Category Archives: Canada

Open letter to the National Post: resistance to gender identity laws is about much more than political correctness

Recent articles (here and here) in the National Post have exposed a dispute surrounding gender identity taking place at U of T, one of many universities trying to navigate this polarizing issue. It’s critical that the public be informed that there’s more at stake than just transgender rights and freedom of expression.

Gender identity is indeed, as Jordan Peterson says, philosophically incoherent and scientifically unfounded. It’s also true that forcing others to participate in affirming one’s self-perception is a violation of individual autonomy. The more pressing concern, however, is not political correctness but rather that gender identity has created a dangerous landscape of competing rights that adversely impacts females. As such, dissension shouldn’t be monopolized by people who aren’t invested or interested in women’s rights.

According to NatPo writer Chris Selley, resistance to recognizing people’s chosen identity (the list is huge and continually expanding) comes down to a straightforward matter of being a jerk. But consider this: when gender identity replaces biological sex in law, distinct sex categories and therefore sex-based protections for females disappear because any male-bodied individual is considered a woman, or even female, strictly and solely on his verbal declaration. Many Canadians are supportive of transgender protections against discrimination in areas such as employment and housing (as am I) but aren’t aware of this implication. Toby’s Law, passed in Ontario, granted serial sex offender Christopher “Jessica” Hambrook entry into two women’s shelters on the basis of his transgender identity as a woman, where he assaulted at least four women. Despite the exploitation of these laws being well-documented, women and girls are left to question what rights they have (examples include the case of Student X in Minnesota and Colleen Francis in Washington), and we’re supposed to think this is a bad thing because some people don’t want to use preferred pronouns.

Imagine being a female forced to share public showers, change rooms, prisons, shelters, and other protected spaces with males because they claim to have an indescribable internal female feeling, that they can’t be questioned when they say they’re women because they identify with the stereotypes forced on females, or they don’t think they’re men because they don’t identify with masculine stereotypes. Imagine being told that you’re only a woman because you choose to identify as one, hence choosing to be a target of discrimination and violence, even though men who harm women and girls are unaware of and uninterested in how they see themselves and wish to be addressed. If you’re a sexual assault survivor, you’re expected to get over your trauma.

Postmodern queer theory and gender politics have arbitrarily decreed that a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman – end of discussion – and even thinking about asking a question is transphobic and bigoted. Now imagine that this circular logic forms the basis of gender identity laws in many countries, starting from the UN and trickling down, and you’ll be describing a reality few know exists. Women and girls are ordered to be silent, nurturing, and to surrender their boundaries. This is not acceptable. Not ever, not for any reason, even when it’s presented as a remedy for the problems faced by another group of people coping with their own unique challenges.

There are a number of common strawman arguments in circulation. I’ll address three to illustrate the lack of understanding around the issue:

  1. Opponents of gender identity laws are saying that transgender people are inherently predatory.
  2. Opponents think that women and girls will be safe if we don’t let transgender people use the facilities of their choice.
  3. Predators have always been able to get into female spaces, so what’s the difference?

The problem is that a law whose criterion for entry is self-declaration as opposed to biological sex effectively removes all barriers faced by predators who realize that all they have to do is say they identify as female/girl/woman. This loophole is publicized every time an incident is reported in the news. You’d have to be something of a recluse not to have heard about the controversy surrounding transgender bathroom laws.

Sex-segregated spaces were never understood as impenetrable bubbles that deliver absolute protection. They’ve always been intended to provide, as much as is practically possible, privacy and safety for females. It’s irrelevant whether particular individuals who don’t appear to be transgender can pose as transgender to make a political point; sincerity can’t be assessed if it’s unlawful to question one’s stated gender identity. In such a situation, literally any man can obtain unfettered access, whereas before he could be questioned and ejected if necessary. The fact that most perpetrators of male violence are known to their victims and there’s no way to guarantee safety in some circumstances are not valid reasons to expose women and girls to further risk. This should be obvious to anyone who values and respects females. Trying to convince them of what they should be comfortable with is a manifestation of rape culture. If you’re trying to negotiate someone’s boundaries, regardless of why they exist, you’ve already violated them.

