Sunday, August 16, 2020

Thinking After Trump: Canada and US Foreign Policy

 On August 15th, the UN Security Council voted against a US motion to extend the international arms embargo against Iran. The US government then accounts it would use provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) as a way to “snapback” those sanctions for, what it views, as Iranian non-compliance with the original agreement. The problem, of course, as JCPOA members quickly told the US, it had already withdrawn form the agreement in 2018 and was now a non-member since it had, in effect, already rejected the provisions of the agreement two years ago. There are a series of serious issues that go along with this current situation that relate to the extension of US power, the shape of the world environment, and exactly how this situation should be assessed as part of US foreign policy. Virtually no members of the UN Security Council, for instance, supported the US move to re-impose sanctions and European powers were quick to tell the US it had not standing with the JCPOA. 


The question I want to address in this blog is different: what does this tell us about the issues facing Canada on the world stage and Canada’s relationship with the US. After the most recent US aluminum tariffs, I listed to a number of commentators say something like “what Canada needs to do now is simply wait until the coming US election which see the replacement of the current administration with a more reasonable one.” I know the issue is more complicated than that but, at first, I tended to agree.  What I am thinking about now is that there might be a way to Canada to build a new foreign policy relationship with the US in a post-Trump era. I don’t necessarily think this will be easy but I also think that there may be a range of Americans who are interested in the subject even if will undoubtedly be controversial in the US. 


At the heard of the Trump election strategy was the slogan “Make America Great Again.” These words carry with them an at least implicit foreign policy because they assert an international pre-eminence. The Trump administration’s foreign policy has sought this greatness even if its approach been far from consistent. Despite the fact that Trump has drawn on Republicans to direct it, his administration has disavowed many of the key aspects of his own party’s approach to world affairs. One should not have a lot of nostalgia here. The War on Terror, neo-liberalism, rejection of international environmental standards, among other things, were all hallmarks of Republican foreign policy. 


Historically, pre-Trump Republican foreign policy has not been popular either internationally or within Canada. But, key foreign policy thinkers associated largely, if not completely, with conservative politics have tended to argue that Canada needed to follow the lines laid down by the US. These people tended to self-style themselves as “realists.”  They tended to advocated hard power, close military and diplomatic connections to the US, and support for US foreign policy goals. They tended to reject what they saw as “moralism” in foreign policy, arguing that the only standard against which foreign policy should be measured was interests of state. This close connection to the US, they tended to argue, was good for Canada for three reasons. (#1) The US was the pre-eminent power in the world. By having a good relationship with the US, Canada gained power on the world stage, as it were, by riding on US coattails. (#2) Canada needed the US on its side because of the degree to which the Canadian economy was dependent on the US. The US could, should it have wanted, cripple our economy. (#3) The US was right most of the time anyway. Its opponents were terrorists and military dictators or authoritarian communist countries. 


Against this way of thinking about the world – Canada as a subservient ally of the US – was a different way of thinking about the world that is associated, in some measure, with the peacekeeping ideal. This way of thinking is most closely associated with liberal intellectuals and, to a significant extent, with the Liberal party, but that requires some nuance. The basics of this way of looking at the world were that Canada should have its own international identity and that there was nothing wrong with being on the side of the angels; that is: there was nothing wrong with morality. Indeed, it was good for Canada’s international reputation and good for Canadians who were well liked (at least compared to Americans) on the world stage. Canada found its foreign policy identity through constructive international engagement and multilateralism that allowed it to work together with other countries to accomplish positive ends and hedge in the power game. In other words, Canada’s aims were a stable, peaceful, and constructive international environment that limited the ability of “might makes right” politics by setting up international institutions that operated according to the rule of international law and some measure of global democracy (with votes vested in the nation-state).


