Rethinking protest

Okay, so now that the situation in Toronto has gotten really serious, all of a sudden we’re having an entirely different conversation about protest. Well, an entirely different conversation from the one most people were having last week, anyway. Now we’re in the territory of repeatedly using the word “anarchist” in fear-mongering constructions, suggesting that the overwhelming police presence was not only justified but possibly insufficient and CBC online commenters using such expressions as “barbarians”, “animals” and following brilliant lines of reasoning to connect acts of vandalism with any kind of left wing politics.

Now, the conversation is about “legitimate protest” vs. violence. These people are destroying whatever legitimacy could have been found in peaceful demonstration. Because it’s in the hands of the general public to legitimize objections, and if Joe and Jane Q Public decide that they find your tactics unsavoury, the content of what you say is absolutely irrelevant. You didn’t put your hand up, you chose to shout the right answer out, so the teacher will ignore you and likely penalize you on your report card. And the person sitting next to you, who is clearly your friend and who put his or her hand up before you shouted out the answer, but was being ignored in favour of the students the teacher liked better, well, that person will just continue to be ignored because they shouldn’t be friends with you and give answers that are the same as shouter-outers. Because yes, we are actually all in grade school, and order is more important than learning, discussion and truth.

In this discussion that has primarily become about violence vs. legitimate, peaceful protest, I can’t help but note one thing that I’m not seeing mentioned all that much. We’re not actually talking about violence. We’re talking about vandalism and property destruction. I have not seen a single report of anyone being injured (if anyone is actually reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong, but a quick search of major Canadian news outlets don’t disprove this, and I have to suspect that they would be the first to jump on any story that existed). Private and public property costs money, and burning police cars are powerful images. But they are not necessarily violence. Is it tenable to suggestion that in some cases, possibly this one, these acts are violent? Probably. Should it be stated as truth without question or dispute? Absolutely not.  The standard expected by the family Public is that protest does not actually disturb anyone or anything. The less it is noticeable, the better.

I can’t say I really support property destruction and burning things as acts of protest…I have a deep feeling that some sort of shift in tactics needs to take place in order to create any kind of effective protest…but damned if I can’t say that at least we’re talking about something, even if all most people are doing is erasing the line between vandalism and violence and delegitimizing anything not resemebling the status quo.

Sports Nationalism

The commentary portion of the World Cup broadcast just brought up a somewhat intriguing point in reference to the spectacular failure of the French. Apparently, the French government has requested an “inquiry” into what happened to cause this meltdown. FIFA and the French Football Federation are against this course of action, because, as the commentator put it, they believe it’s important to keep the football-governance structure separate from the running of the country.

And yeah, okay, in some ways it’s actually really easy to mock something like this as far too trivial and trite, and to be sure, an inquiry would be a pretty unjustifiable use of funds. But at the same time, FIFA’s suggestion that it’s absolutely ridiculous to consider this anything but a pure football issue seems a little bit disingenuous. World-stage sports – especially such massively popular events like this one or the Olympics or whatever – obviously have a nationalistic component to them, but it’s always been somehow sanctioned as separate from the problematic kind, the actual work of nation-building and identity formation…even though it’s not, not really. This is a non-governmental channel for unification, a positive source of group pride and energy and whatnot.

It’s a brief point, and a minor one, to be sure, but it just seems to point further towards this sense that “well yes, we’re representing France as a nation, and whatever we do on the field is pretty strongly suggested to be connected to our identity and to our national cultural features, but this isn’t an issue that should concern France as a state government”. International sports fascinate me as a site of discourse-construction, and this little moment of contestation raising the question of whether the jersey-nation can or should really fall into the governance structure of the flag-nation brings some of the reasons why to the surface.

Protest, cynicism, and fake lakes

With the G8/G20 Summits happening nearby in Toronto/Muskoka, I know a few people who have gone to the protests, and I’m obviously seeing quite a bit of coverage in the news. And I feel, in some ways, like the 30-year-old I never thought I would be as I look at the whole thing with deep cynicism. It’s not that I was ever under the illusion that any of these protests represented a chance for revolutionary change or widespread rethinking of our ways of life. But I thought there was something to be said for the act of being there, of standing present to say that the way things are is unacceptable. It’s primarily been watching media coverage over the past few years that has pushed me further and further towards skepticism.

First of all, summit meetings of global leaders have stood in as standard opportunity protest fare for the past decade or so. The premise is that the leaders are there, the media is there, the counterpoint has to be there as well. But it’s become so much a part of the assumed backdrop of such events that they’re barely worth reporting on. I’ve actually seen very little coverage of protesters, and far more of the police presence that has been brought in to deal with the increased traffic volume in Toronto this week. Casual morning shows express gratitude for the police, who the hosts say are there to keep them safe. Shots of protesters themselves may be used almost as stock footage before cutting to commercial.

