Idiots

I will never forget my earliest philosophy courses with Dr. John Scott. They were profoundly influential, even if it has routinely taken twenty or more years for me to understand what he might have meant. The frailties of memory being what they are, I have no idea what he might have meant then, or even if my memory is so accurate that I remember precisely what he said. But that he spoke of this, and that it has stuck in my mind for nearly twenty-five years, is important.

One day he asked us if we were all idiots. He was not saying anything pejorative. He was asking us to reflect on a deeper problem. He rephrased the question and asked us if we were all idiotes. Idiotes, apparently, refers to people who talk to themselves. His question was profound. Really, he was concerned to get us to ask whether we talk just to ourselves or communicate with each other. Are we a community? Five years into the growing victory of neoliberalism, this was a profound question to raise. After all, in neoliberalism there is no such thing as community; there are only individuals competitively engaged with one another. Thirty years in, the damage to community is tragic. There is an idiotic nature to modern life.

A case in point:

Adjunct and contractual academics have a rough time. At King’s I once saw 35 PhDs sharing five offices, and I doubt that is unusual. My office was across the hall from them, and I only ever met and got to know two of them. I never saw any of the others. Adjuncts have no significant place in the academic hierarchy and have no decision-making power. They are unrecognized and unknown. Anonymity is their lot. They can be let go no matter how good a teacher they are. They teach more courses with larger class sizes for less money than their permanent counterparts. They get no benefits. They have no academic freedom. Contract staff are a little better off, but not much. The fact that nobody interferes directly with our teaching is immaterial. After all, if we say anything genuinely controversial, they can always quietly let us vanish at the end of the contract. No need for fuss or fireworks.

We get criticized for our publication records, yet we often publish (despite our perishing) and can have records that exceed those of tenured colleagues. Other academics and administrators commonly either don’t notice or don’t care. Where we do not publish, people do not bother to ask why. Perhaps she is a single mother? Perhaps he did not know what to write after he finished his PhD? Maybe he needed some time to think about it? Perhaps she is experiencing despair at being blamed for her career ‘failure?’ Maybe she blames herself for it?

After all, doesn’t not having a tenured position mean you are not good enough? You lost out in that allegedly fair competition with your colleagues? You didn’t go to the right schools, work in the right fields, explore the right topics? After all, if you were any good, you would have studied at Harvard. If you were at all talented, you would have worked in free market economics, or philosophy of mind, or done your business PhD. You would have invested the time and developed the know-how to recognize and exploit the hot topic.

The truth is, this is all bullshit.

Why do we exist? To drive down the costs of university education. To reduce political resistance at universities. To aid in the transfer of wealth and power to elites. This is how it is.

Adjunct and contractual faculty work under worse conditions than their tenured colleagues. They are some of the exploited of the academic world. Commonly, they are also migrant workers. They may move multiple times over the course of a decade. Each time, they go through the same cycle. They find a city or town, establish a residence. They slowly build up a friendship circle. If they have children, they put them into school when they get to kindergarten. Then their contract ends, or they are no longer awarded courses, and they have to uproot and move in search of the next contract or course. They move to the next city, establish a residence, slowly start to meet people, put their kids into grade two and repeat the cycle. But now the children start to become outsiders too and have to find a way to fit in to their new classes and neighborhoods. The effects on them and their families are severe.

This is not a recipe for good communities. But then, there is no such thing anyway, is there, Margaret. Just idiots.

Direct anger where it belongs

Two different scandals involving the Temporary Foreign Worker Visas (TFWV) Program recently emerged in the Canadian media. In one case, Brothers Classic Grill and Pizza restaurant in Weyburn, Saskatchewan fired its permanent Canadian staff and replaced them all with workers on the TFWV program (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/waitresses-in-saskatchewan-lose-jobs-to-foreign-workers-1.2615157). As well, three McDonald’s franchises in Victoria have been accused of abusing the TFWV program by firing all of its Canadian workers and hiring non-Canadians in their place (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mcdonald-s-accused-of-favouring-foreign-workers-1.2598684). While these two cases have had much attention, the exploitation of migrant workers and working class Canadians is far more widespread.