There was no question about the need for sex segregation before gender identity was popularized. Until recently, no one was equating it with white supremacist laws in the American south. So why now? Sex segregation isn’t an expression of social hierarchy; it reflects a need and a right for females to participate fully in public life. Shaming people for not wanting to expose themselves or be exposed to the opposite sex against their will is an affront to human dignity, irrespective of whether some people think it’s bizarre or wrong, or feel comfortable doing so themselves.

There are many other ways in which gender identity negatively impacts women and girls. For the feminists critiquing this ideology, resistance isn’t a matter of poor judgement, character flaws or a desire to say offensive things without being accountable. These issues warrant rigorous analysis and discussion in the media and by the Canadian government as they consider the ramifications of Bill C-16.

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Why men should stop calling themselves feminists

When Emma Watson posted a tribute to the late Alan Rickman by highlighting one of his quotes about feminism, she faced a swift backlash for what some people idiots claimed was a gratuitous promotion of feminism (because promoting feminism is a bad thing and famous people are never quoted in memoriam?).

It’s always good overall, I think, when men can say the word feminism without looking like they’ve just smelled something funky. Although it’s helpful that not all men (or women) think it’s a dirty word, not speaking derisively about the movement for women’s liberation is a basic minimum of decency. If the bar has been set so low that men are lavished with praise for verbally recognizing that women are human beings, this is a solid argument for sustaining the topic in public discourse, to be sure.

The question is: who should shape and own that discourse? Lately there have been numerous instances in which men – especially white men of means – take up the mantle of feminist and instruct other men to do the same. While some women don’t have a problem with this I think it’s worth exploring why some women do because talking about feminism, whether it’s being done by women or men, is not a gender-neutral practice.

The words, ideas, and actions of men carry more weight in society. Females and males aren’t just individuals but also members of social classes which are defined by specific criteria: who they’re perceived to be, how they’re expected to behave, and how they relate to each other. Men hold certain things in common, with some variation thrown in the mix such as nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and sexual orientation. The same goes for women. The result is a complex web of social groups, some of which are organized according to hierarchies i.e. structures of power. The internal commonalities that differentiate males and females from each other are one such example. Of all the topics imaginable, sexism is the subject for which sex-based inequality matters the most. When men and women talk about feminism they’re doing so from privileged and underprivileged positions respectively.

As well-meaning as all of this is, it presents some significant problems. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that men need to be a big part of the conversation, I cringe. Men should critique the system of gender (masculinity and femininity) and talk about what they can do to dismantle it. Most importantly, they should elevate the voices of women, especially marginalized women such as women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, poor and working class women, lesbians, disabled women, etc. – bearing in mind that many women belong to more than one of these groups. Organizations like A Call To Men UK do a great job of advocating for the well-being of women and the reason for this is that they take responsibility and they listen to us. Men acting as the face and voice of feminism and taking up space in the movement is actually the last thing that feminism needs. There are loads of intelligent, charismatic women who can (and do) discuss feminism more articulately, more accurately, and with more credibility than men ever can. Why should they have a platform to speak our truths?

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I believe that men should never identify as feminists – and certainly not any time they feel like it as Trudeau suggests. A man, especially one who enjoys multiple levels of privilege, dictating who can or should adopt this title and when smacks of hubris and paternalism. The benefactors of an oppressive system have no business setting the language and parameters of the activism that seeks to destroy that system. The conflict of interest here is obvious to anyone willing to see it.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend who, as soon as he found out I’m a feminist, was eager to tell me that he’s a feminist too. I thought, ‘Oh no. Here we go again’. I took a deep breath and told him that a lot of women aren’t comfortable with men adopting the label of feminist. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dismissed me. “That’s not my problem,” he said.

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It’s always deeply disappointing when men who assume the good guy status ultimately prove themselves to be classic mansplainers. It’s become such a cliché.

