Monday, 12 February 2018

Another Campus Speech Code Fiasco: Wilfrid Laurier University

Another Campus Speech Code Fiasco: Wilfrid Laurier University

In late 2017, the institution from which I had recently retired, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), was embroiled in a free speech fiasco.

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate teaching assistant in the department of Communications Studies, decided to show her students a clip from a debate on a program called The Agenda, put out by TVO (TV Ontario). This is a highly reputable program, along the lines of PBS debate shows in the US. One of the participants in the debate was Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who opposes the usage of gender-neutral pronouns—or at least, opposes policing professors and students to make sure they use such pronouns.
Lindsay Shepherd

After she showed this clip, Ms. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting with two professors and one individual from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office. Her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, told her that there had been “one or more” complaints under the WLU  Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures (GSVP) about her decision to show it. When she replied that she was merely trying to introduce her students to both side of the debate, he went so far as to ask her whether she would show both sides of a debate about Hitler. He and also claimed, absolutely erroneously, that Ms. Shepherd’s decision to show her students this clip violated the students’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and/or the Ontario Human rights Code. 
 
Unfortunately for her interlocutors, Ms. Shepherd recorded her interview with them and took it to the press. It instantly became a national news story about freedom of speech, embarrassing WLU. The President of WLU issued a formal apology to Ms. Shepherd and appointed an independent investigator into the incident. https://www.wlu.ca/news/spotlights/2017/dec/president-statement-re-independent-fact-finder-report.html  This investigator, among other things, discovered that none of Ms. Shepherd’s students had complained about her. But someone had overheard some of her students discussing the clip.

How, one might ask, was this possible?  The answer is the content of the GSVP document, which can be found at https://www.wlu.ca/about/governance/assets/resources/12.4-gendered-and-sexual-violence-policy-and-procedures.html . It is supposed to be a document laying out procedures in the case of sexual assault, harassment, etc., but its drafters took it upon themselves to also police freedom of speech.

The GSVP defines  “Gendered Violence”   as…. “an act or actions that reinforce gender inequalities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic or mental harm. This violence includes sexism, gender discrimination, gender harassment, biphobia, transphobia, homophobia and heterosexism, intimate partner violence, and forms of Sexual Violence. This violence can take place on any communication platform, (e.g. graffiti, online environment, and through the use of phones” (Definitions, Clause 3:02).

This means that under the GSVP, speech is considered to be violence, as the stress on communications platforms shows. There is no distinction in this definition between actual physical violence and potentially (depending on the eyes of the beholder) offensive speech. Nor are there any guidelines as to when speech might be considered “violent,” as opposed to merely offensive to some. While Canada does have a hate speech law, the bar is set very high for prosecutions and convictions, and in general freedom of speech is protected.

There is no mention in the document, either as a preamble or elsewhere, about the university’s primary purpose of protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech. Nor is there any mention that Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The GSVP claims the right to police the speech of any member of the university community at WLU (Definitions, clause 3.04). It especially claims the right to police the speech of any student “regardless of their position or role or time of incident (e.g. evenings, weekends and holidays)—when on University property or when off campus and there is an impact on their academic program or campus life (for e.g. in residence, at the gym, etc.) [Sic, Jurisdiction/Scope clause 7:00].  

The GSVP further stipulates that third parties can make complaints about an individual’s speech, saying that those who have experienced sexual violence and “those who have become aware of an incident” can report it (Definitions: Clause 3:07), and that anyone making such a complaint can do so anonymously (Student Procedures, Clause 2.01). Presumably, this is what permitted someone who overheard Ms. Shepherd’s students talking about her class to make a complaint.

The GSVP procedures for adjudicating complaints were updated on December 17, 2017, following the national publicity over the Lindsay Shepherd incident. But it is biased from the start. Complainants are free to identify themselves, or to ask that those assisting them identify them, as “survivors” throughout. Thus, the presumption that the action or speech complained about is true permeates the procedures.

On the other side, there is no assurance of due process for the individual against whom a complaint is made. Even in the updated version of the document, bias is evident against the accused person. If he (or occasionally she) does not comply with the university rules, s/he will endure “further disciplinary action,” thus assuming that disciplinary action is automatically forthcoming. (Policy: Clause 8.03) Moreover, the personnel of the SGVP are available for support to the complainant, but not to the respondent, who is on his or her own.

Here are some useful rules for drafting university harassment documents. They are derived in part from the two years I spent at McMaster University, 1992-1994, chairing a committee to draft anti-harassment and anti-discrimination documents, with the aid of a legal scholar. I was given this job after I stood up in the McMaster Senate to denounce a proposed document that, in my view, severely violated the due process rights of accused harassers.

1    1. Always make sure that the document is drafted by, or with the assistance of, a lawyer with experience in administrative law in the jurisdiction in which the university is located.
2    2.In deciding what to prohibit, never exceed what is prohibited by the law of the jurisdiction in which the University is located.
3    3.Do not have two sections, one written by people with a political/ideological agenda, and one written by people familiar with the law and the rules of due process.
4    4. Always makes sure that due process is absolutely protected.
5    5.Always include a preamble about the importance of, and protections for, freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Had WLU followed this advice, it might not have found itself with the problems it faced last year.


In the meantime, I would advise any parents thinking of sending their child to WLU or any other Ontario university to carefully investigate its policies and procedures regarding speech and sexual harassment, before making a final decision. Otherwise, the parents might find themselves paying hefty legal fees to defend their children against charges for offenses that may be deemed contrary to the  the uthe university’s speech code, but that are not crimes in Ontario. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Women Perpetrators of Crimes against Humanity

Women perpetrators of crimes against humanity


In 2010, a judge in the United Kingdom denied refugee status to a Zimbabwean woman, known as SK. According to a report by David Gardner in the South African Mail Online, (“Woman who took part in violent attacks on farmers in Zimbabwe denied UK asylum” 16 September 2010) SK had admitted attacking white farmers and beating up ten black workers and their families; she beat one woman so badly that she thought the woman would die. But she said she had done so to prove her loyalty to Zimbabwe’s then dictator, Robert Mugabe, who was deposed in late 2017 by a military coup.

