• THE SHIPS OF THESEUS:

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    —-William Goldman (via his character, Inigo Montoya) in The Princess Bride.

    As imagined by the ancient thinker, Plutarch, there are two candidates vying for the title of the Ship of Theseus. First, there is the ongoing ship that has continuously flown Theseus’s flag for the past, say, 20 years. It has travelled from port to port, and floated on missions on behalf of Theseus with the same licence plate number throughout. (Let’s call this Continuous Theseus.)

    But, as it has been injured along the way, the Ship of Theseus has had its parts replaced one by one over that same double decade. In fact, we are to imagine that, as of today, every individual piece of the ship, whose escapades we have been following, is now distinct from its original part. Meanwhile, all of the discarded original pieces have been re-assembled by an archivist to recreate the original ship. (Let’s call this Original Theseus.)

    The question, then, is do we have a paradox of two ships that are the same ship?

    My answer has always been that the apparent contradiction is simply a linguistic dispute resulting from the fact that we have only one word for two concepts, functional vs. molecular identity. If you’re discussing the ship that has carried out the missions of the Ship of Theseus, then HMS Continuous is your boat. Whereas, if you’re interested in the very matter that was used in the first instance, then HMS Original will be your choice.

    So, in my view, this not a paradox; instead, there is more than one way to define identity (and both are useful notions that we should feel free to use so long as we’re clear about which we’re utilizing).

    Meanwhile, I believe that many discussions of our controversial friend, Feminism, have had similar identity confusions. Many self-described “feminists” insist that the work they do is, by definition, identical to their philosophical mission statement, i.e. the pursuit of social, economic and political equality between the sexes. (Let’s call said goal Definition Feminism.)

    Definition Feminism has a lovely, egalitarian sound to it; the trouble is, some of us perceive that, in action, many self-described feminists seem to be agitating for something that encompasses much more (and less) than gender equality. (Let’s call any of these applications of Definition Feminism, Action Feminism.)

    To avoid confusion, then, I contend that, we should do our best to distinguish Definition Feminism from those flying its flag while on board a different ship.

    THE SHIPS OF FEMINISM:

    A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

    —-Feminist and comedic singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, in response to some young female celebrities not calling themselves “feminists.”

    If you consider yourself to be a feminist, I don’t ask that you immediately accept that any particular Action Feminism is distinct from the pursuit of gender equality. All that I request for now is that you consider the possibility that it could be. History demands that we recognize that sometimes philosophical ideologies that sound noble, by their definitions, can be misapplied (intentionally or accidentally) by their practitioners.

    (As always, consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

    Such a distinction between theory and attempted practice is a natural consequence of human fallibility. Most of us are imperfect, and so our ability to apply our best ideas may be undermined by our intellectual and moral limitations.

    So, if it’s possible that an ideology—-even one as noble of spirit as Definition Feminism—-can be accidentally or intentionally misrepresented by imperfect practitioners, then a crucial means of protecting ourselves from such wolves in feminism’s clothing is to make sure that we question not just the best ideals of feminism, but also the arguments of its alleged advocates.

    If you are a feminist, you might believe that the majority—-if not the entirety—-of feminists are doing good work. However, how can we know this if there are no means of checking that those flying the flag of Definition Feminism are indeed matching its best intentions? Similarly, most scientists may be sincerely trying to produce the most reliable scientific studies possible, but we require them to use both a rigorous double-blind scientific method and peer review that try to disprove the resulting claims, to ensure that we catch errors (even unintentional ones). I cannot conceive of a reason that feminist philosophers and researchers wouldn’t benefit from the same oversight.

    Nevertheless, in the current state of gender discussions, many feminists—-whether they are as virtuous as their best definition, or as morally flawed as their harshest critics suggest—-have managed, by a variety of brilliant methods, to evade vital criticisms. Instead, when they do or say something that seems dubious to critics, in lieu of arguing their side, Action Feminists will often point to the definition of their movement, and suggest that those who disagree with their particular contentions clearly disagree with equal gender rights.

    This will not do. Perhaps such Action Feminists can prove all of their claims, but they cannot do so by using the best ideals of their movement as cover. The question remains whether they are, in fact, sailing the true ship of Definition Feminism, or some other ship, that looks like it in name and mission statement, but in fact is doing things beyond (and/or less than) feminism’s scope.

    In Part II of this essay, I will describe eight ways in which Action Feminists subdue criticism by appealing to the virtues of Definition Feminism for protection.

  • Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE XII

    Last month, I attended a screening and panel discussion of a “documentary,” The Mask You Live In, which claims to compassionately examine serious issues facing the male people in Western society. I arrived in my seat with no expectations of an unbiased examination; instead, I was aware of the trend of such analyses not to be done by neutral social scientists, but by feminists, hoping to incorporate into their patriarchal-society-ideology the seemingly contradictory facts and figures that indicate that the “privileged” men have some struggles, too. Nevertheless, my resolve to be unimpressed was tempered by the MC’s opening remark that the issue was woefully underrepresented in our public discourse. But the tempering of my temper was tempered as I watched a brilliantly subtle 97 minute feminist editorial. If one squinted one’s eyes, the filmmakers seemed to care about their subjects, but, as they turned their gaze to solutions, it was clear that their answer was, as ever, feminism.

    Now, I don’t object to applying one’s ideology to an issue, but I think it is disingenuous to claim to be a documentary, only to sneak in one’s entrenched philosophical perspective as the panacea. A simple subtitle such as, “A Feminist analysis of the struggles of men and boys” would have done the trick. As it was, neither the film nor the panel that discussed it acknowledged the feminist elephant in the room. In response, I sent the following letter to the organizers as well as the panelists of the film.

    Two of the panelists have replied to me, but since the organizing agency has not responded, and it has now been over a month since I sent my letter, I offer it here for the record:

     

    To whom it may concern at The UBC Men’s Depression and Suicide Network:

    Thank you for putting on your free screening and subsequent discussion of the film The Mask You Live In, which purports to contemplate men’s and boys’ issues. I appreciated the enthusiasm with which the panelists were discussing this topic.

    Nevertheless, I think the ideological makeup of both the film and your panel is an affront to intellectual fairness.

    I think it should be noted that the film was written through a feminist lens.  Many familiar feminist talking points are ever-present in the film’s narrative, from the wild and unproven assumption that gender is purely a social construct, to the further controversial claim that video games cause violence, to the startling assertion that we live in a “rape culture,” and the supporting myth that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted (see philosopher Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers’s critical analysis of this specious statistic), to the notion that men are, by definition, privileged: “We must use our privilege [to forge change]…” was the common mantra of the male role models on screen, who seemed to have just taken language training from a gender studies course.

    However, while anyone familiar with feminist theory would recognize that the film was written from a feminist perspective, neither the film nor those who presented it at UBC acknowledged its ideological bias. Instead, the film claims to be a documentary, an objective analysis of these issues. That is either intellectually dishonest or ignorant. If the filmmakers had said, “We’re feminists, and we see that men are struggling, too, so we’re going to try applying our feminist theories to men’s issues,” then so be it. I would still want to criticize their feminist conclusions, but they would have honestly represented their project as a partisan analysis, which may be smart and well-articulated, but which is by no means an objective investigation offered by a neutral party. The audience, who is perhaps unfamiliar with feminism’s dominance over most modern discussions of gender, would then be aware that they are witnessing an opinion piece from a particular philosophy that views the world through the lens of patriarchy theory and the notion that gender is entirely a social construct.

    Moreover, each member of your expert panel seemed to be viewing the movie from either a feminist or, at best, neutral perspective, but there was no one up there to criticize the privileged feminist point of view. Indeed, when Dr. Jennifer Berdhal (a gender and diversity professor at the Sauder School of Business, who at least seemed to admit that that she was a feminist) explained that the phrase “Don’t be Mama’s boy” is one that tells boys that women shouldn’t be their bosses, there was no one to suggest that the expression might instead just be implying (and understood by most to mean) that male people are expected to be tough and not go metaphorically crying to their nurturing mothers when they’re struggling. (It’s not a nice expression, for sure, but from my perspective, it is much more misandrist than it is misogynist.)

    There were some subtle criticisms from the audience of the feminist leanings of the film and panel, but the feminist panelists either intentionally or unintentionally reinterpreted those questions to fit their feminist narrative. And again there was no one on the panel willing or able to critically respond to that bias.

    For troubling instance, consider the argument from Kyra Borland-Walker (of UBC Speakeasy) that the reason that males kill themselves significantly more often than females is because boys and men are socialized to use guns, and therefore, if girls played as much with guns, they would kill themselves just as frequently. This implied that the comparatively high rate of male suicide is not in any way related to men’s particular suffering, but instead is simply and solely the result of them having a greater kinship with a deadly weapon. No one in the panel pointed out that that there could be other reasons that men choose to use more lethal means. Perhaps, that is, men choose guns because they are more determined to kill themselves as they feel they have fewer options. Some suicide attempts are cries for help. And so maybe, in a society that seems to care more about women’s suffering than men’s*, men more often use guns because they don’t think anyone will help them if they do cry out.

    *By the evolutionary necessity of sending our boys into dangerous terrain (from fighting lions to going to war to working in coal mines), it is hard to deny that humans have come to value male life less than female life. How often do we hear news reports referring to victims of war, “including women and children” as opposed to civilians in general? Why are calls to “stop violence against women” ubiquitous, even though (according to men’s rights activists) men are equally if not more often the victims of violent crime? (Why not just, “stop violence”?) Why is more medical research spent on women than men even though women tend to live longer?

    Perhaps the men’s rights’ notion of “male disposability” is inaccurate, but a panel discussing men’s issues ought to be aware of it, and equipped to discuss it from a neutral perspective, instead of one that assumes that men are universally privileged. As it was, Borland-Walker was able to reach for her unsubstantiated claim that women would kill themselves as much as men if they had the weapons, and thus protect the notion that men are privileged, without a single counter argument from her fellow panelists.