It is very important that we understand the exploitation involved and, above all, that we appreciate who is responsible. For there is a great risk of racism and the direction of Canadian public wrath towards migrant workers. There is much fear and a great deal of legitimate anger, but it should be directed towards specific employers, the municipal, provincial and federal governments, and above all the economic elites that establish the regulatory frameworks that make exploitation possible, and not either laterally or down towards those who are even more vulnerable. After all, responsibility obviously belongs with those who exercise decision-making power. TFVW workers do not.

If we wish to understand why Canadians are not getting work, here are some simple questions. The answers show where  anger properly belongs.

First, who does the hiring and firing? Employees never hire or fire themselves, so they are neither responsible for their own hiring nor for the unemployment of others. This means that it is wrong to blame other job seekers, since they lack  decision-making power. If we blame migrant workers, refugees, immigrants, or other ‘foreigners,’ we participate in a racist attack on the more vulnerable.

Second, we need to ask who establishes the regulatory frameworks, laws and policies that make it attractive for employers to prefer one group of people over another? After all, only the most powerful have the lobbying clout to shift government policies in this way. In Canada, a 2012 federal government decision made it legal for businesses to pay migrant workers %15 less than the minimum wage, and imposed a range of other conditions which make it attractive for businesses to hire them. This created legal and economic incentives that favor the hiring of migrant workers while reducing their benefits and thus making their lives worse. Simultaneously it marginalizes economically unstable Canadians by creating disincentives to hiring them. These policies are designed to exploit vulnerable populations by playing them off against one another. The events in Victoria and Weyburn are small examples of a much larger pattern of exploitation that severely damages the conditions of life of both Canadians and migrant workers. None of them benefit from this legislation and practice. Their lives are all made worse, and its origin is in neoliberal labour practices, trade agreements and legislation. Direct the anger where it belongs, and do it effectively. This suffering originates in the choices of privileged economic elites. They are responsible. Don’t allow a divide and conquer strategy to create anger and violence between two different marginalized populations.

Race, gender and Quebec’s fortunately abandoned secular charter

People often regard philosophical politics and ethics, not to mention philosophy, as dry, abstract and irrelevant to everyday life. They couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy matters. It profoundly shapes everything we say and do. It determines the nature of power, who gets access to it, and who is excluded. As such, it influences the life possibilities of all individuals and groups  within its horizon. The recently Quebec secular charter is a case in point.

The Pauline Marois-led PQ minority government campaigned, in part, in defense of their so-called secular charter. In the view of the government and of famous legal authorities such as former Canadian Supreme Court justice Claire L’Heureux Dube, it offered the opportunity to strengthen gender rights and promote classical liberal values such as state neutrality on matters of religion (www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/ex-justice-claire-l-heureux-dub%C3%A9-supports-secular-values-charter-1.2528132).

As the great English liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill argues, the foundation of the liberal philosophical tradition is individual freedom. The state is supposed to be neutral on questions of conscience and not promote any matter that is properly the decision of the private individual alone. The framers of the secular charter claimed to be acting within this tradition. However, the realities are quite different. It is a terrible irony of the charter that an instrument allegedly intended to defend women’s rights and individual freedom most powerfully harms women while systemically harming many ethnic groups.

Under the secular charter, the Quebec Charter would have been modified to prohibit public officials from wearing or displaying any prominent religious symbols. This applied to all public officials whether they worked in the provincial department of human resources, public hospitals, universities and schools, or bus drivers. Furthermore, all persons, when dealing with public officials, were prohibited from being veiled.

A classically liberal argument was offered in defense of the changes.

1. The state has a duty to ensure gender equality and all  rights enshrined in the Quebec charter.

2. Furthermore, since religion is understood to be a matter of private conscience, the state has a duty not to promote it.