Zimbabwe had been ruled by Mugabe’s terrorist dictatorship since 2000. Mugabe encouraged “land invasions” of white-owned farms, driving almost all white farmers out of the country. This seriously undermined the country’s capacity to produce food, as the “liberated” lands were distributed to Mugabe’s family and cronies, many incapable of large-scale farming. About 1.5 million black farm workers and their families were also driven off the land. Meantime, in “operation drive out trash” another 1.4 million people were driven out of cities in 2005, losing their homes and livelihoods. Zimbabwe went from being a bread-basket of eastern African to dependency on the World Food Program. Many Zimbabweans had barely enough food for one meal a day.

Women members of the opposition to Mugabe, and women whose only crime was to be related to members of the opposition, were systematically raped and tortured, especially during the election period in 2008. Some women resorted to prostitution to support themselves because the economy was in such disarray as a result of Mugabe’s policies. Millions of women and their children had barely enough to eat. Hospitals and schools closed.

SK was a woman; we tend to think of women as victims of political violence, not its perpetrators. According to Gardner’s report, SK didn’t claim that she was entitled to any special treatment because she was a woman, but the judge seemed to think he should nevertheless comment on her gender. He compared SK to female Nazi concentration camp guards. While those women did not initiate the Nazi policy of genocide, they did willingly carry it out; they were not forced to be guards. Indeed, according to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial 1997 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, some of these women exceeded their orders at the end of the war, driving Jewish women prisoners to their deaths on forced marches even after they had been ordered to be less cruel, as the leaders of Germany were afraid of the consequences once the Allies took over.

But the judge did not have to look so far afield for examples of savage women to whom to compare SK. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the Minister for Women’s Affairs encouraged her own son to rape Tutsi women. Three Rwandan nuns were convicted in Belgium for the crimes they committed in Rwanda.

These horrible instances contradict many feminists’ assumptions that women are more caring than men, more empathetic, far less likely to commit crimes against humanity or genocide than men. What is SK’s responsibility? She claimed she had to prove her loyalty to Mugabe, and that may be true: until a couple of months ago in Zimbabwe, if you were not for Mugabe, you were against him. But how far did she have to go?  Did she really have to participate in land invasions, or did she do so at least partly by choice? From 2000 to 2017 Zimbabwe was a free zone for people who hated whites.  Even if SK hated whites and wanted them driven out of Zimbabwe, what motivated her to beat up fellow black women?

We do not know from Gardner’s report if SK was an educated, upper-class Zimbabwean or a poor person. Nor do we know if that should matter. Should a person who is not educated be assumed not to be able to tell right from wrong, like some of the male killers in Rwanda who after their orgy of bloodshed regained their senses? While international courts do take into consideration whether people who commit crimes against humanity are leaders or followers, they do not let anyone off on the grounds that he was just following orders. Nor is lack of education an excuse, although it may be a mitigating factor.


The judge in the UK made the right decision. Women, like men, have to take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Otherwise, feminism simultaneously demands equality and undermines it by suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Note:  I originally wrote this blog for another site in 2010, but decided it was worth updating a re-posting here. 
suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Statelessness in the Caribbean by Kristy Belton: Book Note


Some scholars maintain that in developed democracies, legal citizenship is losing its salience, as such democracies tend to grant most human rights to everyone resident in their territories, even including undocumented (‘illegal”) migrants. Kristy Belton disputes this contention. She argues that even if migrants are afforded human rights in some democracies, this privilege does not extend to the stateless.  You can find this argument in her 2017 book, Statelessness in the Caribbean: The Paradox of Belonging in a Postnational World, published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
Belton argues that statelessness in the 21st century is very different from the statelessness that Hannah Arendt analyzed in her Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt wrote about stateless migrants, wandering the world to find a place that would take them in after their own countries expelled them or forced them to flee. By contrast, Belton argues, in the 21st century many people are rendered stateless in situ, in the place where they are born.

Belton’s evidence for this contention is drawn from her case studies of the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Both are democracies, and both have significant minority populations of people of Haitian descent. Drawing on her own interviews with local officials, NGO actors, stateless individuals and others, as well as upon interviews conducted by other individuals and organizations, Belton paints a picture of people living in limbo or liminality, part of the society but not formally members of the polity, in effect “noncitizen insiders”(p. 10). Technically eligible for Haitian citizenship, they are stateless de facto, as they are often not aware of their eligibility and in any case, do not wish to be considered Haitian.

These individuals are not wandering stateless migrants: they were born in the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic but are not entitled to citizenship in those two countries, at least not at birth.  In the Bahamas, they have a narrow one-year window at the age of eighteen to apply for citizenship. During this period they are often rendered de jure stateless for a few months, as they are obliged to renounce their nominal Haitian citizenship before being registered as Bahamian citizens. In the Dominican Republic, things are much worse. Not only may people of Haitian descent not obtain citizenship at birth, but a law passed in 2010 retroactively deprives hundreds of thousands of citizenship. Only those of Haitian descent who can prove they are descended from individuals born in the Dominican Republic before 1929; that is, four generations ago, are now entitled to citizenship.

