Is Hate a Public Health Emergency?

On Monday, December 11, Christopher Mackie (@Healthmac), Michele Manocchi (@manocchimichele), Jennifer O’Brien (@JeninLdnont), and myself discussed the question, Is Hate a Public Health Emergency? Does the metaphor of a medical emergency accurately depict our social climate? Or is calling racism and xenophobia a “public health emergency” simplistic, journalistic sensationalism that distracts us from the real work of understanding causes and solutions?

To get the conversation going, we read these three articles ahead of our time together:

Thanks once again, and always, to London Public Library for providing this program.


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.]

A Critique of Multiculturalism

On Monday evening, as part of the Curious Public series, we held a community conversation about multiculturalism. But not just a conversation, it was principally an intentional critique of the status quo. Canada is a nation that has multiculturalism baked into its legislative framework, and we are actively encourage, especially at a national level, to celebrate multiculturalism as a key feature of ‘Canadian identity’.

But do we collectively ask the right questions? What are the negative impacts or side effects of multiculturalism? Whose agenda does it ultimately serve? Does the Canadian experience multiculturalism deserve all the national fanfare it receives?

You know that experience when you walk away from a conversation and say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll never be able to think about that issue the same again’? That was me after this chat. It was mentally disruptive. Provocative.

Thanks so much to the panel: Raghad El Niwairi, Marie Fiedler, Leroy Hibbert, Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani), Tanaz Javan (@JTanaz), and Heenal Rajani. Thanks for devoting your time, mental energy, and bringing your stories and experiences to this discussion.

For extra context, here are some of the points we set out as possible avenues that the panel might explore. Obviously, we only had time to touch on a few of these points, but I include them here for further reflection and consideration.

  • Multiculturalism as legislative policy that (inadvertently?) excuses/denies lived experiences of racism. For example: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear someone said/did that to you. But don’t worry, they’re just one ‘bad apple’: Canada’s not racist, we’re a multicultural society!” Does the act of ‘legislating tolerance’ encourage us take it for granted? Does declaring ourselves to be multicultural incentivize us to shrug off racism?
  • Multiculturalism as directing a performative role/function in society. Both in the anecdotal sense that “Where are you from?” becomes a standard line of exchange when conversing with a “visible minority” (i.e. positioning ethnicity and origin as primary social markers for non-predominate group members) and also in the sense that multiculturalism defines “normative” cultural functions. Does multiculturalism define “visible minorities” as a political identity and assign this identity with specific cultural roles? If so, then whose agenda does multiculturalism serve?
  • Multiculturalism as a pathway to Amartya Sen’s idea of ‘plural monoculturalism. In this sense, does multiculturalism reify the concept/myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other? We want to consider the tendency of multiculturalism to “essentialize” certain cultures or cultural traits and subsequently “tokenize” them or their representation. Does multiculturalism play a subversively isolating and ‘siloing’ role on society?
  • Multiculturalism as a political construct with minimal bearing in reality? For example, professor Anton Allahar’s argues that “Canada is not a multicultural country, it is a multi-ethnic country that is monocultural.” Who defines the parameters of ‘culture’ in multiculturalism when it is the law of the land?
  • Multiculturalism as relegation. Does multiculturalism ultimately devolve into a political framework defining “diversity” in such a way as to ultimately juxtapose “Western, Judeo-Christian, white culture” versus a conceptual hybrid/amalgamation of all other cultures? (“Dear white people, you are no less ‘ethnic’ than any other people.“) And in doing so, does this construct subsequently retrench the privilege of white identity? “So ‘diversity’ becomes a way to reassure whites of their place”,  as Sisonke Msimang describes?

A Critique of Multiculturalism – Heenal Rajani’s Poetic Harvest

If you listened to Monday’s Curious Public discussion, A Critique of Multiculturalism, in its entirety, you discovered a surprise at the end: a poetic harvest recited by Heenal Rajani. The 3-minute poem reconstructs the hightlights, architecture, and flow of the hour-long conversation. So, if you haven’t listened to the whole conversation yet, Heenal’s poem might just provide the intrigue and provocation to hear the entire dialogue that inspired it.

