Sunday, July 5, 2020

Interview with Sarah Zhao (The Ubyssey).

June 26, 2020.

Auto transcribed with ‘happyscribe.’ Minor corrections and edits made but what you see is mostly what the machine did. Some modifications to clarify the text were made, but were not checked against the audio recording. The full unedited audio file is here for reference. 



Article by Sarah Zhao that this interview was used in: 'The aftermath of chair's resignation ... '




[00:05:54.820] - Sarah
Why don't we go ahead and get started. I got too much for your time today. Yeah. So I know that you did an interview with the CBC already with for a piece related to the corporate resignation. But. Yes, Yes. So I just want to start off by asking if you in that, piece. And I've heard from other sources as well. This kind of characterization of Michael Kornberg as someone who perform the duties of the chair well [but holds strong right wing views]. And so I was wondering if you agree with that characterization.

[00:06:47.430] - Charles
Well, when I started on the board, a man called Stuart Belkin was the chair. He was a very close ally of Christy Clark. In fact, one of the first things he said to me was, “well, Christy called me up to sit on the board. And at first I told her no.” And so this was my first meeting with him. He was the chair. Kornberg was the vice chair. And you could see it was very evident that Belkin considered that I was a Marxist ‘Indian’ who was a troublemaker and shouldn't be included in things.

[00:07:19.020] - Charles
That's how it felt. A person who had gotten elected at the same time as me, Ayesha Chaudhry, stepped off the board and you can ask her why. So I can't speak for her, but I can certainly say that the first year the faculty, especially the Vancouver faculty, were excluded and kept out of the center of the circle of any discussions, anything we said was dismissed and ignored.  And there was a kind of, you know, a quiet politics of neo conservative, neo liberal hegemony on the board. And they used the quiet practice of civility to silence us and exclude us. So that that was kind of interesting. And then when the provincial government changed. I very publicly wrote articles. I got picked up by the Georgia Straight saying that the entire liberal appointees should be swept clean off the board and replace them. We didn't quite do that.

[00:08:29.820] - Charles
And Kornberg became the chair. And you have to keep in mind that the person who gets selected by the chair is really between the minister of advanced education and probably the president of the university has some potential role. I don't know. But it's really a government decision about who gets put into these positions. And so I know there is the performance of it being elected, but I've never actually seen that. Well, I only have a three year window to talk about, but it's been my experience with everything that is said that the government takes a very close hand in deciding who gets appointed (elected), who's going to be the chair.

[00:09:12.230] - Charles
So Minister Mark and John Horgan, you know, Premier Horgan [would have] been directly involved in selecting Kornberg for that position. And then, of course, nobody contested that on the board board of Governors.

[00:09:32.320] - Sarah
So it sounds like. It sounds like despite the characterization or like I've seen some people talk about -how on the board, how Kornberg was non-political or just like non-partisan, but 

[00:09:58.250] - Charles
Seems impossible to be nonpartisan or non-political. And it depends what you mean by the term. This is so, as an academic and sadly, well, I thought sadly, I am  unrepentantly academic. That's why I'm here. That's why I've managed to be here so long. Everything is political. Yeah. Everything is about politics, about presentation and things like that. But typically when people from the news media, from the, in the general kind of vernacular sense, talk about political, they mean that they're having some kind of hidden agenda or some kind of political affiliation with it. You know, like capital P political party thing.

[00:10:49.040] - Charles
The legislation, the Universities Act is quite explicit. The politics is outside the domain, that the boards have to act in a non-partisan way.

[00:10:59.700] - Charles
And I was party to a discussion about this, which on the board were Hubert Lai, the university counsel, you know, gave a sort of explanation for the definition of politics in this kind of stuff. I think it was a conversation (I might be wrong). So to be quite honest, it may have been in a conversation where I pressed him on that, on that question. I'm I'm thinking this was connected to somebody who was concerned about whether university administrators could put land acknowledgements in their email and whether that was a political statement or not.

[00:11:35.780] - Charles
There were some something like that came up. So. There's a lot of controls and constraints placed upon things. But, you know, my critiquing [of the board] you can take a look at this point. It was, is, that I said that these [people] are all one perspective sitting that board. They're all a corporate pro capitalist positioning. And when I came on, I basically, that's one of the reasons why I said they all should be swept off the board. And in that piece, it in the public domain, it got picked up at the time, I know that's part of the George Strait piece.

[00:12:14.430] - Charles
And when I got on the board, a couple of people who had been there for a while came and took, I think David Sidoo was one of them. He may have mentioned [to me], he said, "oh, look, we have a lot different points of view here. And you know that this guy's a lawyer and this guy's a bright banker and this one's a realtor  and this one's a developer." And I said, "that's my point. Everyone's the same."