Bureaucratic inertia and deliberate obfuscation of the seemingly non-discriminatory rules surrounding citizenship compound the disadvantages imposed on people of Haitian descent by these laws. Often individuals born in the Dominican Republic do not know that they are actually considered to be citizens of Haiti, nor do they know how to go about obtaining confirmation of that citizenship. When persons of Haitain descent turn 18 in the Bahamas, they may not know of the one-year window available to apply for registration as citizens. They may also be denied the documents, such as birth registration, needed to make their applications. Some are also victims of gender-biased policies that grant citizenship to children of citizen fathers born abroad, but not to mothers in the same circumstances. Belton argues that they should have the right to know about citizenship rules, and be ensured the right to judicial review of sometimes arbitrary decisions about their citizenship.

The quasi-stateless individuals of Haitian descent are often victims of racism, enduring discrimination in employment, housing and education. In the Dominican Republic, people identify themselves as white or “Indio” and look down on black people of Haitian descent. In both countries they are considered impure, equated with dirt and criminality. Belton quotes heartbreaking stories from her informants of deplorable living conditions, racist school bullying, and opportunities denied.

Technically speaking, many of the “stateless” individuals of Haitian descent in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic are not stateless; if they knew how to go about it, they could claim Haitian citizenship.  But that is not the citizenship they want. They want to be citizens of the countries where they were born and raised, where they attended school, where their families are. They want to realize their ambitions, to get an education and a job and start a family, in the country to which they are attached.

Without legal citizenship, these de facto stateless individuals cannot realize their life projects. Bahamian-born minors of Haitian descent possess identity documents, but cannot use them for travel; thus young people are unable to compete in international sports competitions or accept scholarships to study abroad. Persons of Haitian descent in both countries are at high risk of illiteracy, undermining their capacity to understand the procedures and documents necessary for them to obtain citizenship. They are ghost people, un-noticed and uncared for, denied social membership in the places of their birth and personal identification.

Belton closes her book with an eloquent plea for citizenship to be considered an aspect of global distributive justice which, she argues, should not be confined to material goods. It should encompass citizenship, necessary in order to enjoy all other human rights. Citizenship is also necessary to the right to belong, to feel oneself part of the community in which one has grown up, and part of the territory to which one is attached.

Everyone, contends Belton, should have the right to citizenship in the place of one’s birth. In making this argument she draws upon ideas of social membership and sense of place. In the light of her two case studies, this assertion makes sense. But it might not make sense for the many people who are victims of prior forced displacement or who are born in countries of which they would rather not be citizens. The next step, then, is a right to migrate. But such a right would upset completely the sovereign prerogative of all states to decide who should be its members, regardless of the criteria they use.

Belton’s arguments are sophisticated and theoretically rich, and her compassion for the subjects of her research suffuses her analysis. This is an excellent study of what might be considered the “forgotten” stateless, people who are not members of stateless groups such as the Rohingya of Myanmar, but are rather individuals forced into social liminality and legal insecurity by borders, immigration laws, and racism.  

Note: I wrote this review for Human Rights Quarterly, whose editor, Bert Lockwood, kindly agreed to let me post irt on my blog as well. 



Thursday, 4 January 2018

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Note

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Notes

Gary Younge, a black British journalist who lived in Chicago for several years, is the author of Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books, 2016). Each chapter documents the life and death of a young American between 9 and 19 who died by gunfire in the 24-hour overnight period of November 22-23 2013; all are male and most black or Hispanic. This was, incidentally, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though that doesn’t seem to have affected Younge’s decision to choose that particular date. On an average day, seven American children will be shot dead.
Gary Younge

Three of Younge’s observations particularly struck me.

The first was the perhaps universal tendency to assume that victims of crimes have to be innocent; if not, they somehow deserve their fate. The opening chapter in Another Day recounts the story of Jaiden Dixon. Jaiden was nine when one day he opened the door  to the father of one of his older half-brothers. The father shot him, then sped away to shoot a woman he’d previously been involved with. She survived the shooting, and was terrified that he’d find her again until she was told that the police had killed him.

This was a story of domestic violence, and Jaiden, by all accounts a sweet child, was clearly innocent; his murderer was trying to get revenge on his mother. Several of the other murder victims were older teens, some of whom had been gang members and one of whom, Younge observes, was just as likely to have been the perpetrator as the victim of murder. In the public eye and that of the media, Younge observes, these victims somehow “deserved” their fates in a way that Jaiden did not. But as a black child, had he been a few years older his death might have garnered less sympathy.

Younge’s second observation was the way that everyone accepted the presence of guns in their lives as inevitable and a fact of life.

The only white child to be killed in this one-day period was 11-year-old Tyler Dunn. Tyler was playing with his friend Brandon in Brandon’s house. Brandon’s father, Jerry, was supposed to be supervising them, but he left them alone while he was working. The boys found a gun, assumed it was unloaded and played with it: Brandon killed Tyler. Jerry, a convicted felon, was found guilty of improper safeguarding of his guns, and inadequate supervision of his son. 

Tyler’s family just assumed that nothing could be done about guns. And tragically, this was also the attitude of the black and Hispanic families featured in the book.  Edwin Rajo was accidentally killed by a female friend when they, too, were fooling around with guns without adult supervision.
Nor was this attitude at all unrealistic. Despite repeated surveys showing that the majority of Americans support gun control, the power of the National Rifle Association over candidates for election is so powerful that nothing is ever done, even after the Sandy Hook tragedy, when a mentally-ill young man killed 20 tiny children and their teachers. Then-President Obama tried and failed to institute tighter controls over gun sales at that time.

The black families in this book react to the presence of guns by trying to control their children’s access to “the street”. The best way to protect them against random gunfire or mistaken identity (such as wearing the wrong color hoodie in an area in which gang members identify themselves by the color they wear) is to keep them indoors as much as possible, ferrying them by car from home to school to church and other activities. Younge points out that black parents are just as concerned as white parents about their children’s safely, but they have fewer resources to protect them.

The third observation that really stuck with me is Younge’s description of some of the worst areas of South Chicago and Dallas as “open-air prisons.” 

