An Interrogation of ‘Reconciliation’

This is a podcast about ‘reconciliation’ in Canada. We’re thinking about reconciliation in quotation marks because we want to critically analyze the narratives, power dynamics, potential pitfalls, practices, and consequences unfolding around us. (Full episode, 67 minutes)

Panelists

Joe Anton is from the Oneida Nation of the Thames. He is a counselor at the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre.

Summer Bressette is from the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. She is the Indigenous Legacies Project Manager at Museum London.

Cindy Smithers Graeme holds a PhD in Indigenous Health from Western University.

Segments

If you are looking to reference or listen to a topical segment, here are the broad themes we discussed.

A critique of land acknowledgements

What do we make of the increasingly common practice of non-indigenous people publicly acknowledging the traditional territories of indigenous people before public gatherings? (7 minutes)

The personal and the political

What could and should it look like for non-indigenous people to engage politically with reconciliation? (19 minutes)

Let’s talk ‘truth’ before we talk ‘reconciliation’

We consider some ways that the reconciliation narrative can be a tool for the ongoing colonization of people, land, and culture. (12 minutes)

Spaces, power, tokenizing, and colonizing

We think critically about the power and privilege that resides in capacity to create spaces and galvanize attention. (14 minutes)

Follow up

Do you have thoughts, perspectives, or input to add to the conversation? Please leave a note in the comment section below or send me an email at contact@jamesshelley.com. To read more, this site has a number of further discussions about the topic of reconciliation for reflection as well.

Safe space… or ethical space?

Safe space. Brave space. Positive space. I’m wondering: what is an ethical space? Would an ethical space be synonymous with a safe space? Why or why not?

Willie Ermine proposes that the “idea of an ethical space, produced by contrasting perspectives of the world…triggers a dialogue that begins to set the parameters for an agreement to interact modeled on appropriate, ethical and human principles.”

The resentment levied at the safe space movement is often characterized by criticisms about protecting a narrow limit of perspectives to the exclusion of counter or divergent ideas. Safe spaces, the argument goes, curtail the free speech of opposing views, infantilizes those in the space, and turns the rest of the world into a trigger-filled danger zone.

Advocates of safe space retort by arguing that the world is structurally, systemically, and physically more dangerous for some populations than it is for others. Carving out broader places in society to acknowledge each other’s experiences and openly express one’s identity without facing a barrage of anger, insults, and assaults is a right protected by the freedom of association, no less than the freedom of expression.

So what would an ethical space look like to you? Would an ethical space shut its inhabitants out to every variant viewpoint? Would an ethical space allow its inhabitants to be ridiculed for acknowledging or declaring partial or unequal treatment? Do you think a debate about the ethical landscape and properties of a space help refocus the broader safe space debate?

Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship

Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?

The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.

Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.

I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.

I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.

One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?

Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?

Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.

I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.

However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.

Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?

Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.

What do you do when you realize you are the colonizer?

Let’s begin with a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that I become aware that another group of people do not share the same access to material opportunities, cultural perks, and civil rights that I enjoy. Let’s suppose that this segment of the population is historically and regularly racialized, marginalized, or stigmatized by other social groups. (Such as my social group, for instance.)

As a result of this discovery, I realize that people face systemic disadvantages — disadvantages that are mostly alien to my experience. This realization is not only a theoretical idea, but it is the acute awareness that the oppression of others is inseparable from opportunities that I possess (and leverage) as a member of my social class. Put it this way: the very same cards that have been dealt in my favour are simultaneously stacked against other people. I not only see the inequitable, self-reinforcing power disparity at play: I see myself as a player in the equation.

Now, what should I do?

This post is about articulating a hypothetical response to this scenario.

For the sake of the thought experiment, I imagine my range of potential responses as points along a continuum. (Of course, every continuum is an arbitrary model. And this model is surely as flawed as any other. But given these caveats, I share this completely arbitrary idea because it highlights a ‘problem’ I cannot easily reconcile.)

On one end of the continuum, I stand up and declare that I will advocate for you. I have power and resources at my disposal. I will use all the social levers I can get my hands on to make your life better. But in my campaign for the ‘improvement’ of your life, I will militarize my implicit biases: I will inherently assume that I know what you need and want. (And, as it turns out, I think you just want to live more like me!) I proudly declare myself to be a voice for the voiceless — your saviour and your ally. In this, I inadvertently reinforce and amplify the discrepancy between us. Yes, you need me. As I self-righteously claim to ease the burden of your oppression, I only re-entrench myself as the colonizer — a colonizer who is blind and ignorant of the empire and patriarchy that they so dutifully spread with their philanthropy. (Hey, can I get a tax receipt for this, by the way?)