What people are saying has absolutely no presence here. There is no actual voice to this counterpoint. There is only one specific thing I’ve heard about that is upsetting people – the “fake lake” set up and paid for by the Canadian government to provide foreign media representatives with a taste of Northern Ontario natural beauty. The objection, of course, is to the taxpayer expense, originally rumoured to be a couple of million and now reported at $57,000. That change in price tag has not changed the attention paid to the story – “person on the street” interviews on more than one station this morning asked about reactions to and perceptions of the ‘fake lake’. The voices we hear say it’s cheesy or artificial-feeling, or that they wonder how that money could have been spent better, some taking the opportunity to object to the upcoming implementation of the harmonized sales tax, others making social justice points about poverty relief or government services.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the fake lake. Maybe I have some other thoughts somewhere about the general discourses on wasteful government spending and the ways in which somehow highly conservative attitudes about taxation and individualism can become so ubiquitous as to erase any actual discussion of what things do and what they cost, but the fake lake is not a particularly spectacular counterpoint, so I’ll  leave them steep a bit longer. But what I do care about is that this is the point of objection that we hear. This is the G8/G20 issue that I could mention to anyone on the street, and people would have something (probably negative) to say about it. The fake lake is casual, facile, overwhelmingly banal piece of small talk that is standing in as a distraction for actual politics, actual decision-making, actual protest, actual discussion. Increased securitization is expected, both by those who appreciate it and those who are terrified of it. Protests are expected, even though no protesting voices and positions are actually heard, as protesters essentially get labeled as little more than protester-brand 21st century consumers of ideas, opinions, concepts. The summits themselves will happen, leaders will discuss things, decisions – none of them particularly shocking or unexpected, all of them probably horrifying if you really think about the whole system of it – will be made (or rather, formalized through the spectacle, since most of the discussion has taken place behind the scenes among aides, assistants, and advisors). But the fake lake, that’s something we can talk about.

It’s really hard not to be cynical when you’re talking about a $57,000 fake fucking lake.

Is Evo-psych worth saving?

…in which I assert an extraordinary amount of arrogance in order to make sweeping judgments about an entire discipline of study.

The context, of course, is the blog-publication of yet another example of poorly constructed, poorly executed studies from which some rather impressively unimpressive conclusions (which, in turn, are held to disprove the theoretical and empirical claims of feminism while simultaneously misrepresenting and misunderstanding those claims) have been drawn. Elysia, guest blogging at Shapely Prose, and Amanda Hess cover the specifics on this one.

I confess that my knowledge of the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology is pretty much limited to the studies that are popularized, then linked and dismantled on feminist blogs, usually by feminists with extensive backgrounds in science, using explicitly scientific and often even evolutionary terminology and methodology (I have occasionally tried to find the studies themselves and read a bit from the academic journals in which they’re published). Elysia’s post is a particularly good example of this technique, since she is an evolutionary biologist. Throughout her article, she continually acknowledges the limitations of what she knows on this topic, as she is in a different discipline and has a rather different area of interest and expertise. Like most of the other examples I’ve seen of this kind of post, she emphasizes her openness to examples of high-quality scholarship in evolutionary psychology, even though she’s never actually seen any that, as she puts it, get the ‘evolutionary’ part right.

I’m not going to do that here. I will acknowledge that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in evolution or even a scientist. I make no claim to understanding all – or really, any – of the nuanced mechanisms of natural selection or finer points of evolutionary theory. I know, understand, and appreciate it entirely in broad strokes. My little corner of academic expertise is language and the diverse socially constituted understandings thereof, and I would be ill-equipped to really address these kinds of studies on their own terms.

But really, I’m coming to believe that those terms are, in fact, the problem. The axiomatic premises from which the entire discipline operates are fundamentally and possibly irredeemably flawed. Those premises, as I understand them, are that human psychology, individual motivations and social actions can be best understood as arising out of evolutionary concerns. At some level, everything that I do – everything that all of us does – is based in our deep-seated desire to reproduce and to do so with the ‘best’ mate possible. And that’s hooey.

Critiques of specific studies often point towards the ways in which certain notions of desirability (which it doesn’t even take Anthropology 101 to recognize as highly culturally specific) are projected onto these analyses and the strange way they seem to take desire/expressions of desire to stand in for actual reproductive results. The frequent pattern of applying macro-chronic concepts to micro-chronic scales is often mentioned, and among other things that happens when you do that, this ultimately requires evolutionary psychologists to apply biological metaphors to social processes. There’s an unquestioned idea that not only do species evolve, so too do cultures.