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Ilana and Abbi in Broad City

Isn’t it convenient that there are two tranches of feminism that men can pick and choose from as though they’re deciding which ice cream tastes better and the one that’s most desirable to them happens to be the one that least challenges their privilege? This serves the purpose of creating a subclass of feminists who are deemed deserving of abuse and allows men to avoid questioning themselves while appearing virtuous. They can rest easy because they’ve been accepted by the good feminists. The real feminists.

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There’s something mildly relieving about the few times guys manage to say something about sexism or feminism that isn’t misguided, stupid, or arrogant. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the Ryan Gosling memes because you’ve probably seen a lifetime’s worth and then some.)

It’s not wrong for public figures to say that it’s important to demand a shift in attitudes as Trudeau has said, but I have a feeling he means something different when he says this than when I do. I know I’m not alone in feeling that we’re far from done and radical change can’t come soon enough. We’re expected to be satisfied with minor advancements and I’m sorry (not sorry) but women have only ever made progress when we’ve fought for it. It doesn’t make sense to low-ball in what is essentially treated as a negotiation of human rights.

It’s not as though women have been sitting around at Stitch ‘n Bitch waiting for politicians to give them the green light. Women have been practicing feminism since well before male sympathizers were born. Women are the ones with the most at stake and we also happen to be the experts. So shouldn’t the experts be educating the public on how to move forward? If gender parity really is a priority in his administration, the best way for Trudeau to demonstrate that is to step aside and let women speak, and not just about feminism but every other issue too because we are people, after all, and we have a lot of smart things to say about every topic under the sun. The only way for us to change the fact that men’s words carry more weight is to take some of it and place it on the other side of the scale.

The truth is, very few men know what they’re talking about. Time and time again we see men insisting that they’re feminists and that they know what feminism is and how we should go about it, only to end up stepping in it. Then they track that garbage all over the place without even realizing it. When do we say, enough?

We can pluck examples from a wide variety of men with the same predictable outcome. The most ridiculous case that comes to mind is when porn actor and serial abuser James Deen was lauded as a feminist and “feminist” publications had to backtrack when his misogyny became too embarassingly obvious to rationalize.

A lot of people laughed when Pope Francis said, “forgive me if I’m a bit feminist” and then went on to say, in the way that condescending men are wont to, that women are just so fantastic because they do the care work while men do all the talking. But are other spiritual leaders much different? For instance, what about the Dalai Lama, who proudly wears the feminist label?

It didn’t take long for him to screw up. Just one year later self-identified Buddhist feminists went into damage control after the leader made an unequivocally sexist comment. Oops! When asked whether he supported the idea that the next Lama could be a woman, he enthusiastically said yes (watch at 4:52) but he followed this up with two assertions. The first was that women are biologically wired to be more affectionate and compassionate than men – that familiar stereotype that’s been used for centuries to force support roles on women and deny them other forms of employment. The second was that this woman would have to be very attractive or else she wouldn’t be of much use. Visibly shocked by this, the interviewer asked him if he was joking and he confirmed that he wasn’t. He clearly wasn’t. But even if he had been joking, which many Buddhists insisted was the case regardless of appearances, sexist jokes aren’t funny (how many times do we have to say this??) and they definitely aren’t feminist.

The term ‘male feminist’ exists because females are the default feminists. We’re the default feminists because feminism is a political movement that organizes for the liberation of females from male domination. If I’m being brutally honest? Very few men are interested in destroying this system and those who say they are almost always get in the way. The biggest hindrance to progress is the fact that any given man is far more likely to perpetuate sexism than to challenge it. Women participate in this system as well as a result of our own social conditioning, but with one key difference: relatively speaking, men have power and women do not. The potential for men to divide, derail, and sabotage feminism through their mere presence is enormous.

From this angle, members of the oppressor class referring to themselves as the liberators of the people they oppress is itself an act of domination, whether intentional or not. It’s not for men to decide what or who is feminist. It’s disrespectful to feminists who work hard, take risks and make sacrifices. They shouldn’t have to share the well-earned badge of feminist with people who not only hold power over them but will never understand what it means to be a woman in a culture that hates females. If a man insists on calling himself a feminist despite all of this, he is anything but; that it’s a matter of respecting women’s boundaries should be enough for him to back off. Feminism belongs to women, as do the words we use to signal our support for the struggle.