On the other extreme of the continuum, I humbly announce that I will wholly defer to your knowledge. Therefore, You must advocate for yourself. In my deference, I bestow upon you the responsibility of educating me. I am the researcher, and you are the subject. Just as I refuse to speak on your behalf, I also positively refuse to act unless you direct me to act. As a result, you must take up the not insignificant labour of managing me. In my so-called solidarity and allyship, I am a burden. A piece of well-intentioned deadweight. Yes, I will assure a token voice for the plight of your people is always represented. I will champion the input of those with lived experience at every opportunity. I will write policies for your inclusion. I will host your workshops. But the ‘identity labour’ costs hereby fall entirely to you. And along the way your identity is evermore defined by this new multicultural role I set for you. You bear the burden of my endless consultations. Here, again, the power discrepancy is only magnified. I, the so-called woke colonizer, have a new assignment for you: you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity I provide you. Thus, in decrying the disparity of our relative privilege, I enjoy my new privilege of deferring everything to you and excusing myself of any liability for the outcomes.

The ‘poles’ of this continuum present a real problem. To the extent I act on your behalf, I entrench my position as a patronizing member of bourgeoisie performing the same-old song and dance in the hazardous haze of their ignorance. To the extent that I refuse to act without your explicit direction or insist on your volunteer leadership, I effectively abdicate all personal responsibility (and accountability) for contributing to the cognitive and material tasks of reparation and equity. The balance of these two poles is tedious and fragile. How maliciously and subtly the power imbalance tips the scale in either direction. Perhaps the most important ‘test’ for any given action is the extent to which the activity holds these dynamics in balance.

At either end of this continuum, oppression merely switches the garbs of its outer shell. But both ends of the continuum seem to represent the ‘default’ responses of people like me (that is, folks who fancy themselves as advocates and tweeters for the idea of ‘social justice’ from the position of their economic and class privilege). In trying to determine the ‘middle,’ I confront the heart of the complexity at hand: what does it even mean to ‘decolonize’ one’s social position? And if one cannot ‘decolonize’ oneself, does it not follow that another must always be the colonized?

If this model reflects anything about reality, the way forward seems disturbingly foggy. In my commitment to avoid the poles at the extreme, I step timidly towards the centre of the continuum. But what is the centre?

How do we solve this dilemma without parroting the same old platitudes about the importance of ‘active listening’ and ‘building bridges’? How much time must we usurp at our roundtables, panels, and conferences? How do we find the middle of the continuum without merely describing new, normative roles for the oppressed to play in our newly reordered order of things?

At this point, I have come to the tentative ‘conclusion’ that there is no secret solution for ‘solving’ the problem raised by this continuum. The ‘right’ answer appears to be: continue muddling along with as much grace and trust as we can muster. Or, perhaps, revolution. Chucking the ‘continuum’ out the window might be a good start, too. Thoughts? There could very well be no answer key at the end of the book we are writing here. Admittedly, I’m a bit suspicious of people who think they’ve got all this figured out. But I am reasonably confident that the people who are running ahead blind to this inherent dilemma are teetering recklessly close to the historical status quo.

What does ‘Reconciliation’ mean for an individual Canadian like me?

The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.

A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.

Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.

In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.

Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.

Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’

I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.

It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.

As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.

I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time

Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.

I Believe Her

Innocent until proven guilty. This is the foundational presumption of our justice system. This is the normative, intentional bias we have structurally embedded in our conception of justice to protect the wrongly accused. It is central to our legal definition of human rights itself.

But presumed innocence has a inherent side effect. It structurally imposes a bias of its own. It presumes the accuser must be lying. For as long as we presume the innocence of the accused, we are predisposed to suspect the integrity and honesty of the plaintiff. In a sense, to presume the innocence of a perpetrator means concurrently assuming the victim bears ‘inverse guilt’ for making a (presumed) falsified accusation.

Applying a gender lens to this inverse guilt is critical. For example, when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault, she steps forward not only as the victim of an act of violence against her body but as one who must now internalize this inverse guilt. As far as the legal system and public opinion is concerned, speaking up equates to everyone assuming she has fabricated her story — at least until her charge is proven. But how does one prove all sexual misdemeanors “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Who can trust a legal system biased explicitly on the defendant’s innocence to rule in your favor regarding an incident that occurred in private or behind closed doors?

Presumed innocence favours the denial of wrongdoing above the declaration of wrongdoing. And so it should. No one wants to live in legal system that allows a single, flippant accusation to destroy their life and family overnight. Such a system clearly provides no legal protection for anyone at all. But the problem is that the protection we all supposedly enjoy under the presumption of innocence also produces a legal climate and culture of law enforcement systemically incentivized to manifest at least some degree of victim blaming — the disproportionate burden of which is borne by women.