I have no special clarity with regard to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It seems to me that when its history is written, studies will see it as based in a series of factors that include:


  • An effort to further free the US from multilateral and international commitments to extend its ability to use its own might makes right policy approach. That is: to have more of a free hand with regard to international affairs and not be bound by alliances, agreements, and the like. 
  • A belief in the power of personal relations with world leaders to address issues (say, by establishing a direct personal relationship with the Putin and Kim-Il Jong) as a way to address problems
  • A focus on economic deal-making, employing retaliatory threats, particularly with allies, in an effort to gain an edge. Allies and partners (say, Canada) were, in particular, viewed with suspicion.  The goal of US economic relations with Canada was not to further common goals. Instead, it looked more like neo-liberal mercantilism. The goal is to get something from, as an example, Canada. 


We don’t need to go over these points and I recognize that there are other considerations that need to be included to have a fuller discussion. What it does, however, is highlight the degree to which even Canadian conservatives will have a hard time buying into their formerly near unconditional support for the US international agenda. There are two key reasons for this. 


#1) Conservatives used to argue that bad relations with the US were a problem and they tended to fault Liberal-minded PMs (PET, Jean Chretien) for it. Their overt anti-Americanism, for instance, conservative thinkers and politicians argued, poisoned the relationship with the US and endangered both the Canadian economy and Canada’s international standing with it. It is now impossible to make this argument. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a government that has been more sensitive (the odd mistake to one side) and more concerned with not offending the US government than Justin Trudeau’s. Even at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Trudeau refrained from any public criticism of the United States and its government. During intense trade negotiations when US figures publicly hammered Canada, Canadian political leaders and trade negotiators were, more or less, silent. Yet, this silence has bought noting and cannot by anything because the current US government is not looking to get any support from Canada for anything. Canada’s support is, in fact, irrelevant to it.  What it wants from Canada is not agreement but, as it were, increased regulation of the Canadian economy. IOW, the result of being nice to the US is not economic gain but economic decline via production limitations. 


#2) It is impossible to pretend that the US has the global power and influence it had a number of years ago. Indeed, even a number of years ago that power was waning. US power and influence are not things of the past. I’ve read studies that talk about historical shifts in international affairs as if they were some sort of cycle. They are not. But, the US no longer commands the world stage the way it did during the Cold War or the New World Order eras. Economically, US domination is challenged not by a single country (although China gets a lot of press) but by an expanded international regionalization of power. Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Indian, Russia don’t wait for US permission for anything. They might be world leaders or they might aspire to this but they are in the process of carving out their own regionalized and international spheres of influence. The US finds itself as one of a series of global regional powers and that is the reality with which it has to grapple. 


I don’t expect that grappling to be easy. I don’t expect a lot of Americans will want to embrace it. And, I suspect that lot of Americans are looking simply to see themselves as “great again,” regardless of what that happens to mean. For Canada, however, it means that one end of a long-standing debate in Canadian foreign policy is over. There are good reasons to have a good relationship with the US and I will spell these out later, and the US economic connection is still important for Canada. But, whatever happens next for conservative approach to the US and Canadian foreign policy, it cannot be a return to the subservient ally approach of past days. What is equally important, I will indicate in my next blog, that the liberal alternative might also be inoperative. If history has moved past Canadian realism and its design to be close to the US, it might also have moved past its liberal alternative as well. 


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Travel Bans and Constitutional Challenges

This first of what will undoubtedly be a number of constitutional challenges to inter-provincial travel restrictions is set to take place in Newfoundland today. Here is a report on this challenge. There are other organizations and other citizens who are also challenging various restrictions in other provinces. In the case of Newfoundland, the restriction created a heartbreaking situation where an individual was not allowed in the province at the time of a parent's death. Travel restrictions are complicated issues and need to be assessed as such. I favour them and I am about to explain why, but I also want to explain that they are often poorly understood. I hope the courts uphold the restrictions and, if they do not, I would urge governments to revisit their legislation or use the notwithstanding clause (if applicable in this situation) to maintain restrictions while the emergency situation remains.  In making this argument, I am not trying to say that we should not feel sorry for individuals who need to travel for compassionate reasons. Indeed, I think we can make exceptions to the rules and this might be proper grounds for an exception.  But, my point is that we need to be very careful before we argue that an individual's constitutional right to mobility (which does exist; this is not made up) trumps might right to security of the person (aka, to live). 