There are a lot of things men can do to help women, some more effective than others. As Helen Lewis explains, whereas men often want to be part of the feminist conversation – as many believe is their right – the most valuable contribution men can make to feminism is to take on the burdens that have for so long been the responsibility of women. It’s not glamorous or fun but that’s not the point anyway.

Apparently this needs to be said: men are not entitled to feminist spaces, nor do feminists have any obligation to listen to what men have to say about the women’s liberation movement. It’s great when they reject masculinity but if they’re just performing a different stereotype, or they think their gender divergence means they’re not really men, then gender roles are left intact. When it comes to men and gender, true nonconformity means abandoning one’s allegiance to masculinity along with any notion that one’s sex is correlated with one’s personality.

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Being an ally to social causes shouldn’t be about personal identity and it shouldn’t matter whether you’ve taken on a particular status because having a shiny happy image doesn’t help anyone but you.

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An open letter to Fightback: how the left fails women

Yesterday I received my last copy of Fightback (Issue 91). Some of the leftist analysis in this journal is decent and I feel that the meager $20 I paid for a yearly subscription was well spent. I will not, however, be renewing my subscription, the reasons for which I’m providing in an open letter because they speak to the challenges that women often face when we try to organize for our rights within leftist circles.

In the first article in this issue, The niqab debate: A weapon of mass distraction, Joel Bergman correctly and articulately describes Stephen Harper’s hypocrisy in trying to present himself as a defender of women’s rights through his grandstanding around the niqab. Harper says that the practice of covering a woman so that only her eyes are visible is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. If we’re being honest, it’s impossible to imagine how a culture that renders women essentially invisible while allowing men to dress as they wish can not be considered to be anti-women. An egalitarian culture would see this as unthinkable. We’ve heard the argument that veiled women, especially those who have immigrated to Canada, wear the niqab by choice. How many of these women’s families would be supportive if they decided they wanted to wear jeans a t-shirt with nothing on their heads? The niqab is not a female creation and it is worn within a social context that does not afford women autonomy or equal status.

Nevertheless, the government has deliberately created confusion about the personal identification process involved in citizenship. We know that the hegemonic “culture” that Harper refers to is a contrived notion that seeks to paint every brown-skinned Muslim with the same extremist brush. He wants us to think they’re all current or future terrorists and a horrifying percentage of Canadians agree with him. Part of what’s so sickening about the niqab debate is that conservatives have nothing to teach anyone about women’s rights.

But neither do leftists, it seems. Only in a patriarchal society could individuals outraged by the niqab attack the women wearing it and not the men who enforce this code of conduct. When we see New Democrat support in Quebec swinging toward the nationalist Bloc Quebecois as a result of this debate, we have to wonder about the class consciousness of people who only consider voting for the two parties in Quebec that can be described by some measure as progressive. White working class and middle class men have traditionally organized around economic class, but there are other forms of class oppression which Marxism still fails to address.

Simply put, why is a man writing an article about women’s rights? Couldn’t Fightback find a woman to write on this topic? Come to think of it, why are all four of the articles in this issue – and almost every article in every issue I’ve ever read – written by men? Let me explain why you picked the wrong person to cover the niqab debate and women’s rights. Bergman writes:

“In supposedly fighting for the emancipation of women, the Harper Conservatives, in alliance with Quebecois nationalists and liberal feminists alike end up using the state to once again take away women’s right to choose.”

I’m sorry? Choice is a keystone of liberal feminism that can apply to literally anything a woman might decide to do because making that decision in itself is considered to be empowering, including wearing a mini skirt or a hijab, being a submissive in a BDSM relationship, or stripping. To deny a woman her agency, as this theory goes, would be anti-feminist. Basically, the guy writing about women’s rights is trying to critique a branch of feminism, which he gets backwards but is actually a proponent of, without even knowing it.