    The imbalanced discussion is not Dr. Berdhal or Ms. Borland-Walker’s fault. They have their perspectives, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t provide them when invited. But it is once again intellectually egregious to have a panel, claiming to speak about men’s issues, without anyone there to criticize the feminist orthodoxy, which has a lot of misandry on its resume to answer for.

    “Man-splaining,” “Man-spreading,” “male privilege,” “male gaze,” “male entitlement,” “male violence against women,” “teach men not to rape”: these are all gendered insults brought to you by feminism. The same feminism whose perspective dominated this “documentary” that claimed to want to help boys be themselves. I’m not saying that the film was all bad: there was some interesting exploration of the pressures that many boys feel to be tough and aggressive, and to neatly fit into gender roles. However, the film’s biased interpretations of the cause and effect of these troubles demanded a sober response. There is research, for instance, that suggests that children who grow up with single fathers tend to be more empathetic than children who grow up with single mothers. Researchers don’t know why that is, but psychologist and meta-researcher Dr. Warren Farrell offers a compelling argument that men’s tendency to safely roughhouse with their children actually helps children better understand limits, and the distinction between assertiveness and violence. Another common hypothesis is that, because fathers tend to comfort children when they fall less than mothers do, and instead tend more often to encourage their offspring to get up and try again, children with significant fatherly involvement tend to be less self-involved, and in turn more empathetic.

    I don’t know if those hypotheses are correct, and by pointing them out, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t also emotionally nurture our children in the ways that mothers seem to more often, but the notion that the sole solution to boy troubles is for traditional dads to be more like traditional moms is simplistic. (More likely, I suspect that children do best with a healthy dose of both comforting when they fall and encouragement to get back up and try again.) Moreover, as Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers argues in The War Against Boys, part of the problem may be that we demonize common boy behaviour and pathologize their generally more rambunctious play from a young age: maybe that’s part of the reason that boys seem to be losing interest in school much more often than girls (because “they are treated like defective girls”).

    Again, perhaps Dr. Hoff Sommers is wrong in this assessment, but it would have been nice if the film and/or just one of your expert panelists had discussed her significant research on this subject.

    The film, I noticed, was written, directed, and produced exclusively by women (at least their names were traditionally female). I don’t have a problem with that in theory: if they were the best people to create a movie about men’s issues, then so be it. But I wonder: would a movie about an alleged problem of “toxic femininity” (that discussed how women needed to use their “privilege” to influence girls to be better people and treat boys better) that was written, directed, and produced solely by men have inspired such a supportive panel to convene at UBC? Or would such a film have been dismissed as sexist propaganda?

    I can understand the motivation, when looking at men’s issues, to utilize a feminist perspective in doing so. After all, when men’s issues clubs have attempted to form in other universities, they have been denied ratification on the grounds that they “do not centre female voices” in their discussions. However, I think we must resist such an autocratic notion that men’s issues can only be seen through a feminist lens, or not at all.

    Sincerely,
    Seth McDonough

  • Congratulations! I understand you’ve decided to go into politics. It can be a lot of fun for your pension, but tedious for your brain and ego. Whereas in the outside world, the truth allows for shades of grey and humility, when you are a politician, you must pretend with every inflection of your tone that your way is always 100% the right way and that your opponents are not only wrong, but embarrassingly so.

    To achieve such focussed confidence in a world of nuance, you must think of yourself as a politician magician. When you see a question you don’t want to answer, your duty is to distract the audience with sleights of language, so that you can replace the question with one you do want to take on. This may sound daunting, but you will not be on stage alone: utilizing the following easy-to-learn techniques from many great prevaricators before you, you too can become your society’s Confuser in Chief.

    1. ELOCUTION, ELOCUTION, ELOCUTION:

    No matter what the question or quandary, never let them see you ponder. Instead, make your body language and tone tell your audience that you are self-assured and party-assured in every subject under your jurisdiction’s sun. Show us that there is no question too big for you by smiling, nodding thoughtfully during the interviewer’s question (use Mmm-hmms if you’re on the radio) as though you think it’s a great question, even if (especially if) you’re about to sidestep it. Stay calm. No matter how wildly you avoid a query, if you sound relaxed as you’re doing it, the less likely it is that your audience will think you’re doing it on purpose. At worst, those nit-wits will just think you misunderstood the question.

    2. NEVER ANSWER A QUESTION YOU DON’T LIKE:

    Now that you’ve got your tone in place, you’re ready to start waffling. The first thing to keep in mind is that the questions your interviewer attacks you with don’t always comport with your campaign slogans. The interviewers are trying to trick you into going off your key messages. Don’t let them manipulate you! Think of their questions as first drafts: your job is to edit their queries into something you’d prefer. For instances:

    A. THE TICKLE AND TANGENT:

    Start by complimenting or humorously acknowledging the question, and then zipping into your talking point. Try this:

    INTERVIEWER: What’s your position on Eco-1000-dusters?

    YOU: That’s a great question, which would have left my opponent in the dust! I, however, keep going back to how we need to provide the aesthetic infrastructure that will improve conditions in the dust fields. My plan…

    See how you’ve acknowledged the question by both complimenting it and showing how your opponent has no answer for it. That tickle was all you needed to prove that you could discuss the subject. No need to join those dusty depths yourself!

    B. THE FLIP AND QUIP:

    When asked a direct question about your plan that would prove daunting for you to handle, remember these simple words, “I’ll tell you what we will do…” of better yet, “I’ll you what we’re not going to do.” The directness of your words hides the indirectness of your answer. Watch this:

    INTERVIEWER: So does that mean you’ll be increasing the fine for tree-eating even though you once said that tree-eaters were getting a bad rap?

    YOU: I tell you what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on police services trying to catch tree eaters. However, the (evil) purple party will.

    or:

    YOU: I tell you what I am going to do. I’m going to plant 1000 more trees a year, especially in parks where children play.

    C. THE HYPOTHETICAL-ANTITHETICAL:

    Hypotheticals can be the best of questions, and they can be the worst of questions. But the neat thing is you only have to answer the ones you like because the “Hypothetical Convention of 1901” states that politicians can always have sanctuary from hypotheticals by simply pointing them out. So, when you hear an “If” or “Would you” contemplation that your party policy can easily handle, great: answer away. If the hypothetical question isn’t so digestible, though, then simply say, “I/we don’t answer hypotheticals” or “I/we don’t deal in hypotheticals.” You see, because the hypothetical convention was signed by all political parties (and hockey coaches, for that matter), it is considered bad form for the interviewer to try to press you on it. If they do, simply re-assert your right to plead the hypothetical convention, then apply the FLIP AND QUIP (see above).

    D. THE POLITICALLY CORRECT MISDIRECT:

    Regardless of what era in history you are reading this, there will always be particular groups that are seen as more in need of consideration than others, and so when you refer to them, you gain points for compassion. And the neat thing is it doesn’t matter whether what you’re doing for that group is actually helpful or ethical: once you have said something in celebration of that group, it’s hard for anyone to criticize you because you can immediately imply that they don’t care about said group if they do.

    So, when questions get tough, point out that your concern for X group (if in doubt, go with children) won’t allow your conscience to consider such a course of action, but… and now get to your talking point, or better yet tell a story about a child you met on the campaign trail who motivated you to do more on this particular issue. This is a segue that’s hard for interviewer to crack, because if they try re-direct you when you’re emotionally describing your concern for children, they can seem callous.

    HINT: To get extra credit for your interaction with such a citizen, include a location that will impress the voters, such as meeting the person on transit, at a firefighter-saving workshop, or a single mom convention.  For instance, “I remember talking to Cindy Lou, a single grandmother of eight, while on the bus to her subsidized housing complex. She doesn’t like my opponent either. She, like me, was concerned about the state of children in our society.”

    E. THE DISTRACTION-REACTION:

    If there is an issue that has on its poles two politically unpalatable positions, try to let your opponents hash out the unwieldy terrain. Be patient. Let them get some good shots in. Then, once they’ve wounded each other with hard-hitting criticisms, refer to their fight as a distraction from a much more important (i.e. less politically contentious) topic. In fact, now would be a good time for a Politically Correct Misdirect (see above). Give it a try:

    OPPONENT 1: We must invest in more arsenic-testing of our soft drinks to save lives.

    OPPONENT 2: Arsenic-poisoning is so rare, but the expense of such testing will cost the economy billions of dollars.

    OPPONENT 1: So you’re saying let people die?

    OPPONENT 2: No, I’m saying don’t let the economy die.

    YOU: This is all a big distraction from the fact that neither of you has a policy that will keep strychnine away baby kangaroos. Today, I met Gilda, a single mother of a baby kangaroo, and she told me that her daughter…

    F. THE COMPLEX AND FLEX:

    Before your interview, review your thesaurus and any complicated statistics that you happen to like. When you’re backed into a corner, bring out the big words and numbers. Most people won’t look them up; and most interviewers won’t want to admit if they don’t understand them, so, if you can confuse them, they will move onto the next question to avoid looking like they can’t keep up with you.

    HINT: If you’re worried the interviewer might be able to follow your train of distraction, combine several big words and numbers and roll them out as quickly as you can to keep even the fastest of minds from following you.

    G. THE RE-DIRECT DEFLECT:

    And, finally, sometimes you’ll be dealing with one of those mean interviewers who will point out that you haven’t answered their question. Do not panic; do not blink. Stay on your re-direct message, and re-assert your irrelevant answer. Most interviewers will move on after one re-try, but if not, then try saying, “I’ve already answered that,” (given that you’ve now been talking about the same question for a while now, most of your audience won’t remember whether you’ve answered it or not), and then help your interviewer escape the stumble in the conversation by segueing into a FLIP AND QUIP (see above).

    If you can master these techniques, you will be a politician, my friend. Remember, politics is not about who has the best plan for your society: it is about who can sound like they do.