[00:12:33.920] - Charles
But, you know, sadly, I mean, we haven't I haven't seen that really change with the [new] appointments. The board, and I respect  a lot of the new appointees, we have lawyers, we have independent consultants who work in communications field. We have, you know, lifelong politicians, clean energy businessmen. So they're all from a slightly different side. But it's it's still a pro-business, pro corporate, pro capitalist agenda.

[00:13:03.980] - Charles
So, I mean, the politics is inherently built into the system and it shapes things along. And the legislation makes people act in a particular way.

[00:13:15.640] - Sarah
Mm hmm. So. Or so many questions, I don't know how to phrase them kind of going off of that. Everything is political then. I guess. Like, given that everything is political, you know, how can. How how can someone with political views that actively harm marginalized people be sitting on a chair position?

[00:14:00.720] - Charles
Let's let's phrase it. Let's look at it this way. When I got to, got ask to, run the Learning and [Reserach] Committee as a chair, I had an opportunity to do something. I made a decision that the presentation, the standard sort of presentation of faculty that would come, that would represent, would be ones that really linked to indigenous issues and would be indigenous faculty primarily.

[00:14:34.680] - Charles
And so I thought because part of what I saw on the Indigenous Engagement Committee, a lot of the governors just didn't bother turning up [they weren't on the committee, so they didn't have to turn up].  And the indigenous engagement community didn't get ,didn't get struck, struck until after the NDP were in power with the whole move, with  moving us into foregrounding more indigenous issues. But because of the way the Indigenous engagement committee got scheduled, because every governor wasn't a member of it, so they wouldn't turn up. So you only had the people who've been put on the committee who are the ones who, in a sense, didn't need any convincing or education or informing of anything like that. So when I was asked to chair the  Learning and Research Committee, I said, well, let's move these events [onto this committee].

[00:15:22.620] - Charles
I had two opportunities to do that two cycles because it was just the end of my term, so I was able to bring forward indigenous speakers. And so we had an opportunity where I had on the agenda one man, a non-indigenous man, and there was an indigenous woman, both academics on campus. And after the non-indigenous man spoke, the one person said, "that's a really excellent presentation. That's really wonderful.  It's really great. I love that. Can you tell me more of this kind of stuff."  When the indigenous woman then followed with their presentation and after that point from the meeting room, complete silence. Nobody asked a question. And so it was one of those moments where rhetorically what you have represented right in that moment is that the head of the university is acknowledging and representing and pulling out the white expert speaker and is not responding to the indigenous expert who happened to follow.

[00:16:33.020] - Charles
And, you know, that was a really interesting dynamic. And I don't think people do this deliberately. I mean, I don't think they were deliberately doing that. I mean, there are something about the kind of gee whiz science kind of stuff for my colleague's presentation, and that attracted attention. But unless we constantly examine ourselves in these moments, we will reproduce the structures of oppression and exploitation. And the point the point is by focusing on a particular person and not the structure. We're not actually solving anything.

[00:17:07.880] - Charles
In fact, we're really reproducing the structure of late capitalism. It's focus on individual attitudes. So it's all about the individual. It's the bad cop. It's the prof in Sauder who puts out an assignment that's inappropriate. Not looking at the structure[s of power].

[00:17:26.000] - Sarah
What kind of the business school?

[00:17:30.370] - Charles
One that had the whole sequence about the rape chant and that and the one that attacked indigenous people as well. They had another one of those out of the school. Sauder, they always say that was a student activity doing that. So we need to look to the actual process and people need to be individually self-critical and collectively engaged.

[00:17:59.780] - Sarah
So going off. Is that what you're saying about the structure needing to change instead of focusing on individual bad actors? Like, what do you think is. What do you think that the university should change about? Maybe the structure of the board or the structure of the executive or anything that is.

[00:18:21.960] - Charles
Yeah, well, when you look at, for example, the university executive has nobody of decision-making authority who's indigenous. Right. And hardly any of the faculties have any indigenous people.

[00:18:35.260]
But the point is, when I say indigenous in terms of positions of authority and decision making power and, you know, we have a few positions, but they're there in the typical positions. But the point is, just recruiting people into leadership isn't sufficient. Because it has to be changed from the base.  When as a faculty member, I in my own unit don't feel in some sense [respected] either. I'm expected to do all the work on indigenous issues in my department or to basically be excluded because these things because, of course, when when you do speak up about indigenous issues as an indigenous person, one typically gets you, you're too angry, you're too upset.

[00:19:20.830] - Charles
"Let's be calm about this," people say. And so the point is that those kind of dynamics have to work at the bottom. And that means the people who are engaged when they take a look at these political struggles have to understand where do we sit? Where do we stand? We stand on indigenous land. And then how do we then work from that perspective and move forward?