The question, I think, is whether or not we can simultaneously assume the innocence of the accused and the honesty of the accuser? Are we capable of such nuance? It seems to me that until the claimant’s character are assumed as innocent as the defendant’s actions, we will continue to replicate a system that serves men above than women. We need to figure out a way to normalize the paradox of saying “I believe her” while simultaneously protecting all of us from a nightmarish dystopia where all it takes is an accusation to prove your guilt once and for all. I’m not sure how we get there from where we are today, but trusting and believing victims must be a first step to bringing some equilibrium to a very unbalanced arrangement at present.

My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

On Monday, September 18, I hosted a panel discussion with Helene Berman, Melanie Katsivo , and Warren Steele (see bios) on the topic of structural violence. The event was titled, Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? This framing question morphed into, Who benefits the most by the way society is organized?

If you skim over to the Wikipedia entry on ‘structural violence’ you’ll read that the term refers to “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized adultism, ageism, classism, elitism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, speciesism, racism, and sexism are some examples of structural violence…”

In this podcast episode we attempt to drag the concept of ‘structural violence’ out of the academic world and apply it to our community. Who is served by the institutions of our society… and who is harmed in the process?

Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.

Identity Politics v Universalism?

On Sunday I read a fascinating blog post by Kenan Malik about identity politics. As usual, Malik raises some fascinating perspectives. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. What follows comprises of my notes, personal interpretation, and a question.

First, Malik traces the history of identity politics to a time before it was even called ‘identity politics.’ He draws attention to critics of the Enlightenment, who decried the universalizing ideals of the movement. These original champions of identity-oriented politics were those who felt that the calls for equality would strip away the safe, ethnocentric nationalism of the status quo. In other words, the original ‘identity politics’ was grounded in attitudes and agendas we would define as ‘racist’ or ‘supremacist’ today.

By and large, the 18-19th-century defenders of equality took a wholly different approach: they advocated for universal rights. This notion of universality — especially when practiced politically — stood in direct contrast to the reactionary ethnic/identity-based politics standing in defense of the status quo.

In Malik’s view, the original iteration of ‘identity politics’ dissipated after the Second World War. The Holocaust effectively made the notion orienting one’s political agenda around an ethnic identity unpalatable. But in the wake of the war — and amid the hyper identity-conscious restructuring of borders — the role of identity in politics shifted dramatically. The transformation was slow but significant.

The most crucial change, argues Malik, is our definition and practice of solidarity. Identity politics “stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture,” whereas solidarity “draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.” Ironically, identity-based politics makes forming mass political movements increasingly difficult. The number of large-scale solidarity movements that have drawn people together across distinctive backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures has declined significantly. It is arguably easier to galvanize people into direct-action solidarity over shared values — such as a common conception of justice — than it is to make the distinct identity and experience of an oppressed group the focal reason for engagement.

In other words, we’re collectively spending more time asking ourselves, “Who are we?” and less time thinking about, “What kind of society do we want to build?” But we can’t equate identity-building with nation-building. To change the structural and institutional landscape of a state — that is, to address power — requires a coordination of ideological values (the Zeitgeist, so to speak) that must by definition transcend any particular camp of identity.

But perhaps the most chilling point of Malik’s account is the idea that the ‘mainstreaming’ of identity politics has paved the way for the way for white identity politics:

as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

The question for all of us who value the hope and dream of living in truly equitable societies boils down to this: are universalism and identity politics fundamentally at odds with one another? For Malik,

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it…only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.

What do you think?

Human Trafficking: Definitions, Interventions, and Politics

In this podcast episode, Mia Biondi, Caroline Pugh-Roberts, and AnnaLise Trudell discuss the different ways that we as a community are trying to define and respond to human trafficking in our region. We explore some of the debates surrounding the definition of sex trafficking (should all sex work and prostitution be defined as trafficking?) and the resulting differences in approaches to intervention and political advocacy (should sex work be decriminalized and regulated or rather policed more heavily?). Despite the differences to approaching the issue, what do all ‘sides’ of the discussion agree on?