Housing, schools, public amenities, and private businesses are all run-down or lacking in these areas. So also are employment opportunities; indeed, for many young men, the only available employment is drug-dealing or other forms of crime. Tax-payers in wealthy areas of the same cities seem happy to let their municipal authorities neglect these areas. Murders of blacks by blacks are not a matter of concern, sometimes not even reported in the press, other times meriting only a short paragraph in the local paper. The implication here is that as long as the imprisoned population stays in these areas, they are free to kill each other.

The gun culture in the US is inexplicable to the rest of the Western world. It seems to have something to do with libertarian political culture, as well as particularly wrong-headed interpretations of the US Constitution. As a Canadian, I worry about its spread here, as well as the illegal importing of guns. We too have gun-related crime, and we too have citizens who believe that everyone should have the right to own a gun for self-defense.


But Younge shows us how gun culture, like everything else, is tied to racism, economic inequality, and publicand public neglect of black and Hispanic citizens.   

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Islam: Book Note

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam: Book Note
A couple of weeks ago (mid-Dec 2017) I read The Golden Legend, a novel by the British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. According to his Wikipedia biography, Aslam has lived in the UK since he was 14, when his father, a communist, fled the regime of President Zia. 

Nadeem Aslam
This is a good novel for anyone not familiar with life in Pakistan in the era of militant Islamists, US drone strikes, and police and military corruption. The main interest of the novel, though, is the difficulty of being Christian in Pakistan. The story recounts the trials of three Christian Pakistanis. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, about 1 per cent of the population.

The central figure in the novel, Nargis, is a Christian masquerading as a Muslim. Raised in the relative security of the home of her uncle, a Christian bishop, she decides at college to pretend she is a Muslim. It seems much easier than constantly enduring ostracism and persecution because she is Christian. She marries Massud, a Muslim man, without telling him the truth. They both become architects, living a tranquil life until Massud is killed in a shoot-out between a couple of Islamists and an American diplomat/CIA agent. At the same time, she and Massud have been acting as patrons of a young woman named Helen, the daughter of the Christian couple who are their servants. Helen’s father, a rickshaw driver, is in love with a Muslim widow whose husband was killed and son severely injured by an American attack. Without giving away the story, a military official pressures Nargis to forgive the American in return for a million dollars in blood money. Meantime, Helen is endangered as well. They both flee the city with the help of a young Muslim man who is in love with Helen.

Aslam's depiction of his fictional Christians is not an exaggeration, according to an article in Foreign Policy (May 16, 2016) by Usman Ahmad entitled “Is Pakistan Safe for Christians?” http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/05/16/is-pakistan-safe-for-christians/  Ahmad explains that many Christians are converts from lower-caste Hindus and are commonly known as “sweepers” (a low-caste occupation). This term is used in Aslam’s novel. Sometimes Pakistani employers looking for sanitation workers deliberately advertise for non-Muslims; that is, Christians. In recent years there have been several attacks on Christian churches and schools in Pakistan, in part because Christians are identified with the West: that is, with the United States and its campaign of bombing and drone attacks against perceived Islamist militants in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. At Easter 2016 more than 70 Christians were killed by a Taliban bombing in Lahore. Forced marriages and conversions of Christian girls to Muslim men are common, and the girls are afraid to testify in court because they are in the custody of the families that kidnapped them.

Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in Pakistan, and Christians have been severely punished for it. Somewhere in the novel a character mentions that it’s easy to accuse a Christian neighbor of blasphemy. The payoff is high; if your neighbor is jailed for blasphemy, you may be able to acquire his house or property. This kind of thing also goes on in Iran, when people denounce members of the Baha’i faith, just as it did in Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis, when you could acquire really good houses and apartments by denouncing Jews. 

At the moment, Christians are under attack in several countries in the Middle East and Asia.  Coptic Christians, about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, have endured several violent attacks on their churches. Coptic Christianity predates Islam; Copts are among the very earliest converts to Christianity.

One can assume that since his father was a communist, secularism was not a dirty word in Nadeem Aslam’s household when he was growing up.  Now secularism appears to be something that is considered dangerous even in the West. I have written about this before in an entry to this blog called “I Am an Atheist Blogger”  http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2015/11/ , where I mentioned that many Americans consider atheists to be worse than Muslims. It is important that we should protect everyone who is persecutes for their faith, wherever the country.  But we should also be protecting the principle of secularism, the rights of individuals to marry whomever they want regardless of their religion, and the rights of individuals to be non-believers.


Monday, 30 October 2017

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

A few weeks ago the world learned that a famous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was a serial sexual harasser who had paid off several women so that they would not reveal his activities in court. Some of the things he did were so disgusting that I won’t repeat them here.

A woman at my gym asked why it had taken so long for his behavior to be revealed.  I answered that he was very powerful, so each individual woman would have been afraid that he could sue her for libel or ruin her career. As is usual in these cases, once one woman comes forward, others speak out. It seems several famous actresses such as Angelina Jolie suffered harassing incidents with him. Personally, I was not surprised by this as I’ve long assumed that all powerful men have extra-marital affairs and harass women (or men, depending on sexual preference).

After Weinstein’s behavior was revealed, someone started a #MeToo hashtag, so that women who had experienced harassment could discuss their own experiences. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail then wrote a piece called “Please Turn down the Volume on the Outrage Machine” (October 21, 2017, p. F7) https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/please-turn-down-the-volume-on-the-outrage-machine/article36675462/ 

In her column Wente discussed what she called “the standard menu” of what happened to women in their teens and twenties when she was growing up (as I was too ) in the 1960s and 70s. The menu included “sidewalk catcalls, being trailed on the street at night, dates who wouldn’t desist until we got really angry, a few flashers…bosses who tried to kiss us…a handful of overly friendly colleagues, someone’s dad who made a pass when we were underage.”  All of these things, Wente noted, had happened to her. She argued that we should not pretend that these everyday incidents were the equivalent of actual rape. A few days later a retired (female) police officer wrote to the editor to point out that every one of the things that had happened to Wente was now illegal.