Mistaken Identities

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s 2016 Reith Lectures series, entitled Mistaken Identities, is a must-listen. Over four lectures, Appiah analyzes four constructs of identity (alliterated as creed, culture, colour, and country) and questions the common narratives that underpin them.

For example, Appiah argues (transcript) that we over estimate the role of scripture in defining the religious identities of ourselves and others. From a historical lens, he posits that religions must continuously evolve, and that religious identity is itself highly fluid. There are all kinds of interesting implications that can be taken up here. (For instance, when detractors of Islam or Christianity quote scriptural references back to the faithful, what are the blind assumptions made about function of text in a contemporary community of religious practice?)

The second lecture tackles the idea of culture as identity. For instance, what exactly does “western culture” mean and who gets to write the definition? Appiah takes a pragmatic approach to suggest (transcript) that the concept of a western culture itself is unhelpful and nonsensical at best, and perhaps highly destructive at worst. This is challenging on many levels: once you have deconstructed and “dessentialized” the idea of “western civilization”, you are left with the problem of justifying how to define anyone by their civilization. But this is precisely Appiah’s point.

Appiah applies the same logic to race by proposing (transcript) that an unfortunate byproduct or residue of the Enlightenment is the concept of a “racial essence” that divides human groups from one another predominately on the basis of skin colour. Science has long since laid this notion to rest, and this leaves us with race as a construct of our own making: “race is something we make; not something that makes us.” This, too, obviously runs into difficult questions: if people are racialized by others, then does adopting a racialized identity or politics inadvertently conform to the racism (or agenda) of the people who are doing the racializing in the first place? But if race is used to oppress, how can race not then be used to gather solidarity for resistance? Appiah’s reflections on the BlackLivesMatter movement (in the Colour lecture) are thought-provoking:

Identities are going to have pluses and minuses. When an identity is used as a source of solidarity in order to help people resist oppression, for example, it also create boundaries with people outside who might want to be friendly with you because they’re not in favour of your oppression. And so you have to think as time goes on about how modulate the different roles that identity plays in our lives. (37:47)

Similarly, the question, “What is a national identity?” leads Appiah to a parallel position (transcript): nationalism is mythology. Appiah makes an increasingly popular distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the end, the only so-called “national identities” that matters are common, collective commitments to shared beliefs. These commitments can be something worth defending, whereas defining a nation as a transcendent linkage to some geographically-based ancestral heritage is problematic. Therefore, you can be highly patriotic inasmuch as you share common values with others (like equality, for instance), while not necessarily being nationalistic (that is, believing that your country is inherently or manifestly superior to others countries).

I have been thinking about the intersection of identity and politics quite a bit recently, and this lecture series is a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced analysis. I think Appiah carves out a place for a constructive critique of identity without necessarily marginalizing the impacts of intersectionality in the real world. This seems important. Oppression, colonization, and racialization often seem to be systematically/structurally executed by groups who often justify their actions from a very clear sense of identity — such as ethnocentrism, nationalism, or some brand of economic idealism. Therefore, far from delegitimizing the role of identity in politics, a critical analysis of identity shows the ubiquity of identity.

Insofar as I can tell historically, wars have been largely waged over country, creed, culture, and colour — and that alone seems reason enough to warrant a critical investigation into the way we orientate ourselves towards the idea of “us” as a concept.

Seeing the Present in the Past: Immigration in North America

Our contemporary policies and attitudes about immigration in North America did not materialize in a vacuum. They have long histories, which shape and hue many of the perspectives we inherit today. In this conversation, we explore the ‘backstory’ to the present.

Stephanie Bangarth is an Associate Professor in History at King’s University College, at the University of Western Ontario. She is also an Adjunct Teaching Professor in the Department of History at Western and a Faculty Research Associate with the Collaborative Graduate Program in Migration and Ethnic Studies (MER) at Western. Her research interests also include Canadian immigration policy, social movements in Canada, and political history.