Mia Biondi is a Registered Nurse with a special interest in increasing healthcare provider awareness and knowledge on human trafficking issues in Canada, as well as organizational readiness to identify, and provide aftercare for trafficked persons. Before beginning a career in nursing she completed a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology studying HIV drug resistance, and post-doctoral fellowships in viral hepatitis and emerging viruses. Following her BScN, Mia worked as the Clinical Coordinator at All Saints Church-Community Centre in Toronto providing comprehensive trauma-informed care for trafficked youth, and drop-in health services for street-involved persons. During this time she led training for city staff, police services, and specialized health teams. She also has clinical experience in public and sexual health, severe and persistent mental health, and pediatrics. In 2015, in collaboration with the Middlesex-London Chapter, Mia submitted a Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario resolution to advocate for increased prevention, identification, and aftercare of trafficked persons. Mia is now completing the Primary Health Care Nurse Practitioner Certificate at Western University, and is an active member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.

Caroline Pugh-Roberts is a survivor of eight years of sex trafficking through strip clubs in Ontario and along the 401 corridor. As an executive member of the London Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, she focuses on advocacy and educating others. She has spoken publicly to thousands of people Canada-wide, including advocacy groups and front-line providers. She speaks at John School, a court-mandated program for men who are arrested for buying sex services; and at the other end of the spectrum, runs a sex-worker drop-in at safe space for women in London, ON. She has also been an advisor on training packages for front-line providers for the provinces of both Ontario and British Columbia. She is the recipient of a Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work in this area, and currently a social work student at Fanshawe College. Caroline was recently invited to partake in The First Canadian Experiential Women’s Summit, in Toronto, for survivors of human trafficking who have shared their story with the public. She aspires to pursue a career providing care for women in the sex trade and trafficked persons.

AnnaLise Trudell (@annatrudell) is Manager of Education, Training & Research at Anova (formerly Women’s Community House & Sexual Assault Centre London). She brings extensive analysis of sexual violence and gender dynamics through her research at Western University, and is a seasoned public educator and facilitator with over 500 presentations engaging youth, professionals & post-secondary students through public education. She supports a staff team of 8 individuals who run dozens of youth violence prevention discussion-based groups every year. In her role as Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University, she seeks to amplify the voices of sex workers, offering a harm reduction sex positive approach to looking at the ways in which digital literacy can foster social inclusion and health for sex workers.

Episode notes:

Prejudice and Power

A recent panel discussion at London School of Economics highlights two distinctive ways to think about the nature of prejudice.

On the one hand, we might think about prejudice as a function of individual psychology. We might say that humans are wired by evolution to spot patterns and predict the behaviours of others. Yes, people make erroneous judgments all the time, such as ascribing incorrect beliefs and motives to individuals from observed external characteristics, but these glitches might be corrected by education and training.

The other way to describe prejudice is to locate it in a social environment. In this case, it is not merely the case that some individuals make incorrect prejudgments, but rather that the structures of society more or less train us to systematically assume certain things about one another. For example, if the media repeatedly pummels us with images of a particular group performing violent acts, we are far more likely to prejudge (unconsciously or otherwise) an identifiable individual from this group when we meet them on the street. Scale this up and you have oppression: societal discrimination operationalized to assign certain groups subordinate roles in society.

The idea here is that we need to see the causation of discrimination as cyclical: we have biological processes that equip us to make heuristic snap judgments about one another, yes, but we live in a social world that informs the objects and content of our prejudice. In other words: our prejudice frames the world and the world frames our prejudice. To understand how prejudice manifests itself, we need to realize that these two “distinctive” modes function reciprocally, not in isolation from one another.

This view of prejudice as a self-reinforcing social phenomenon leads us to a critical observation: we cannot fully talk about the prejudice of individuals without talking about who has power in society. Power and prejudice are inextricably linked to one another. Thinking about prejudice as an exclusively “personal” or “individualistic” problem fails to account for the ways that institutions and governments are critical actors in the social environments that nurture, inform, and bias the opinions of individuals. At this level, then, we need to think about prejudice as systemic and structural as it is personal and individualistic.

If this is true, it does little good to place the “blame” for prejudice at the doorstep of an individual who has a preconceived opinion about another group of people, at least to the extent that their preconceived ideas came from reified “cues” in society. The end game of this perspective is not to fully write off the responsibility of the individual for acting in prejudicial or discriminatory ways, but rather to situate the individual in a context that attempts to account for the array of social, political, and corporate interests pushing and nudging them at all times.

If we say that prejudice is only a “natural” human phenomenon, we are effectively (and selectively?) ignoring all the other structures we have enshrined to organize society.

On Talking to Canadians

I was recently interviewed by Jeremy Marks for the Talking to Canadians podcast, which is produced by Jeremy and along with Ryan O’Connor. It is a long and wide-ranging conversation that touches on many ideas, including the reign of the algorithm, learning from history, power and inclusion, the value of ignorance, and the topic of water protectors and reconciliation in Canada.