  • SETHICS 31.08.2015 9 Comments

    To paraphrase Bill Maher, some of the alleged offenders described in the following argument may not be worth defending, but their rights are. Let me first state my contrary bias. On the spectrum of government control and anarchy, I am in favour of laws restricting behaviours that explicitly harm others, and where laws are not appropriate (such as in the case of free speech), I like to see jerks get their social comeuppance as much as the next karma connoisseur. However, I am wary of the current state of moral fervor dominating public discussions wherein those accused of committing crimes legal or otherwise are not only publicly shamed, but are also called to be fired or reprimanded by their employers, even where their alleged fouls have not been proven and/or have dubious relevance to their work. For instances:

    (1) A common jerk made profane remarks to a reporter while she was in the midst of a live feed. She called him out. He defended himself. The resulting video found an audience. Someone figured out where the jerk worked and alerted his boss. The jerk was fired from his five-figure job.

    (2) An NFL player was charged by the police with a hit and run, DUI, and vandalism. The next day, the athlete was released by his team.

    (3) A CFL player (known already for ignorant opinions) shared on Twitter a link to a Holocaust-denying video. The player was fined by the CFL.

    (4) A British Lord was photographed socializing with prostitutes and was consequently pressured to resign his position. He resisted at first, but eventually relented to public and fellow-Lord pressure. (Although there was, apparently, no legal basis for him to be removed.)

    (5) NFL superstar Ray Rice was seen on a hotel security video in an altercation with his fiancé: as she approached him in an elevator at a rapid pace, he punched her in the face, knocking her unconscious. Rice pled out of a criminal conviction by agreeing to 12 months of counselling. Initially he was suspended for two games, but after public pressure, he was released by his team, the Baltimore Ravens, and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

    Now, if employers fire their employees because they have good reason to believe they might harm their co-workers on the job, or already have done so, I have no objection. My concern here is with cases where employees are relieved of duty because their bosses have deemed them morally unfit for work (usually at the behest of popular opinion).

    While I too will not type a sad-face emoticon for the fool who lost his job after verbally accosting someone trying to do theirs, I am nervous about the lack of public resistance to employers extending their gaze beyond their employees’ on-site activities with the aim of pronouncing judgment on their off-site behaviours. As we presently stand, the general assumption seems to be that, where someone is accused and/or convicted of a crime outside the job or of saying or doing something politically unwise, our society is right to pressure the accused’s employer to fire that person.

    That, to me, is a scary state of employment affairs. I suspect most of us wouldn’t want our doctors or bus drivers to refuse service because of such character flaws, so why are we so quick to allow vigilante karma officers to run our human resources departments? And now that we’ve opened up Pandora’s judgement, how far might the employers take their newfound lease on pink slips?

    (“Nicely done, Johnson. You’re doing a better job of recycling your newspapers and respecting your elders, but I think you could donate more money to UNICEF, and I’d like to see you spend more time with your kids and less time coveting your neighbour’s wife. Have those things done by the end of next month, and I’ll consider keeping you on… Oh, and by the way, in this election, I’m voting blue. See that you do as well.”)

    Who’s going to be in charge of defining these moral no-go zones? We can all agree that punching someone in the face (unless in opposition to an attacker) is morally egregious, but what about less morally obvious codes, such as religious doctrines? If enough people in the public are opposed to gay marriage, is it okay for a company to fire a married gay person on moral grounds?

    Unfortunately, there is little public appetite today for employers to make a nuanced case for why they are not in a position to evaluate their employees’ outside-of-work conduct and speech: public morality, after all, is not known for its ability to recognize such distinctions. To the no-nuanced public, if an employer does not punish their employees when they are accused of a crime or of saying something deemed offensive, they clearly condone such behaviour.

    This puts employers in a dicey spot where they either condemn their employee for something beyond their expertise and jurisdiction, or risk the wrath of their customers. Given such a choice, many employers are relenting to the public’s demands for their employees’ excommunication.

    Thus, I think the potential for injustice caused by our guilty-until-proven-innocent and readily-offended public morality is dangerous, and we need to recalibrate our expectations of employers when it comes to assessing their employees’ outside-of-work activities. I submit that the starting point in these discussions ought to be that employers do not have a right or obligation to punish their employees for anything that happens outside their jurisdiction. Instead, companies should be expected to prove that they have just cause (i.e. something relevantly injurious to the company’s functioning, such as a conflict of interest, or a conflict of safety) to fire an employee. If pundits and other public moralists (and even our legal system) were to accept this as a first principle of employer-employee relations, employers would, I submit, feel less pressure to make unjust terminations to appease public wrath.

    With that “don’t fire employees without workplace cause” frame of reference in mind, I think the most complicated scenario for employers and critics to consider is the case where an employee (usually possessing a high profile) commits a moral infraction that could hurt the brand of their company.

    Consider the NFL’s indefinite suspension of Ray Rice for punching his wife. The claim was not that Rice’s violent behaviour made him unsafe for his workplace, but instead that his actions were so despicable that the NFL needed to send a message of condemnation of violence against women, or be seen as a league aiding and abetting men who beat up women.

    I can understand the mathematics of such a brand-protection argument. Given that entertainment, much like politics, draws crowds as much by personality as it does by talent, if an athlete’s reputation for violence leads some of us to think badly of their employer’s brand, then in a sense their performance could be questioned.

    Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that the needs of the brand should outweigh the rights of its workers. I see two categories of circumstance to consider:

    (1) First there are disputed cases, such as when someone is charged with, but hasn’t yet been proven guilty of, a crime. In spite of the suspect’s right to a fair trial, their employer may feel the perception of their guilt is already tainting their good brand name. Sadly, though, mob opinion is rarely a meticulous means by which to assess a person’s guilt, and so employers using it as their lead moral advisor will surely sometimes fire innocent employees.

    Therefore, as painful as it may be to see an allegedly violent offender roaming the field of our favourite sports team, I see no solution other than to allow the justice system to be in charge of taking away the criminals it deems unfit for society. And, if the courts do not put a perceived villain in prison, I think it is oppressive to allow companies, at the behest of popular opinion and brand protection, to make like kangaroos and presume their employees’ guilt.

    (2) Second, there are the cases where the problematic actions of the high-profile employee are not in dispute, such as when the celebrity has been either convicted of a crime, or captured on an uncontested video saying or doing something that a company would not want associated with their brand. Again, from a fiduciary point of view, it is understandable that organizations would want to exile high-profile employees who have behaved in ways that the public condemns.

    Nevertheless, I still fear that such brand-harming justification gives too much power to our sometimes puritanical public opinion to rule our lives outside of work. Again, I can imagine exceptions, such as when an employee’s personal reputation is the primary basis for their employment (as in the case of a celebrity spokesperson), but in situations where one’s personal life is irrelevant to the actual tasks one is paid for (as when one carries a football for a living), I propose that we reconsider the notion that it is appropriate for employers to require their employees to stay on brand while they are off duty. This isn’t to say that employees should be allowed to directly insult their workplaces while at an outside-of-work microphone (that strikes me as a conflict of interest), but, beyond such exceptions, I do not think that employers should be allowed to limit their employee’s freedom of association and speech.

    For concerning instance, whether one believes that feminism is a force for equality or a force for sexism, it’s hard to deny that it currently has a controlling influence on our public morality. Consider the difference in our understandable contempt for Ray Rice’s assault on his wife, and our lack thereof when confronted by a parallel incident in which another NFL football player, IK Enemkpali, punched a teammate, Geno Smith, breaking his jaw to the point of knocking his compatriot out of action for 6-10 weeks. Given this happened in the locker room in front of witnesses, the team rightly fired the fist-throwing athlete, but note that there was little if any of the public moral scorn that Ray Rice received for his similar assault on his fiancé. In fact, some observers have even blamed the victim, Smith, stating he was acting aggressively towards Enemkpali and provoked the violent reaction. (Recall that Rice’s fiancé was behaving aggressively towards him, too: but not many would want to defend Mr. Rice on those same grounds.)

    Moreover, in response to the Enenkpali assault, SportsCentre featured for our entertainment the “Top Ten Teammate Fights.” (Again, can you imagine a “Top Ten” segment serenading Rice’s crime?) Then, within a couple days, a second team hired the offending player on the grounds that his punch was a one-time error. I don’t object to this decision; if the new team thinks Enemkpali can improve their results and doesn’t think there’s a pattern of violent work behaviour that would pose a risk to his new teammates, I think it’s reasonable for them to take him on. But the fact that the team was able to do this without the same moral condemnation that has left Ray Rice still without an employer is evidence of our current feminist-leaning moral infrastructure. (Consider also an incident in the NHL wherein super-villain Milan Lucic followed an opponent—-who didn’t have the puck—-during an NHL game and, just for vicious fun, whacked him between the legs: Lucic was not suspended but fined $5000 of his $6 million salary, and I suppose, probably suffered the indignity of making a sports station or two’s “Top Ten Ooooh Moments.”)

    If it were just violent abusers of women who suffered under this feminist double standard, I wouldn’t be particularly troubled. However, as our Western culture becomes increasingly submissive to the uncompromising expectations of feminism, buoyed advocates are demanding (and sometimes receiving) firings for not only violent offences against women, but also failures to be feminist in thought.

    Recall General Lawson, who “offended” all three major Canadian political parties for suggesting that biological wiring was complicit in creating sexual harassers in the military. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau called for him to be fired for this innocuous, if unsupported, claim.

    More troubling, consider the career crucifixion of Nobel Laureate and medical researcher Dr. Tim Hunt who, at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Korea, made a joke that was clearly intended to satirize himself as a fossil of gender relations in science:

    “It’s strange,” he said, “that a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should separate labs for boys and girls.”

    For those not tuned into his humour frequency, he followed up this jest with a clarifying remark:

    “No seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development in Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science despite the obstacles and despite monsters like me.”