[00:19:43.110] - Sarah
All right. Yeah. Questions. OK. You're also quoted in the CBC piece as saying that. I feel like this is kind of a continuation of what we've been talking about, but you were quoted as saying that like it should have been dealt with in reference to, I guess, this whole situation of having a chair with views like Korenberg quote does actually says it should have been dealt with. 

Charles. 
I think you should read it in its entirety.

[00:20:23.410] - Sarah
All right. Well, you said, sorry. Course, that's the way it. Just in quotation as well. Sorry.  OK. Yeah. If I'm like. Misrepresenting what you intended. With that quote, please let me know. So I think you were quoted as saying there's an element of hypocrisy there. I think we need to be consistent all the way along. If it's bad today, why wasn't it bad yesterday? Doesn't mean it should have been dealt with. So I guess what I'm asking is just can you explain your thought process behind that a little bit?

[00:21:09.320] - Charles
Well, that's a I think it's it's when you take a look at the way the university is acting now, they're acting now only because there's a kind of like a political upsurge.

[00:21:23.770] - Charles
It didn't seem to be an issue for anybody who makes the decisions prior to this point in time. One of my colleagues who is constantly at loggerheads with the chair,  had many times raised questions about about the example of wearing of the so-called MAGA cap episode. I wasn't privy to that. It's only what I heard. So I don't. But nonetheless, that's been made. I mean, I think he mentioned that he would wear his own cap, an AOC cap.

[00:21:56.870] - Sarah
Yeah. 

[00:21:58.990] - Charles
And it's so. The point is that it shows that as long as there's a utility for a person there, fine. And so but, you know, and it's the same way, you know, as an indigenous person sitting in these situations, it's really great. We often were brought in. If we can perform the right way, do the right  thing and say the right thing. And as soon as we become a difficulty, the institution immediately can find some reason why to exclude or close the door on that or to try to kind of inoculate themselves against this deal.

[00:22:37.180] - Charles
So we've got lots of great events are held and monuments are put up on campus. And these kind of things, signs are put up on campus. But where's the actual work behind it? And so when we focus upon these kinds of things, I think we're moving away from actually making these substantive changes, which really were in question. 

Why is it that a social democratic government continues to appoint leaders of industry onto the Board of governors? And that's the fundamental question. Why is it that the provincial government and the university administration think that profit motives and the market regulation of the economy is the sole thing that should be used to to manage, to  make decisions about these things? And of course, part of what's going is because of the way in which they market the university [student] experience, becoming a major or drawn to this university, that they're concerned about the issue around how the they can market or sell or packaged the experience.

[00:23:37.090] - Charles
And if there's things that look like they're going to undermine the marketing and the sale of that [student] experience, they're going to pay attention to it. That's the wrong reason to pay attention to it. We need to pay attention to it because we actually believe that the combination of capitalism with systemic oppression  works in a way that is unfair and unjust. That's the way we should be moving. And if we're not moving that way, then I think people are hypocrites.

[00:24:04.780] - Sarah
So I guess if you had to imagine or create, like an ideal, like what the board would look like in the perfect sort of if 

[00:24:21.650] - Charles
I actually have a blog post on that front.  Yes. I think we should have people who are based in community organizing, perhaps with VANDU down  in the Downtown Eastside. I think you should put people who are housing advocates who've actually been at the forefront with the housing camps . I think we need trade union organizers sitting there. And yes, I will concede we probably should have a businessperson who might think about green renewable energy is as a core issue and the occasional politician should be included in these spaces, too.

[00:24:52.760] - Charles
But with the heavy weight toward people who are involved in accounting, finance, business and management of large corporations, it's a problem. It's a serious problem. And I think for a lot of people, these positions are seen to be more. 

[00:25:23.170] - Charles
Kind of an important marker of prestige to get get appointed. We need to move away from that. These to be on go, I will say, for the most people who do this. I think they do see it as a calling. Some of them literally do get a call to.

[00:25:44.190] - Charles
OK. I mean, I personally, myself, it's really unusual being on the board of governors. I mean, even you look at the typical type of faculty who even get elected, they tend to be kind of you know, they're stars in their field. They're small C conservative politically, perhaps, you know, in the middle. Kind of modest kind of way. They they  probably had administrative achievements. They may have been an associate V.P. or associate dean or department head or something like that..

[00:26:17.140] - Charles
I've not been in those kinds of positions, [to get someone] who is more interested in that kind of front line type of thing is very unusual. And course, the result was I was basically frozen out for the first half of the term. Yeah.

[00:26:30.920] - Charles
So, I mean, and if you have to say one of the things that change is when the chair [from Belkin to Korenberg] and I've said this publicly, who was willing to engage with different perspectives in a way that other people weren't. That's unusual. And so I think that issue right there is a critical one that people have seen. 

