Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Controversial Events on Campus: a review & reflection

Last man standing. That was my thought as the workshop "Controversial Events on Campus," hosted by UBC's Equity & Inclusion office, drew toward its close. After nearly two hours of conversation the majority of participants were now seated around the edge of the room leaving a lone woman, the moderator, standing  alongside an elderly gentleman with the two of them facing a small group of young men.  Wow I thought - this is a stark example of the problem.

The workshop had begun with an overview of of UBC policies, ideas of free expression, and the standard discussion of the agenda.  Participants, of which there were around 60 or so, were seated in a big circle and the moderator, Dr. Aftab Efran stood at the nominal front of the room. It wasn't long before she had us all in the middle of the room engaged in what she called a "soft shoe shuffle:" a moving conversation that allows all voices to be heard. The process starts with someone making a statement or asking a question and the group either moves towards or away from the speaker according to each person's agreement or disagreement.  It's a facilitation technique that has the potential to work well with a rather diverse set of perspectives.  I am unclear, though, to the extent that this can actually reconcile differences of perspective when they are deep, profound, and fundamentally antagonist to each other.  That said we all seemed willing to give the process a try.

We compliantly shuffled around the room shifting one way or they other through a range of fairly generic topics. The Ubyssey has a nice review of the topics in their article. As time went on people seemed to become comfortable with floating ideas potentially more controversial or provocative. With these more explicit expressions of perspective the room started to clearly subdivde into one larger, quieter, gender mixed group and then one smaller, louder, predominantly young male group.

At one point one of the young men, in response to a question as to why more people don't speak up, said something along the lines of "they have an obligation to speak if they object. We can't respond to what they don't say."

At which point I spoke about how  amongst the Tsimshian peoples on BC's north coast silence is not quiescence nor agreement. Rather, silence and non-participation is a profound statement of disagreement.  The young man interjected "that's just one culture." Without stating it the young man revealed his own cultural bias - the idea that a certain type of speech is universally dominant in a way that removes it from the notion of being 'culture.' Indigenous protocols and governance procedures are, for him, 'cultural' and thereby particular and (I assume for him) problematic and flawed.

To assert one cultural norm - "speak up or forever hold your peace" - over another without any other reason except a bald assertion this is just the way it is is a profound form of tunnel vision. It is tied to a variant of eurocentric thought (say we cay 'culture'?) that aggressively projects itself as the only civilized way of organizing human societies. It's the same set of beliefs that contributed to european elites expanding globally in one of the largest smash and grab operations the world had ever seen. But it takes a certain kind of blind arrogance to ignore the myriad of ways human beings can (and have) organized themselves.

There has to be something profound to learn from a society that has remained socially stable, healthy, productive, and creative for millennia. I don't mean the Europe that languished on the margins of the old world in relative isolation from the centers of cultural innovation until well into the middle ages. I am talking about the world here, a world within which UBC is located. 

UBC is situated on Indigenous lands. That's a legal fact - title has not been extinguished. No treaties have been signed dealing with the land UBC sits on. The young men from the workshop can complain, can say has history has moved past, they might even point to how Indigenous cultures are primitive and people just need to get over it (and cite a person they mentioned at one point, Frances Widdowson, whose published work equates Indigenous societies to the era of savagery).  The material facts, however, challenge their assertions.  The detailed scientific record documents long lasting societies in which massive cedar frame homes existed in the same place for centuries. It wasn't perfect (tell me a human society that was or is ... ), but it was one way that human beings found to live engaged, creative, productive lives that respected an interplay between collective and individual wellbeing. But our young men appeared unwilling to hear the possibility of other ways beyond their own way of doing things.

As a man, as a father of young men, as a university teacher I feel for the angst these young men expressed during the workshop.  But I am pretty sure they have got it wrong. They seem to feel that other people are getting an advantage over them - by other people I think they mean women and people of colour.  But what they are experiencing is in fact having to compete with a group of people who had previously been excluded from the competition in the first place and in comparison, many of them come up lacking (not all, but enough to motivate a movement).

One of the successes of second wave feminism involved dismantling a lot of the barriers that women faced. My late mother, who was a school teacher, used to talk of how she came out to UBC as a young women to talk with faculty in the horticultural program about studying there (keep in mind this was the late 1940s or early 1950s).  They sized her up and said, without even discussing academics, women aren't good horticulturalists, maybe you should consider becoming a nurse or a teacher? Her experience was not dissimilar among women of her generation.  Second wave feminism attacked those false boundaries. Admission requirements (formal or informal) based on gender are no longer supposed to be tolerated. In this context, and despite the expansion of post secondary opportunities, young men are finding themselves at a disadvantage - not becuase of unfair advantages granted to women, but becuase they just don't measure up now that the special advantage of being male has been removed. 

Now before anyone suggests I selling my gender out or that I might be suggesting no young man is smart enough to make it, let me be clear that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that even as the barriers to women's full participation in post secondary are coming down the messaging to young men hasn't yet caught up. The old message implied that being a boy and a young man gave you something a little bit special. The new message is that being a human being in our various and marvellous forms is what makes us special - not the gender assigned to us.  But while young men are still hearing the old whispers about how special they are, they aren't seeing as many special rewards as they might think they deserve.  In fact some of them rather feel like they are being made fun of, dismissed, rated down and discriminated against: but they are not.

And there we were at the end of the workshop with a half dozen young men stading in a half circle facing down the moderator and one elderly gentleman. It was as though they thought that if they expressed their feelings enough times, if they shifted their circle a bit tighter, if they said it loud enough, then all of us sitting quietly around the outside might somehow change our minds and "say you're right, it's so terrible that your special privileges are being taken away." But that isn't going to happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.