There are several reasons I support these restrictions: 

The first point to note is that there is no such thing as a travel ban. Inter-provincial travel was restricted but it was not eliminated. That restriction fell onto most would-be travelers, including myself.  But, there was movement across borders where that movement was deemed necessary and there was always the possibility of applying for an exemption. I live in a small town close to the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Most traffic across this border was stopped (and some people turned back) but not all. Essential travel, transportation of goods, and some people who worked on the other side of the border went across.  This is important because it is not a technicality. It is important because we are dealing with a restriction. That restriction was serious and it did effect people who needed to travel for compassionate reasons. But, travel was not prevented. The technicality here is that we are dealing with an issue of degree not kind. The intent of these restrictions was to prevent the spread of Covid-19 (and I will address that below) and the target audience was non-essential travel, which is the vast majority of inter-provincial travel. In fact, I had not realized how often I traveled across the border to shop, go to dinner, see friends or family, go for a hike, etc. The intent, then, was not to stop all travel but to restrict travel that did not need to take place, like mine. 

Second, this is a temporary measure. The constitution -- and precedence -- allows the state to take temporary actions that it would, in other circumstances, not take. To the best of my knowledge, these kinds of restrictions are nearly unprecedented. That is: they are unique in Canadian history and were designed to respond to a unique challenge. The last global pandemic (Spanish Flu) may have killed 50 million people. By any account this is an emergency situation. The argument against border restrictions seems to be either (a) there is no emergency (which is empirically untrue) or (b) an individual's right to move across the border trumps the authority of the state to introduce temporary measures to respond to an emergency situation. This is an interesting argument -- and one I will address below -- but it should not detract from the fact that we are not talking about a permanent restriction. In effect, the argument against restrictions is suggesting that even temporary emergency measures cannot impede the exercise of individual rights. I find this ethically challenging but the key point to make here is that that is simply not consistent with Canadian history (where temporary emergency measures were introduce to respond to Nazism, terrorism, natural disasters, and other health emergencies) nor the constitution. In point of fact, and admittedly provincial governments may not have used the full scope of constitutional powers available to them, the Canadian constitution provides for precisely this kind of matter through the notwithstanding clause. This clause (the use of which should be restricted as I have argued before in this blog) was created precisely to recognize that there could be unforeseen emergency situations that required the temporary suspension of Charter rights. 

What does this mean? It means that the proponents in this case find themselves in an odd situation. They have to use part of the constitution (mobility rights) to argue against another another part (the recognition that there are emergency situations) should not have effect. Said differently, the proponents in this case need to argue that the constitution both has and does not have authority at the same time. It has authority for mobility rights but not for emergency situations. They must use constitutional authority to subvert constitutional authority. It is, I think, the contradictory nature of this argument -- at once arguing that the constitution should and should not have force and effect -- that leads, I suspect, most opponents of restrictions to argue against them on other grounds (for instance, that there is not really a health threat) because they inherently recognize that this argument is going to be difficult to carry off precisely because it is embroiled on the horns of a contradiction. 

Third, I full recognize that in this case of the individual bringing this case in Newfoundland that the exemption status through which she originally tried to gain access to the province did not have worked well in practice. In other words, an error may indeed have been made. There is appreciable evidence of this: the decision was reversed upon further consideration. IOW, a horrible mistake was made. That is not, I think, at issue. The issue, in my view, is the proposed remedy: to eliminate restrictions. In Canadian law, there is a principle -- by which the courts operate -- called least intrusive remedy. What this means is that the response to the problem should be proportionate to the problem causing the least possible disruption to the legal infrastructure of society. Thus, for instance, Canadian courts rarely "strike down" laws because that would be a serious and intrusive response to a problem. They usually suggest that government's fix the problem (as opposed to the courts) and when they do fix the problem, they usually try to do so in a way that preserves the rest of the law. 

