Commenting Policy

February 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

Whenever I write about racism, white privilege, feminism, etc., I get a slew of comments from usually anonymous trolls calling me every name you can imagine.  And then I get some comments from people who may or may not be using their real names, almost always identifying themselves as white, who complain that the world is racist against them.  Or white men complaining that the world is sexist against them.  And so on.  Usually, these comments also include a series of ad hominem attacks on me.

I can handle the abuse, I’m a big boy.  But I will not approve comments that include racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynistic commentary.  Nor will I approve comments that are nothing more than insults.

You don’t like it?  Too bad.  Go read something else.

Black and white

February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon.  I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.

Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes.  It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.

But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack.  It is worth quoting the review at length here:

A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?

First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable.  But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones.  It is just dressed up in fancier language.  The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.

I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.

I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white.  Black is generally a racial category in the United States.  This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.

On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things.  Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists.  But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.

Hegemony vs. White Privilege

February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore.  A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued.  One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.

I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.

The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded.  It does two things.  First, it points a finger at white people.  Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.

White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them.  I know, I am a white person.  The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc.  And, moreover, this all happened in the past.  But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.

And then there’s the question of class.  Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor.  I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority.  And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty.  To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.

But calling out white privilege is none of this.  For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat.  It is relative.  I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’  Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt.  This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them.  Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant.  And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes.  The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony.  But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.

Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony.  As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people.  White people, in other words, are hegemonic.  And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black.  That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.

And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world.  Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations.  Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour.  South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities.  More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour.  So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really.  The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.

So we still live in a white world.  To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me.  In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens.  In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end.  More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men.  Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street.  But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups.  And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.

To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.

To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion.  Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes

But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.

In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race.  That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender.  And so on.

Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework.  That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street.  It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people.  It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage.  And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.

But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded.  Spring-loaded, really.  Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony.  That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start.  And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.

Jordan Peterson: Professional Bore

February 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

Jordan Peterson is a bore.  He appeals to the basest instincts of masculinity, believing that men are under attack in this world.  He also believes, fundamentally, that order is a masculine trait and chaos is a feminine one.  This reflects the age-old misogyny of Christian thought in the West that said that reason was masculine and nature feminine.  One is ordered and disciplined, one is chaotic.

Peterson stepped off the deep end a long time ago. Peterson rose to fame in Canada a few years back in opposition to Bill C-16, which gives legal protection to transgender people.  As the CBC notes, it added the term ‘gender identity or expression’ to three parts of Canadian law: 1) The Charter of Rights and Freedoms; 2) The Criminal Code, in those parts that deal with hate crimes; 3) that part of the Criminal Code that deals with sentencing for hate crimes.  Peterson was appalled, arguing wrongly that this would criminalize the failure to use an individual’s preferred pronouns.  He himselfrejects the idea of non-binary gender identity (indeed, this became the rallying cry of the right in both Canada and the US, where Peterson warned Americans that this was coming for them in an article in The Hill).  But he went further, as he is wont do, claiming that Bill C-16 was an attack on freedom of speech in Canada, the greatest such attack, as a matter of fact.  And so he joined the conservative hysteria that we were all going to be jailed for not using the proper pronouns.  He also received a letter of warning from the University of Toronto, where he teaches, informing him that he must accord to people’s wishes wth their preferred pronouns.

Coupled with this misogyny is a subtle form of racism.  Peterson thinks that white privilege simply doesn’t exist.  He has, to be fair, clearly and loudly rejected white supremacy and prefers his followers to do so as well.  But, frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist.  The idea of white privilege is meant to point out that we live in a culture dominated by white people and those who are not white have a more difficult time in getting ahead (I wrote about this here).

But back to the misogyny.  Beyond Peterson’s claim that order is masculine and chaos feminine, Peterson has concluded the problem is feminism, as it seeks to level inequalities, which he argues are simply the way things have always been.

Peterson favours what he calls ‘enforced monogamy.’  In the wake of the terrorist attack in Toronto last spring, in which an ‘incel’ drove his truck into a crowd, killing at least 10, Peterson told the New York Times that male violence toward women happens because they are involuntarily celibate (hence the term ‘incel’).  He said of the killer, “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him.  The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”  He goes on:

“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”

I laugh, because it is absurd.

“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”

That, my friends, is sexist.  Plain and simple.  Peterson’s idea of ‘enforced monogamy’ is meant to help men, and therefore it would be coercive to women.

He goes on.  He read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and concluded that:

it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake.

In his book, 12 Rules for Life, he argues that ‘healthy women’ want men who are better than them, men who are smarter than they are, who will dominate them, and control them through status.  ‘Healthy women’ want to be dominated.

