Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Ferguson and Institutional Racism

Since Monday there has been a lot of violence and talk. Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot unarmed black youth Michael Brown, was not indicted by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. An indictment, which is effectively an order to bring criminal charges to someone, occurs in about 90 per cent of these cases in the United States. The decision, which was by all accounts hyped up and to some degree anticipated with much pessimism, tore across America in a flash. No charges for Wilson and a nation divided.

What has followed has been predictable but all the while still quite shocking. Protests have erupted around the country as well as in some localised areas globally. In the midst of these torrid demonstrations, violence has broken out with rioting and the predictable looting and smashing of store windows. In the midst of this action, white people have taken to television and social media to tell the rest of America to stop talking about racism.

Despite the fact that we often think of racism as a part of the distant past: slavery, apartheid, the holocaust, or residential schools, the reality is that racism frames all social relationships in modern America and around the world. Attempts to deny the power of race are deeply problematic. This means on a macro level, as well as in particular cases, such as the shooting of Michael Brown.

Racism exists in the media, on social networking sties, in law enforcement, in the business world, in education, and in the legal system. Racism is pervasive and multifaceted. It's also ingrained in American culture, what we call institutional racism. Institutional racism generally means that even those who are racially marginalised hold racist attitudes towards various others in order to prop up the dominant group (think of the film Crash). This is similarly expressed in sexism when women call each other bitches or sluts. They have internalised the dominant messages about hierarchy and they are acting them out. It is the privilege of the dominant class, according to Antonio Gramsci, to have their ideas and values taken on by various others. This is otherwise known as hegemony.

There are quite a few ways in which we can observe institutional racism in the west. Here are some categories to reflect on.

The first is xenophobia. I just wrote about this last week, but it comes down to a fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding of the "other". These sentiments can apply to race or any category of "other" that is subordinate to a dominant cultural group. Sometimes it's assumptive, expecting a voice over the phone to be white, for example. Sometimes it's a reaction, like crossing to the other side of the street if you see a young black male. Sadly, this sometimes includes taking the side of the white authority when a young black man is killed, seemingly with little or no justification. Our ideas of otherness come from years of exposure to generally xenophobic ideas and institutions. Think, for example, of the image of Michael Brown that was shared by the media after he was killed. He was presented in a way that othered him, as a young black male, against a white victim of crime. This played out brilliantly on twitter with a photo campaign. See the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

This points to a related phenomenon - differential treatment. A good example of this is to think about who can be seen challenging the authority of the government. Take for example the demonstrations in Ferguson compared with renegade Cliven Bundy. Or the right to protest or participate in a riot: the burning of police cars was seen by many in America as an act of terrorism, but what about those who take to the streets after sporting events, such as the Vancouver riots in 2011. Even the questoin of who can openly hold a gun is incediary. It's from an idea that democracy is there to serve the interests of the dominant cultural group. Anyone else seen challenging it's legitimacy should be put back in their place. There's a song on the radio currently that says we're slamming the doors of democracy on those who are not the same.

Another element is fear. Many people, particularly white, try to imagine themselves in the situation and sympathise with the white person was "just doing their job" or "serving". We don't have to look back very far to see another unfortunate example, the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012. This shooting also evidences institutional racism because it was a hispanic man shooting a black man. Fear, propogated by racist propaganda, has a wide impact.

The last part I'd like to share is where we started: denying the existance of racism. This, in my view, is particulalry egregious because it shuts down anything progressive from happening. This takes many forms, most notably with things like saying that we've come a long way as a society or that racism goes both ways. These tactics are successful at derailing the types of progressive conversations that need to be happening in order to combat racism and other forms of marginalisation.

With all of these elements in mind, consider how Michael Brown was portrayed in the media since the event occured this summer. Now reflect on how Darren Wilson has been characterised. It doesn't take much googling to come up with some disturbing results, but I encourage you to try this as an exercise.

