Disputes in Leftist Assumptions and Activism: Part 1

Since November 8th, an incessant desire emerged among the internet intelligentsia to “break out of our media bubbles.” Apparently, on all sides of the political spectrum, echo chambers have emerged where people are only being exposed to ideas they already agree with. I disagree, and the title of this series is an attempt to explain why. In my experience, the left is consistently debating and interrogating itself

In my experience, the left is consistently debating and interrogating itself, trying to come to better understandings of political ideas that only emerged from the recesses of chat rooms and academic journals in the past ten years. Different priorities in leftist activisms come into conflict with one another and debates centre around both principles and ethics. Often times, these debates are actually based in the conflict between principles and ethics, how we can make broad political/ideological statements that fall apart under scrutiny.

This post is not going to examine any of these in particular. However, here I want to list out some of the topics that I will be covering on my own and invite anyone else who wants to contribute to do so (either here on this blog or elsewhere and would let me direct people to them). Here’s the list that I’ve been developing recently based on conversations I’ve had or witnessed online.

  • Vegan Activism vs. Anti-Colonialism vs. Anti-Poverty
  • Sexual Orientation Essentialism vs. Socialization
  • Trans Identity Essentialism vs. Historical Construction and Re-Construction of Gender
  • Rape Culture vs. Masculinity vs. Mental Illness
  • Labour Movement vs. Post-Vocational Workforce
  • Pro-Choice Freedoms vs. Ethical Parenting
  • Representation on screen vs. Representation in industry
  • Gentrification vs. Urban Development Theory
  • Rape Culture vs. Drinking Culture vs. Casual Sex Culture
  • Anarchism/Revolution vs. Safety and Justice

These are just the initial ideas, I’m sure more will hit the brain as I actually start writing.

Social Justice Language and Free Speech

Language matters. This is a value that comes right near the top of my list of most important values in how I live in the world. The words I use have impacts and I want my words to reflect my desires, beliefs, and intentions as much as I can muster. To do this I have to acknowledge not only the context in which I am speaking but the contexts in which I have lived and spoken. I am a white queer settler Canadian and I have, without any doubt in my heart, contributed to settler colonialism, institutionalized racism, and hetero-normative misogyny numerous times in my life through speech I knew was wrong, should have known was wrong, and could have known was wrong.

“Why the confession?” you may be asking. Well, it has to do with the hoopla around the “appropriation prize” controversy that emerged last week. Specifically, I want to quote Jonathan Kay’s editorial in the National Post and explain why he completely misses the point of the language social justice warriors (like myself) use in regards to social justice and equity issues.

“What I (and other Canadian writers and editors) am angry about is the effort by TWUC and its Equity Task Force (which released its own statement) to shame Niedzviecki, and to suggest that his liberal approach to speech is somehow outside the bounds of respectable discourse. TWUC’s over-the-top apology describes the “pain” that the article allegedly caused. It’s part of what may be described as the medicalization of the marketplace of ideas: It is no longer enough to say that you merely disagree with something. Rather, the author must be stigmatized as a sort of dangerous thought criminal. Indeed, the Equity Task Force situates Niedzviecki as an apologist for “cultural genocide,” and accuses him of peddling “a long-debunked false universalism.” The Task Force also claims that the publication of his article is a symptom of “structural racism,” or possibly even “brazen malice.”

This is extraordinary language coming from an organization that represents the interests of “professionally published book authors.” Their mandate should be to seek the broadest possible range of opportunities for their constituents—not act as a chorus for the most restrictive views on acceptable speech.”

What he calls extraordinary language is not extraordinary at all. In fact, it is the most common and daily language among people who work for social justice. You’ll note above that I used some of that language in reference to myself and yet I call myself a social justice warrior and ally to lots of groups of which I am not a part. I am a part of social justice networks and communities that accept me and, more importantly, hold me accountable. I have worked hard to raise myself not only to the base level of common decency to the human beings I share these spaces with, but to actively work for their liberation where I can. And I fail all the time. I can list many moments in the past year where I had reactions that were undeniably racist. I still have a lot of work to do to overcome that deeply cultural training I have been living with my whole life, and I will very likely never overcome it.