Peterson’s ultimate problem is he believes that there is such a thing as a natural hierarchy in the social world and he believes that these hierarchies are essentially god-given and therefore right and natural.  He thinks gender equality overthrows this natural order, as Kate Manne makes clear in a discussion of 12 Rules. Manne defines misogyny as a desire to control women (which she differentiates from a hatred or fear of women in the heart of men).  And, to return to Peterson’s argument about ‘healthy women’ wanting to be dominated, well, that is misogyny.

At any rate, Peterson was in Canada’s lesser-known and read national newspaper, The National Post, last week ranting about the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for treating men and boys.  This is the first time the APA has issued guidelines for treating men and, of course, you’re noting right now that psychology cut its teeth normalizing the behaviour of (white) men.  But these guidelines are focused on the pratfalls of masculinity in the early 21st century and, to a degree, toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is vicious, violent, and generally dangerous for all, including its practitioners.  I grew up in a milieu of toxic masculinity.  It means alcoholism, drug addiction and violence directed towards those weaker.  This is not what masculinity is supposed to be, it is not how men are supposed to act in society.

So back to Peterson’s fit in The National Post.  Peterson argues that the APA’s guidelines are ‘an all-out assault on masculinity — or, to put it even more bluntly, on men.’  Indeed, men, gather your guns, we’re under attack!!!

He then goes on a rant denying scientific consensus about masculinity and gender roles.  And then complains about what he sees as a war on traditional masculine roles and behaviours.  Except, the thing is? No one really questions that part of masculinity.  We question the assoholic behaviour of men and Peterson denies that being an asshole is damaging to men.  The evidence, which he ignores, suggests otherwise, of course.

Next, he postulates about violence and notes that boys are indeed more likely to be violent than girls.  He then does what he accuses the authors of the APA guidelines of doing: citing himself to prove his point.  His point appears to be that violence is not a learned behaviour, but an innate one.  But then he also notes that the boys who grow up to be violent come from fatherless families.  He also claims that the experts have all agreed on this.  I’m not a psychologist, but even a cursory glance at the literature suggests otherwise.  But why would Peterson let facts get in the way of a good argument?

But all of this is just a precursor to another of his favourite flogging horses: the idea that there is a war on Western society, that Western civilization is apparently seen ‘as an oppressive patriarchy: unfairly male-dominated, violent, racist, sexist, homo-, Islamo- and trans-phobic — and as uniquely reprehensible in all those regards.’ Oh brother.  Here we go again.  (This, of course, is why he denies white privilege exists, which, of course, is easy for a white, heterosexual, tenured male university professor at one of Canada’s élite universities).

This is lazy scholarship and rhetoric. In fact, his rhetoric crosses the line into hysteria and paranoia.  Bill C-16 was the ‘greatest attack’ on freedom of speech in Canadian history.  The APA has declared war on men.

This allows Peterson to claim that anything that he doesn’t like about the modern world is because we’re cannibalistic in the West, we like to eat our own.  It means that it is easy for him to blame the feminists and their fellow travellers.  He’s the intellectual equivalent of those pseudo-Christians in the US who complain about the ‘war on Christmas’ each each year and attack Starbucks for its holiday cups.

Peterson long ago stopped being an academic or even and intellectual or a thinker.  Instead, he is just an ideologue.  And a rather boring and predictable one at that.  But he’s made all the more dangerous because he is well-dressed and is a university professor and uses the instant credibility that brings to go on ideological rants, rather than engage in discussions about ideas.  And ultimately, that’s because Peterson has no more ideas.  And they are built on slippery and false logic.

This makes him boring and a bore.

Louis CK is Still a Jackass

January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments

Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being.  And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them.  And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour.  This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.

But now he’s back.  And somehow, getting booked for shows.  Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre.  That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes.  That’s part of what makes comedians funny.  But this was crossing a line, and he knew it.  He had to.  He’s a smart guy.

But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’  He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million.  And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:

People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.

And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.

And so there we go.  Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour.  His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now.  Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish.  He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s).  And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey.  This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.

Fuck that.  We deserve better.

The Date Rape Song

December 19, 2018 § 3 Comments

For roughly the past 25 years or so, I’ve referred to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as the date rape song.  The lyrics are creepy as all get out. And yes, I know the song was written in 1944.  And I know that the lyrics actually reflect pop culture in the 1940s, including jokes about drinks being spiked (with alcohol) and young men and women were not allowed the kind of freedom depicted in the lyrics in 1944.  And that the song was actually written by a married man so he and his wife could sing it at their housewarming party.    I get that.  But it’s not 1944, it’s 2018.

The lyrics of the song include the woman saying she ought to say no and the man complaining about his wounded pride; then she wonders what he put in her drink; and then she even says the ‘answer is no’, and he continues to badger her.  In 2018, this conjures up images of rape culture, of roofies, and continues the idea that it’s romantic to badger and harass a woman until she gives in.  And in the context of #MeToo, this shouldn’t be acceptable.  The fact it took us until now to figure this out is something else, of course.

