent to the suffering Black Americans have endured from segregationist policies.
Riding the coattails of BLM’s notoriety, there has been a pronounced spike in anti-vaxxers tweeting #VaccineInjuredLivesMatter, #ChildrensLivesMatter and even #BlackLivesMatter to further their cause. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has reported, anti-vaxxers have gone so far as to co-opt the slogan “Defund the Police,” a central theme of the protests this summer. CSIS quoted one meme reading, “If #BLM protesters can demand we defund police over the death of one black man…then why can’t ‘Vaccine Injured Lives Matter’ protesters demand we defund corrupt ‘public health’ agencies like #CDC over the vaccine induced deaths of countless black (and other) children?”
Anti-maskers are no different
Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-maskers have been the latest far-right group to hijack progressive terminology to further their political message.
Members of this ‘movement’ have taken to streets, schools, and the front steps of legislatures to rebel against mandated mask-wearing. Like the alt-right, they are outraged, victimized, and have resorted to co-opting social justice buzzwords to make their case.
Anti-maskers belong to a loosely aligned political crusade keen to cherry-pick slogans from other groups, so long as it benefits their message.
Today, “I can’t breathe”—the last words of too many Black men killed at the hands of police and a rallying cry for racialized folks across Canada and the US—has become a slogan for white people who take personal offence to public health efforts trying to quell a once-in-a-century global pandemic that has killed more than one million people at the time of writing.
One anti-mask protester in Utah was quoted during a television interview saying, “When George Floyd was saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ and then he died, and now we’re wearing a mask and we’re saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ but we’re being forced to wear them.” At another anti-mask rally in Arizona, Scottsdale city council member Guy Phillips took the microphone and yelled, “I can’t breathe” twice, before ripping off his mask to a cheering crowd.
Over the last few months, many Canadians have smugly looked down upon our southern neighbours as mask mandates became a key battleground in the American culture war. But, like most social issues—including racism—Canada isn’t much better. What began in the US has made its way to this country, aided an abetted by similar right-wing media networks that have pushed anti-mask narratives throughout the pandemic.
Ezra Levan’t Rebel News is one prominent example. In late-September, Levant spoke out in support of Quebec City-based radio station CHOI-FM, which he described as “the most censored media company in Canada” for its “anti-mask viewpoints,” implicitly encouraging his listeners to ignore public health guidelines they might disagree with.
Other Rebel News figures, including correspondent Andrew Chapados, joined more than 1,000 anti-lockdown and anti-mask protesters at a rally in downtown Toronto to “reject what they see as government overreach in regards to COVID-19 measures.”
Canadian anti-maskers have jumped on the American conservative bandwagon: they saw how effective pro-choice and BLM messaging has been and they have co-opted it.
Protests have popped up across Canada against mandated mask-wearing, and at almost every rally, leftist messaging was deployed. In Vancouver, Windsor, Montreal, Saskatoon, Guelph, Chatham, and Winkler we have seen the signs and heard the cries: “I can’t breathe,” and “My body, my choice.” These groups, fighting to flout public health measures, have cloaked their rhetoric in feminist theory of choice.
The left must address this
The strategy at play here by the radical right isn’t overly complicated, yet it has proven effective: take leftist messaging, twist words until they can point to a manufactured hypocrisy, and act like their cause has the moral high ground.
When it comes to co-opting slogans like “My body, my choice,” the right thinks they can convince centrists that the left is being hypocritical—if they can choose what to do with their body, why am I denied that same right? Of course, the logic is lacking (abortion affects just the pregnant person, whereas wearing a mask affects entire communities) but they don’t care about that. They point out ‘the left’s hypocrisy’ to put progressives on the defensive.
The right’s propensity for stealing and distorting leftist messaging while simultaneously warning the world about the lethal dangers of socialism, is one of its greatest strengths. The playbook is simple: gaslight the left, steal their rally cries, and call them hypocrites.
The left needs to set aside its infighting and address the right’s skillful co-optation. As populism thrives globally, the left needs to take control of its own messaging and develop an effective response to this tactic.
The cruelty and hypocrisy of it shouldn’t be lost on anyone: as he cried out for his mother, under the boot of a white officer, George Floyd uttered “I can’t breathe” as his last words, and now white women chant the same thing to flout public health regulations designed to keep people alive.
Paula Ethans is a writer, poet, organizer, and human rights lawyer from Winnipeg. You can follow her on Twitter @PaulaEthans.