When someone calls me out for saying something racist, they are not shaming me or calling me a member of the klan who intrinsically and intentionally desires the elimination of entire cultures. They are holding me accountable for my words and actions and how those contribute to systems that I do not have control over. At their most stringent they are calling me tacitly complicit in those systems that do see the elimination of entire cultures. That’s because I don’t have the power to stop settler colonialism or any form of racist imperialism on my own. And yet it is incredibly easy for me to contribute to the narratives and policies and make them stronger and when I do that there is no way for me to take that momentum back. I don’t get kicked out of those spaces or communities when I slip up. Maybe I’m told to take a back seat and shut up for a while, but literally every group that has a set of rules governing debate has a way to temporarily censure a member. In these cases I feel bad, because I should feel bad; but I don’t hold on to those bad feelings and make the slip up about me. I reflect, change, and move on to do better.

So what Jonathan Kay was reacting to in the TWUC equity report is a gross mischaracterization of what they were saying. Describing the context of a situation and using the words “colonialism,” “cultural genocide” and “racism” do not equate to shaming Niedzviecki, nor are they some form of extreme hyperbole. They were holding a powerful person responsible for his words, and his words were ignorant, glib, and consequently contributing to settler colonialism and racism. We all know that’s not what he intended, but that doesn’t matter. Niedzviecki wrote what he wrote and people reacted accordingly. That’s how free and open discourse works. Someone says something and other people are allowed and encouraged to respond until the group in question comes to a decision of some kind. If the freedom of speech you are constructing and defending does not allow for criticism of that speech, then you are only defending the freedom to speak and not the open exchange of ideas you also talk about so fervently. So, finally, it is ironic to see Kay, the great defender of free speech in Canada, get so uppity about someone else’s freedom to use the language they see fit to describe a situation. It’s almost like the only free speech he cares about is his own.

And finally, since I can already see that some people will call me out for having a double standard about who’s speech deserves to be interpreted graciously, Niedzviecki’s words were interpreted graciously. His words, in every context, contribute to harm the discourse around cultural appropriation by invalidating the concerns of those who care about cultural appropriation. Authors around the internet were not criticizing the message of his piece, except perhaps to say that he was creating a strawman. Rather, they were criticizing the words themselves and how the glib and ignorant use of those words undermined not only the message of his piece, but also the wider discourse around settler colonialism in Canada that that issue of Write Magazine was attempting to address.  The TWUC Equity Task Force’s words on the other hand were not interpreted graciously. People saw the words “racism,” “colonialism,” and “cultural genocide” and assumed that the TWUC’s Equity Task Force was calling Niedzviecki evil and beyond repair.

Thinking About Highschool

After my last exam in high school, I deleted about 95% of my graduating class from facebook. I hated my high school. There were some people I liked, but it was a bad place for me at a bad time and the further I get from it the less I care about it and the people who were there. A few teachers there made a big impact on me and there are a few people whose lasting footprint on my psyche has me reflecting on who I was then.

I was a prick. That might just sound like self-deprecation but I mean it sincerely. Today, the person that haunts me most from high school, someone I hurt deeply and whose presence in my thoughts keeps me up at night, liked a photo of mine on Instagram. Gladly, I’m pretty sure they’re not aware of how I feel in this regard – though, if you are somehow reading this, I am sorry –  but it sent my mind into the same spiral I’ve come to frequently this year.

How do I know I was a prick? Because in this week’s spiral I went back and read through the entirety of my chat history with this person – well, the chat history on my current facebook account. I haven’t decided yet how much of my old account I’m going to read through, but I just downloaded all the data from it so I guess we’ll see. Anyways, looking back at the way I used to talk has me kind of ashamed of who I used to be.  I usually like to say that I don’t believe people can change, but there’s no other way to describe the absolute transformation of my life between then and now. I changed. I’m a different person. I can barely recognize the thought processes of my old me. I used to be so cynical, sarcastic, obviously depressed, and most aggravatingly I was bitter to everyone. Most of the actual memories I have from a lot of these people are positive. And those memories that aren’t, I’m the bad guy because I very much was the bad guy. But those moments still feel like a part of me – these messages are not a part of me anymore. Or at least I hope they aren’t, time will tell I guess.

The therapy I’m doing right now is helping me figure out how those old parts of me do not define the me of today. Going through this, I think it’s working.

Thanks be to God.

Reflections and Confessions

It’s really late right now. I’m awake watching The Americans. I’ve been thinking about confessions and reflections lately. The Americans has a lot of episodes in the second and third seasons about EST which was the 70s answer to a lack of availability of therapy and social. It’s all about honesty and sounds a lot like the stuff I talk to my therapist about. Then I listen to albums like Good Kid M.A.A.D City, or 808s and Heartbreaks which are confessional in their own way. What I’ve realized is that I need to be better at writing out my confessions and reflections. Some of it will be public, like this post. Some of it won’t, because I’m still a coward. Either way, putting it to the world by pen and paper or pixel will help excise the demons I carry with me.