But here’s what sent Fightback sailing into my blue box:

“The niqab cannot be legislated away. What is needed is to create the conditions in which women themselves choose to reject it. The only real way to do this is not through state imposition and policing, but through building a mass united movement of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression and against the capitalist system itself which forms the cement foundation, perpetuating all of the rotten garbage that we see in our society today.”

None of the women who could honestly call themselves feminists are suggesting that state institutions be used to prevent women from wearing the niqab. More importantly, only a member of the dominant class can afford to believe that a mass movement of oppressed peoples will do anything other than prioritize the goals of the privileged class. How do men, who are members of the biggest oppressor class on the planet, imagine they’ll help to bring about women’s liberation when so many of them imagine themselves to be educated on women’s rights but have never bothered to learn feminist theory? I don’t want to organize alongside Marxist men who repeat all the mainstream feminist talking points only to go home and watch violent, misogynistic porn. I don’t want to surround myself with “comrades” who think that socialism is the answer to patriarchy because I’ve seen far too many lefty men use the same tactics as their conservative brethren to silence and bully women.

The next time Fightback runs an article on women’s issues, I hope you’ll demonstrate your commitment to women by elevating our voices and actively challenging the pervasive culture of male entitlement. You might also consider providing more feminist content. The class analysis of radical feminism is something that anti-capitalist movements could greatly benefit from. You see, capitalism grew out of a patriarchal, white supremacist ideology – not the other way around. After all, there would be no market in capitalism for women’s bodies in the first place if men didn’t think they existed for their own use and abuse. There are plenty of women who would have done a better job of analyzing this topic, among others, including those outside the realm of women’s issues. No one will believe that you believe that if you don’t hand over the microphone.

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‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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Countries don’t have values – people do

In a CBC News article, Liberal Leader and PM hopeful Justin Trudeau had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.

Do we, Justin? Are we being honest about how many Canadians habitually show little compassion toward immigrants, refugees, First Nations, indigenous females, people of colour, and other marginalized groups? And not just show a lack of compassion, but blame them for our own policy failures? Since we seem to need reminding, I happen to have some examples on hand. A small sample:

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The sort of people who hold the views expressed above are the same people who balk at alleviating poverty and uprooting oppression except when these problems can be used as excuses for inaction, xenophobia, cynicism, and various other forms of pigheadedness. Not surprisingly, these types also cling to the official narrative of the Dominion of Canada, which goes something like this:

(Don’t ask me what the hell a cactus is doing there – I’m guessing in 1993 they had an extremely limited clipart selection to draw from.)

Apparently, it could only have been European immigrants who made this land great because prior to their arrival it was terra nullius. Empty, unclaimed land, so the story goes. A blank slate much improved by people who had maybe a piece of fruit and a few bucks in their pockets, people fleeing conflict, pioneers who despite having very little were seen as possessing a vast store of potential and value. In a fantastic feat of amnesia, the Canadian imagination doesn’t seem to include the 17,000 Chinese men who built our national railroad system in this group. Also interesting is the fact that when you mention immigrants and refugees to the average Canuck today – especially if the groups being referred to aren’t white and Christian – suddenly the romantic narrative of people making something out of nothing no longer applies.

The fact that our immediate unified response to humanitarian crises isn’t to see these human beings as the assets that they are reveals a lot about our enduring colonial mindset. Those who view migrants and refugees as liabilities do not see these people as human beings. Each and every one of us has value. It isn’t determined by one’s education, religion or culture, or whether one owns property or capital. We have value because we exist. We’re all connected and we all have something to offer. People should never have to prove their worth. When your neighbours’ house is burning down, do you leave them on your doorstep while you measure the floor space and count your pillows?

The language of great nations, Canadian values, American values, etc. has no real meaning. There’s a subtext to it, though. When patriots say these sorts of things, there’s an element of: we’re going to help you because we’re such nice people. In addition to asserting that we value others – whether we do or not in practice – apparently, it’s also crucial that we appear as good, civilized people. But good, civilized people don’t have to build a cozy narrative around why they help people. They just do it.