    After the most controversial aspects of the joke were released to the Twitter mafia (without any of the clarifying content that surrounded it), Hunt was forced to resign from all of his scientific positions. No matter how offended one may be by a joke, we should all be worried to see a world-class medical researcher cut off from helping us all because of things he said while giving a toast. I don’t begrudge criticism of what people say in public, but are we sure such controversial humour disqualifies Hunt from being a good scientist? If Dr. Hunt had harassed or bullied his colleagues (female or male) in some way, then the benefits of his good science may not be worth the harm to his co-workers and subordinates; however, many female supporters have come forward to say that Dr. Hunt has long been a champion of their work.

    (And, once again, you don’t need to search far into the internet to find examples where feminist scholars have said much more earnest and sexist comments without any official discipline. For just one recent example, consider the Gender and Diversity Professor at the Sauder School of Business, Jennifer Berdahl, who speculated in her blog that former UBC President Arvind Gupta had left his post after only one year because “he lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” She was not officially disciplined for such masculinity-deriding commentary; admittedly, she says that some higher powers that be have criticized her for it, but the result so far has not been any official censure for her sexist choice of words. To the contrary: the Faculty Association has demanded that her lead critic, John Montalbano, a faculty advisory board member at the Sauder School of Business, and the person who funded Berdahl’s position, resign his commission for using his station to criticize a faculty member.)

    Whether or not you agree that our society is currently driving under the influence of feminism and other specialized moralities, surely all of us should be concerned when fellow citizens, who are legally entitled to work, are barred from doing so because of perceived or real moral errors outside of work. While Ray Rice may be a terrible person and certainly did something awful, allowing his employer to fire him for a crime he committed outside the borders of their institution solidifies a precedent that should make us all raise our eyebrows. More crucially, while I too prefer respectful discourse, when employers can decide to fire their employees because they find their outside-of-work words “unacceptable,” that scares the moral fervor out of me.

  • Previously in this “NEW CENSORSHIP” series, I have written about the power of political correctness to suppress speech via the magnitude of its proponents’ outrage and calls for punishment of those who stray from “acceptable” opinion. In this episode of “THE NEW CENSORSHIP,” I will examine the argument of a scholar who defends the increasing powers of political correctness.

    On June 21st, I overheard an interview on CBC’s The 180, in which interviewer Jim Brown asked a gender studies grad student, Zaren Healey White, whether Canadian universities have become too politically correct at the expense of free academic thought. The conversation had the veneer of a serious philosophical discussion, but to my ear, it evaded the most problematic aspects of limiting free speech at the behest of ideology, however well-meaning it may claim to be.

    Thus, I sent a message to The 180, articulating some serious issues that I thought were missed in the discussion. Since it has now been two weeks, and I have not heard back, I offer that letter here.

    (NOTE: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post. I won’t be offended if you listen to or read the interview before taking in my reply.)

    Dear Mr. Brown:

    I enjoy your show and interview style. Your attempts to unearth new perspectives in our little group think world is admirable.

    In keeping with your mission, I would like to provide a 180 perspective on your 180 interview with Memorial University Gender Studies Masters student, Zaren Healey White, in regard to her contention that increasing political correctness in Canadian universities is a positive evolution.

    Your guest was articulate and charismatic, and yet she sidestepped significant problems with her ideology.

    When you asked Ms. Healey White to explain how she defines political correctness, she said, “I just basically mean things that I think are values that I think we should value. So basically it’s not political correctness for its own sake, it’s that ‘Let’s be empathetic, sensitive, and aware—-let’s be aware of language and how the words we use could impact people.”

    Empathy, sensitivity, and awareness all sound like nice goals to strive for in theory, but in practice who gets to decide which language and opinions pass the test? As much as Ms. Healey White and her colleagues may have good intentions and talented brains, there are lots of smart and kind people who disagree with their diagnoses.

    As the late journalist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens argued, “Who is going to decide?… Who will you appoint? Who will be the one who says, ‘I know exactly where the limit [on free speech] should be. I know how far you can go. And I know when you’ve gone too far. And I’ll decide that’? Who do you think, who do you know, who have you heard of, who have you read about in history who you would give that job?”

    To my eye, gender scholars such as Ms. Healey White are currently the leading arbiters of politically correct speech in university culture, and it is they who teach the students who subsequently demand increasing “sensitivity” in academic discussion. So, when we give into student protests and limit who can speak and what can be said at universities, we are allowing a small group of gender scholars to have incredible power over all academic discussion.

    This is not merely a theoretical speculation. Gender studies ideology has made some scary changes to the definition of sexual consent on university campuses, including the new notion that participants—-especially female participants—-cannot consent while intoxicated. Meanwhile, at the University of Ottawa, after two male hockey players were accused of sexual assault, the entire hockey team was suspended for a year. Those who criticize such repressive and autocratic justice are treated as pariahs by the gender studies collective.

    This means that gender studies leaders design strange new rules of justice but will not accept feedback from those not accredited by them to speak on such matters. For instance, when erudite and polite critics of feminism such as Dr. Warren Farrell, Dr. Janice Fiamengo, Dr. Paul Nathanson, and Dr. Katherine Young have attempted to speak at Canadian universities, they have been denounced by feminist protestors as “hate speakers,” “rape apologists,” and “misogynists.” While the students had a right to these accusations, they should not be lionized for such hostile (and baseless) behavior, which inhibits legitimate discussion. Moreover, in some of those cases, the protestors blocked entrances to their opponents’ talks and pulled fire alarms, thus proving themselves literally closed to criticism.

    Far from advocating compassion for those who see the world differently, gender scholars seem to allow no room for “error” amongst those with whom they disagree. Once someone says the “wrong” thing, they are not merely criticized, they are called to be excommunicated from their careers. Such chilling results surely give pause to others who might not agree with every commandment of gender scholarship but don’t want to lose their livelihood over it.

    And note that such restrictions in current university speech is not just about limiting vicious words but also traumatic content. “Trigger warnings,” which began in gender studies, are becoming an expectation of university professors when they engage in material that students might find challenging or provocative. The theory behind this strange practice is that the warning protects the students who may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being further traumatized. Again, this sounds compassionate on the surface, but in reality it is based on speculation that traumatized students will be triggered by content that reminds them of their harmful experiences. According to philosopher Christina Hoff-Summers, who has reviewed the scientific literature, there is no psychological evidence for this conclusion; in fact, quite the opposite, as students who are never exposed to content similar to their trauma have little opportunity to get free of it. Thus, instead of protecting students from harm, it gives additional power to the trauma, while demonizing discussion about it.

    Meanwhile, even if trigger warnings were psychologically justified and there were an objective way to censor disrespectful language without limiting ideas, there is a double standard in favour of protecting gender studies from [being criticized for] its own sometimes hostile ideology. For all her calls for “valuing the inherent dignity of people and caring about them, and caring about their lives and their experiences,” notice that Healey White more than once dismissed critics of political correctness as “privileged.” For instances:

    “I haven’t come across a lot of marginalized people who have a problem with political correctness. It seems to be people who have a lot of privilege who say, ‘Well I’m used to being able to say what I want, and I want to keep saying it.’”

    And:

    “I feel like the people leveraging the critiques that the students are too sensitive are the people that have benefitted from getting to say whatever they want, and not having to worry too much about oppression.”

    How does Ms. Healey White know whether such critics have privilege or not? Generally, privilege is shorthand for “white,” “male,” and/or “heterosexual,” which of course is not exactly treating people of such blasphemous traits with empathy, sensitivity, and awareness: instead it paints all such people with the same insult: regardless of the individual circumstances in your life, you have, by definition, been privileged by your biological traits, and so therefore we cannot take your perspective as seriously as ours.

    Such blanket wielding of the term “privilege” is bigotry personified. I won’t presume that Ms. Healey White is motivated by such mean-spirited intentions, but nevertheless she is capitalizing on a currently en vogue expression that carries with it a lot of vicious baggage.

    Moreover, even if we assume the veracity of Ms. Healey White’s almost-impossible-to-verify notion that most of those who criticize political correctness have never experienced oppression (Ayaan Hirsi Ali being, I guess, an aberration), how does that prove their contentions incorrect? In philosophical argument, ad hominem claims (i.e. arguments against the traits of a person instead of their argument) are considered irrelevant. An individual can be both personally flawed and possessing of a good intellectual argument simultaneously, so by definition the person’s traits cannot prove or disprove the validity of their argument.

    For instance, even if I defend free speech solely for my own selfish enjoyment of saying whatever I want (as Healey White suggests), it may be the case that my defence of free speech is still, inadvertently, correct. Meanwhile, even if gender studies students, who are mostly women, focus primarily on women’s rights over men’s rights, it’s possible that the feminist conclusions they draw are valid. The best way to determine the answer to those questions is to look at the arguments we all put forward, and examine them on their merits.

    Sincerely,
    Seth McDonough

    (REMINDER: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post.)

  • Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE XI

    “Offensive, inappropriate, completely unacceptable.” —-Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada.

    “I’m at a loss for words on the chosen verbiage that the General used… It is not something that I agree with and it’s not something I appreciate, not in senior management.” 
—-Lisa Raitt, Canadian Transport Minister.

    “Completely wrong and totally unacceptable… the military brass simply don’t get it.”
 —-Thomas Mulcair, NDP Leader of Canada.

    “General Lawson should be immediately dismissed.” 
—-Justin Trudeau, Liberal Leader of Canada.

    Recently Canadian media, politicians, and feminists harmonized their outrage because the Canadian Chief of Defence, General Thomas Lawson, gave a controversial answer to a question regarding why there is apparently still a significant problem with sexual harassment in the Canadian Military.*

    *The problem is asserted in a report by retired Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps.

    Lawson’s uproar-provoking comments landed during an interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge:

    MANSBRIDGE: It’s 2015, why is [sexual harassment in the military] still an issue?

    LAWSON: First of all, it’s a terrible issue. It’s one that disturbs the great majority of everyone in uniform, and yet we’re still dealing with it. It would be a trite answer, but it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be.