3. Public officials act in a public, not a private capacity, and consequently act as representatives of the state.

4. In wearing religious symbols in their public roles, they compromise state neutrality. Their wearing of religious symbols, it was maintained, de facto compromises state neutrality

Conclusion: they ought to be prohibited, as public agents, from wearing religious symbols.

Premise 4 is not self-evidently true and would be difficult to defend given the many prior successes of government institutions at accommodating religious dress. The Canadian military permits turbans, for example, but has not failed to perform its state functions. But the more basic problem is that, for all of its apparently liberal commitments, and in spite of its stated commitment to gender equality, the charter was ethnocentric, racist and sexist in the following ways:

1. The charter excluded from government, and thus from core positions of social power, all individuals whose identities are strongly religiously defined. It maintains that individuals do not have to wear religious insignia. Yet religion is a core element of the personal identity of most human beings. For those for whom a hijab or a turban are essential, access to government employment is available only on condition that they deny their identity. This is the use of state power either to compel cultural conformity or to exclude individuals from employment.

2. In practice it targets both women and gender choice, since women with strongly defined religious identities cannot work for government due to their religious symbols, and women, alone–in particular Muslim women–are impacted by the requirement that they be unveiled.

3. In preserving Christian celebrations and Quebec cultural symbols, this form of secularism is not, in fact, culturally neutral at all. It is actually the prioritization, backed by state power, of one tradition and the exclusion of others. For notice who it privileges: people from a specific grouping who are overwhelmingly secularized Christians of European origin, strongly rooted in the Quebec tradition with its long Catholic heritage; in other words, people with a very specific cultural belief system and values. As well, notice who it excludes: Muslim women, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and other racially stigmatized groups.

On gender it is self-contradictory, and on racial terms, it is clearly racist.

The charter debate manifests a difficult tension in liberalism between the prioritization of individual freedom and the accommodation of the diversity that such freedom generates. Liberal philosophy prioritizes individual choice and it values, as Mill notes, countless individual experiments in living. The state is supposed to be neutral between all of these different experiments in living. Yet defining the state as secular is already, both in principle and practice, a choice of a specific cultural tradition and the exclusion of others. It involves the suppression and exclusion from power of a wide range of human identities. In this case what we see is the deliberate and systematic exclusion from positions of power of an extraordinary range of culturally different experiments of the kind that Mill so rightly praises. It reminds us that we cannot explore such crucial moral and political questions of oppression without accommodating cultural difference.

Although the Parti Quebecois were resoundly defeated in the recent election, this belief set is alive and well. We should be cautious in thinking that the defeat of the Marois government is a rejection of these ethnocentric and sexist beliefs.

Oppression and the APA Ethics Committee

On December31, 2013, the Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association declined to pursue disciplinary charges against US military psychologist Dr. John Leso.  According to the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, the Ethics Committee does not dispute the following evidence:

From June 2002 until January 2003, Dr. Leso led a Behavioral Sciences Consultation Team that devised torturous interrogation strategies at Guantanamo Bay. Inflicted on a number of prisoners including, for example, Mohammed al-Qatani, the tortures included sleep deprivation, 30 day periods of isolation, hooding and handcuffing, exposure to temperature extremes, ‘the design of scenarios to convince the detainee he might experience a painful or fatal outcome,’ sexual humiliation, among other violence.”

In spite of this, the committee maintained it lacked sufficient evidence to pursue action.  Even more bizarrely, the APA Ethics Committee insisted that its refusal to act was consistent with its absolute prohibition of psychologist participation in torture.

In defending its decision, the committee asserted the following about Dr. Leso:

(a) he did not “request to become involved with detainee interrogations”;
(b) he was an “early-­‐career psychologist trained as a health care provider”;
(c) he reportedly “sought consultation and argued…in favor of rapport-­‐building approaches;”
(d) APA did not issue its first policy on interrogations until 2005.