What strikes me as most troubling is that it’s not just proud imperialists like George W. Bush who believe that countries like Canada and the United States are shining beacons of prosperity and freedom and that people in the West are inherently different from and morally superior to people in other parts of the world. By insinuating that we’re special because we want to help refugees (well, some of us), we become apologists for our own colonial institutions. Nationalism is incompatible with universal human rights. There’s nothing decent about leveraging crises as self-congratulatory exercises or as a means to rub our patronizing gratitude for being Canadian in people’s faces. Millions of people on Turtle Island are suffering, our indigenous peoples most of all. How dare we erase their struggles with such careless hyperbole? If we’re so morally astute, why are we centering our discourse around helping people on our identity and the pride it gives us rather than the people themselves? Only a self-serving, arrogant culture would turn a real-life horror story into an opportunity to feel good about itself. Why do we need to make everything about us?

Patriotism and nationalism are to countries what marketing and advertising are to corporations. People who think they live in the greatest country in the world don’t have a reason to question the history they’ve been taught. Nor do they have an incentive to fight against the inequality and injustice that privilege insulates them from.

Appealing to Canadian values, after all, is standard scripting for politicians. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who is often described as a leftist, relies on the same loaded language. Canadians are going to hear a lot of it over the next several weeks. Like this, for example:

I’m confused. What group of people is going to define themselves according to a “value” of not exporting jobs? Is there a constituency on this planet in which a critical mass of people identify nationally with the idea of committing economic suicide? It makes no sense.

There is a key difference between Mulcair and Trudeau, however. It’s hard to miss the hypocrisy in rhapsodizing about being open and compassionate while supporting a law that violates our fundamental civil rights and targets marginalized and racialized groups, with essentially no oversight or accountability. What are the Liberal Party’s real values, and whose values do they represent?

What’s lost in so much of this political discourse is the fact that we’re never going to be a country – or a world – where everyone is free and equal until we acknowledge what we have done and what we continue to do in the name of commerce, development, and growth. What do these ideas mean? What could they mean, if we had the courage to redefine them? Of course, values are everything. But countries don’t have values. People do. Assuming an ideological hegemony among 35 million people who happen to live within politically defined boundaries erases history as well as the current reality of class-based inequality. It’s likely that disenfranchised people throughout the world have more in common with each other than they do with many people who share their nationality.

This goes well beyond issues surrounding refugees and immigration. Politicians never pass up an opportunity to remind us that we’re citizens of the state first and humans second.

There it is. See that? A very nice message, but he just couldn’t resisting squeezing in that bit of propaganda at the end. What makes America great, exactly? I need reminding, Mr. President. Is it the legacy of genocide and dispossession? The guiding forces of white supremacy and patriarchy? The epidemic of police brutality? The perpetual profit-driven war? The ruling oligarchy? Or maybe it’s the undercurrent of arrogance through which America pretends it offers heaven, when for so many people both in America and abroad, it’s a living hell.

Canada is not much better. Instead of coming to terms with our failures, we double down on language that everybody speaks but nobody understands.

Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.
― Arundhati Roy

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What do Stephen Harper and Hitler have in common?

In so-called Western democracies like Canada, people often complain about corrupt and self-serving politicians but there doesn’t seem to be much fear that an individual could come along and change the very foundations of this country. A fascist government? In Canada? Never! We look at politically unstable countries and assume that we’re immune to the problems they face. But we’re not. All it takes is one person. It’s happened countless times in many different countries around the world. Some of these leaders seize power through a coup or some other violent or underhanded method. Sometimes, they’re elected.

People seem content to rest on the assumption that if a head of state ever did want to transform our nation, we would know. Somehow, we would see it coming. And granted, Harper did warn us that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once he was through with it. How far along does one suppose we’ve gotten at this point? When the Fair Elections Act was introduced, I read that only 23% of those polled indicated that they were aware of the proposed legislation. Something as important as a plan to make substantial changes to our electoral system – and one that was actually being discussed in the media – escaped the notice of so many people. Clearly we don’t even pay attention to the big things.