Shamiram Zendo, born in Aleppo Syria to an Assyrian family, moved to Canada in 1999. She is currently completing her Phd at Western University in the Health Information Science Program. She has worked extensively with the settlement of privately sponsored Syrian/Assyrian newcomers in the city of London.

Inclusion as Colonization?

Following up on a post from last September — When Inclusivity is Exclusionary — I wanted to make note of some other articles and quotes related to this analysis that I have come across in the interim.

…the rich diversity of peoples have been denied inclusion while only a privileged group have defined themselves as inclusive… (Tatah Mentan)

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination… What we don’t need is to relegate ourselves to the position of depending on someone else to offer us inclusion… (Kẏra)

In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. (Indigenous Action Media)

The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or “settler moves to innocence”, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity…There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization. The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances. (Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang)

Beyond simply calling for cosmetic diversity…to merely include people of color in untransformed institutions… [recent movements] call for a comprehensive unsettling of colonial logics and institutions. (Jonathan Rosa, Yarimar Bonilla)

Post-Truth. Alternative Facts. Fake News. Blimey!

To what extent did ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ ever exist in politics and broadcast media before? How do the algorithms of social media fit into an evolving definition of propaganda today? Is society more ideologically ‘polarized’ than it has been in the past — and what would be the benchmark to measure this? How can accusations of practicing ‘post-truth politics’ and broadcasting ‘fake news’ be abused as politically rhetorical devices in their own right?

It boils down to a timeless question: what is truth and why does it matter?

Tim Blackmore is a Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. He has researched and written at length about war, war technology, propaganda and popular culture. His book, War X, focuses on the way humans understand the world of industrial warfare. Tim is especially interested in understanding how we use images and media to make war look attractive to ourselves as societies.

Related Blog Posts

On AM 1290 CJBK Racism Panel

On Tuesday I was invited to participate in a live radio broadcast on the subject of racism. The audio clip below contains the segment of the program with Leroy Hibbert and myself being interviewed by host Alan Coombs.

To hear the full program with Rifat Hussian, Rowa Mohammed, and Susan Toth (and a pre-recorded interview with MPP Michael Coteau), please listen to the full archive of the show on the CJBK’s website. (Photo credits to Susan Toth)

Populism is Victimhood

On Friday evening I went to a lecture by Tariq Ramadan. The majority of the audience were Muslim, as a Ramadan is a globally read voice in moderate Islam.

Personally, Islam makes no more sense to me than any other religion. (I find every claim to reveal and define the transcendent as incomprehensible as the next.) But as the citizen of a nation that protects my liberty of thought and my freedom of expression, the freedom of Muslims to practice their faith and tradition is ultimately inseparable from my freedom, too.

And this brings me to Friday. The same day that an American president was inaugurated who had campaigned on a proposal to ban Muslims from entering America, I found myself sitting in a room with a few hundred people from my city, most of whom seemed to identify with local mosques. The question, “What is happening to the world?” hung palpably in the auditorium.

Ramadan’s talk was titled Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times. His thesis: embedded in the core of every ideology, philosophy, culture, and religion is a single, underlying ambition: peace. This animating, common principle is the hope of living in peace with one’s self and with the outside world. Ramadan calls it the ‘intimate universal.’

The idea here is that Tariq Ramadan (a Muslim) and myself (a person who can’t make any sense of beliefs in unfalsifiable deities) still share something essential in common. At the end of our respective logic trails, we end up aiming in the same destination: a desire for peace within ourselves and our world.

What gets us into trouble is ‘othering’: failing to recognize the common humanity — the ‘intimate universal’ — in one another. When a population fails to acknowledge the humanity of another population, the certain result is victimhood: they took our jobs; they are changing our society; they don’t follow our customs; they, them, those people… At scale, like a virus, this attitude snowballs into populism. “Populism is victimhood,” says Ramadan. And such mass victimhood manifests itself in a agenda to oppress, silence, and control someone else — specifically another group of someones.