[00:27:05.100] - Charles
More participatory than say, you know, when we look back in the 90s when the NDP controlled who was on the Board of Governors, which was the period that began, UBC's major sort of neo-liberal dive. If you look at who was on the board of governors like Brad Bennett, for example, who was the chair, and the early early 2000s under the Campbell government, who Christy Clark appointed. There was no diversity of perspective of any sort.

[00:27:34.790] - Charles
It was all tilted hard to the right. And  my only concern is that we don't tilt too hard to the center, which is what the NDP is  (the NDP is not a left wing government).

[00:27:47.750] - Charles
I don't know, of course journalist are supposed to have political opinions, but you clearly do.

[00:27:56.710] - Sarah
Yes.

[00:27:59.270] - Charles
But, I mean, the NDP said clearly in the middle of the road and the Greens are further to the right of them. And so that's you know, we know where they're situated. We we don't really have much of a progressive voice sitting there. And that's that's a shame. I mean, and the other thing I think that people often confuse politics with with qualities of, of personal qualities and some of the nastiest people I've meet are some, some of the nastiest people, have been progressive academics who have big followings, very popular, but are actually kind of, ... 

[00:28:40.880] - Charles
Somebody you don't want to rely upon. When push comes to shove, and so that's, you know. Yes.  So these are, these are very complex life issues that I think we all wish would be very simple and easy to solve. Often when I'm teaching, I talk about models, we have to make sense of reality, are simplifications. A model isn't reality. Reality is always messy and dirty and different and confusing.

[00:29:24.230] - Charles
And the model just helps us give a give away to look at what's happening. And sometimes our models are wrong. Yeah, sure.

[00:29:34.520] - Sarah
Well, so you mentioned. Well, you have a mentioning, but also we you all right. How do phrases. So you mentioned just now that you were kind of frozen out in the first half of your term and, you know, you're you're one of your first faculty. Colleagues on the board ended up resigning. And so I don't know if you saw Nasif's recent tweets about.

[00:30:08.760] - Charles
I didn't, I don't follow his tweets.

[00:30:12.070] - Sarah
OK. Well, he tweeted about just. Saying that, like all the major controversies at UBC since 2015 have had to do in race in some ways, in some way. And so I was wondering, I guess, what your thoughts are on that. And if you think that, you know, I feel like we've touched on this a little bit, but, you know, do you think that there's a blind spot when it comes to race and other marginalized identities on the board and other important bodies.

[00:30:45.400] - Charles
Well, you know, the board is is product is probably had to run the numbers is probably at least half visible minority, people of colour [fact check: its is about 1/3 BIPOC].

[00:30:56.300] - Charles
Yeah. That's one change the NDP has made, though, even before that. No, it's been much more. I mean, the NDP have got more people there. So, I mean, for a moment, there were three Indigenous people were on the board of governors, which is unusual.  Three of us between myself,  Celeste Haldane  and Chaslyn Gillanders. So you had three indigenous people in there. Now there's just one [Indigenous] person just on the board. But with the new appointees there [more BIPOC than previously].

[00:31:34.780] - Charles
So, I mean. So that's interesting. So yet one has to ask so about that, whether it's the board. I actually think the real blindness is the fact that people who join  the ruling class loose their colour filters in an interesting way. And people's experiences are different [as a part of the elite]. So, I mean, you know, the fact that I  was never part of the ruling class.

[00:32:01.480] - Charles
I don't have the  bank accounts to support membership in the elite. But I think the real issue that's motivating these things have been about Gender. Significantly, I think gender is probably the fundamental one intersecting with issues of racial identity and fundamentally a fundamental question of class direction and the sort of the denial of people [like Indigenous peoples]. So, if you didn't fit in, weren't in the know, certain things get passed over you.

[00:32:49.000] - Charles
But but even when you see David's Sidooo and just you know, he went to court. He committed the crime and he's taking a penalty for it. But the whole flip that happened there in terms of from being this sort of person seen to this kind of amazing sort of charismatic individual. And then on the flip side, and that occurred which was merited, I mean, it was he was charged in the US for [it]. And I believe he's either pleaded guilty or been charged.

[00:33:23.330] - Sarah
I think he's up for sentencing now. I think.

[00:33:27.370] - Charles
The whole shift that occurred from people who had presented him as being, you know, saw him as an amazing thing to just [a  non-entity]. That complete total flip, you you wonder about the hypocrisy of people. 

[00:33:53.170] - Charles
Why was the campaign manager for her [Christy Clark's] failed campaign against Eby sitting on the board of governors? And so these are things that are evident all the way along. You know, why is the head of one of the major Vancouver based private enterprises, which is, you know, which is Belkin, which gets appointed to be the chair of the Board of Governors, or why is the chancellor of the university previously this sort of major financier who made donations to fund indigenous health research and then was front and center at every kind of monument rising thing on campus?

