CBC, “Truthiness” & The Mennonites

It’s surprising to us that just about everyone who has had an encounter, personal or otherwise, with Mennonites from Mexico has an opinion about them — often a strong opinion, and usually unfavourable. And now, with the recent airing of CBC’s TV mini-series Pure followed by The Fifth Estate episode “The Mennonite Connection,” drug-trafficking “Mexican Mennonites” have become a favourite topic of conversation in lunchrooms and at parties, right up there with American politics.

These conversations are as predictable as they are problematic. Often, at least one person has read or viewed a report about a Friesen or Harms getting arrested for drugs and emerges as an expert on the topic. The discussion usually goes something like this:

“Did you see the new CBC mini-series called Pure? They got it all wrong – they mixed up Old Order Mennonites with Mexican Mennonites.”

“This confusion is upsetting, because, you know, Mexican Mennonites are involved with drug trafficking, and the business has been very lucrative for some.”

“That’s more than I knew!”

“And horse-and-buggy Old Order Mennonites are hard-working, honest people who are just trying to live a simple, traditional lifestyle.”

The fall from grace is instant. No need in casual conversation or in a serious documentary to mention the 249 Mexican drug cartels that have expanded their business to include extortion, human trafficking, and kidnapping, and prey on Central American and Mexican migrants, including Mennonites.

Those people, who have been made desperate and vulnerable, are the casualties, the collateral damage, of northern wealth and excess. No matter that our glance was only cursory, that we know next to nothing of the backstory, and that we have never personally met a “Mexican Mennonite.” Justification for contempt and condemnation of a whole group of people has been born.

This is commonplace. We identify difference in another person, and in a split second, without thinking, we make a value judgment about that difference. We construct “them” as the “other,” as our own personal bad object to carry our secret fears and failings. Whether we frame “them” as lazy welfare bums or blameless victims of circumstance, the “other” provides us with a negative comparator by which we prop up an idealized image of ourselves as opposite. Stereotyping always goes hand-in-hand with social archetyping.

What’s more, we tend to divide those who are different from us into noble victims in need of our help or recalcitrant delinquents who should be punished. Veneration or contempt. And we are more inclined to show generosity to those who are needy, through no fault of their own, and duly dependent on us and grateful for our help. Either way, the “other” is positioned as inferior.

But drug-trafficking “Mexican Mennonites” are useful for both ends of the political spectrum: the involvement of a few in the drug trade ensures that the group as a whole cannot be worthy of our left-leaning pity or our right-leaning tolerance. CBC has handed us a bad object—guilt-free. Because they are white, and Christian, we don’t count them as bona fide refugees or even economic migrants. And they are definitely not blameless or “pure.”

The misrepresentations of both Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites in CBC’s recent programming are numerous, and have been outlined accurately by other writers. More contentious is the fact that the two groups are conflated into one, not only as a fictional group in Pure, but as journalistic fact in “The Mennonite Connection,” in shots of Old Order Mennonites used to depict Old Colony Mennonites.

On an obvious level, this is problematic. Old Order Mennonites, who have no connection to drug trafficking or Mexican drug cartels, are directly implicated in dangerous criminal activity. To use misrepresentation, fiction and stereotype for a serious non-fiction documentary at the expense of minority groups blatantly violates CBC’s own — or any other — journalistic standards and ethical guidelines. We are provided with yet another expression of our “post-truth” era; this time when facts are traded in for “truthiness.” We are drawn to stories and statements that seem true, that feel right, thus confirming a previously held belief. The truth of the matter is of little concern.

Yet even more egregious is the blatant disrespect, even symbolic violence, that is taking place in these misrepresentations. Most of “us” take the basic dignity of self-representation in the public eye for granted. We assume to have some say in media representations of us as individuals or as members of a cultural or ethnic group. And if we are denied that respect, we do not hesitate to rebut such representations. These Mennonite groups are not the first ethnic or minority group to be defined by stereotype and exploited for the public’s consumption. But as religious groups that prefer to make their contribution to Canadian society outside the view of the public media and who do not often speak in their own defense, is their right to self-representation somehow revoked? How do “we” — and the CBC — determine which minority groups are deserving of self-representation and which are not? And who is worthy to decide?

Luann is associate professor in York University’s School of Social Work, and the author of the 2016 book, Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada. Kerry has been involved in numerous research projects focused on Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, Bolivia, Ontario and Alberta, and holds a PhD from the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.