I thought about this for a while as I reviewed my own past. I also wondered if I should write about this at all on my own human rights blog.  Is it too personal, or should an older woman who is a human rights scholar write about this topic?  

I recently read an article by the distinguished geologist and memoirist, Hope Jahrens (Lab Girl, 2016)  that convinced me all older women should speak out. Jahrens wrote about how one of her best ever female students was considering leaving science because of sexual harassment by a professor.  According to Jahrens, this is one of the major reasons there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields: women keep leaving because there is nothing they can do to stop the harassment. If you are working with the single most distinguished professor in your field, and he harasses you, what do you then do?  Find another supervisor and lost grant money? Switch universities and lose grant money? Or leave the profession entirely?

Nothing really terrible every happened to me. In 41 years as a professor, preceded by 10 as a student, no professor, student or colleague ever sexually harassed me. Perhaps this is because I have a sharp tongue, am relatively self-confident for a woman (by Canadian standards, anyway) or because by the 1980s there were strict controls about harassment in Canadian universities.

I did have a few incidents when I was younger. When I was eleven a man entered the bedroom I was sharing with my sister at a summer cottage, but I woke and called for my father before anything much could happen; my parents called the police. When I was seventeen a man exposed himself in the lobby of a building I was passing: I didn’t call the police, nor did I report it to any older person. When I was eighteen a boss made what we would now call an “inappropriate” remark to me, but I made a caustic reply, and he never bothered me again (though I heard from another girl about something truly appalling he’d said to her.)

When I was 21 a man lurking in the book stacks of the McGill Library exposed himself to me; a friend and I chased him into the arms of a security guard. That guard called the chief of security, who interviewed the man and then told me that he was a visiting professor from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I agreed not to press charges if he would visit a psychiatrist, as I was concerned about what would happen to him if I did and then he had to go home to a Communist country. You might think in retrospect that I should have pressed charges, but I could not take that responsibility and I am still glad I did not.

Once when I was a young professor, I attended a party for a distinguished visitor given by one of my husband's colleagues.  The visitor, who was drunk, grabbed me in a way that even then would have been considered assault.  I didn't say anything because I didn't want my husband to attack him, I didn't want to spoil the party, and I figured no one but my husband (whom I told later) would believe me anyway. 

In my first year as a professor (1975-76) I had a colleague who kept a large semi-pornographic poster of a nude woman in his office. It bothered me, and I assume it bothered his students.  In 1991, I had a meeting with a Dean (now deceased) in his office: he had a framed poster on his wall of a nude woman tied to a chair with a bag over her head, implying she was about to be tortured. I didn’t say anything in either of these two cases, in the latter because I was afraid the Dean would take revenge on me in some way if I said anything.

So that’s my #MeToo story. Nothing too dramatic, nothing seriously dangerous, nothing warranting the label “victim,” though some these of incidents were illegal and others would be considered inappropriate in a university setting now. It was, as Wente said, a normal part of being female at the time. But it’s a good thing it isn’t considered a normal part of being female any more.  And it is a human rights matter.




Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Nazism Then and Now

Nazism Then and Now

Back in Germany in the 1930s, my father had a second cousin who drove a taxi. He was a Jew and a Communist. One day some Nazi cab drivers beat him to death. No one did anything about it: it was OK to murder Communist Jews in those days.

Nazi Brownshirts at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I remembered this story while thinking about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend (August 13, 2017), where there was a legal demonstration by American Nazis and their sympathizers. The demonstration was ostensibly to protest a decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Southern slaveholder and rebel who led the Confederate Troops against the legitimate government of the United States in the American Civil War of 1861-65. There was also a counter-demonstration. One of the Nazis drove a car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators and killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman. Nineteen other people were wounded, including one young man severely beaten around the head. On August 13 it was reported that five people were in critical condition in hospital.

But you might say there’s no equivalence between Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and Nazism in the US now. There’s still a free press and free speech in the US, and many people denounced the white supremacist and anti-Semitic marchers. The man who drove the car was arrested (though I’m not sure about the people who beat up and injured the other 19 people). Even President Donald Trump (sort-of) denounced the Nazis, though he claimed there were good people on both sides. That’s hard to believe if you watched (admittedly liberal, anti-racist) CNN, and saw footage of protesters shouting “blood and soil” (a slogan from 1930s Nazism) and “Jews will not replace us!” (I’m not sure what the latter slogan meant).

But there is a kind of equivalence between German and American Nazism. With all the other stuff going on, we forget that the unarmed counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville were extremely brave people. They faced a group of heavily armed men carrying assault rifles; Virginia is an “open-carry” state, where citizens can legally carry weapons. According to an African-American pastor whom I saw last night on CNN, they also carried improvised weapons such as bottles filled with urine and cans with concrete. So as shocking as events in Virginia were, we should be grateful that nothing worse happened. One or more of the Nazi terrorists could easily have started firing and killed scores of people.

The US has two sets of laws that would be inconceivable in any other Western democratic state. The first is gun laws that permit practically anyone to buy outrageously dangerous weapons. The second is unrestrained freedom of speech laws. In Canada, if people shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans at a demonstration, they could be charged under hate-speech laws. Laws prohibiting late speech are also permitted by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a Convention that the US originally opposed because it would have prohibited some of its racial segregation laws. I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech, but I also support hate-speech laws.

Some of the white supremacists wore white robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wore military-style clothing. All of this was legal. To me, this looked like armed private militias, which are against the law in most countries. That the US tolerates such armed militias suggests a further resemblance to Nazi Germany. Hitler’s militias started making trouble in the 1920s, and by the 1930s many people tolerated them. 