[00:34:31.340] - Charles
And, you know, talking about all the good work they were doing. So that's what's happening with these kinds of positions that are going. Going forward. You know, and it's I think it reflects an underlying sense of recognition of the university as a major corporation and controlling that corporation in terms of also its market share.

[00:34:53.780] - Charles
Right. That's right. People who are sitting at the top. I think, you know, historically marginalized people get left behind when we start taking a corporate lens to things.

[00:35:15.060] - Charles
And you have to ask yourself, you know, how, how this all, this idea of being marginalized and the fundamental issue is, is an economic class marginalization. And so if you take a look at the what, why, [and] how that works and who is, who is excluded in terms of those social things. And it comes fundamentally, when you look at the world in which indigenous communities are in, which we've been marginalized from our own land, from our own places. So people will say, you make these land acknowledgements, but how about UBC sits on non ceded territory, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:35:49.950] - Charles
Where is the anteing up. Whereas the actual, besides putting signs down main mall, where's the real recognition of that? And I think that when you start looking at those things, that there's been a disproportionate effect for indigenous communities. That means that any solution has to be disproportionate in terms of the resolution of that.

[00:36:13.900] - Charles
And when you look at the history of settlement in Canada and the way it's worked and the way the economy is done, I mean, that's the fundamental and primary contradiction in our society. And until we resolve that, nothing else will be resolved, because what it will mean by if you resolve these other issues [of marginalization of settlers, then that resolution] it's still premised upon the theft of Aboriginal land and time, bodies, intellect, intellectual property and that whole aspect.  Until that's actually addressed nothing else will fall into place.

[00:36:50.670] - Charles
Yes. Or I'm concerned. Or if it does fall into place, it will basically be a distribution of the spoils [excluding Indigenous peoples]. And so in that respect, that whole that whole the whole non-indigenous community is complicit in this. What amounts to a double oppression of indigenous communities.

[00:37:14.170] - Sarah
OK. Oh, sorry. Cool. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think my last question is just about. I have. I've been reaching out to people who currently sit on the board, and I've been told that they that they have been directed not to speak about the situation with the media. As per the code of conduct, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the ability of the governors to speak to the media independently if you're currently sitting on the board?

[00:37:53.150] - Charles
Well, I'm not currently sitting on the board. Sorry.

[00:38:00.380] - Charles
So I would have to be a lawyer to interpret whatever. I mean, I don't know what directions they've been provided with.

[00:38:11.200] - Charles
Clearly, nobody except the chair, or their designate, can speak on behalf of the board of governors. So, I mean, I you'll notice my email signature includes a tag saying for identification purposes only or whatever, because I had my wrists slapped awhile back for basically, the implication being that I was, I was issuing an opinion as a board of governors member. And I said, OK, well, I'm not. I never would intend to do that. But we'll put this tag line in to make sure that's clear.

[00:38:52.030] - Charles
So. I really don't know personally. I've I argued while I was a governor that because, of course, I was a faculty member, one has a kind of unique position that I actually had the right the right to speak my personal opinion as a faculty member about what was happening on the board of governors, unless, of course, it was a matter that was in an in camera meeting. And then I was opposed to us having very many in camera meetings or closed meetings.

[00:39:22.890] - Charles
And I was quite vociferous and the board was actually opening up. I've noticed a kind of very recently a contraction.  The board had been slowly opening and expanding things, making [more] things more public. And there was a clear set of procedures about what was closed and what was what was open and the recognition of that. And it is just my impression that things have shut down a little bit.

[00:39:53.100] - Charles
And but, you know, for what governors have been told to say, I don't know. I mean, clearly, when there's matters that might be before the courts, like when there's been some of the famous sexual assault situations at UBC, it was very important that the governors not speak out with public opinions because the fiduciary duty that a governor has in that role.

[00:40:25.980] - Charles
I don't know why they wouldn't have an opinion.

[00:40:30.180] - Charles
But I mean, so you're telling me that they've been told that the governors have been instructed not to speak to the press?

[00:40:38.460] - Sarah
Yes. So it is not a response that we've often gotten from them. I'm sure it's, you know, like you interviewed for the Ubyssey while sitting as a governor. So I'm just a little bit confused about how.

[00:40:56.730] - Charles
Well, I mean, maybe it's maybe it's. I mean, this is a harsh thing to say, but maybe it's easier to say "Somebody told me not to [talk] rather than to foray into this [issue] because many people are going to sit there and say there's no winning in this."

[00:41:10.450] - Charles
"I'm going to look like, I'm going to look problematic no matter what I say" is what they're probably all thinking. I mean, looking at the context and look at what's going on, looking at the response, I can just  say whether they're left or right, left, right or center, they're probably going to be saying there's nothing, nothing to be gained by talking to anyone about this. [But] the code of conduct doesn't say you can't speak and it doesn't say you can't disagree with [the board].