    MANSBRIDGE: What do you mean by that? Biological?

    LAWSON: What I mean by that, is that we are men and women in uniform. Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members.

    During the rest of this almost 18-minute interview, General Lawson articulated that he wants to stop sexual harassment in the military, and has taken steps toward that end (such as requesting from Justice Deschamps the very report that provoked Mansbridge’s question, and then accepting her recommendations); nevertheless, Canadian media, politicians, and feminists have attacked his metaphor of “bad wiring” as offensive, behind-the-times, and proof that Lawson doesn’t think sexual harassment is a serious issue.

    “General Lawson,” said Julie Lalonde an advocate against sexual assault who claims she was harassed by soldiers when she was invited to give them a workshop on sexual assault “…is giving this really weak response saying we don’t have a problem and, when we do, we can’t do anything about it because it’s biologically determined.”

    That’s a grand assumption of Lawson’s meaning there, and one that is contradicted throughout the interview in which General Lawson expressed repeatedly that it’s a problem he is attempting to tackle.

    So what’s providing the foam for these outraged mouths? What’s gotten Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau calling for the General to be fired even though the undeniable content of his message was aimed at reducing sexual harassment in the armed forces?

    On first pass, it seems that the offence is derived from a belief that General Lawson is denying the moral responsibility of harassers (i.e. they can’t help how they were wired, so how could we hold them accountable for their actions?). But such an interpretation can’t stand the light of scrutiny. We don’t have control over the environmental factors that influenced the construction of our characters either. Every person is a collage of biological and environmental influences. Morality is a measure of the decisions each human makes regardless of the relative percentage that ingredients versus cooking played in forming them.

    Thus, I suspect that the true source of feminist angst here is derived from the fact that General Lawson hinted at being on the politically no-longer-acceptable side of the nurture vs. nature debate.

    It is a dispute that has a long and intriguing history in literature and science; we don’t know for sure exactly what percentage Mother Nature and Father Nurture have in creating our personalities, so we’re all entitled to our best guesses on the subject just as so many philosophers and novelists have before us.

    Unfortunately for Lawson, though, he may not have realized that it is currently intellectually illegal in Canada to hold nature to account for bad acts whenever feminism has a stake in the discussion. You see, on the question of nature vs. nurture, most feminists argue that the nurture of our allegedly patriarchal and misogynistic society (see “rape culture”) is to blame for any mistreatment of women, as well as all general gender differences in wealth and power. 

It doesn’t matter to the media or the politicians that both Lawson and feminists assume that harassing behaviour is ingrained by a particular force, and that both argue that the resulting harassment is immoral and harmful, and should be condemned and combatted. Given that Lawson seems to think that the ingraining happened earlier than feminists assert, his remarks have been designated irredeemable.

    Of course, if one digs past the precariousness of holding an opinion on psychological causes that differs with the feminist autocratic line, one can see that, regardless of nature and nurture’s relative influence, sexual harassment is equally as immoral and harmful. But, for most politicians, digging past said precariousness would have been precarious itself, so they stuck (as vaguely as they could) to their favourite phrases of outrage. No politician that I heard was willing to take on the task of telling us why a “nature” over “nurture” explanation for the existence of jerks was philosophica non grata.

    Instead, they relied on the general population and feminists to fill in the blanks in their anger. And, since the media is either too indoctrinated or terrified to ask why the politicians were so offended (for fear, I suspect, of then being accused of not being offended enough, themselves) the politicians were able to hold vapid in their responses to General Lawson’s remarks.

    Moreover, after General Lawson officially apologized for what he called his “unhelpful comments that were conjecture that really did serve no purpose, and, in fact, clouded the very strong efforts that we have going forward” and reiterated that he was in no way suggesting “there is any excuse for any sexual misconduct by anyone in uniform,” the politicians still didn’t believe they could safely accept his contrition, and so continued to condemn him without providing content for their condemnation.

    Liberal Defence Critic Joyce Murray stated, “I thought it was very disappointing that he just repeated some lines several times that didn’t get to the heart of the matter. And from my perspective he has an unfortunate, very archaic belief that, it sounds like an excuse for why there is sexual harassment and abuse in the Canadian armed forces.”

    (This confuses me. The General retracted the offending claim, and said it was supposition that he shouldn’t have said. He focussed directly on the problem language and said that it was not useful in the discussion of harassment, a problem which he stated he was committed to tackling. Moreover, he explicitly said that there is never an excuse for harassment by anyone under his command. What more was required to count as dealing with “the heart of the matter”? I can’t help wondering if Ms. Murray had her rejection ready before the General attempted his apology.)

    NDP Defence Critic Jack Harris went further: “I don’t really think it was an apology. I think he obviously had to try to backtrack on what was said because it was so outrageous and perceived as being such by every woman in the country I can guarantee you, but also by most men.”

    (Wow, Mr. Harris, you don’t mind speaking for all women? Regardless, note how Harris is relying on the audience to fill in the details of his undefined outrage. Harris says all women and most men are offended? Well then it must be offensive!)

    The nature (or should I say nurture?) of how this story played itself out is concerning. The CBC radio reports I heard only quoted the problematic “biological wiring” passage, providing almost none of the content which would have demonstrated the progressive heart of Lawson’s message. The reports then jumped to the “offended” politicians describing how upset they were, without ever apparently being pressed to say why. It was a scary example of group think. Since none of the media or politicians were willing to stray from the Politically Correct party line, we the observers were expected to assume that they had all vetted Lawson’s interview, and unanimously found him morally wanting, thus leaving us with no reason to be skeptical.

    Western society is aware generally, I think, that political correctness subdues the language one can use in public if one wants to have a career in public. However, I don’t think we’re realizing how scary the implicit feminist censorship has become. Feminists will march not just against politically incorrect language (i.e. against those making “offensive” word choices), but politically incorrect facts (i.e. against those “offensively” quoting studies that disagree with feminist conclusions), and now politically incorrect opinions about human psychology.

    As much as feminists may feel they have the answer on the nurture vs. nature debate, would the media mind asking scientists if the facts are as clear as feminists insist? Even if it is, I see no evidence that General Lawson drew problematic human resources policies from his “unacceptable” belief.

    (If Lawson’s claim about biological wiring could be shown to link up with an unwillingness to act on the problem—-perhaps he might have said something like, “You can’t fight nature!”—-then I think the feminist critics would have had a case to ask for his removal, but instead, based on his entire testimony, the “biological wiring” comment was essentially a placeholder to represent people who are predisposed to bad behaviour—-bad behaviour which he clearly stated he was intent on attacking.)

    Most scary of all is that the media and government are now complicit with the feminist policing of thought and language. As I’ve argued many times, most professional media in Canada are either afraid or ideologically unwilling to criticize feminist “research” or ideas. Even their most baffling claims—-such as arguing that general safety advice from police during a crisis is a form of “victim-blaming”—-go unchecked by the media. (I am not suggesting the media should disagree with the feminists—-that’s not their role either: I’m only asking that they occasionally check the feminist “facts” and opinions with some critical questions.) Meanwhile, the politicians, wafflers by nature, rarely stand up to the Feminist Ministry of Propaganda either, and in this case are joining in on the furor in a rare instance of all-party consensus. (They can’t agree on reducing pollution to save the planet, but when the leader of our military has an unpopular opinion about how jerks are formed, they all chant in the same direction.)

    The only way we can have adult, content-heavy conversations about these important topics is if we allow our leaders (media, political, and otherwise) to explore them without fear that scarlet letters will be thrown at them every time they utter a sentence that sounds like it might not match politically correct dogma. If feminists are right about an issue, then surely they can win the argument with content instead of demonizing their opponents by leaping to the most inflammatory interpretations of them. Meanwhile, if feminists are ever wrong (or even partly wrong), then the only way we can expose their erroneous ideas is if the rest of us are allowed to freely join their settled conversations.

  • Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE X

    Rape culture” is a feminist theory which suggests that our institutions and social mores tend to tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) condone and/or normalize rape. I don’t object to naming an alleged cultural phenomenon as shorthand to identify a collection of forces (real or perceived) that one is trying to illuminate. The trouble with rape culture rhetoric, however, is that acceptance of the term’s validity has been treated by “with us or against us” feminists as a morality test, wherein you either agree to the scary assertion without question or you’re “a rape apologist.”

    Recently, Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely apologized for not following standard journalistic practice before publishing a spurious article (that has since been retracted by the magazine) regarding an alleged gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.

    “The past few months,” she said, “since my Rolling Stone article ‘A Rape on Campus’ was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.”

    (Erdely’s full statement.)

    As some critics have pointed out, she did not apologize to the fraternity house and its members who likely suffered in her undue process. I submit that this imbalance in her apology is consistent with the sort of journalistic biases that might have inspired her troubled article in the first place: we live in a “rape culture” culture. That is, we live in a philosophical world where “rape culture” is all-too-often assumed to be ubiquitous, which in turn causes the notion of “believe the victims” to be celebrated as the mantra of the virtuous, while due process is discarded as a weapon of the patriarchy.

    Notice, for instance, that feminists condemn skepticism towards the terrifying and widespread feminist claim that approximately one of five American students will be sexually assaulted (critics argue the number is closer to one in forty). As I discussed in my post FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM – PART 1, when critics of controversial feminist data have attempted to speak at Canadian universities in the last few years, they have been protested as hate-speakers, and in some cases their talks were disrupted by feminist demonstrators pulling fire alarms.

    “I don’t agree with the fire alarms pulled,” said feminist and motivational speaker Rachel Décoste in regard to attempts to mute Dr. Janice Fiamengo and her blasphemous criticism of modern feminism, “but when somebody says that the statistics that we’ve been based on forever are wrong, and therefore rape is not as much of an issue as it should be, I think that draws laughter, if not crying, because it’s just so preposterous. So, if [Dr. Fiamengo] wants to speak, that’s fine, but she doesn’t get to have the forum of our publicly funded universities, paid for by my and your taxes to disseminate that information that’s just not right.”