I certainly don’t believe in Ramadan’s religion, but I do share his belief that living in peace does not require us all to share the same beliefs.

The alternative is terrifying.

Is Blind Justice Blind to the Victims of Injustice?

A husband slaps his wife in public. An observer calls the police. The man is charged with assault causing bodily harm. Because the family has a young child, Children’s Aid Society becomes involved, concerned for the safety of the minor. The husband and wife are separated.

As a society, we have declared that abuse is intolerable. We have formal systems in place to protect victims. In this scenario, a perpetrator of violence is nabbed, and the state intervenes to support a woman and child who have suffered at the hands of a physically aggressive individual. The system, it seems, is working as intended.

Now, let’s add some more details and context to the story.

The scene of the incident is a newcomer settlement agency: a social service for refugees. The family is from Syria. Before their harrowing escape, the father witnessed the execution of his brother. He suffers from night terrors and exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Prior to arriving in Canada, the family spent over two years in a Turkish refugee camp.

The wife does not speak English. She is informed through interpreters why her husband has been charged. In the subsequent months, she stays at home caring for the young child alone. She experiences severe social isolation, which leads to depression.

In court, the husband is found guilty. Now flagged as a violent offender, he finds it virtually impossible to secure employment, leading him to chronic dependence on the welfare system.

We now have the benefit of these contextual details and the clarity of hindsight. It seems prudent to reconsider whether the initial response — involving the law enforcement system — was an ‘appropriate’ response to the inciting, critical incident. While remaining unswervingly convicted that violence and assault are never justified, can we imagine any positive outcomes if we drag this already vulnerable family into the criminal justice system?

The alternative, it seems, is a differential response framework: i.e. ‘different’ policies pertaining to perpetrators of physical violence that apply specifically to newcomers, but not to the rest of general population. But is this not a double standard? On the other hand, is it fair to prosecute an individual under your law if you have barely given them a chance to learn your cultural standards, norms, and morals? Is it fair to ignore the circumstances and past experiences that surround the individual’s behaviour?

Is it fair to hold a person acceptable for their actions if they do not yet understand what the consequences of their actions will be?

Justice must be blind. How can selective or non-impartial justice be considered fair? On the other hand, how can justice that is utterly blind to the wellbeing of victims be, well, just? Is it morally right to enact the statutes of justice if doing so brings further insecurity to those who were already the victims of the injustice itself?

This case study is fictional, inasmuch as it is a compilation of third-hand stories. It is also overly dramatized. However, the dilemmas posed by this scenario are pertinent and live issues in my city and country at this moment. I recently had the opportunity to work with some incredibly thoughtful people who are devoted to finding a constructive way forward. If you are interested in thinking about this scenario some more, watch this video we recently produced on the topic.

Pragmatically speaking, this case study is a microcosm: it highlights the underlying challenges of multiculturalism itself. Our ‘gut responses’ to this scenario provide us with mirrors of our own instinctive, unconscious, and dormant assumptions about the nature of morality, justice, and fairness. And try as we might, we can’t tease our convictions apart from our cultural foundations and biases.

Multiculturalism is extremely difficult. But it is not unimportant. Indeed, multiculturalism is worth every ounce of the struggle it requires, even if for no other reason than that it compels us to think critically about our own institutions, beliefs, and morality. Today we must examine ourselves in a far more nuanced and reflexive manner than we ever would (or could) in a colony of cultural homogeneity. If we are unwilling to undergo intense self–reflexivity, multiculturalism is doomed.

Hope Actually

Hope can be hard to see these days. When large segments of us yearn for different or opposing outcomes, our efforts manifest as conflict and argument. It looks like hatred. It doesn’t look hopeful at all.

But hope is actually everywhere.

Beneath our labels — ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ — we share one thing in common: we are all hoping for something. The simple notion that our existence can be improved from the status quo compels us all. Where does the motivation to speak out, stand up, protest, fight, or voice opinions come from, if not hope? Hope is our impetus.