The layers upon layers of problems with that assumption, from eugenics to the civilizing mission to modernization to uniform teleological trajectories of progress, are well-documented. Which is why it makes me deeply, sincerely sad that evolutionary psychology manages to situate itself within the academy. It seems to me like a way of wrapping up some extremely archaic, easily disproven, old school ideas from physical anthropology in a shiny, ultra-scientific package.

When I say the axioms of the discipline are hooey, mostly what I mean is that they set out to prove themselves. There’s no genuine intellectual curiosity here – there’s an assumption about the underlying motivation for everything (which comes down, basically, to sex), and all behavioural data absolutely must be interpreted so as to support the conclusion that this behaviour exists to make us have more sex/more babies/more viable babies, with no other variables or, really, variation possible. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s hooey.

It’s like the disciplines that studied some of these kinds of questions before – including, why yes, anthropology, among other things – started going in a direction that a certain subset of people didn’t like, so they set up their own club where they could keep talking in terms of ideas, theories, projections and maps that don’t translate all that well into the real world of diversity and complexity and variability. And our knowledge production system, with its rigid compartmentalization and authorization of specific ways of knowing about/talking about/thinking about certain things, lets this happen. Makes this happen.

Hooey, I say. But what do I know? I’m not an evolutionary psychologist.

And I wonder why people think of Africa as one country…

Okay, so the World Cup, which I’ve been watching – and enjoying on a new and deeply emotional level, much to my own surprise, actually – pretty constantly this week, is, of course, in South Africa. It’s the first time it’s ever been in Africa, and this is a big deal, and something to be celebrated.

But damn, it’s also an opportunity for reinscribing the discourses of ‘Africa’. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve recalled this passage from the wonderful “How to write about Africa” post:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

The musical chant “It’s time for Africa”. The CBC halftime information segments “Revealing Africa” (which also invokes the sense of Africa as dark, hidden, incomprehensible, needing to be brought to the surface). The commentators’ attribution of the term ‘home soil’ to each of the participating African nations, despite the geographic, cultural, linguistic, social, and political distances among the six of them.

At one point, the commentator of one of the games actually said that South Africa has put more effort into their self-presentation during this World Cup than any other country he can remember, and explained this as relating to the host country’s knowledge that it was representing an entire continent. It’s that pattern of personal privilege – where only the Other is expected to represent her entire group, and a heterosexual white TAB North American middle/upper class male is presumed to be an individual representing only himself – writ on a national/continental scale.

When I was a TA for first year cultural anthropology last year, and students were assigned to write a research paper on some topic relating to a book dealing with themes of global poverty (primarily on whether this was really a universalizable concept in the first place), I got to the point of keeping a tally on a separate sheet of paper counting how many of my students somehow conceptualized Africa as a single country. One even referred, in a phrase riddled with ambiguities and non-sensicalities, to “the government of Africa”.

Dear CBC and World Cup commentators: You are not helping with the education of Canadian youth. You are making a substantial contribution to their ignorance, and not just because they’re watching soccer while they should be studying. Thank you.

Sigh.

Surprised by ignorance

Following a couple of back-links, I found myself reading this post that Chally wrote a few months ago at Feministe, and delving into the comment thread. And like many of the commenters, I’m finding myself surprised at my own surprise at the defensive ignorance of the privileged. Overall, I think the balance tips towards people who are supportive of Chally’s point – either because they are non-Usian, or because they manage to wrap their brains around what she’s trying to say by drawing on past experiences with non-USians or by extrapolating from privilege-based parallels.

Of those who disagree, then, it’s the vehemence of their voices that I find so surprising. It’s disappointing, but maybe not shocking, to see the prevalence of the ‘tone argument’ being used against a young non-white woman. So what I find more specifically surprising is the inability and/or outright unwillingness of USian commenters to consider the meaning of what she was trying to say. The sighing and frustration about the ‘ugly American’ stereotype they believe she is invoking, and their refusal to see beyond their own personal individual attempts to prove that they’re not like that. The invocation of US-internal cultural and experiential differences as though that were in any way relevant to chally’s point, but raised as though they absolutely obliterate her perspective here.

The thing is, the more I think about it, the more relevant her point feels, especially as it pertains to discussions of race. The example that comes to my mind is the extent to which, here in Canada, racialized experiences are imagined to mirror those in the US, only with a smaller Black population and an indirect history with slavery. My roommate, who is from Arizona, can’t quite wrap her head around why “African Canadians” is not really a preferred term for Black Canadians. As I understand it, this is at least partially because a significant proportion of Black people in this country have their recent personal and familial experience in the Caribbean, and “African Canadian” elides their relationship to those cultures and places, and that personal history. That’s not all there is to it, and that’s not the only group of Black Canadians, and of course it doesn’t even begin to cover the context of race relations in Canada, but the example is intended mainly to offer a differentiation from the US context. But US-centrism suggests that the way “African American” came to serve as an appropriate term for a particular population in their country should easily translate across the border. Just substitute in Canadian for American, and you’re good. The same lexical process is assumed to apply to “Native Canadians”, when the preference here is more likely to be First Nations, or Aboriginal, or Indigenous, depending somewhat on the context. It’s as though Canada is believed to be entirely interchangeable with the US (“America” in these lexical examples, which, as Chally points out, is a term with its own problems).