We’re all very busy and these announcements often occur on Fridays when we’re least likely to notice. And to be fair, so many alterations have been made that it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s hard to know which ones are worth really worrying about. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The next time someone suggests we’re overreacting when a new law is passed, another “action plan” is advertized, more scientists are muzzled, or additional research programs or departments are crippled or shuttered altogether, feel free to quote Adolf Hitler:

 

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While we’re talking about Harper and Hitler, I would submit that the topic of genocide is relevant here too. Every iteration of the Canadian colonial government from its inception has either exacerbated or failed to challenge the racist nature of its policies with regard to First Nations and Métis peoples. Not a single major political party has called our government out for what it is: a tool for racist oppression. Even leaders who talk about cooperation and reconciliation are rationalizing the foundations of what is still a paternalistic relationship. The only answer is to decolonize, and that would require the government to relinquish its control over indigenous peoples in this country and thus much of the land and natural resources. Recognizing indigenous rights means abandoning a centralized economic policy that would see the extraction of natural resources as perpetual fuel for a capitalist fire. And every party wants to stoke that fire – but that does not mean that they are interchangeable. Stephen Harper is the ringleader for those who wish to do more than maintain the status quo; he seeks to address the “Indian problem” with far more malice and surgical precision via his First Nations Termination Plan [PDF].  As Russ Diabo details in this presentation, the Harper government is expanding on an aggressive program whose goal is to eliminate First Nations title, status, and rights altogether. How else can we describe this but as genocide in a neocolonial context?

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What will it take to end sexism?

The topics of gender-based discrimination and abuse continue to pop up in the Canadian media. Personally, I’m still rattled about how conversations about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal have exposed our limits to addressing sexism. It brought me to many videos and articles that helped me probe how I feel about these topics more deeply, especially since I realized how much this has affected me on an emotional level. Looking back on my past, I realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted many times but have never really acknowledged it. Firstly because each time it’s happened it became more normalized in my imagination and secondly because it was almost always at the hands of men I knew and trusted. With each incident, I told myself it could have been worse so it wasn’t that big a deal. They weren’t things you could tell the police about and expect action to be taken. Ubiquity and powerlessness lead to acceptance. But together, these things add up. And while it may seem like we’re getting somewhere because we keep hearing about new allegations of sexual harassment even within government, this isn’t what I would call progress.

While we’re okay with discussing violence against women and sexual misconduct in the public sphere, we should pay close attention to what happens when we land on the concepts of patriarchy and privilege. It quickly becomes apparent just how resistant many people are to acknowledging the fundamental machinations that produce gender-based injustice.

In a recent article, writer Denise Balkissoon articulated something very important while making many men uncomfortable in the process (take a look at the comment section). In Sorry, we haven’t reached a ‘watershed’ on violence against women, Balkissoon says:

I don’t get what is known now that was a mystery yesterday – or why what was ignored yesterday is now so urgent to address. All that’s different now is that we know one guy’s name, and that guy happens to be famous.

This is a sobering point. Why haven’t all the shocking stories we’ve heard jolted us into making substantial progress? What will it take to change things? Every time we try to take a step forward we’re met with a backlash. Expecting that the problem would go away if only women would come forward is unrealistic and unfair. These things don’t happen because of the conduct of the victims. And in addition to being discouraged from coming forward or fighting back, doing so may actually place us in greater danger, as comedian Amanda Seales explains in the video below. She cites the case of a woman who was murdered in Detroit after rejecting a man who asked for her number (of course, the clueless dolt debating her thinks she could have solved the issue by carrying a gun). As much as this guy pisses me off though, watching this is a guilty pleasure because Seales’ facial expressions are priceless.