If we believed that nothing mattered, we would not do anything. Despair is the soul of inactivity. But we argue about EU memberships, American political figures, religious radicalization, ecological policy, and refugee responses. Regardless of which ‘side’ of the debates we align ourselves, we see the potential future through the lens of our hopes.

And we are all hoping for remarkably similar things: security, peace, predictability, and happiness. Whether we are striving to achieve these ends through Sharia law, the Four Noble Truths, the Ten Commandments, or a particular political constitution, is all merely a point of detail. Go anywhere the world, listen to what people say they want, and you will hear the same sentiment: “I want to live in a society that reflects and reinforces my values.” This hope is universal. It is everywhere.

Hope is our final hope: hope that a critical threshold of us will realize we are all animated by hope; hope that in spite of our radically different values and visions we will discover a hope shared in common; hope that we will be one of the generations that make the necessary concessions and compromises so that multiple, diverse hopes can flourish together. At least, this is my hope.

What is the alternative? What is left if we lose this hope? What do we have left to hope otherwise?

Hope is the one good god still left on earth;
The rest forsake us and have gone to live
On Mount Olympus. Gone is the great god Trust
And Wisdom’s gone; my friend, the Graces have
Abandoned earth. Firm oaths no longer stand,
And no one worships the immortal gods.
The race of pious men has died away
And no one knows reverence or law.
Yet, while a man’s alive and sees the sun,
Let him still worship Hope among the gods
And let him pray, and burn rich offerings
To the gods, and let him sacrifice to Hope
The first and last.
(Elegies 1135-47, trans. Wender 1973:137)

We might say that hope is, in effect, the universal religion of humankind. But, like every religion, it is divided into sects and denominations of variant and diametric interpretation. Many deities, prophets, and philosophers enliven our consciousness, yes, but ultimately every single one of us can articulate a vision for a better world. “Faith,” writes the epistoler, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KVJ). What is conviction and commitment, if not operationalized confidence in what we hope for?

Yes, hope is actually everywhere. And, more than that, hope is all we have, as Aesop said, “hope alone remains” — even in a world where every other good thing has been lost. (Fable 123, trans. Temple 1998:93).

Do not be discouraged with humanity — we are a very hopeful bunch.

Your Nation is Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Democracy is riddled with paradoxes.

The more confident we are in the stability of our state, the less attention we pay to our stability.

We demand our leaders persuade us with coherent argument, but we are ruthlessly critical of leaders who sound persuasive.

Even the strongest democracy is only as strong as its collective ability to ignore the next would-be demagogue.

If you visit any democracy on the planet, at any point in history, you will notice another permanent feature of self-sovereign state rule: disparagement of the ruling order. Autocrats and tyrants have the luxury of actively suppressing dissident voices, but democracies are institutions of dissidence: the only way to achieve power in a democracy is to convince enough voters that you would be a more competent leader than the present clown in office.

Criticism is a hardwired, permanent feature of democracy.

No one runs for political office on the platform that the incumbent government has superior practices and policies. Every bid for power is an inherent criticism of those who hold it. Ergo, democracies are cynical places. They have to be. There can be no democracy without skepticism and ridicule. We can’t rule ourselves without being critical of one another.

Think about it for a moment: in a democracy, there will always be someone trying to convince you that the currently elected leaders are ignoring your interests or treating you like crap.

Even at the height of prosperity and peace, you can be guaranteed that there will be someone insisting that your country is being mismanaged, led into decline, or disintegrating into a mire of corruption. You will always hear a voice of protest. As long as someone else wants power, someone is crying foul.

A curriculum for democratic literacy, then, must include a critical piece of training: how do you determine whether or not your nation is really going to hell in a hand basket? Rest assured: for as long as you live in a democracy, no matter what side of the ‘political spectrum’ you setup your tent, you will live amidst people who have strong ulterior motives for convincing you the end is nigh.

Perhaps this is yet another great paradox of democracy: the more citizens, by percentage, who can be persuaded of an impending calamity through a groundless, reproachful lampooning of the present government, the closer calamity itself inches.

Be critical of the critical, too.