I am not suggesting that the US is likely to become a Nazi state. I am suggesting that the new, proud and public Nazism we saw last week reflects a President and Administration who—if they are not white supremacists themselves—certainly seem to sympathize with those who are. The President denounced white supremacists and the KKK in what appeared to be a scripted speech on August 14, but then reneged on his denunciation the next day.  Probably his Jewish daughter and son-in-law had pressured him to say something he didn’t really believe. 

When he reneged on his condemnation, Trump asked, “who’s next?”  If we remove statues of Robert E. Lee, he asked, will people soon want to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, early US Presidents who were also slave owners?  Perhaps that’s a good idea. Alternately, all statues of former slave-owners, or buildings built by slaves, or universities funded by slave-owners, should have plaques placed on them, explaining their relationship to slavery.

I am not one of those Canadians who goes around flaunting moral superiority to Americans. To the contrary, I support all those American liberals who find themselves having to defend freedom of the press, racial equality and other liberal values against the extremist and possibly Nazi-sympathizing individuals who currently inhabit the White House.

Even worse are those Republicans who don’t hold white supremacist or anti-Semitic views, but who support Trump because he promises to lower their taxes. Just as in Germany, it’s not only the disenfranchised working class that supports Nazis. Many of Hitler’s supporters were rich, upper-class people who wanted to protect their property and privilege against the Communist threat. There’s no such threat in the US, but there are still a lot of rich people who want to become even wealthier than they already are.

This shameful behavior by Republicans is even more a threat to American democracy that the horrible Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville last weekend.


Monday, 10 July 2017

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Recently (June 2017) I read The Autograph Man, a 2002 novel by Zadie Smith. She is the daughter of a Caribbean mother and an English father, who often writes about “multicultural” issues of various kinds. The protagonist of The Autograph Man is Jewish, son of a non-Jewish Chinese father and a Jewish mother (presumably of European descent).  His friends are an African-American Jew and two “white” Jews. 

The novel is full of rather learned, if not arcane, references to things Jewish, especially the Talmud and the Kabbalah, so much so that I wondered if Smith were Jewish. Apparently she is not, and apparently there was a debate at its time of publication about whether The Autograph Man was a case of cultural appropriation. Perhaps only Jews should be permitted to write funny novels about Jews, incorporating religious references along the way.

About the same time as I reads Zadie Smith’s book, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, one of his series of novels about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. McCall Smith is a white man, an eminent professor of medical law, born in 1948 in what is now Zimbabwe. Precious Ramotswe is a much beloved fictional character, a “traditionally built” middle-aged African lady of tremendous human warmth, perspicacity and kindness. I wondered if anyone had ever accused McCall Smith of cultural appropriation, or whether, perhaps, at least some Botswanans are pleased that so many people are reading about their peaceful, well-governed country, sadly still a rarity in Africa.

While reading these novels I thought about a quite acrimonious debate that’s been occurring in Canada lately, about whether white (or indeed non-white) “settler” Canadians should “appropriate” the culture of indigenous Canadians. In this debate, anyone who is not indigenous is a settler who has participated in the theft of indigenous lands, regardless of how recently he or she may have come to Canada. The question is whether people who are not indigenous, or who have only partial and remote indigenous ancestry, should write novels about indigenous people.  One of the people caught up in this debate is the novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been accused of mis-representing himself as indigenous while writing novels about indigenous Canadians.  Apparently he is of mixed ancestry, and was interested in exploring that part of his ancestry that was indigenous.

Several Canadians of European ancestry have been caught up in this, according to various newspaper reports I’ve read. An artist named Amanda PL (yes, that’s correct) was going to exhibit at Visions Gallery in Toronto, but then people started noticing her paintings’ strong resemblance to those of Norval Morrisseau, an indigenous artist. Perhaps she thought her paintings were an homage to Morrisseau, or perhaps she was merely exploring indigenous art, but she was accused of cultural appropriation. The gallery cancelled her exhibit.

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of a small literary magazine called Write, a quarterly published by the Writers’ Union of Canada. He edited a special issue of works by indigenous writers, but in the same issue he wrote an editorial defending non-indigenous writers’ right to engage in “cultural appropriation” by writing about indigenous characters. In fact, he even went so far as to propose, presumably tongue-in-cheek, an “appropriation prize.” Several non-indigenous Canadians tweeted their support for the prize (undoubtedly a stupid thing to do: irony does not play out well on Twitter).

Then Jonathan Kay, Editor of The Walrus magazine, Canada’s answer to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, resigned, apparently in response to social media criticism. Kay’s sin was to write an article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, defending the right to debate the question of cultural appropriation.

One question I asked myself when reading accounts of these debates was whether the resignations constituted censorship. Many literary magazines in Canada receive subsidies from various levels of government, as does The Walrus, and I wondered whether governments had some responsibility to protect the freedom of speech of editors and contributors. Probably they did not, as long as Niedzviecki and Kay resigned voluntarily.

On the other hand, I worry about the arts and academic atmosphere in Canada. I suspect that some individuals who adjudicate grant applications believe that you should not write about cultures other than your own. Some people also think that you shouldn’t be involved in indigenous affairs if you are not indigenous yourself, even if you are trying to help them, as a couple of my white students and colleagues have discovered over the years.

So where does this leave me on the debate about cultural appropriation? I enjoyed both The Autograph Man and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. I think Zadie Smith had every right to explore Jewish liturgy and lore and create funny Jewish characters, whether or not she is Jewish. I also think Alexander McCall Smith should continue writing his books about Botswana. 