Here is an example: the marriage act (or, whatever its precise name) was never "struck down" to allow same sex marriage. Instead, the courts, after multiple warnings to the federal government, removed the words "between and a man and a woman" (again, or whatever the precise wording was) and inserted "between two people." Why do this? Because, in this case, the rest of the law was not at issue. No one was asking the courts to get rid of marriage. Instead, a defined group of people were, in fact, asking for access to that institution. Moreover, striking down (getting rid of) the entire law would create a legal mess: no one would, any longer, be legally married because the law would no longer exist. You can see why this principle -- least intrusive remedy -- is, in fact, a good way to proceed with judicial review.

In the case of travel restrictions we need to ask if striking down temporary travel restrictions that respond to a national health emergency is, in fact, the best remedy to address what may have been an mistake. I recognize the pain of the individual involved, but I would still argue against the idea that a constitutional challenge is the best way to address a mistake. Even if the courts were to find in her favour, I'd suggest that there are better remedies (ordering the state to develop a better appeal process, for instance) and that striking down a law like this should be a last resort. I'd also argue that the process of interaction between the courts and legislatures should continue. Canadian courts have been notoriously reticent to assert authority over matters that they -- and most people -- view as falling within the competence of the legislatures (the elected representatives of the people). The courts have not rejected the idea that they exercise judicial review over laws (brought to them by citizens), but they have been unwilling to impose remedies without first allowing legislatures a chance to fix the problem. The recent ruling regarding safe third country legislation is a case in point. Here, the courts recognized that this legislation infringed Charter rights but did not get rid of the law. Instead, they imposed a  time limit (six months) and accorded the Parliament that length of time to address the matter. Said differently: the court said "here is a problem that needs to be fixed but we would rather the elected representatives of the people fix it. If you won't in a reasonable length of time, this is what we will do ...."  I could see something similar in this case. I'd disagree with it, I think, but I could see something similar whereby the courts said "you know, we have problems with this but we will let the legislatures fix it up and you have X length of time to do so."

Finally, if it were me and I were lawyers for Newfoundland, I would be arguing the ethics of lifting travel restrictions while a health threat exists. I have noticed a few people in Canada following the lead of American protesters saying something like they don't need to wear masks (I suspect this law will be challenged in Canada, too). And this is similar. I commented before on the way in which travel restrictions impeded access to summer cottages. The people making the case against travel restrictions have a tough job because they don't need to argue just for an unusual remedy (striking down a law because of a mistake in its administration) or against the idea of emergency responses (which are by nature temporary). They also need to argue that one's right to move across a border to, for whatever reason, supersedes my right to safety. 

This is basic political theory. There are here two operative principles. The first is that the state has a basic obligation to ensure the security of its citizens. That is one of its priority and paramount objectives and the reason it provides, say, police and fire protection and a coast guard. The state can be about many things but one of the key things it must be about to security of its citizens. This is, in fact, so important that we have a name for states that cannot do this: failed states. The second consideration is the scope of individual rights. I've noted this before but the old principle is still a good beginning point in discussions on this matter: my right ends where it infringes the rights of another. I might like punching people, as a fictional example, but in that case I need to take up boxing. I can't just walk down the street and start hitting people. My exercise of my right cannot impede other people's exercise of their rights. My rights, to state this clearly, are not superior to their rights. Each person's rights are equal. 

In this case, the opponents of travel restrictions need to argue precisely the opposite of both of these points. They have to argue that the state should not be concerned with the security of its citizens and that their right to mobility is more important than my right to, say, not get a death-inducing disease. On a personal level, I find these arguments difficult to sustain. 