It can be difficult to think about next steps when we are so mired in current frustrations, but we must keep an eye out for what can be done. It won't be easy, but perserverence, hope, and compassion are really the only ways that we can transcend the violence and division. I will be watching this keenly as it continues to unfold.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Bullying: The Next Step

This past week my school board celebrated a week against bullying. I was excited that it was, in fact, at my school the students who put together the workshops every day that highlighted not only what bullying was, but who was targeted, why it was happening, and its effects. I had a really positive experience with this week until, during some professional development, I came across some material that tried to deny that bullying was in fact bullying. All this got me thinking about how we are all quick to rally behind bullying as a cause, but when bullying happens in the "real" world we forget the basic idea of it and have all sorts of really harmful ways of reacting to it.

So to start off, I thouht it'd be helpful to have a definition of bullying. There are many ways to go with this, but I'd note that most of the common definitions point out two key ideas: first, the power imbalance between the participants and, second, the fact that it is intended to cause harm. There is also a debate about whether or not it has to be sustained. More on this later.

I couldn't help but think that this sounds, to me, a lot like what adults face. Harrassment, intimidation, violence, exclusion, generally based on xenophobic sentiments. Perhaps, I thought, bullying is a manifestation of xenophobia.

To start, a lot of it comes down to the idea of inequality. In our modern world, the notion of inequality is a difficult one to have a rational discussion about, but ultimately it's the idea that two people don't have the same social, monetary, or physical capital. Whether that's based on a metric like race or religion; education or gender; sexual orientation or age. Look anywhere in the media, the political world, our personal lives, or the workplace, and you'll see manifestations of racism, sexism, or some other form of xenophobia. Sometimes it's egregious, sometimes it looks to be harmless. But it's there, always humming in the background.

As adults we get used to the fact that inequality is a "fact of life". If you don't like it you can either pretend to accept it or you can constantly try to agitate against it. There aren't a lot of choices. But what about for children?

Young people are trying to understand the world around them, and they pick up copious cues daily. They generally understand concepts like hierarchy and deference. They learn quickly whether or not authority is something to be followed or questioned. They also are learning how to relate to their peers. They learn from what they see modelled around them, which, unsurprisingly is the real world I alluded to before, full of people evaluating one another based on their differences: xenophobia.

Ultimately, students get bullied for the same reasons that adults experience xenophobia. Because they are different. It could come down to cultural differences like religious practices. It could come down to class like what kind of clothes you wear. It could come down to gender and whether or not you perform masculinity. It could aslo come down to size, race, ability, language, sexuality, or anything else. Rather unsurprisingly, these are all things that adults feel like they are targeted for.

So what about the aforemention question about bullying being sustained acts? Well, a xenophobic remark here and there may not look like sustained, but consider being the one to whom those marks are consistently addressed. That certainly feels like a threat, and perception is most certainly reality. Often I, or my colleagues in the teaching profession, don't intervene when bullying is occuring because we see it as a one-off. For the perpetrators or bystanders, it may be, but what about for the most important person implicated, the victim? It's my best guess that it's not the first time. And that's where I have some difficulty with official school board policies that discuss what is and is not bullying - it has to be sustained. There's no way to know if it is for sure, so why not treat all incidents as part of a social whole?

I write this because I see the week against bullying as a great starting point - a place to stop for a moment and reflect on inequality, belonging, fairness, justice, and participation. Let's consider talking about xenophobia more openly, thinking about how it manifests in our daily lives and what we can do to prevent its toxic influences.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

On Sexting

Feminism is getting a lot of buzz these days, and among the hundreds of contemporary issues important to youth is the proliferation of private sexual images. It's becoming a common occurrance with the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Kate Upton, and Jennifer Lawrence as victims of cloud hacks in this year alone. Their images have been distributed widely over the internet and the damage has been done.Trying to sort out responsibility in this situation is challenging and has been the subject of debate.

Many contend that it's clearly the fault of the hackers. Others will blame Apple for the failure of their cloud services to protect against hacking. Others still have decided that it was the fault of the women for taking the pictures of themselves in "comprimising" situations or posting them online.