The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology adequately refutes these claims in a recent report.( http://www.ethicalpsychology.org/materials/Coalition-Responds-to-APA-Leso-Decision.pdf)

In this post I want to focus on the moral incoherence of the response. It is absurd to assert an unc0nditional prohibition of torture while admitting the evidence against Major Leso. The committee is well aware that all of those actions, singularly and in combination, amount to torture. The four additional mitigating assertions in no way dispute his participation in torture; they are a justification for refusing to pursue disciplinary action of any kind. This means that the supposed absolute prohibition against psychologist involvement in torture is vacuous, since there are no consequences for any APA members who torture as US state agents.

This incoherence is further enhanced when we look at what the Committee is turning a blind eye to:

1. the deliberate infliction of sexual violence on prisoners; deliberate emasculation through a variety of torture strategies including sexual assault by female interrogators, forced nudity in front of females, forced wearing of a thong

2. deliberate use of racism to damage and destroy the identity of the inmate. The use of dogs and the sexual violence also were intended to exploit perceived Muslim fears of dogs and religious beliefs about gender relations

3. deliberate dehumanization. al-Qatani, among others, had a leash attached to his neck and was pulled around as if he were a dog.

If you understand what torture is, then you know that torture is above all an assault on human identity. A great deal of good psychological work has been done demonstrating this .  Since identity always has ethnic, gendered, class and other components, torturing will always be sexist and, where race is in play, it is inevitably racist.

In refusing to pursue these charges, the ethics committee not only misses the opportunity to work against racism and sexism but, its support of the torture programs means that it quietly tolerates racism and sexism in psychology. Furthermore, rather than pursuing the good of all, it tacitly endorses the moral inequality, the stigmatizing out-grouping, to use the social-psychological phrase, of non-Americans, of Americans like Chelsea Manning who break ranks with their dominant peer group, of stigmatized Americans, among others.

apparently Canadian soldiers do not kill

Marginalization does not work only through the exclusion of the oppressed from employment, shelter, food, clothing and other conditions of need satisfaction. Nor does it work merely by denying basic legal or social protections; it works as much by making marginalized populations socially invisible, so that privileged group members notice no violence.

The case of killings by Canadian Forces members in Afghanistan is significant. For three years I have run variants of the following question through Google for my first year and second year social justice classes:

How many Aghanistanis have Canadians killed?

Consistently, Google refocuses the question to the top search results which, currently, are the following:

1. Canadian Forces Casualties in Afghanistan (Wikipedia)

2. Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan (also Wikipedia)

3. The Canadian Forces in Afghanistan

and so on. The first reference to Afghanistani casualties only occurs at the 72nd entry, and it does not tell us what proportion of those were killed by Canadians.  This has always been the case in the three years we have done this exercise. Finding records of killings by Canadians is difficult, yet there will be records. Minimally they will be in the after-action reports filed after a battle. These are likely to be under-counts,  since it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict the flight path and impact of every bullet fired and bomb dropped. But some numbers will still be there. Nonetheless, they are not easily discoverable on the web.

Yet Google is flooded with information about Canadian casualties (158 dead). Wikipedia also tells us that 1859 non-fatal injuries were experienced by Canadians up to the end of 2010 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Forces_casualties_in_Afghanistan).

We are required and expected to know how many Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan. We are permitted to know roughly how many have been physically injured. We have less idea of the precise extent of mental trauma among Canadians. But we have no easily accessible information about those we have injured and killed. This is in spite of the fact that we know, anecdotally and in virtue of Canadians fighting successfully in combat, that Canadians have killed both combatants and non-combatants. Sanitized versions of the ‘sacrifices’ of Canadian soldiers are common; It is exceedingly difficult even to notice the deaths of the Afghanistanis. Their lives are not, to use Judith Butler’s important word, grievable – not for Canadians at least.

