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.

The future prospects of investigative journalism

Last night, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the fruits of an explosive, multi-year worldwide investigation into offshore tax havens. It’s not the first such investigation of theirs, and shows just what can happen when outlets collaborate to dissect matters of public interest.

Journalists from a variety of countries and outlets (including Canada’s own CBC/Radio-Canada) sifted through 2.5 million leaked documents to expose the wealthy people who stash their earnings in covert companies and trusts in places like the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. Many of these people are politically connected, like class-action attorney Tony Merchant, whose wife is Canadian Senator Pana Merchant.

This kind of investigation is likely the reason many young journalists go into the business – the promise of serving as an important check/balance on an increasingly unchecked oligarchy of corporate wealth and political corruption. But it’s also the kind of investigation that is less and less common these days. Not only are such projects expensive, they require long-term commitment (and by extension, long-term employees). We’re talking hours upon hours upon hours of paid labour that, for a long time, does not yield content to populate a homepage. It’s an investment in which many publications and outlets seem to have dwindling (if any) interest.

Not to get all York University grad student here, but let’s not forget that many of the media’s powerful people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of wealth distribution. It’s worth noting that the only Canadian outlet ICIJ listed as a participant in the investigation is a public broadcaster. What is the best way to ensure this type of work gets funded and produced?

British investigative journalist David Leigh has a few ideas, including a small monthly levy on broadband connections, and collaboration among outlets in the style we saw with the ICIJ investigation. The former is likely to draw considerable ire from people who read the news (much as paywalls have done and perhaps moreso). The latter has worked well in some cases but still requires outlets that have an interest in investing, to some extent or another, in stories with long-term payoff. Other possibilities include crowd-funded stories and investigations sponsored by non-profit or educational organizations.

Where do you go for good investigative journalism? What are your thoughts and feelings on the options above? What other ideas have you come across? Tell me in the comments or better yet, discuss it with industry peers at the MediaTech Commons, a private community for digital media workers to vent, plot, and share their experiences.

The false solidarity of progressive communities

CantWeAllJustGetAlongI’ve been thinking a lot lately about progressive communities, and how they handle criticism of their within-group power dynamics. Maybe it’d be more appropriate to say “groups that consider their collective cause or objective to be a progressive one.” Groups that see themselves as challenging the mainstream or status quo.

Some such communities that come to mind are atheists and skeptics, anarchists, and the free-speech libertarians that populate many corners of the Internet. So central to these groups’ collective identities is the sense of being an underdog in the David & Goliath tradition, whose skill and intellectual superiority will ultimately lead to triumph for themselves and for the greater good. Their own identity is held up in contrast with an unenlightened, perhaps even brutish or primitive status quo or cultural mainstream.

As in most social realms in the western world, white men in these communities tend to have the most power and loudest voices. And, like in most western communities, women and people of colour are rarely treated without skepticism, aggression and hostility when they point this out. But I find there’s something unique (and uniquely frustrating) about challenging sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of bigotry in self-identified progressive communities.

Not only do challengers face the same vitriol, insults and threats of violence they would in any community (sigh), but also other, more insidious manifestations of resistance. Perhaps because these communities valourize rational argument (not a bad thing on its face), dissenters within the ranks must present scientific, peer-reviewed evidence that verifies their lived experiences. When the example of bigotry or power imbalance is too glaring for community members to ignore, challengers face accusations of “derailing” the community from their “core objectives” – as if any group claiming to pursue the greater good can do so while alienating marginalized groups.

There’s this sentiment of “we’re on the same side here, let’s tackle the real problems.” But who gets to define what our collective “side” is, and what problems we aim to tackle? While solidarity is important, dismissing or resisting community members’ good-faith concerns about inclusivity is pretty antithetical to solidarity.

It may be that the notion of not just moral but intellectual rightness as a core element of group identity serves as a barrier to progressive communities’ acceptance of the ways in which they still need to progress. It may be that the closer groups are to one another on the ideological spectrum, the more fraught these challenges become (I think I read something about that in first-year psych). It may be that I just feel more disappointed when my challenges are rebuffed by a group that I do feel should be “on my side” about representation and treatment of marginalized groups. (Personally, the stakes in my disagreements always seem higher when I feel I actually stand a chance of changing the person’s mind or broadening their perspective.) It may be all of these things, it may be none of them. I’m just thinking out loud here.

Have you noticed the same phenomenon or wondered about any of the same things? Are my musings totally off-base? Tell me in the comments!

Building ourselves a future in digital media

As a news junkie whose smartphone sometimes requires surgical removal from her hand, I have a vested interest in a thriving environment for the creation and dissemination of digital media. That includes the journalists and editors who produce news, the designers and coders who develop apps, the people who engineer hardware, the community managers who spread the word, and much more.

For our Canadian content and technologies to thrive, we need an industry that attracts and keeps not only “the best” people, but an incredible variety of people. Diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones, so we all benefit from ensuring the diversity of communities that produce and distribute digital media. I’m talking diversity in the broadest sense, here, including things like gender, race and socioeconomic class.

The casualization of working conditions (i.e. an increasing reliance on contractors and particularly interns) threatens the potential for a diverse industry. Many careers in digital media require a high-risk “investment” on the front-end for workers – slugging it out in a no-pay or low-pay job whose opportunities for advancement are rapidly dwindling. Only a small slice of the population can afford that risk.

As the handful of major media companies in Canada lay off hundreds of workers, how many of those full-time internal roles will be partially replaced by a combination of contract work and unpaid interns? How many will not be replaced at all, shrinking the number of decent-paying and often unionized jobs in the sector? And what kind of leverage do independent contractors and interns have to respond to this shifting climate in any way other than to look out for Number One?