This conversation is not particularly new since it is a modification of the blame game that women face when they allege rape. It's no surprise that we're talking about this again given the ongoing discussion about Jian Ghomeshi (read my previous blog). People seem to have a difficult time understanding concepts like consent, which have much wider reaches than the physical - it also includes what happens in an online context.

Recently I watched a video produced by Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes. In the video, a young man named Philippe takes images of his girlfriend and then circulates them after an argument. The protaganist in the video is not the girlfriend, however. Another character, Philippe's friend, faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to talk to Philippe about whether or not sexting is appropriate. Initially, he chooses not to say anything, and the result is that the girlfriend is deemed a slut and is excluded by both her male and female peers. With the magic of public service announcements he rewinds to the moment before Philippe sends the image. This time he decides to mention that it's not cool to circulate these images. Disaster averted.

As much as I'd like to be happy about the damage being avoided, note that the protagonist is not the woman. Instead of insisting that the image not be shared, she is reliant on a man to do something about it. And of course it's not something for Philippe to do. It requires someone else - the White Night.

The hacking of the clouds this year was pretty disappointing, but this case highlights some other questions. Notably, it's important to mention that the image in question is child pornography. Before the federal government any image of that variety, regardless of who took it, is regarded as such. There has been a fair amount of attention to this with frequent television and online ad spots. This has attracted a lot of attention as it implicates people criminally who are not culpable.

As far as I can tell, these issues are really complex. Trying to manage them with legal interventions is part of the solution, but not if it criminalises the young women involved. Much like in prostitution why should the women be held accountable? It is the duty of the state to protect vulnerable members of society and to mitigate against malevolent pressures.

Moreover, the focus should be on education for young people that deals with the true complexity of the situation. Not that it's criminal or that these young girls have no morals, but instead that participants are aware of the implications of placing images of themselves where they can be proliferated so that they can participate in it consensually. In the event that consent isn't expressed, then complaints should be taken seriously. But that's another question altogether.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

On Heroism

I wrote about remembrance last year in a piece I am particularly proud of. Given the acts of violence that occured last month in Ottawa and MontrĂ©al, there has been a lot of anxiety and hatred leading up to this Remembrance Day. Xenophobia has manifested itself quite publicly, including directly from our national leaders — this much to the dismay of many in Canada who would prefer to think we live in a harmonious society. It's been, at times, difficult to watch. There has also been a lot of talk about heroes, most notably Cpl Nathan Cirillo, the man killed at the Cenotaph in October.

Today is a day for reflection. A day for remembering. A day for sharing. Hopefully it's also a day for openness, respectfulness, and tolerance. Even more I hope it's a day for questioning not only the meaning of war, but also of the meaning of public memory. While I explored some of these themes last year, I'd like to focus now on the aforementioned talk of heroes.

This issue has been controversial for some time, but recently Andrew Dreschel of the Hamilton Spectator claimed that Cirillo was no hero. In the article Dreschel points out that hero was a title given posthumously to promote an "accidental" victim. Taking pains to note that the situation is tragic and that Cirillo is deserving of respect and attention, he questions the use of the word hero:

"The accolade traditionally isn't bestowed for simply wearing a uniform... The honour is accrued by performing brave deeds and daring feats — risking or sacrificing your life to save others. Cirillo may have possessed those heroic qualities and might even have had a chance to display them had he lived. But he didn't"
The point was not made to be disrepectful, but, like I mentioned above, in the vein of talking about the meaning of public memory.
Are members of the Canadian Forces heroes by default? 
What exactly constitutes heroism or a heroic act?
Is Remembrance Day for heroes, or is it more global in scope?
Who else in our society deserves to be remembered for their struggles? Should they get as much attention from the state, the media, and the public?
I don't actually have any answers just more questions. After an intimate ceremony at my school, during which a Canadian soldier recounted his experience in Afghanistan, I asked my students to write a reflexion about the importance of remembering, and again more specifically, who to remember. I look forward to reading their responses as much as I look forward to reading yours.