I will sum up: the people bringing this case are not doing anything wrong. They are doing what we all should do in a society that is supposedly governed by the rule of law. They are taking their case to court. That is their right and they are exercising it in a responsible way. No one should fault them for it and we can and should learn from the specific cause and re-assess how we exercise and show compassion to people in the midst of grieving and traumatic personal and familial events. No one should fault people for this case. I still don't think they should win and, if they do, I think there are other and better approaches to dealing with the problem. I'd argue that travel restrictions are working and they are allowing us to gain control over pandemic, at least in a few countries. I'd be worried if we took a step away from that. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Questions of Value: Tuition and Online Education

As I was driving home yesterday morning, a CBC news story addressed what might become a mounting problem for UNB and other universities: tuition increases.  Student leaders at UNB are upset that tuition will rise by approximately 2% this year. Mt A -- the place where I work -- and most universities, to the best of my knowledge, are all looking at tuition increases. To paraphrase the student concerns: they are being charged more for an inferior quality of education. Their argument runs like this: the type of online education UNB (and other institutions) are rapidly trying to develop for this fall is a substitute -- a second best option -- for an institution that normally provides education through other means. In the case of UNB, this other means is largely face-to-face in-class instruction. My best guess is that about half of Canadian universities have announced that their classes will be online this fall and the other half (with notable exceptions) are making provisions to dramatically change their modes of instruction, to dramatically expand online content delivery, and/or establish contingency plans that would allow for a rapid shift to online delivery should there be a Covid-19 "second wave" that occasions a second suspension of in-person teaching.

I mention this not because I actually want to weigh in on the issue of online teaching and how universities are preparing for the Fall 2020 semester. I've been involved in planning at Mount A and it is difficult (and, oddly and interestingly rewarding but that is another story). Instead, I mention this because I want to talk about the question of value. I don't inherently disagree with the UNB student leaders. I'd need to think through their position in considerably more detail before I had an opinion on it. Instead, what I'd like to do is talk about who we assess value and how that is translated into dollar terms because that is, after all, what the student leaders were discussing. I want to talk about this because this seems to me to be a good example of a disjuncture in our culture. In one important way UNB student leaders are wrong. Again, I might agree with them and I might not agree with them, but they are wrong in the sense that in a capitalist society (like we have), dollar value (or, price) is determined differently than they suggest. It is this different that I find interesting and culturally important. 

How do we determine value? How do we determine worth? How do we determine price?  These are not all the same thing. In a capitalist society, price is determined by a series of variables that we call, for shorthand, supply and demand. I buy things at the price that I am willing to pay for them.  Price is a market indication. A particular business offers to sell something -- say, a chair -- at a certain price. The consumer -- say, me -- now decides whether or not they want to pay that price. If I don't but I still want to the chair, I might make a counter offer, In effect I say "I want to buy the chair but I am only willing to pay X (X being less than the asking price) for it." The seller now has to make a decision: do they accept my offer or make their own counter, counter offer or do they let me walk away?  You could think of this kind of negotiation -- a market transaction -- as something akin to a Facebook "buy and sell" group. People put stuff up, ask a price, and potential buyers accept the price or make counter offers. 

Now,  I recognize that outside of Facebook and garage sales, and other like venues this does not seem to happen. Most of the time, I go into a store, see a price and decide whether or not I will, buy the product after some quick calculation about my own needs, desire, and disposable income. Yet, there are echoes of the market negotiation I described even in this. While I might not negotiate with the clerk (who would likely not have the authority to change a price anyway), I do see the price as an offer (I will sell you X for $Y) and I decide whether or not I will pay that price. I know people who will not pay that price. They spend ages shopping for bargains. If enough people don't buy something and there is, then, too much stock, the business will put their items on sale, lowering the price. In effect, there is a bit of a collective negotiation going on. By not buying the product, we are telling the business that the price is too high and they need to lower it if a bunch of us are going to buy their product. Is this good? Is this bad? Capitalism is silent on this question. It simply is the way prices are supposed to function. The value of a product is not fixed. It is determined by what someone is willing to pay. 