I’m sick and tired of being smeared for standing up to sexism. There’s a plethora of labels and insults reserved for women like me. The moment I try to get to the root of the problem, I’m met with hatred and disdain. It happens all the time and it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s trollish behaviour. These trolls work with us and ride the subway with us. They’re real people and this is not a game. We need to stop bullshitting each other about how serious this problem is. And not only does the “not all men” excuse do nothing to neutralize the impact of sexism, but as Michael Laxer explains with razor-sharp precision, actually, it is all men:

We, collectively, and most commonly as individuals, are responsible for creating the conditions that not only facilitate Ghomeshi, but that ensure he will exist. This is a very uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. It is all men and the society that they produced that allowed a misogynist, alleged serial abuser to rise to and feel comfortable within the halls of media and fame, despite the now known and clear indications that he was a predator all along and that many, many people could have done something about it but did not.

That’s the ugly thing about privilege: even individuals who aren’t actively abusive benefit from it. Another great point by Root Veg quoted from the comment section of Laxer’s article:

You all benefit from the Jian Ghomeshis of this world, not just because it ensures men’s dominant status, but because other men’s terrorism of women lowers the bar for your qualification as a Good Guy to the absolute bare minimum.

This one hit me like a punch to the face. Now I understand what had me on high alert when I learned about the social media campaign known as MANifestChange. MANifestChange among other things encourages men to speak out by snapping a picture of themselves and pledging to help fight violence against women. Awesome! Or is it?

What I like about this idea is that it places the onus on males to do something. I’m glad there are men out there who want to end patriarchy. I’m just not sure that challenging male privilege means taking cookie-winning selfies. If you’re a man with a conscience, the best thing you can do to help us gals out is to actively challenge your male privilege on a daily basis. It’s hard work. You probably won’t relish the effort involved or the flack you’re going to get. But guess what? If it’s not inconveniencing you, it’s not really helping.

While participating in initiatives like MANifestChange can be just a part of the work someone does, this aspect of the campaign still bugs me. It’s cute. It’s fun. Guys score brownie points with the ladies. And see, I think that’s the problem. This isn’t supposed to make you look good whether you mean it to or not. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to see a closeup of your mug so we can appreciate how nice a guy you are. Just be that guy. Do it anonymously. Like the philanthropist who donates to a hospital but refuses to put their name on a plaque. That’s how you make sure it’s 100% not about you.

I know we all want to support each other in solidarity and be nice by acknowledging that every little bit counts. But is it really true that every little bit counts in a good way?

How effective is a campaign like HeForShe in addressing oppression, for example? Sometimes what we gain in attracting attention to our cause by putting a celebrity in front of the microphone is erased when they stumble over their own privilege and ignorance, thus undermining our ability to have a really deep conversation. These incidents remind us that within movements of the oppressed, some of us (e.g. white females) still don’t get it and that’s usually because we have privileges of our own that need to be checked. Mia McKenzie’s Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N. is a must read because it elevates some important caveats about privilege and how centering these issues on the privileged (e.g. “Guys suffer from patriarchy too!”) is a really good way of protecting them from acknowledging that they’re, well, privileged.

Thankfully, the folks at MANifestChange seem to have a lot more up their sleeve:

Like many people who possess privilege, many males are willing to acknowledge that sexism exists but tend to assume they’re not part of it. By looking at the representations of women in video games, Anita Sarkeesian holds up a mirror to society and the results are horrifying. Yes, we know that women are constantly eroticized and objectified, but does its deeply systemic nature blind us to just how bad it is? I don’t play the kinds of games that Sarkeesian reviews in the video below (not many women do), so I was legitimately shocked when I saw how normalized it is in the minds of boys and men alike (please note the content warning):


Challenging your own privilege isn’t supposed to be fun because it means denying your ego and giving something up. That’s why people feel threatened when they’re called to do it. It means being silent and letting people share their views and experiences, and then taking the time to seriously think about what they have to say. In our rapid fire culture of communication, the fact that we’re hardwired to react doesn’t help. But I don’t believe that sexism is any less of an issue than it was three decades ago. So while sympathy may be a nice gesture, it’s just another way of avoiding the problem. And empathy is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from decent people anyway. Much work remains to be done.

 

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