Breaking my bubble with art

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with how to break out of my political bubble. I hoped that a quick change to my facebook newsfeed might be helpful, adding the National Review and America Magazine to my diet. This lasted maybe a week as I found I couldn’t stomach a lot of what the NR was publishing and that America Magazine was more inside my bubble already than out. Evidence of this? How about this article that was published back in February that, if anyone looked too closely, one might assume I plagiarized in a recent blog post about the same topic. In reality, this is just evidence of the greatness of contemporary music speaking to two people in different corners of the world – but it also speaks to how America Magazine is not going to be what breaks my bubble.

This weekend I participated in my most recent ministry interview with the United Chruch of Canada. A pastor and good friend drove me down to Belleville for the day and on the way we discussed all the arts and culture that usually populates our conversations between discussions and reaffirmations of theological issues. He’s from Ontario, but has family in the States and did his post-secondary education there as well. Both he and the other chaplain at my school played a big role in keeping me from the front lines of vitriolic hatred in political discourse. In light of Trump’s election, it is so easy to just ignore the opposition. But here I’ll say something that might surprise you: avoiding debate with the opposition is not a bad thing. I have no interest in having political discussions with people on the other side of the aisle from me for two reasons. 1) I am not a politician and have no access to political power that could use compromise to move forward on certain issues that can be agreed upon. 2) I don’t see people on the other side of the aisle as completely human in the way that I ought to. In the same way that our culture asks us to objectify and dehumanize everyone around us, I have an idea of what “The Right” is and that is likely divorced from the lives of those people. I hear stories from people of colour, queer folk, immigrants, and women in my spheres that place me squarely against ‘those’ people; however, that is no excuse for trying to at least understand them complexly.

But how do I do that? I still firmly believe that protesting keynote speakers coming to colleges and shutting down the platforms accessible to the most vocal of The Right is perfectly within my rights as a human being. Just because I don’t believe that the government shouldn’t have the authority to throw people in jail over what they believe does not mean I believe all spaces are spaces for “free speech.” It was during and after this car ride that I had a realization about how I can begin to imagine others complexly without inviting vitrolic conflict into spaces where it can only do harm.

I was introduced to this song which has some really beautiful poetry in it about how Alabamans imagine themselves. But more importantly, it sparked in my brain the notion that art could be the first place where I could start to break through my bubble.

This wasn’t the first time I had done this; black metal is a genre that I engage with to understand how pain and anger at the church and God can reveal beauty and truth. I don’t have to agree with the artist to see how their art is calling to the transcendent in this world, even if it’s a different transcendent to the artist than it is to me. The same is true with the Right and with the South. In a similar vein to my piece on passing the microphone, I want to hear the good and the bad about communities from people within those communities. I want to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd to understand how white southerners construct their identity in the same way that I listen to Outkast to understand how black southerners do the same. I want to listen to the Drive-by Truckers to hear critiques and celebrations of Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of listening to Neil Young’s decrying of those southern men. I want to remember that neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, and religions are not monolithic. They are complex and multidimensional, containing voices that can speak inward and outward with more authority than any old liberal culture critic. Because isn’t that really the lesson that both the Bible and contemporary social justice writers have been telling us? The Bible demands that we talk to our communities differently than we talk to the rest of the world because we hold ourselves to higher standards. Social justice authors have been begging us to listen to the lived experiences of the suffering as long as social justice has been written about. If you can’t go and debate and discuss with people on the other side of the aisle, I do not blame you. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try and imagine others complexly. When we have the strength and courage to do so (understanding that a lot of the time we just don’t) I think this is a way to start peering outside our bubbles.

And to celebrate here’s some Skynyrd.

Three Rolling Stones Records Because YAWWWWNNNN

So I listened to three more Stones records, and it blows my mind that the good folks at Allmusic give all of them 4.5 or 5 stars. 12 X 5The Rolling Stones Now, and Out of Our Heads are some of the most boring records I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s not necessarily that they are “bad” or anything. They’re just completely undistinct one from the next. Only one of them comes close to that level of quality and that’s because it has “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on it. That song is such a breath of fresh air on the fourth record in a row of pure rip off blues rock.