This isn’t about the American educational system and its failure to teach about other political structures, or other histories. It isn’t even about the ubiquity of US media in some places and the non-presence of media from elsewhere within the US, though those are all, to some extent, factors in the creation of this kind of privilege. It’s about a refusal to listen to what people say about their own experiences of racism, racialization and colonialism. It’s a desire to simplify and make non-US experiences fit in to a US-box, and the result is the erasure of other boxes. This isn’t a request for US-residents to remember the capitals of some other countries, or to learn the specific political and cultural histories that have shaped the current relationships within other countries. It’s a basic suggestion that it’s worthwhile to remember that those contexts are different, even and perhaps especially those who appear pretty similar on the surface.

That is, as they say, not rocket science, especially for social justice activists who purport to believe in the value of decentering dominant voices and recognizing the dangers of universalistic assumptions.

Referential truth doesn’t erase racism

Let’s see if I can write this quickly because I really should get back to the schoolwork that is currently making me feel a little spun in the head…

Background story: a Black student (the only one in her A/P class) was, as I understand it, transferred into a non-A/P, ‘lower’* educational classroom because her teacher found the smell of her hair product unbearable. The school believes this situation to be unacceptable and inappropriate, worthy of investigation, but not, of course, racist. Race, in fact, by their interpretation, was not a factor.

The discussion in comments on this article is interesting to me. Most of the commentors at SLOG disagree with the teacher’s actions, and several mock or raise strong doubts about the claims that race played no role in this decision. Others, however, turn the conversation into a “well-wait-a-minute” about the possible truth value of the teacher’s assertions. Even some of the ones who acknowledge the inappropriateness, and maybe even a racial undertone (it’s always a subconscious undertone), of the teacher’s action, hasten to add that sensitivities to scent really truly can have a serious impact on some people’s ability to function. Scrolling through the first 50-60 comments, this is one of the most significant themes of the conversation is about – asserting the reality of problematic scents, assessing the potential for this particular product to cause such scent-related issues for some people, and debating the likelihood that the teacher personally did or did not experience such a sensitivity to this product. As online commenters are wont to do in stories such as this one, these commenters set themselves up as the court of public opinion and establish the terms by which they would exonerate the teacher – for many, the proof of innocence would depend on documentary proof of scent sensitivities, and ideally, a pre-established arrangement within the workplace, with both administration and students, to avoid scents in the classroom.

The story, then, has become one that centres entirely on the referential truth-value of the teacher’s basic claim. Some of the commenters that do suggest there might be a racial component do so by arguing that when the teacher realized a problem, s/he selected the classroom “Other” as a target without knowing whether this student was the actual cause of the issue. But it’s 20 or 25 comments in before someone even manages to suggest that regardless of whether the teacher has this kind of problem, and regardless of whether it was, in fact, linked to this student’s hair product, these actions were unacceptable and very likely the product of deeply-held racialized assumptions and biases. I’m not going to go in to the long argument, but the basic point is that the facility with which the student was dismissed from the classroom suggests that the educator did not have her interests as primary focus and likely suspected that she didn’t really belong there in the first place. If you think otherwise, you problem solve in such a way that meets everyone’s needs. This is, as they say, not rocket science.

Because I’m starting to go into long, academic-y mode (which I should direct at my academics), I’ll just try to close quickly by noting that this is a common tactic in discussions about race – concentrate on the surface, look at the referentiality of the situation, treat it as an isolated and objectifiable, decontextualized interaction, and erase the discussion of how race (and other kinds of power imbalances) underlies and informs who does and says what. The truth value of the teacher’s scent claims actually have nothing to do with the story, but before we’re going to pay attention to the students’ interpretations of this interaction (if we ever really get to look at that), we’re going to set up solid positivistic criteria for determining whether the teacher is telling The Truth. And somehow, suddenly, yet again, we are Not Talking About Race.

*I’m generally hesitant to accept hierarchical relationships among types of education, which often differentiate between ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ or ‘trades-oriented’ and whatnot, thereby perpetuating a very specific kind of class structure that values certain kinds of skills, abilities and knowledges more than others. For the purposes of the situation at hand, however, being as I don’t fully know the context of such US educational distinctions, I’ll use the term from the article. I can’t help myself with the quotes, though.