This invisibility is not an accident, but a common feature of war-making. It is a great deal easier to perpetuate violence when a population is unaware that its violence workers are killing. Marginalization plays a core role by conceptually erasing the relevant population . In effect, its members do not even exist, and so there are no deaths to threaten our conscience.

… Suddenly, alone and afraid, passed away.

On November 1, 2013 at 9:55AM, emergency services were called to Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre after the body of Adam Kargus was found without vital signs (http://london.ctvnews.ca/inmate-found-beaten-to-death-at-emdc-1.1523809). Apparently his torture and murder was so severe that it took staff 45 minutes to identify him. Subsequent investigation has resulted in a second degree murder charge being laid against his cellmate. Charges of accessory to murder have been laid against two inmates who allegedly helped to move Mr. Kargus’ body from his jail cell to the prison showers. (http://www.theobserver.ca/2013/11/11/jailhouse-murder-mystery-deepens)

This post’s title, taken from the opening line of his obituary, captures precisely the extent of his marginalization. In a jail packed with inmates, he was isolated, terrified, tortured and murdered. He was isolated not only from other prisoners, but from the staff who were supposed to protect him. He was isolated from family, friends and support networks. He experienced terrible violence, suffering, and death, and he did so alone.

If we ask who did this to Mr. Kargus, it is wrong to focus only on his killer. A common approach to understanding violence is to find a perpetrator and then to stigmatize his/her character and economic or ethnic background. But while there are always perpetrators in torture and murder, they play only a partial role in the violence.The society in which the violence occurs makes its own essential contribution, and so we Ontarians are also complicit. Mr. Kargus did not expose himself to the violence. He was forced into the situation by the legal and correctional system from which privileged Ontarians benefit.

He was first incarcerated in Sarnia and suffered a violent assault there. A bitter irony is that he was moved to EMDC for his protection. Once there, a range of contingent institutional and social factors made his torture and death effectively inevitable. Prison officials placed him with his killer – an individual with an extremely violent history. Inadequate staffing on the night shift meant prison guards made protection tenuous, the hostile prison environment intensified the risk of violence, and the inadequate architecture of the building made effective supervision impossible. Mr. Kargus could not have been tortured and killed in the absence of these conditions. His killer did not create them. Our institutions and, ultimately, our society did. And we do this to inmates because, by and large, we do not care about them. Enough Ontarians demonize them and believe that they deserve their suffering. Adam Kargus was tortured and died, in large part, because we marginalized and excluded him.

We should have cared for him and for the many others in similar situations. Yet we did not and, fundamentally, we do not.

The silence of an unknown prisoner

Solidarity is at the heart of all social justice work as well as at the heart of this blog. Solidarity, but not with the elite, the powerful, or those who manipulate, benefit from, and depend upon the injustices that grip our world. It is owed to  the so many who can’t normally be heard – the unknown and voiceless prisoner, the homeless person, the torture victim, the domestic violence survivor, the entire community of the oppressed. Each has a name and a history. These unique stories need to be heard and the injustices inflicted upon them beg for transformation.  Their strength, resilience and joy, even under extreme circumstances, must be recognized. Such stories, and their analysis, are what will appear in the coming posts.

For those who know Camus, the inspiration for this blog should be obvious. It is not just the title of the blog or of this post, but the spirit of intellectual obligation that his life and work expressed. For Camus the obligation of the artist and intellectual is to resist oppression and to serve the community of the oppressed. We have to listen to the voices of the silenced, the marginalized and oppressed. They have much to teach us if we have the courage to hear them. This blog shares Camus’ vision.

The content of this blog is, by and large, going to be dark and emotionally difficult . Occasionally it may take some courage to read. But eliminating unjust suffering requires the strength to openly confront violence in others and especially in ourselves. It is difficult to recognize our  complicity in  the often extreme suffering experienced by others, but there are morally compelling reasons why we must do this. We also need to unleash our rage, our compassion, our optimism and our love

Richard Matthews