What Sam James and I have in common

Emotions ran high in Toronto last night when news broke that police had charged popular coffee shop proprietor Sam James with mischief and assault following a confrontation with anti-choice protesters outside a high school near his shop. Sam, who has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights in the past, allegedly threw coffee on the group’s signs, spat at one protester, and assaulted another when he realized he was being videotaped.

The nature and severity of the assault has not yet been disclosed. The Canadian Criminal Code’s definition of assault is fairly broad, and while it covers the application of force, it also covers instances when a person “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person.” This type of assault could manifest in raising one’s fist or perhaps in what is commonly referred to as “getting in someone’s face.” One can’t really speculate on the nature of the alleged assault, but as there is video evidence of the confrontation, I expect the truth will come out eventually.

It’d be tough for me to abide Sam James punching someone (if that turns out to be what happened), as I’m not a fan of violence. But regardless of the nature of the alleged assault, I unapologetically appreciate the sentiment behind it: visceral anger about a social movement attempting to enact systemic violence upon women’s bodies. Last night I expressed this appreciation on Twitter, much to the chagrin of some of my (almost entirely male) friends. These friends suggested that appreciation of the sentiment was logically inseparable from support for the allegedly violent action. I vehemently disagree on this point. The feeling and the action are two different things, and I’m allowed to feel differently about each.

Here’s the thing: abortion is an issue about which many women feel strongly on not just a moral but a visceral level. The anti-choice movement is a literal attempt to violate and control women’s bodies. Look south of the border at mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds, at laws that limit a woman’s personhood in favour of that of a potential child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. Or just look to Prince Edward Island where the province’s practitioners are not permitted to perform surgical abortions, forcing women who seek them to travel out-of-province. Such policies disproportionately infringe on the bodily autonomy of certain groups of women, including undocumented women and low-income women.

And while many of my (again, almost entirely male) friends are fond of condescendingly proclaiming that women have no reason to worry about it, backbencher after backbencher in our majority Conservative federal government keeps raising the foetal personhood issue. No matter that a full third of the House of Commons voted in favour of M-312. No matter that a terrifying wave of anti-choice policies have been written into law in the United States, a nation our current government seems determined to emulate.

It is in this political climate that the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform has been mounting protests with gruesome imagery outside Canadian high schools and offering “pro-life” lesson plans to high school teachers. Talk about low-hanging fruit. Make no mistake: this is systemic violence, and it is to this systemic violence that Sam James may have responded with an individual act of violence, the severity of which we don’t yet know.

Few cis men seem to understand and feel the abortion issue in a visceral way, even if they are pro-choice. As a pro-choice woman, I feel a physical twinge that’s probably like a much morally weightier version of what a cis dude might feel when he hears about another dude getting kicked in the balls. What I appreciate about Sam’s sentiment is that it was visceral. It burst out of him. It’s an anger with which I’m familiar through my own encounters with anti-choice groups (and I’ve never encountered one outside a high school).

It’s an anger I must constantly regulate, not only for moral reasons, but because I am in very real physical danger. Those who identify as women, or have done so in the past, typically have to regulate the viscerality of their anger in ways most men don’t. We may have laws against physical violence, but our culture sure does have an intricately woven patchwork of cultural cues that encourage men (and not women) to express their anger through physical violence.

I may not support an act of violence itself, but I am deeply comforted by the fact that a cis guy whose own bodily autonomy is not directly impacted by the anti-choice movement feels the same instinctive anger that I feel when I see such a group preying on high school students. A lot of women tweeted or DM’d me last night to say that, at some point in their lives, they had fantasized about doing exactly what Sam did. That doesn’t mean these women or I condone the action (after all, we haven’t followed through on those fantasies), but it does suggest a parallel to our feelings about the issue. For me, that parallel is heartening.

11 thoughts on “What Sam James and I have in common

    1. Melissa, I appreciate your kind words, and your blog post is really well-written and argued! That issue was really distorted in media reports though, and many women are worrying over what is actually a new set of international health guidelines based on new research findings. I put together a Storify of my sexual health nurse pal’s tweets about the new pap test regulations, which clear up some of that misinformation. http://storify.com/amirightfolks/misinformation-re-new-pap-test-rules (I know you already saw this on Twitter, Melissa, but am posting it here for those who might read the comments.)

  1. I applaud anyone who wishes to vehemently argue on behalf of a woman’s right to an abortion. I’m pro-choice too! There is no shortage of hot button issues that can stir one into a rage when met with a strong differing opinion, but the moment we use our rage as an excuse to muzzle or physically intimidate someone else whose views may differ, we’re slapping democracy in the face. Let us not forget democracy even when we believe the other side has.

    Free speech just doesn’t cover the speech we agree with it. It cuts both ways and if someone wants to stand on street corner with an anti-abortion placard in their hand, let them. Debate them, but don’t assault them!

  2. “I feel a physical twinge that’s probably like a much morally weightier version of what a cis dude might feel when he hears about another dude getting kicked in the balls.”
    I read thus aloud to my boyfriend because I think this is the very best way to begin to understand the urgency of the problem.
    Thanks for writing this.

  3. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that there’s been very little discussion of the woman’s involvement. Maybe she’s glad not to be getting as much publicity as Sam is (I won’t mention her name, in case that’s true). She’s been charged with mischief, whatever that means. I think it’s important to acknowledge that both a man and a woman opposed the anti-abortion picket. I respect them both for doing so. And I’m concerned that focusing only on the man, and calling him either a hero or a thug (your blog post doesn’t do this, but I’ve seen such comments online) reinforces unfortunate stereotypes.