I posted something along these lines on Facebook earlier this month (minus the historical context) when a series of radio stations in Canada decided to stop playing the song.  Personally, I see that as no major loss.  There are still countless Christmas songs we can listen to in 45,000 different versions until we want to pull our hair out.  The song kinda sucks anyway, I mean, aside from the rape-y feel to it.

And then the commentariat!  My feed lit up with my friends arguing against me.  I even got chastised for being a bad historian for failing to note the song is from the 1940s.  Over and over, the context of the song was explained to me.  But that’s the thing, this cuts both ways.  If we want to consider historical context for things, then let’s discuss Confederate War monuments.

Historical context is a real and important factor in debates about history and artefacts from the past.  And ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is an artefact.  Questions of historical context and artefacts are immediately loaded.  So, to take the example of the Confederate War monument, it does not belong in a public park, but on the grounds of a museum or inside the museum, where it can be historicized and explained, and put into its context.  That is possible and doable.  And it solves the problem of ‘erasing history,’ which gets pro-Confederates riled up.  But a song is not a monument.  A monument is not a a living artefact.  In the past couple of years, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, from Cee-Lo to Trisha Yearwood.  So in addition to being an artefact, it’s a contemporary pop song.  And radio DJs can’t be expected to provide the historical context of the song, nor can we expect that in our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, or on our satellite stations on our TVs.

Something else was fascinating about my Facebook post and the blowback I got.  There was a very clear disconnect between the ‘likes’ and the comments.  The comments were all written by men, save for one woman, a good friend, who noted that she attempts to keep the context of the song in mind when playing it or when she hears it.  As for the likes, they were 90% women.

At the end of the day, I find the song creepy.  And have for a long time.  And while I don’t think the song should be banned (I’m generally not a fan of this kind of censorship, having grown up in the era of Tipper Gore’s PMRC).  But I am fine with radio stations refusing to play it.  That’s their choice.  We generally skip the song when it plays on random Christmas playlists or Apple Music Radio around here.  Life goes on.

But, perhaps due to what I do for a living, having spent much of the past 20+ years in classrooms with university students, I do see very clearly the effects of pop culture on the kids.  I see the effects of rape culture on both the men and women in my classes, I see the effects of misogyny, racism, classism, etc.  And I see that they (like I did at their age) take their cues from pop culture as a whole first, their education second (generally-speaking).

And it is in this sense that I see the problems with ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ all the more.

The Montréal Massacre

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Twenty-nine years ago today, a violent misogynist marched into the École Polytechnique in Montréal, separated the men from the women and gunned down fourteen women.  Another fourteen were wounded.  He then killed himself.  In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life.  He claimed that feminists attempted to play the advantages of being women whilst also seeking to claim advantages that belong to men.  He had a list of nineteen prominent women in Québec whom he considered to be feminists and whom he wished dead.

The Montréal Massacre shocked a nation.  I was sixteen and living at the other end of the country, in the suburbs of Vancouver.  This felt a little more real for me because I am from Montréal.  My mother, also a montréalaise, was ashen-faced and shocked watching the news, crying.  At school the next day at school, a Thursday, the shock was real and palpable.  Nearly all of us felt it.  Nearly all of us were sickened.  Some were crying in the hallways.  Some looked like zombies.  We talked about this incessantly.  We didn’t understand.  We didn’t understand such violent misogyny.

I remain shocked by this event even today.  What I didn’t know or understand about violent misogyny as a teenager I now do.  I am a professor myself and teach my students about misogyny.  And violent misogyny.  I often talk about the Montréal Massacre, even to American students.  In 1989 I was shocked by the irrational hatred of men towards women.  In 2018, I am still shocked, but more jaded, I know it’s there and and am not all that surprised when it plays out.

In 2017, my wife and I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, TN.  A lot of the older women protesting, the women of my mother’s generation, were carrying signs saying ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit.’  They were right.  This is the same shit.

Every 6 December in Canada, we wring our hands and ask how and why did this happen?  But we haven’t done much to make it so that this cannot happen again.  In the United Staes, we have done even less to make women safe.  This is just immoral and wrong.

The worst part is that nearly all of us know the killer’s name.  I refuse to utter it, I refuse to use it.  To do so gives him infamy, it gives him something he does not deserve.  Instead, I am always saddened that we cannot recite the names of the dead.  Here is a list of the women he killed that day in 1989:

  • Genviève Bergeron, 21
  • Hélène Colgan, 23
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21
  • Maud Haviernick, 29
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewic, 31
  • Maryse Laganière, 25
  • Maryse Leclair, 23
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28
  • Michèle Richard, 21
  • Annie Saint-Arneault, 23
  • Annie Turcotte, 21

It saddens me to think that these fourteen women died because one immature little man decided they’d ruined his life by trying to gain an education.  The futures they didn’t get to have because of one violent misogynist with a gun depresses me.  And every 6 December, I stop and think about this.  I pay tribute to these women.  And I think about how I can make a difference in my own world to make sure this doesn’t happen again.