[00:41:44.600] - Charles
You know, the people who speak officially is the chair. I suppose you could say that in this context there's no way a governor could speak without it being some way considered to be an official statement.

[00:41:59.110] - Charles
Right. So no matter what they could say, they could say, do an interview with you. And then you could even if you frame it, given the way in which you might frame it in the article, could clearly have the words saying they're speaking as individual, but it [might] come across as 'look at this from the board of governors. Here's a statement.' And so I that I could see, especially for those who don't [like being in public they might rather not speak at all.].

[00:42:30.580] - Charles
Yeah. I mean, that's unusual. I don't know why the faculty members on the board, there's three of them haven't said anything. They're ones who could say something and be interesting to hear the students, for that matter. They have, there's no way in which the students can be controlled. And I would have thought the students would be front and center with the loudest voices on this issue.

[00:42:50.890] - Sarah
Yeah. Yes.

[00:42:56.110] - Charles
I mean, you guys have a closer connection to them than any faculty member or a former governor would have. I mean, you guys basically interact in the same social worlds.

[00:43:05.740] - Sarah
Well, I think personally, I would love it if you told them that. And I am maybe going to try to do a little bit more. Sorry. Make a more convincing argument for it than to give me an interview. That's been the response that I've gotten from the students. They've been directed not to speak. So I don't know. Yeah, it's it's it's. These rules are difficult, I mean, there was a point early on when they're changing, fixing the rules.

[00:43:38.250] - Charles
They had a line before that we had them remove. You couldn't disagree publicly with the board or something or at least it could it be inferred that way? And we got that one held back. And I think I have a blog post about that one, too.

[00:43:56.450] - Charles
But I'm just. Yeah. I mean, it's like when they tried to silence social social media engagement, when the chair of the governance committee, who is an NDP appointee, basically was moving forward with with kind of shutting down Twitter because it's rude and nasty and mean spirited.

[00:44:16.070] - Charles
And and, you know, there were some colleagues, one colleague from Vancouver, Okanogan, who felt that he didn't want people representing him, speaking on his part for that matter, didn't like me summarizing what he might have been saying in the meetings. And I mean, I don't like how other people summarize what I say, but say c'est la vie.

[00:44:44.090] - Sarah
Okay, well, that was all my questions. But is there anything else that you want to put on the record for the story?

[00:44:51.510] - Charles
What I'm curious about, you know, what kind of how you're looking at this and what would drive you because, I mean, how do you navigate your politics in this, in this thing? You've been very clear on your social media feeds about where you stand on the issue. I mean, maybe not specifically with the board, but with the wider, wider issues and things like that.

[00:45:13.640] - Sarah
How do you navigate that? I don't know. I would argue that as a racialized person my life is inherently, like you said, political as like. Yeah. As a woman and as a racialized person. Like, I don't. I don't have the luxury of not engaging in politics or like not thinking about these things because they directly affect my existence. So obviously, I'm not as a journalist. I guess. My answer would be that I think I. I think that the mainstream media, particularly the mainstream Canadian media, puts too much emphasis on this idea of objectivity.

[00:46:06.780] - Sarah
We know that to be like impossible. And I think like the strengths of. Having like. Diverse people in newsrooms and such as that, you'd. I don't know, I think because I think there's a difference between, like, objectivity and like. Are like, sorry. There's a difference between, like being subjective, but also like actively like being biased against your sources or like being biased against a certain angle, I think. Like, obviously, if.

[00:46:47.080] - Sarah
an angle comes up or like a source says something I'm not going to just like dismissed out of hand. As a journalist, I have to interrogate that and like, you know, back it up, sign it, whatever. So. Yeah, I don't know. I think that, like a lot of people. Yes. I don't know if that answers your question.

[00:47:10.180] - Charles
I find Raymond Williams 1977 book called Marxism in Literature.

[00:47:19.240] - Charles
And he has this section and he talks about the demonstrating commitment and alignment. This is all social production is aligned. To any, to basically to the dominant social order. Commitment is an act of self-conscious alignment where a person chooses. So I mean. I mean, the whole thing about debate, about objectivity. I mean, perhaps the mainstream press is is behind the times. But I mean, ever since Thomas Kuhn wrote his book called The Scientific Revolution in 1962 and how that's moved in, that whole notion.

[00:47:53.150] - Charles
But basically, that paradigm shifted because of the circulation of people, not the changing of ideas. And he's writing about physics and science. Now, how ideas and theories change there. And there wasn't a normal model, that notion of objectivity. But there is something about accuracy and being [honest]. And also, I remember when Janet Stefenhaggen  was the Vancouver Sun's education reporter and I was interviewed by her in the early 2000s  a number of times.