    (See the full discussion.)

    Décoste (along with all-too-many feminist advocates) seems to want the controversial one in five statistic to be cemented into law and never questioned. This kind of aversion to criticism is “rape culture” culture. If you don’t agree with feminist conclusions, you apparently deserve what you get. Thus, for many journalists, politicians, and academics, the notion of criticizing assumptions of rape culture surely feels like a career-endangering maneuver. Indeed, it seems to me that most such professionals tend to play it safe and not criticize feminist “research” and advocacy, which in turn allows feminists to reside unfettered in a special branch of study that, like “Christian Science,” moulds the data to fit their theories instead of the other way around. (Who, after all, is going to stop them?)

    I believe the key to releasing Western society from “rape culture” culture lies in the hearts and pens of the press. Journalists must reclaim their right and responsibility to critically report on settled feminist topics.

    Philosopher and critic of what she called “gender feminism” and its supplanting of “equity feminism,” Christina Hoff Sommers previewed the problem of journalistic credulity (in regard to gender feminist assertions) in her 1994 work, Who Stole Feminism?

    In the preface, she describes a variety of credulous reporters who apparently cited dubious feminist claims without checking the sources behind them. For instance, after several notable publications reported a false feminist assertion that battery was the leading cause of birth defects in the United States, Sommers contacted, among others, a hoodwinked reporter from Time Magazine.

    Says Sommers: “The first thing she said was ‘That was an error.’ She sounded genuinely sorry and embarrassed. She explained that she is always careful about checking sources, but this time, for some reason, she had not” (page 14).

    In Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers asks her readers a vital question: “Why was everybody so credulous? Battery responsible for more defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia? More than congenital heart disorders? More than alcohol, crack, or AIDS—more than all these things combined? Where were the fact-checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?” (pages 14-15).

    Sommers’s description of otherwise earnest reporters relinquishing their journalistic training when encountering feminist dogma should have warned us of the “rape culture” culture we are surrounded by today.

    In her apology for the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely says, “Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist—including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for—I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.”

    “Ultimately,” the story’s editor, Sean Woods confirms, “we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

    (See the ninth paragraph of the “Failure and Its Consequences” section of the Columbia University report.)

    I don’t doubt Erdely’s and Woods’s explanation that their compassion overtook their journalistic objectivity, and that they weren’t intentionally fabricating a story that could deeply hurt a lot of people. Let’s assume that, on topics not related to rape, Erdely and Woods have always proceeded with due diligence. We should be asking them what, then, was the distinguishing factor in this case (as opposed to other situations where their compassion might have also been piqued) that made them forgo their training and experience? Is it possible that they were influenced by “rape culture” culture to the point that they were less inclined to question and verify their source’s claims than they would have been when dealing with any other topic?

    The good news is that Rolling Stone asked Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to investigate “what went wrong” in the reporting of this story. Such a willingness to open one’s process up to independent scrutiny is progress, I think. In that analysis, Coll, along with co-authors Sheila Coronel and Derek Kravitz, point out a series of apparent failures of verification by Erdely, along with the fact-checking and editorial teams at Rolling Stone. More importantly, they include in their analysis a possible inciting cause that might have fueled these mistakes.

    “The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here. Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice. She felt she had been blocked. Like many other universities, UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted.”

    (See the seventh paragraph of the ‘I had a faith’ section of the report.)

    The confirmation bias in this case strikes me as a symptom of “rape culture” culture.

    The report concedes, however, that “Of all crimes, rape is perhaps the toughest to cover. The common difficulties that reporters confront – including scarce evidence and conflicting accounts – can be magnified in a college setting. Reporting on a case that has not been investigated and adjudicated, as Rolling Stone did, can be even more challenging.”

    (See the first paragraph of the “For Journalists: Reporting on Campus Rape” section.)

    Hopefully, Rolling Stone’s humiliating failure here does not dissuade the magazine and other publications from pointing their gaze at all aspects of campus culture (including daunting subjects such as rape and sexual assault). But, when they do, I hope they report the stories they find, instead of the narrative they’ve been taught to expect.

  • Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE IX

    Recently, I have noticed several public service announcements (for instance, The White Ribbon Campaign and my own BC Lions’ “Be more than bystander” offering) calling on male bystanders to defend potential female victims of crime.

    I applaud the notion of encouraging people to look out for each other, but I find the moral framework for these campaigns to be problematic, especially when compared to our society’s current opposite expectations of victims.

    The current bystander imperative is that, when someone (particularly a woman) is in danger, then you have an obligation to help by intervening (particularly if you’re a man) and/or contacting the police.

    In contrast, the current victim expectation is that, when you have been a victim (particularly if you are a women and your assailant a man), you have no obligation to help future victims by telling the police about the crime.

    Notice that, in the second case, feminist advocates suggest that asking female victims to come forward immediately after a crime occurs (giving police the best chance of catching the assailant, and reducing the violent criminal’s opportunities to repeat his evil) is a form of victim blaming. After all, say feminist advocates, “Women have the right to choose” whether they want to come forward, especially considering that “the justice system is so hard on female victims of crime.”

    Of course women have the legal right to decide whether to come forward, but bystanders also have the legal right to decide whether to dive into a dangerous situation to help a stranger.

    The more interesting and relevant question, then, is whether victims and bystanders have a moral obligation to help. I submit that, in both cases, the answer depends on the context of each individual situation.

    I imagine five general moral categories:

    (1) Morally supererogative*
    (2) Morally right.
    (3) Morally neutral.
    (4) Morally wrong.
    (5) Morally awful.

    *Supererogative, meaning essentially to go above and beyond one’s duty, has been taken out of some dictionaries because it is considered an archaic term that is no longer in regular use. I hope it’s not also an archaic behaviour.

    Where we locate both passive and active bystanders on such a moral ladder should be a function of the circumstances of each case. If the level of potential harm to the victim is significant, and the risk to a bystander who might intervene is non-existent, then not helping is, I believe, morally awful. For instance, if you’re on the fifth floor of your apartment building and you see someone being assaulted outside on the street, and you merrily watch without calling the police to help, then you’re likely not a good person. However, if you put yourself at risk by running down to fight off the assailant, then, in that case, you may be morally supererogative. Or, if you were to witness a mob hit, and you testified against the killer and consequently put yourself in mortal danger, then taking such a witness stand would also clearly be a morally heroic act.

    Thus, I think it is encouraging that current bystander theory is asking people to aim for higher on our moral decisions. Instead of ignoring those in trouble, let’s try to help. At the very least, let’s alert someone or some agency such as the police who might be able to make a positive difference, and if you feel up to it, then intervene yourself. However, as I argued in ATTACKING MEN, it makes me nervous that we seem to be expecting men to climb higher on this ladder as an obligation of our gender; that is, men are told they should intervene directly; if they don’t, they are often treated as complicit in the crime. This is dangerous talk. While I think it’s laudable for those who are most physically capable to try to help those less physically fortunate in an altercation, let us not forget that, when bystanders try to help, they can and have been injured or killed in their heroic efforts.

    The aforementioned white ribbon campaign (which my BC Lions endorse) tells men: “Don’t walk on by if you witness harassment or assault on the street or anywhere: assess the risk, then intervene and confront or diffuse the situation. If you need to, ask for help. Call 911.”

    It turns out that not all men are experts in dealing with violence: many men don’t have the training to accurately assess risk, nor the skills to diffuse a situation; moreover, my BC Lions may be surprised to learn that not all male people are elite athletes possessing the physical aptitude that might make a confrontation with a potentially violent criminal a safe activity.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate those who do put themselves at risk for the sake of a stranger, but we ought to be careful to differentiate such moral heroism from obligation.

    (Often I hear stories where a man has attempted to assault a women, and male bystanders have intervened; they are rarely celebrated for such actions, but instead are treated as people simply doing their duty.)

    In contrast, note how we treat female victims who are, in a sense, bystanders of future crime by the same assailants. (We know that most violent attackers victimize more than one person, so when victims don’t tell the police what has happened, they are leaving future victims to fend for themselves.) In the Jian Ghomeshi case, women who say they waited many years to come forward with accusations against the former talk radio superstar were described as “courageous” by many observers. It is a strange label for a group who (assuming they are telling the truth) did nothing for a decade to help possible ongoing victims.

    One such belated accuser, who was interviewed on CBC’s As it Happens, said she didn’t present her case initially because she’d seen an alleged victim of a different crime severely criticized on the internet, and she said, “That would have happened to me.” However, she explained, she was now presenting her case because she was angry that current alleged Ghomeshi victims were asked why they waited so long to make their accusations.

    If she’s telling the truth, then on her own testimony, she’s a significantly selfish person (especially if we use bystander expectation theory to asses her). She refused to help other potential victims because she didn’t want to be criticized (that is, she valued (A) her own reticence to receive a negative reaction from trolls on the internet, over (B) other women’s physical safety); and then, she only decided to testify because she was offended by a politically incorrect question—not because she wanted to help the alleged victims, nor to bring justice to the alleged assailant so that he couldn’t hurt anyone else, but because she was affronted by someone asking a simple “Why?” question.

    And note that As It Happens host, Carol Off, did not venture a single hard question towards this self-centred approach to justice. I don’t mean to demonize the alleged victim in this case. Lots of people are as self-interested as she appears to be, but we clearly have a double moral standard where alleged female victims are treated as heroes even when they testify so late in the timeline that their alleged evidence is corrupted beyond usefulness, while we treat men who risk their safety to intervene as simply doing their duty.

    Why don’t we ask everyone to at least do the morally right thing, and if they’re up for it, the morally exemplary thing? That is, if you’re a bystander, then it would be morally right to help as much as you can without putting yourself in danger; and if you are willing to risk your safety to help someone else, that would be morally great of you. Similarly, if you’re a victim, it would be morally right to come forward, unless such help would put you in danger, in which case testifying would become morally wonderful of you.