And I think Canadians of all ancestries should be permitted to explore indigenous history and culture. Some may do so in ways that are insensitive or offensive and if so, their critics will have every right to say so. Similarly, if artwork is bad or derivative, critics can say so. But other writers and artists may be able to imagine the lives of indigenous people in ways that are sensitive, enlightened, and even contribute to the remediation of the grievous ills that indigenous people in Canada have suffered over the centuries. This is cultural exploration, a common way for writers and artists to explore—often with sympathy and grace—the lives of people unlike themselves.


It was foolish at best, disrespectful at worst, to propose a cultural appropriation prize. A little civility goes a long way. On the other hand, I have very little respect for those who countenance censorship by social media. Freedom of speech and expression are important human rights, and they are so with good reason. No one should be allowed to stop anyone from expressing himself solely on account of his real or presumed racial, ethnic, or any other identity.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Human Rights in Africa: Guest Blog by Chidi Odinkalu

Three Decades On, the Protection of Human Rights in Africa Comes of Age?
(Note: Chidi Odinkalu is a distinguished Nigerian human rights scholar and activist.  He originally posted this blog on the site of the Africa program of the London School of Economics, where at the time of posting he was Senior Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights. You can read more about Chidi here: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/people/chidi-odinkalu  I am re-posting this article on my blog with Chidi’s permission. I have added my own set of pictures)
Chidi Odinkalu
When the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 2 November 1987, as the continent’s pioneer regional human rights oversight institution, few thought of it as anything other than a plaything of the continent’s big men.
The pioneer Chair of the Commission was the personal lawyer to Gabon’s long-serving President, Omar Bongo. His Vice was a senior Egyptian Ambassador. The rest of the Commission was made of the Interior Ministers to Congo’s President Sassou Nguesso and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Mali’s Foreign Minister; three very senior judges from Botswana, Senegal and Tanzania respectively, a law professor from Nigeria and two other lawyers from Uganda and Zambia. The only woman was Mrs Esther Tchouta-Moussa, the pioneer Secretary of the Commission borrowed from the Secretariat of the AU’s predecessor, Organisation of African Unity (OAU), where she worked as Legal Adviser.
Many people justifiably doubted whether this body could confront or address the challenge of protecting human rights on the continent. While most members among the initial composition of the Commission did not necessarily bring personal credibility and expertise to the question of human rights, they enjoyed access to rulers around the continent, an invaluable position for laying the foundation for regional human rights institutions in Africa.

Recognising the political context in which they operated, the Commissioners agreed to a goal of building a regional system that would “stand on a solid foundation” and for this purpose to “make slow but sure lasting progress.” With its Secretariat in makeshift headquarters in Banjul, The Gambia, and a Secretary borrowed from the OAU, the Commission took its first tentative steps towards fulfilling an ambitious mandate.
No Longer a Toothless Caricature
Three decades on, this modest beginning has spawned a regional human rights system for Africa that now comprises a very complex network of norms, institutions and procedures. It is hardly recognisable from its earliest incarnation. The Commission’s membership now has a majority of women and all of its recent Chairpersons in the past decade (including the incumbent) have all been female.
Since the Commission was established, the continent has adopted regional treaties on the rights and welfare of children, on the human rights of women and on internal displacement. Seven years after they came into existence, the African Commission persuaded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to authorise negotiations for an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 2016, the Court, with its headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, marked ten years of its existence.
The family of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo benefited from an African Court ruling that found that the previous government may have been complicit in his killing and in failing to find out who killed him.
This difficult history will be lost on many who reflect on the protection of human rights in Africa today. Around the continent now, the reality of institutions that receive complaints from citizens and can decide against powerful governments in cases of human rights violations is taken for granted. The African Commission itself has received over 600 of such petitions since it began and had decided nearly 450 by the end of 2016.
Countries that used to be reluctant to obey decisions of these bodies now do so. For instance, when the Commission found that Cameroon had violated human rights in unlawfully firing Judge Abdoulaye Mazou, the government reinstated him and paid compensation. Botswana reinstated the citizenship of opposition politician, John Modise and his children, after it had unlawfully rendered them stateless. The Commission saved the life of Nigerian General and diplomat Zamani Lekwot, sentenced to death by a military tribunal without a right of appeal. Burkina Faso has paid compensation to the family of slain journalist, Norbert Zongo, after the African Court found that the previous government may have been complicit in his killing and in failing to find out who killed him. The Commission now also has several special procedures patented for diverse human rights issues, including extra-judicial killings and human rights of women. It has issued standards and guidelines on various issues from free expression to counter-terrorism. Its Model Law on Access to Information in Africa has inspired the adoption of about 15 new national level laws on the same subject across the continent.
The record of the African Commission has made the continent’s leaders somewhat more accepting of regional supervision of human rights in Africa. Therefore, in the period since the Commission was established, the African Union has made human rights a fundamental principle for regional inter-governmental relations in Africa. Several of the continent’s economic integration bodies, including those in west, east and central Africa, have also established regional courts of justice, nearly all of them with jurisdiction over human rights. This could hardly have been foreseen when the African Commission first convened in 1987.
A Mixed Record and an Unfinished Agenda
Notwithstanding this evidence of progress, the record of Africa’s regional human rights courts and tribunals remains mixed. Despite some progress, they have been unable to prevent mass atrocities on the continent or to ensure firm accountability for them. The African Commission’s mission to Sudan in 2004, helped make the case for the international commission of inquiry that ultimately recommended the referral of situation in Darfur, Sudan, to the International Criminal Court. The Rwanda genocide must rank as one of the Commission’s greatest failures. Furthermore, other situations of grave violations of human rights, including Burundi and Central African Republic, have festered without effective regional response.
However, there is still a lot of room to reimagine Africa’s regional human rights system. Poor funding suggests a lack of commitment from the governments that should support it the most. The fact that Africans still cannot enjoy effective protection around their continent implies an unwholesome separation of economic from political rights. As Rwanda President Paul Kagame recently recommended in his review of the institutions and organs of the African Union (AU), there must be room to re-examine the multiplicity of overlapping regional courts and tribunals in order to save costs, reduce confusion and improve efficiency.
Above all, the persistence of mass atrocities challenges the aptitude of the continent’s institutions and the commitment of its governments. It is also the ultimate major test of the efficacy of Africa’s regional courts and tribunals. The continent cannot continue to outsource accountability to the rest of the world but the rest of the world cannot also continue to infantilise Africa or perpetuate the notion that the only place in which Africans who violate their own people can be effectively held to account is outside the continent. The recent conviction of Chad’s former President, Hissene Habre, by an AU-supported court in Senegal is evidence that it is possible to address high-level accountability for mass atrocities in Africa. This is why the proposal for an international crimes complement to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights should not be dismissed lightly.
Those 11 men and one woman who met in Addis-Ababa on 2 November 1987 at the First Ordinary Session of the African Commission may not have reflected anyone’s idea of traditional champions of human rights. Few of that pioneering set of commissioners would be eligible for election to the Commission today. That demonstrates how far the system has come. But they were also true to their word as the progress has been “slow but sure”. Whatever their flaws, the foundation of Africa’s regional system has been “solid”, if unspectacular. All this suggests that they were canny and, in their own way, committed to a better continent.