When the Canadian Media Guild approached me about creating a walled online community for digital media workers, it was an easy sell. This kind of platform can serve as a useful complement to more formal efforts to organize Canadian digital media workers. It can connect us with people, organizations and initiatives that share our goals and value our skills and knowledge. Just as importantly, it is a place to share experiences with others in our field without fear of being watched by our bosses, as on a Twitter account or Facebook post.

The MediaTech Commons is designed to help us share information and build the connections and confidence to demand better, both in negotiations with our bosses and in our careers writ large.

You can join me at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here, and you can learn more about it here. In French it’s called l’Espace MédiaTech and there’s more info for francophones here.

What should we call… Men’s Rights Advocates?

The term “Men’s Rights Advocate” and its shorthand, MRA, loom large in many feminist circles. The term is far less familiar to the general population and on its face, the connotations of “Men’s Rights Advocate” seem positive and wholly defensible. After all, patriarchy may bestow privilege upon men and boys (duh) but it also foists on them a variety of problems and sexist expectations worthy of an advocate’s attention. Unfortunately, the term does not honestly represent the modern project of men’s rights advocacy. While today’s MRAs (not necessarily cut from the same cloth as earlier iterations) rail against the sexism men and boys face, their chosen culprit is not patriarchy but feminism.

Men are not denied custody of their children because a sexist society and family law system deem child-rearing a woman’s domain. It’s feminists trying to make sure women take all the kids!!! Women don’t have an easier time getting laid [sometimes against their will, it bears noting] because men and boys are socially instructed by a patriarchal, heterosexist, cissexist culture to view them first and foremost as sexual objects. It’s those pesky feminists encouraging women to lord their sexual dominance over lonely men, muhahahahaha [evil feminist laugh]!!! Girls don’t perform better in the school system because social cues encourage them to be obedient and polite, while boys are encouraged to roughhouse and interrupt. It’s a teaching system brainwashed by feminists to ensure women’s supremacy!!!!

Okay that’s enough, but it should give you some idea of what most MRAs are really about, which is anti-feminism. Some sites and organizations make this agenda more obvious (see: A Voice for Men), while others (see: Canadian Association for Equality) push their agenda more insidiously by, say, hosting a speaker who has a history of calling date rape “exciting” and pontificating about the positive impacts of incest. In fact, A Voice for Men used facial recognition software to doxx and actively encourage the harassment of teenage women who protested this speaker’s appearance on the University of Toronto campus in late 2012. What ties the extreme and less-extreme groups together is their belief that feminism is a barrier to men and boys overcoming gender-based challenges and realizing their potential.

The truth is that men do face challenges in a world that, ironically, has largely been governed by men. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for MRAs to make feminism the scapegoat – it seems illogical to presume that men are holding themselves back. But patriarchy isn’t one big, discrete, conscious decision. It’s the composite of zillions of decisions: conscious and unconscious, big and tiny, made by humans of all stripes including men, women and trans* people. Collectively these decisions hold back all genders in different ways, but men by far the least so. Their challenges are also counterbalanced by myriad privileges they accrue (often without noticing, because privilege is like that) for simply being guys. On the whole, men (in particular cis, white, straight, able-bodied men) occupy the position of greatest privilege on the gender spectrum.

Recently I got together with some feminists and feminist allies to discuss how to address a recent spread and intensification of anti-feminist activity in Canada, especially on post-secondary campuses. These men and organizations are not so much concerned with reclaiming men’s rights as they are with preserving men’s power and privilege. So we thought let’s call a spade a spade, scrap the “Men’s Rights Advocate” handle and call them Men’s Power Advocates. MPAs: they’re a thing.

Epilogue: Shout-out to the men’s organizations doing great work to challenge sexism and foster positive masculinity, including the White Ribbon Campaign.

Not all Twitter fights are trivial

This morning I woke up to find a popular and respected Globe & Mail international affairs columnist making a light joke about a Scottish chef murdering his girlfriend. When people said “hmmmm not okay” he made more jokes in response. Albeit these jokes did not suggest he actively felt like “hahaha domestic violence”, but can we not make light of these scenarios please? It is extremely irresponsible use of an influential voice (a major privilege).

So I confronted him and, to his credit, he ultimately deleted the tweet and acknowledged the joke’s inappropriateness. In the process, a feminist I like and respect suggested this kind of transgression is not significant enough to warrant a Twitter fight, which she considers a “small” act of feminism. While I don’t think each of these conversations changes the world, I don’t think they should be dismissed either. I wrote about how it all went down for Canada.com – read the rest here.

I’m not done thinking or feeling or writing about this, so expect more here in the next day or two.

I thought I hated improv, but…

YUNoListenAs you know (right???), I recently became a faculty member at Academy of the Impossible, a collaborative adult learning facility. Last week, this new role took me outside my comfort zone when I facilitated an improv-based session on the “performance” of online identity with the inimitable Dan Speerin. It was actually awesome and liberating and inclusive and super-fun. And we’re doing it again!

This Saturday February 2nd, Dan and I are working with Academy co-founder Jesse Hirsh to facilitate an improv-based session on media relations for activists and other muckrakers. Dan and I planned the session via Skype last night and we have a bunch of fun improv exercises in store that will liven up more traditional discussion about how to best present you and your cause to the media (print, broadcast, web, whatev).

If you’re involved with any organization or issue that you’d like to shine some light on by sharing your perspective with journalists, this session is for you. Hope to see you there!