  4. Thanks for writing about this, Steph. As I watched the incident blow-up on Twitter I took a “Listen” approach, and tried to think about the reactions I was seeing. Your post captured the conflicting feelings I’m having on this incident – I get why Sam did it, and part of me goes “Hell yeah!’ – a large part. But the other part feels that it plays into the anti-choicers’ antagonistic approach and gives them an excuse to retaliate. I think “well, maybe there’s a rational way to deal with them”, then I realize I’m trying to apply rational thought to a group that think it’s right to protest abortion outside a public high school with graphic imagery. I have an emotional reaction to things that are repugnant and despicable on a human level. I’m angry.

    I was wondering about this gap in male support / outspoken activism on abortion. Speaking in generalities based on last night, it seemed a lot of the men speaking out came at this incident from the free speech angle, while women came at it from a pro-choice angle. Maybe the gap is that whatever men are contributing to the abortion debate, either side, is going to ultimately be abstract. To paraphrase from http://www.shakesville.com/2011/02/feminism-101-helpful-hints-for-dudes.html, men aren’t objective on women’s issues because we’re not women. That visceral anger? I empathize with it. I get it. As you said, you are in real danger. Unfortunately, there’s that male privilege of objectivity, of having the ability stepping back because it’s not our bodies on the line. I think it’s where the “I support Sam, but…” reactions come from. But more people should be angrier and louder that anti-choicers use these tactics, that abortion rights are something still being argued.

    So, if we acknowledge that, what’s the next step?

    I mean that genuinely – I’m asking how men can be more helpful/supportive moving forward, because these are dangerous times for abortion rights. I don’t have any academic background on feminism; I’m new to learning about privilege and being vocal about issues that hurt us as a society. I’m trying to pay better attention to this world and the things that affect us all, ultimately. And it makes me angry that abortion rights are something that are, frankly, precarious after all these years and there is cause to worry, based on legislation here and in the US. So where I can, I’ll speak up as best I can. I’ll do it loudly.

    Anyway, that went on a bit longer than I intended and may have been a bit all over, but your post gave me a lot to think about. So, thank you. ~ J

    1. Thanks for reflecting, Jason. I’m very glad to know many men who are vocal about women’s right to choose. When you ask about what’s missing, really we’re talking about that visceral anger, which isn’t necessarily a *good* thing in an objective sense, but may help some men, who (as you say) typically aren’t capable of feeling the issue as a woman might, relate to women on an important issue. It’s kind of like how I wouldn’t necessarily want a man to know what it’s like to constantly have to watch your drink at a bar, but in a way I wish they could feel it just for a minute, because it might open their eyes. It might also lead them to do something like assault an anti-choice protester – this visceral feeling can cut both ways. I guess I don’t really have an answer for you unfortunately, but you’ve given me lots to think about!

  5. I’ve felt conflicted on this – for the record I am a male, so understand that I do not understand every facet of what it feels like to have one’s body controlled by “laws”. I know the piece commends the sentiment and not the action as well (that’s quite clear). I am also pro-woman, and pro-human. I think people should have the choice to decide what is done with and to their bodies while alive and when dead. I think the discussion on when a fetus becomes a human is an important one as is the education on choices for unwanted pregnancies, whatever the cause.

    But I think it’s a DISCUSSION that is important, and when things like this happen the discussion unfortunately turns to whether pro-choice or pro-lifers are crazy, who’s crazier? who’s a vigilante? is it right? who’s side are you on? etc… it does nothing to further the discussion on the issues whatsoever. I also readily admit that I’ve felt like telling pro-lifers to “fuck off” (maybe I even have). But the sentiment needs, I stress NEEDS to be communicated better than this, and needs better people at the forefront of the cause. Albeit Sam is a nice guy when I’ve encountered him, he’s also handsome and charming as well as a media darling. He has a celebrity that affords him certain luxuries many do not – ones that he could easily use to get his viewpoints out into the public forum. He’s done so in the past, and that has been evidenced at least a few times now (not every incident has been in newspapers) but living on Harbord, I have been privy to his outspoken nature. I appreciated it when he spoke out against what was going on with ICI, I appreciated his stance on the bike lane and his handling of a couple customers who disagreed with him on that. He talked to them about his viewpoints. He used words and it was fantastic.

    I don’t see this as an act of morality though, I don’t see it as Sam supporting women’s rights – because no one would support women’s or human rights by assaulting someone else. The action in this case just waters down any message that Sam might have been (and I seriously doubt he was) trying to make. It’s simply someone acting on an impulse without thinking of the consequences for both sides. And the way I see it, women do not need someone (man or woman) walking around spitting on people on their behalf, and it’s somewhat insulting to think that after all the (not enough) progress that has been made for women’s rights over the years without the use of violence, that we’d need or condone it now. Even if that acceptance–like this blog post, for instance–is rife with “I don’t condone the action” caveats, it still communicates acceptance of violence in a very eloquent and peaceful manner (go figure?).

    Though I’m not sold that his anger comes from even remotely the same place or is at all even anger at the same issue. I think it comes from a sense of entitlement and ego and being a self-appointed “Mayor of Harbord”. The simple fact that he felt okay with infringing on someone else’s rights physically is in complete and total opposition to the message that people are trying to attach to what he did. Sam will probably spend more time and money on this doing damage control, consulting with lawyers, giving his loyal customers hi-fives, and court dates than he would have just standing along side these people with a megaphone denouncing their stupidity. I guess the alternatives take forethought and consideration though, two things that clearly didn’t take place inside his head before this all “burst out of him”.

    Thank you for writing this piece though, I agree with you in many many ways.

  6. I honestly don’t see where you are coming from… haven’t you read actual scientific studies, that is SCIENTIFIC STUDIES the larges study came out in Europe and it revealed that most women regret abortion and suffer horrible life long consequences of abortion why would you support it if you are a true feminist? true feminist protect women even in the womb cheers

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