    Admittedly, where we draw the line as to what constitutes danger, or at least harm, in coming forward may be tricky: a female victim—who has been taught by feminists that all female victims will be re-victimized by the justice system—may sincerely believe that her life will automatically be ruined if she testifies. So I do not mean to suggest that all silent victims are morally culpable, but we need our media investigators to start considering the possibility that in certain cases even a victim might be morally troubled if they don’t try in any way to help future victims.

    I don’t know how daunting it is for female victims of violence to come forward. We know, from feminists’ previous work in propaganda, that feminist victims’ advocates cannot be trusted to draw an accurate picture of police/victim relations; after all, it is an intrinsic aspect of their ideology and best interests (for future funding) to always tell the most bleak tale they can.

    From feminists we only have their often anecdotal assurance that female victims of crime are “up against it” when they go through the police and justice system. No member of the Canadian media that I’ve heard has ever challenged the assertion, not just that police abuse victims sometimes, but that every female victim will suffer any time she pursues justice. And, as this wild fire accusation against our police and legal system has spread, it has become an unassailable fact as opposed to a shocking indictment that demands an impartial investigation.

    Nevertheless, even if, as I suspect, modern police mistreatment of female victims has been greatly exaggerated, this does not mean that some female victims have not been traumatized by police and/or the justice system; moreover, given that feminists so constantly and dogmatically tell victims (via the media) that going through the process is “as bad as” suffering the violent crime itself, it is understandable that some women, persuaded by these terrifying claims of ubiquitous police misogyny, are tempted to leave justice to fate.

    Thus, I think it’s time to resist this unwavering narrative that the justice system hates women, and in turn, the corollary notion that that we ought not to expect any help from victims, especially female victims, in our pursuit of violent criminals.

    Recently, on a metro Vancouver Skytrain, a man allegedly groped a woman. A second woman says she checked on the alleged victim to see if she was okay, but didn’t receive a reply. So the bystander took a picture of the alleged assailant, and reported the alleged crime to the police. The police were then able to apprehend the alleged assaulter, who apparently they had met before, which seemed to give credence to the bystander’s claim. The police, however, were not able to find the alleged victim, and so, given they needed her corroborating testimony to charge the suspect with a crime, they have gently but publicly asked her to come forward (letting her know she will be treated respectfully).

    This seems to me to be a case in which, if the incident happened as the bystander describes, she should be considered to be someone who was morally heroic, because she tried to directly help at the time of the alleged crime (putting herself at risk), while the alleged victim seems morally wrong for not coming forward to help future potential victims. Nevertheless, the bystander has been treated by the media as a neutral character in this story, whereas the police have been condemned by victims’ rights groups for expecting a victim to speak up.

    “It’s her choice whether she wants to come forward,” is the common feminist mantra. “She has the right not to speak up if she doesn’t want to.”

    Again, yes, of course, she has the right not to defend future victims, but that doesn’t make it morally right to be unwilling to help. One feminist victims’ advocate explained again that women have many obstacles to overcome in the justice system, and so it is wrong to pressure any woman to talk to the police. And so once again the feminist advocates are encouraging victims not to help each other, and instead to demand that police and bystanders do more. In this case, if the crime happened, the victim would have had an ally, via the bystander’s testimony, that would surely have made a persuasive case for the justice system to seriously consider. So does she really have any moral justification not to help the police put away this alleged bad guy? Is the risk to her anywhere near the level of good she could do for society if she were to stand up?

    Perhaps, as I’m sure many feminists would say, I just “don’t get it.” Maybe female victims suffer in the justice system as consistently and terribly as feminist advocates insist. But how can we know that if our media continue to shirk their responsibility to investigate such a claim? At present, most Western media simply do not ask feminist advocates critical questions; on the contrary, instead of recognizing that such feminists are devotees of a particular ideology (that, like any other, is fallible), they treat such biased sources as scientific experts whose startling statements need no skepticism.

    Yet, if my suspicion of feminist exaggeration has any veracity, these so-called victims’ advocates are protecting assailants as much as they are their victims. By scaring victims into thinking that Western society and the justice system is out to get them, they encourage victims not to stand up for other victims. Who’s the bystander now?

  • In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde claims, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” I’m not sure if everyone quoted below would agree with Mr. Wilde.

    Two film critics, Frances Ryan of The Guardian and Scott Jordan Harris of Slate have recently scourged the propensity, illustrated by the award winning film, The Theory of Everything, of able-bodied actors portraying disabled people in film. While both critics acknowledge that, in this particular case, the casting of able-bodied Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking may have been a logistical necessity (since the story covers Hawking’s life both before and after ALS disrupted his mobility), the two intrepid accusers nevertheless contend that the film represents a collage of Hollywood injustices against disabled people.

    Slate Article

    Guardian Article

    I think it is a worthwhile discussion and I do empathize with how daunting it must be for disabled actors to find work. Nevertheless, while both critics’ arguments are provocative and useful starting points for this moral discussion, their accusatory presentations seem to ignore the muddiness of these moral waters.

    I’ve thus broken down their arguments into five categories to try to distinguish their philosophical baggage from their more interesting cases for change.


    (1) Portrayals of disabled people on screen by able-bodied people cost disabled actors roles.


    “Like many other disabled people,” Harris says, “I have often argued that disabled characters should, wherever possible, be played by disabled actors. When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field.”

    I think this is a legitimate concern (although, I wouldn’t use the harsh metaphor of “robbery,” which suggests that such roles are intrinsically the rightful property of disabled actors). Logistically, disabled people cannot currently play able-bodied people in live-action films. Thus, if they’re going to work in the industry, they must be able to get some of the roles depicting disabled people. And, since such opportunities may exist at a lower per-capita rate, such performers, already generally besot by disadvantages in life, have extra trouble finding work, too.

    This is unfortunate, and so it seems reasonable to me that, as Harris suggests, all other relevant things being equal (or close to), directors should cast disabled people in the roles of disabled people.

    The trouble is that all other relevant things are often not equal. For instances:

    (A) Most roles about people with disabilities involve a spectrum between having the disability and not. Such a role, then, can only be played by an actor who can take on the full range of movements covered in the character’s story. As acknowledged by our bold writers, The Theory of Everything is such a film, and so they admit that it may be forgiven on that basis.

    (B) Sometimes the best available actor for the part does not have the disability that is being portrayed. All people, after all, have multiple dimensions to them, including their physical, intellectual, and emotional states. While a person with a disability may on the surface look the most like the person to be portrayed, they may not on a deeper level possess the desired connection to the character. To pigeonhole disabled characters by limiting those playing them to be equally disabled actors is to suggest that disabled people are essentially disabled, when that is, in fact, just one of many facets of their identity.

    One of my sisters puts this point more eloquently. “’Disability,’” she says, “is not a binary state; there are all sorts of points on the spectrum.  And a happy and well-adjusted [person living in a wheelchair] might not have access to specific feelings… that a standard issue person who’s struggled with depression has, that might be required in certain roles.”

    In my viewing experience, the greatest actor I’ve ever seen is Daniel Day-Lewis. If I were a director of any movie about anything, and Mr. Day-Lewis were available, I would cast him in the lead role, whether it were a disabled man, a four-legged robot, or a two-year old learning to talk. While it may be the case that actors win awards more often than chance when they transform their physical dimensions, they can usually only successfully do so if they are also able to transform their emotional dimension to the point that we believe they are a different person (not just a different mobility level). Nobody, in my opinion, does that better than Daniel Day-Lewis, and so to not cast him for a role just because he lacks certain physical characteristics would be an affront to the art of filmmaking.

    (C) Sometimes the disability in question can impede the person’s ability to portray someone else.

    Ryan highlighted the casting of non-autistic actor, Dustin Hoffman, to play the role of an autistic person in Rain Man. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Wikipedia, but does not autism generally impede one’s emotional ability to relate to the outside world? Thus, unless we think all autistic people are the same, it might be challenging for most autistic people to emotionally connect with and insightfully portray a different autistic person.

    Meanwhile, a person with a physical disability that is different from the person whom they are playing may struggle – by virtue of their own particular mobility issues – with capturing those of someone else.

    (D) Sometimes, the disability is so specific that there are few people with a severe disability who could conceivably play the role.

    Both critics referenced My Left Foot, the film in which Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed a man with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot, and yet did so with artistic dexterity. How many actors with a significant disability, I wonder, would have had the unique combination of ability and disability available to convincingly render that particular set of traits?

    (E) Audiences are less likely to see a movie that does not star a well-known actor.

    Unfortunately, in the case of the film industry, as Ryan acknowledges, the ability of actors to draw a crowd does seem to be a vital part of their work. Without predictably large audiences, most production companies won’t invest in projects, and so the promise of a previously-approved actor is more likely to satisfy their bottom-line requirements. This further compounds the problem for disabled actors. Without those first roles, they cannot build their stock in audiences’ familiarity-craving minds, so they don’t get a chance to get easier access to second roles. Most actors attempt to circumvent this problem by making big first impressions in smaller roles, but since there are also relatively few small roles available for disabled actors, they are once again stuck in a doubly daunting position.

    Nevertheless, in spite of the clear disadvantage here for disabled actors, there isn’t an obvious solution to it. Requiring directors to always impose a disability symmetry between actors and roles would surely—by the capitalistic nature of film-making—result in fewer movies being made about people with disabilities.

    (2) We wouldn’t accept black people being portrayed by white people, so we should similarly restrict able-bodied people from portraying disabled people.

    “While ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage,” Ryan says, “‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry. They do it for the entertainment of crowds who, by and large, are part of the majority group.”