[00:48:24.210] - Charles
And she, it's nothing she deliberately or explicitly did, but the choice of words, the restructuring of quotes, and even as the quotes were, were correct and accurate, the way they were positioned,  other preceding quotes made a very clear thing that that I was seeing. You know, I. Because she was fairly, I would say, fairly to conservative. You might just say, you know, so that the clear orientation where, you know, basically where one comes across looking like a flaming lefty [in a way that undermined any of the content of what one was trying to say].

[00:49:06.270] - Charles
And and I think it's the question of whether people are self critically aware of where they situate themselves. Are they considering people as people? I mean, there's a difference between the gotcha politics of trying to track down, say, Justin Justin Trudeau for doing something. Christy Clark or or Mike Hardcourt to go way back. I should think of some current references rather than these old ancient ones. But that sense of how does one actually locate these things to carry the story. I mean, I think it's like an anthropology of other accounts. It's a very much a recognition of the flexibility of the author, the location of the author and these stories. But there's an acknowledgement of them. And somehow and of course, in 500 words or three hundred, five hundred, 700 words.

[00:50:11.210] - Charles
I've already said way more than you could even put in any reasonable form anywhere over the next year. In your submissions.

[00:50:23.660] - Sarah
I think like what you said about that reporter from The Sun. Journalism is inherently like it's about making so many choices when you write down a word. When you structure an article, a structure like the sentences within a paragraph like those are all about choices. And like with choice comes all the things that you carry with you as a person.

[00:50:48.410] - Sarah
And so oftentimes the choices aren't there. They're that kind of subconscious level, either the direct thing and how people respond to people, whether I mean even the sense and it doesn't always convey to depends on the audience. The audience is read. Things are how they miss misread things. But, yeah, that's interesting.

[00:51:39.670] - Charles
But, um, well. So when do you plan to have the story out?

[00:51:48.190] - Sarah
Well, my deadline is Monday. But it is quickly turning into a larger story than initially anticipated, I think. Yeah.  Thank you. So in answer to your question, I think. As sometime next week, hopefully mid next week before Friday, I would say. We'll see. Yeah.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Tactics of Silencing MRK II - shaming.

Online shaming has become a popular sport  -or, if you rather, tactic- for many across the political spectrum.  The effects can be devastating for the objects of this tactic.  What I am intersted in here is how shaming is used strategically by political groups and movements to disrupt the operations of other organizations,  to undermine individuals perceived as opponents, and to police group members to ensure adherence to the group identity.  Previously I've posted about the tactics of silencing and it's intersection with issues of freedom of expression. Here I am more intersted in shaming and confession as an across the political spectrum tactic.

I recently came across a book about the Communist Party of China's (CPC) technique of suku - (Social Suffering and Political Confession: Suku in Modern China, by Feiyu Sun).    Suku was a political performance used to elicit support and discipline opponents of the Communist Party.  As Feiyu Sun
describes it a poor peasant or worker would speak before a community crowd outlining the trauma they had experienced and the harm that had been caused by an intellectual, a leader, or a political opponent. It had the appearance of being spontaneous, but it was performative and carefully scripted. A successful session ended with the accused publicly confessing for the harm they had inflicted upon the oppressed peasant or worker.

Feiyu Sun places this tactic of control into its specific Chinese and historical context.  His book, based on a dissertation completed at York University, draws upon the Frankfurt School (a type of marxist cultural theory) to explicate the role of suffering and confession in transitioning Chinese identities/subjectivities into the modern era.  There is much to commend the book but what draws me to it is the explication of the role of suffering and confession in compelling both belonging  and the personal deconstruction of opponents.  There is much here that mirrors the current practices of the politics of shaming -'call out culture'- of our current mode of popular politics.

From big names to those on the margins, being called out to confess crimes that have caused harm and trauma are legion on facebook and twitter. People end up losing their jobs, get ostracized, and often face a barrage of social media invective. Once all the sentiments of self righteousness and the unseemly pleasure many participants seem to take from calling other people is pushed away, we are left with something that looks very much like the CPC's tactic of suku.

Most online shaming tends to be focussed on a set of middle of the road liberal -intersectional- values centered on ideals of tolerance and acceptance of human diversity and difference. One popular meme is the Karen who is portrayed as a white middle class women who becomes unreasonably angry with a person of colour and make various threats such as calling the police, speaking to a manger, or threatening direct physical harm. While the meme presents the Karen as the aggressor acting from a position of privilege and power, most of the examples of real life Karens that I have been able to track down reveal that such people more often than not end up losing their jobs; jobs that are just as likely to be working class as middle-class professional.  The Karens will often issue abject apologies for causing harm (after being fired).  Their former employers and, sometimes, their former friends, make statements saying things like "Karen's actions do not represent our values and principles and such actions have no place in our community and where it is found, there must be accountability." In some cases the Karens' acts have indeed been egregious.  But in so many cases the acts they perpetrated are merely unkind and inappropriate, not acts of trauma inducing harm.