Thursday, 11 May 2017

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova; Book Note

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova: Book Note

In 1990 I visited what was then still the Soviet Union, as part of an exchange of American with Soviet human rights scholars (I am not American, but the delegation needed a woman, which I am). While there a Russian member of Amnesty International invited us to her apartment. This was a very big deal, as only a short time previously this woman would have been arrested for being in AI, let alone inviting us to her apartment. 

The apartment was in a very ugly block of high-rises in a suburb of Moscow. I noticed long, uncut grass around the blocks, providing a nice refuge for rats. Also there were no street names.  Our hostess explained that the authorities thought if there were street names, the CIA would be able to use them for its nefarious purposes. But you could find where you were going as the authorities had recently decided to paint different-colored decorations on the different blocks, so you could tell your visitors, for example, to visit the blue block.

I thought of this when I recently (April 2017) read Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009). Kassabova was born in 1973 and lived in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, until 1990, when her parents emigrated with her and her sister to New Zealand. The first half of the book recounts her childhood, and the second half her visits back to Bulgaria in the early 2000s. 

Kapka Kassabova
Like my Soviet host, Kassabova lived on a street without a name. Her parents, a professional couple, were interested in literature, arts, politics—all the usual “bourgeois” preoccupations of European intelligentsia—but knew better than to speak their minds about the Bulgarian dictatorship. In extremely cramped quarters, with neighbours who could hear everything and who might very well be spies, it was best to keep one’s own counsel. The price for minimal material security was political silence.

The poverty is pervasive and all-consuming. Kassabova’s father spends six months at a university in the Netherlands on an exchange program. Later, some Dutch colleagues come to visit. They comment that the the shops display many goods, and the Kassabova family does not explain that these are for display only: to get any of those goods requires connections and long wait times. At one point they all visit a rural village, and the Dutch colleagues suggest having a barbeque. Knowing that meat is very expensive for Bulgarians, they suggest that Kassabova’s parents bring potatoes. There is a mad scramble for the potatoes, eventually supplied by the hosts at the cottage where they are staying, as the family doesn’t want to admit to the Dutch people that even potatoes are scarce. The Dutch visitors, meanwhile, have given up on their idea of camping in Bulgaria after they discover how filthy the campground toilets are.

Kassabova glosses over some significant incidents in her life. In 1986 she was hospitalized for some time after contracting a “mysterious” immunodeficiency disease. This was, not coincidentally, just after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. When she returned home in the early 2000s, she learned than several people she’d known as a child, including fellow schoolchildren, had died of cancer.

Kassabova also discusses a little-noticed incident in Bulgaria’s history, shortly before the fall of communism in 1989. This was the de facto expulsion of about 300,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in the 1980s. As Kassabova says (p. 114) “The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State.” In principle, there was no need to go into exile: the government was demanding that all ethnic Turks change their names to Bulgarian ones: you couldn’t register your baby at birth, for example, if you hadn’t changed your name. But those who didn’t want to do so fled to Turkey. This expulsion was a precursor of the ethnic wars in former-Yugoslavia, which started only a few years later.

On one of her trips home Kassabova meets a woman on a train who tells her that she was one of the 1,643 infant and child prisoners in Bulgaria’s communist prison camps. According to her account (pp. 315-17) when her mother was being sent to the camp a guard grabbed her baby and dumped her into a pail of dirty water, since children would not be able to survive in the camps. Another guard fished her out and gave her back to her mother. This woman was trying to obtain compensation, so far unsuccessfully. She described the camp to Kassabova as equivalent to Nazi concentration camps for Jews, which I have no difficulty believing, although Communist camps were not overtly exterminationist. But then she told Kassabova that this was only for comparative purposes, as the Jews hadn’t really been exterminated and the Holocaust was a Zionist conspiracy. It’s a shame she knew so little about Bulgaria’s own history, as it was one of the few countries in Europe that refused to deport Jews during WWII.

I didn’t know anything about Bulgaria before I read this book, and I am terrible at geography, so I sat with an old hard-copy atlas beside me (National Geographic 1975!) while I read this memoir. Bulgaria is in South-east Europe, very close to Turkey: it has an extremely long history and in earlier times profited from the confluence of civilizations, Muslims mixing with Sephardic Jews and Armenians as well as with ethnic Bulgarians and Gypsies (as Kassabova refers to them).  Now it’s Bulgarians and Gypsies, the latter far worse off than the former. It’s a shame that in this otherwise engrossing and intelligent book, Kassabova seems rather insensitive to the plight of Bulgarian Roma.