    This is a powerful and worrying argument. Expecting acting outfits to limit their roles to actors of similar physical characteristics would be practically and artistically daunting if applied to all cases. Our conventional moral wisdom has made an exception that doesn’t allow white people to portray black people because of the expired but embarrassing theatrical tradition of “blackface,” in which white and sometimes black actors wore black make up and portrayed black people as a cartoonish collection of stereotypes. Without that ugly past, restricting people from one race from portraying another is as arbitrary as restricting a young person from portraying an old person, or a person with or without glasses from taking on the opposite. In a perfect world without racism, race is as meaningless as shoe size. However, because of theatre history’s treatment of black people like puppets in vaudeville shows, blackface has understandably become synonymous, in most people’s minds, with racism. But this hard-earned convention of artistic restriction can have unfortunate consequences, too; consider how high school drama departments must feel limited only to the stories and casting decisions that happen to match the skin colours of their performers. This may mean that they don’t put on a play about Nelson Mandela because they don’t have someone of the right race to play the lead. Such troubling artistic restrictions ought not to be seen as intrinsically righteous such that they are automatically justified in all situations where a minority group has suffered.

    While noting the similarity between race and disability is understandable, we must also consider the differences before consenting to the additional artistic restriction that Ryan suggests. In the film world, now that blackface has been relegated to its uncomfortable place in infamy, and many black actors have found their way to prominence, it is hard to imagine any professional director having difficulty casting the part of any black character. There will never be an issue with discovering an actor who can play all physical states in a character’s trajectory. Moreover, unlike mobility, age, and even gender, race effectively never fluctuates between states. Thus the consequence of restricting white people from portraying black people in film and professional theatre is essentially just a philosophical injunction, which rarely (I assume) has practical artistic repercussions. However, applying the same restrictions to disability would likely have serious consequences in terms of the frequency of stories told about people with disabilities.


    (3) Able-bodied performances of disabled people cost the latter the right to portray themselves on screen.

    Ryan argues, “When it comes to race, we believe it is wrong for the story of someone from a minority to be depicted by a member of the dominant group for mass entertainment. But we don’t grant disabled people the same right to self-representation.”

    That is a dangerous justification for restricting art. Condemning “blackface” is not, or should not be, about self representation; it is, or should be, about attempting to undermine a specific historical insult. That is all. Limiting roles to people with equivalent backgrounds for its own sake is a scary idea. No one has the right to require performers, writers, and directors to have lived similar lives, and/or come from an equal demographic, to those whom they portray. Artistic freedom would certainly be damned if that were a legitimate demand.

    “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors…” adds Harris, “the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation onscreen. Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people. That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.”

    I find this to be a disturbing essentialist argument. Again, no group has an intrinsic right to a role simply because they match up in one particular characteristic. Stephen Hawking is not only a man suffering with ALS, he is also somewhat of a smart guy, heterosexual, and lacking in perfect vision. So must the person who portrays him also be a mathematical genius who likes ladies, but can’t read his own theories without glasses?

    Of course not. Hawking is not the property of any of those groups. He is a collaboration of many characteristics, and should be portrayed by the person who can capture, without necessarily possessing, the widest variety of them at the same time.

    (4) Portrayals of disabled people by the able bodied are inauthentic because they are just impersonations.

    Contends Harris, “The ultimate ambition of David Oyelowo’s performance [in Selma] as Martin Luther King, Jr. is to express the reality of black life and black history in a way that resonates with those within the black community and educates those outside it. The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!’ Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.”

    I wonder if Harris has any evidence for his claims regarding Selma’s (racially divided) pedagogical intentions. Setting that strange contention aside, I can understand how a disabled person might feel annoyed by someone acting in the way that they have to suffer. Nevertheless, I think the argument to restrict performances for that reason is insufficient because, in the end, all acting is “mimicry.” During the Harris-approved portrayal of Martin Luther King, Oyelowo is impersonating King’s then state of mind, circumstances, clothing, hair style, mannerisms, and voice. Moreover, returning us to the other side of the analogy, even if a disabled person had played Hawking, the chance that such a person would be someone also tortured by ALS at the same rare rate of progression is remote, so they too would have had to mimic the physicist’s movements at some point in the film.

    All acting performances are mostly make-believe. I cannot imagine any coherent line between acceptable simulation and mimicry.

    (5) The direction and writing of stories about disabled people are inauthentic unless done by disabled people.

    “Even if we accept,” Harris explains, “that Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors. DuVernay’s egregiously under-nominated Selma, burns with authenticity about black experiences because it was made by members of the black community, not by members of the community that has historically oppressed them. In contrast, The Theory of Everything flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled.”

    Evidence is required for these inflammatory claims. For instance, who says The Theory of Everything purports to speak for disabled people? Maybe it wanted to speak for physicists, or, more likely, for no one, and just wanted to tell a good story. More importantly, though, if it’s the case that disabled people are usually better at directing stories about disabled people than their able-bodied cousins, then—artistically speaking—disabled people ought to indeed get the jobs more often on the basis on their superior merits. But we should never force such a generalization into all cases.

    The best antidote for bad story telling is not to criticize the physical characteristics of the storytellers, but instead to criticize their work. If such complaints about failed authenticity are legitimate, then perhaps The Theory of Everything is unworthy of its many award nominations. As a movie critic, Harris ought to point out what aspects of the film rang shallow (a single example of a false truism obvious to disabled people would be helpful). Thus, the next producers of a film about a disabled person may feel more obligated to get it right, and so perhaps would find themselves hiring a disabled director who seemed to have a better understanding of the issues he or she was intended to illuminate.

    However, to claim a lack of authenticity just by definition of the particular physical characteristics of the people involved is not only bigoted, but will again provoke the natural consequence of reducing the number of stories told about disabled people. Consider the case where an influential and successful able bodied writer or director is contemplating their next project: if, by Harris’s essentialist philosophy, he or she is barred from creating stories about disabled people—sorry, Herman Melville, Captain Ahab is off limits to you!—then surely we’ll have even fewer roles available for disabled actors. (Moreover, such a result may put pressure on disabled writers and directors to only tell stories about disabled people—since no one else is allowed to—even though some filmmakers with disabilities may want to tell other stories, too.)

    In conclusion, I refer us all again to the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Oscar Wilde claims: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Once again, I’m not sure if everyone quoted above would agree with Mr. Wilde.

  • SETHICS 11.12.2014 9 Comments

    Today, I sent the following open letter to a large collection of Canadian media operators. My hope is that it might persuade a journalist or two to investigate this sad story further.
    _________________

    Dear First Nations Leaders, First Nations Media, and Canadian Media:

    As you know, Judge Edward’s decision a month ago to allow the mother of an 11-year-old girl to stop her from getting Western medical care so that she can instead receive traditional First Nations treatment was celebrated by some as a vital assertion of First Nations’ rights. Maybe, but it’s also a devastating decision for a little girl who will most likely give up her life for the rights of her parents.

    The right of the ancestors of colonized people to retain their own customs and laws is hard to argue; however, those freedoms are not morally absolute. No one has the right to put their children in mortal danger for the so-called purpose of staying true to their culture.

    Preserving heritage connects us with each other and with our past, but, as our scientific understanding of the world has advanced, we have discovered that certain historical practices were not good for us. More to the point, traditional First Nations medicine has been proven to be less able to combat leukemia than Western medicine. I don’t doubt the sincerity of a parent who says she is doing what she believes is best for her daughter’s health. But, the fact is, she’s wrong, and, for the sake of the little girl, somebody must tell her so. Given that Judge Edward has announced that the Canadian legal system won’t pressure this mother to protect her daughter, the task falls to First Nations leaders, and the media.

    If the court is right that Canada cannot tell this woman she must help her daughter, that does not give her immunity from societal pressure. First Nations leaders have an obligation to protect their people from this misguided over-reaching application of what it means to be true to one’s culture. Please tell this mother that she can still be a true citizen of her First Nation while allowing the medical achievements of her global community to save her daughter’s life. Helping a First Nations child using Western medicine is not subverting her culture; instead, it is giving this little girl a chance to grow up to be a First Nations woman who, if she chooses, can celebrate the best of her heritage. If she dies, she will not be able to do so.

    Meanwhile, the Canadian media is supposed to be a watchdog for all of us against injustice. And yet, few journalists have asked tough questions, and dug into this story (Terry Glavin of the Ottawa Citizen is a rare exception http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/glavin-junk-law-in-aid-of-junk-science-is-not-what-aboriginal-rights-are-about). If this were a non-aboriginal girl whose life was about to be sacrificed for the sake of outdated medical practices, the media would surely pounce on the story with anger, or at least passion. Why is this little girl’s life any different? Racism? Maybe, but I suspect instead that the Canadian media is afraid that questioning this mother’s decision would be seen as a paternalistic attack on First Nations. It is an understandable fear, but when it is at the expense of an innocent child’s life, allowing such anxiety to muzzle one’s journalistic obligations is a moral failure. Sometimes, to be worthy of the name, journalists must ask unpopular questions. Please investigate this story before it’s too late.

    Sincerely,
    Seth McDonough
    _________________

    UPDATE: Since sending the above letter and posting the adjoining blog yesterday, a National Post article by former managing editor Jonathan Kay has been sent to me by a friend. Mr. Kay is, I think, hard-lined, but courageous as he states, “Canadian adults should be free to indulge their fringe medical beliefs — and to die for them, too. But they should not be free to take a Canadian child down with them in the process. One hopes that Justice Edward comes to this conclusion before it is too late.”

    Hear, hear! I am delighted to see another counterexample to my criticism of Canadian media’s fear of a PC reckoning. It is evidence that the Canadian media is not always as mute on such important subjects as I have suggested, but also that, when they are, they will not always be exiled from the public conversation (Mr. Kay is now the editor-in-chief at The Walrus). Nevertheless, such counter-cultural-relativistic articles are still in the minority, and the court’s decision in favour of First Nations parental rights over a First Nations child’s right to life has not been nearly as controversial as it should have been. So I maintain my plea to the Canadian media to revive their interest in the life of this child before her time runs out.

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