Conservative activists have run campaigns outing 'left-wing' profs. The Globe and Mail reports on one incident at York University.  Here conservative party activists were calling out left wing professors for indoctrinating students. In response, one York faculty member said “Faculty at York represent a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives just as we represent a diversity of fields and disciplines, from arts to administration, ballet to business.  Do they think we all think the same way? I really don’t like it when people try to incite students to be hostile or suspicious of their faculty."  In the U.S.A. there have been more coordinated attempts to out, shame, and get faculty fired. Organizations like Professor Watchlist make it their job to identify 'left-wing' professors. They use online shaming tactics to harass faculty they disagree with.

Tactics deployed by conservative activists look no different from those being used by liberal intersectionalist activists. The objectives are the same - compel a target to recant their errors and mistakes, and -if their actions are considered egregious enough- to have their employment terminated or convince them to resign. No matter what the underlying political reason shamers are motivated by, the desired outcomes are the same and borrow heavily from the practice of Suku. The shamers will share expressions of the harm (on the one side expressed as 'indoctrination' on the other as 'trauma') the target has caused, they will issue a call for a public confession by the target of their wrong doing, and demand the target agrees to mend their ways. While political figures like Justin Trudeau or Donald Trump seem to navigate through these attempts at public shaming fairly easily, most regular folks do not.

If we, as a society, are serious about respecting a diversity of voices and perspectives it might be reasonable to find a better way to take down one's intellectual opponents than through online shaming.



Sunday, June 7, 2020

Plunging Online in a Pandemic

It’s amazing how quickly things can change in a few days. On March 11 one of my students asked if I thought the university was shutting down. I’d just been at an event where top university officials were still shaking hands and physical distancing wasn’t yet part of their lexicon. “The university doesn't look like it’s shutting down” I said, “but one never knows. Everything could change tomorrow.” By the 13th of March Santa Ono had declared all in person instruction was to end and by the 16th the university was telling students they could fly home and their exams would all be online.  Many faculty had already realized teaching online was very likely on the agenda.  But when the announcement came it was a surprise just the same.

For most of my colleagues teaching ended in April. But I was signed up to teach three courses in our summer semester making me part of the vanguard setting a path everyone else will follow in September (UBC has announced that the fall term is all online). Last September, when I agreed to teach these courses, we envisioned them as a range of small to medium sized in person classes. But with the pandemic I was suddenly teaching three online courses, two of them enrolling more than a hundred students each (way more than we anticipated last fall). The pandemic has brought us into a new space for learning and teaching.

It’s been a major learning curve for me. But having always dabbled in online communications through blogging, video production, and podcasts the technical part wasn’t that daunting.  The hard part is trying to find a way to connect with my students. Despite what is said about the online environment it still has a long way to go to emulate real human contact.

I am so impressed by the students. From Bangkok to Jakarta , Yellowknife to Montreal, Cape Town to  Shenzhen, my students are literally everywhere in the world.  This means I have to think differently about lectures and assignments – all of which have been modified. Lectures are shorter but there are extension materials including online sources and videos. Lectures are recorded so that students don’t have to be present in real time. Assignments and tests are restructured to let students progress at their own pace (to an extent) with sliding deadlines.

But with all of that it becomes clear how problematic our home internet services are. It might be okay to stream a great movie over Netflix, but try an interactive video discussion with a hundred students and you find out who is literally hanging on by thin wire and who has a robust home network.

Disparities in access to good internet services and home equipment is striking. I asked my students who had dedicated work space in their homes. More a third are sharing space, moving from front room to kitchen, patio to bedroom, as they chase after quiet home work space.

I’ve also heard from my students their worries for family and friends in essential services or elders that need care. They have shared worries that come from isolation for those living alone or with roommates who have grown apart.   Then there are those who have lost their jobs and, despite this modest reopening, have been told there is no job for them to return to. For many it’s been pretty grim.

Yet there is, and I know it's a cliché to say it, a really strong base of resilience among these students. At the same time as they face increased pressures, disruptions, anxiety, and fears, they also express joy in having the good fortune to study. They express gratitude for the learning teams UBC has put in place to support their learning.  I may be the public face in the class but there is a team of five working directly with me  (four teaching assistants and graduate research associate) and a host of other support in IT, the library, and our administration making sure that UBC’s learning community continues to thrive no matter where in the world they have scattered to.

I look forward to returning to face-to-face instruction where I can interact with and get to know my students more thoroughly. In the meantime we make the best of it in our shred learning journey.