Seriously, it’s the only distinguishing factor between the first four Stones albums. I couldn’t tell you the name of any song on any of the albums except that one because they all bleed together.

So here you go, the first better than okay Rolling Stones record.

What makes a film scholar love hockey?

Have you ever heard of sportsball?

Spending most of my time among nerds and academics, the general attitude towards all varieties of competitive professional sporting competitions is the sarcastic and deriding tone of “sportsball”. While I grew up watching hockey and football (and a little baseball with my dad and grandmother), once I found my geekdom I embraced the Noam Chomsky school of sports criticism.

I still don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what Chomsky says in the above clip; but at the same time, I’ve rediscovered the intense love of hockey that began for me in 2002 with Jarome Iginla in the Olympics. For years I said I was a Flames fan because of Iginla and because the Leafs sucked following the disappointing end to their 2002 playoff run against the Hurricanes. But eventually, hockey just began to wane in my interest as first professional wrestling then football became more interesting. Wrestling was exciting and melodramatic and football brought in the chess-like strategy and slow buildup of tension that makes so many Superbowls so fun to watch.

Then two things happened as I went to university: the NFL’s concussion and domestic abuse scandals, and my first season of fantasy hockey.  I had just joined the campus safewalk service and when the lockout ended I joined the service fantasy hockey league. In the draft I got nothing particularly interesting in the first couple rounds, but then I got a young Nazem Kadri in the 4th and picked up a bunch of Leafs thereafter.

For those who were watching, 2013 was an exciting year to be a Leafs fan. After years of utter crap, the leafs were surprising most nights and earned a playoff berth. My player, Nazem Kadri, was the breakout star of the season along with James Van Riemsdyk and of course Phil Kessel. It was a joy to watch them play as it seemed the curse of the choking Leafs might finally be over.

Then that night happened.

(I wasn’t watching Steve Dangle at the time, but he was a big part in bringing me back to actually enjoy watching the game so I want to cite him here.)

The Leafs had this amazing comeback story going into game 7 and then did the exact thing every Leafs fan dreaded – they choked. It was just of the story of Toronto sports teams at that point. The Leafs haven’t won since 67, the Jays since 93, and the Raptors since… well ever (though they haven’t been around as long). Just in terms of the playoffs the droughts had been 8 years for the Leafs, 20 for the Jays, and 5 for the Raptors. This could have been the start of the era that we are now living in, but, as we all know, the crash just continued from there. The era of sustained quality in Toronto sports really started with the Raptors in the playoffs in 2014, the Jays in 2015, and now finally the Leafs in 2017.

Tonight the Leafs made it to the playoffs for the first time in 10 full 82-game seasons. And what’s more, they did it because they won rather than someone else losing. They played a long difficult game tonight. Their goalie got injured; they suffered an embarrassing own goal tipped off a defenceman’s skate; they got the lead back and held it with an amazing performance by their backup goalie and a team full of rookies. I was with people while the game was on. Close friends of the “sportsball” variety that were a little stunned at how immersed I was in the game. I remember being surprised myself when I first realized I was enjoying hockey again, but the more I watch the more I realize that it’s not an intellectual thing at all, it’s a feeling.

I watched the Leafs-Lightning game on Thursday night and the Leafs-Penguins game Saturday night and I’ll tell ya, the reason I watch hockey is because it is narratively and aesthetically beautiful. When the Leafs are playing at the same level as their opponents you have 12 titans skating with all their might in a battle that seems to carry more importance than it actually does. And when the Leafs are not playing on that level, you can see it on the screen and from interviews you know they can feel it on the ice. I don’t know how exactly to describe it; but, even though there are two teams at full strength on the ice, it just feels like one side has more people. It’s not an intellectual experience at work here. This isn’t a logical flow of events that I synthesize in an evaluation of quality. Just like the way you feel a film is working or not working, you feel the flow of a hockey game on an aesthetic level.

So on Saturday when the Penguins had a delayed penalty call in the third period and the Leafs pulled their goalie, the immediate shift in momentum was felt. Despite the players just bouncing around the screen, faces and identities obscured by speed and size, you knew that they saw this as an opportunity. That the feeling of exhilaration, excitement, and energy was being felt simultaneously on the ice, on the bench, in the stands, and across the viewing public. This is why I watch hockey. It is an act of community with millions of people. And aside from all the high-minded waxing poetic, damn it’s fun.