What the UNB student leaders showed us was another way of thinking about value. If you were to ask me, I'd suggest that their way of thinking is closer to the way most of us operate.  The students drew a connection between their assessment of a products value (how good is it) and suggested that the price should fall because the quality is not as good the past product (that is, last year's education).  That is, instead of asking "how much is this worth to me?" they are trying to make an assessment of the intrinsic value of the product and suggest that this should vary price. In the first, capitalist, example, price is determined by what a person is willing to pay. In the second, let's say non-capitalist, example, price is determined by the product's inherent value determined against a range of criteria.

Note, too, that that there are ethical overtones to this argument. It is wrong to charge someone more for something that is not as good as the product you delivered last year. Sometimes the language of "deserves" is featured as in "student deserve a break."  

Now, without wading into the debate about this year's tuition, this is, I recognize, a complex situation and I won't throw up smoke and mirrors by pretending to have an easy answer. I will say something about tuition and education in a future blog, but for now I am focusing on the issue of value and price because what we see in this discussion is not just a disagreement over the price of a product. In fact, that happens all the time. It happens every time someone buys a car or a house or waits for a sale or goes online to comparison shop. Capitalism is built around differences of perspective on price.  That is, in part, what we call "the market."  What we have here is two different theories of value. 

What the UNB students are saying is that tuition is not a product like others. Its value needs to be set in a different way (than what the market will bear) and that there are ethical, pedagogical, social justice, etc., consideration that should weigh in on the price of tuition. For reasons I will explain later, I agree with this perspective and I think most people who work in and/or administer universities do too. What it shows us, however, and this is the key point, is that a discussion of tuition is not just a discussion of tuition. It draws together not simply different perspectives but different ways of looking at prices and values. The result is that different stakeholders can end up talking past each other, not because they inherently disagree with each other (or, think alternative perspectives are misguided) but because they look at issues in dramatically different ways built on different preconditions. 

All that sounds very vague but it begs a question:  what are we to do about it? How do we stop talking past each other? How do we develop a meeting of minds on the subject? That is obviously easier said than done. I am sure that there are a fair number of people who actually want to be part of this discussion; I'd suggest that this is precisely what is needed. We need to do our jobs -- to be professors, for instance -- this year coming but we also need to initiate a discussion about the role and place of post-secondary education in our society.  This discussion will be long but a first step, I think, is to begin from a consideration of value. If we want to look at the value of post-secondary education, what is it? How do we calculate it? Is there a price point -- tuition -- on which we can agree? None of these discussions will be easy but starting to think about the value of education outside of its economic value might be a starting point. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Same Old? The Morass of Canadian Conservatism

In the wake of the 2015 election and Andrew Sheer's inability to gain any traction with the Canadian public, Canadian conservatism has been in a tail spin. That spin has continued through Covid-19 as the federal Conservatives attempt to find some principled opposition to federal policy that also does not make them look completely insensitive to the desperate needs of ordinary Canadians. This problem has been complicated by the fact that their provincial allies have been working closely with the federal government and supporting (more-or-less) the same policies. Provincial conservatives in Canada (PCs, Sask Party, CAQ, UCPs) have also recognized that they cannot politicize the pandemic in a manner similar to what has happened in the US.  This means that the normal federal/provincial bickering has been shelved and given the federal Tories little ammunition to suggest that there is serious disagreement with the course on which the federal Liberals have set the country.

So ... where are federal Conservatives in Canada?  What is the state of Canadian conservatism? How have conservatives responded to Covid-19? Will they try to draw on a soft alt.right basis of support, the politics of discontented exaggeration that I noted in my last blog? What are the Conservative's options? 

In this blog I want to argue that the Conservatives (and their intellectual allies) have done things wrong. To be sure, they had a tough road to hoe. I will address that. But, they are also missing an opportunity to redefine conservatism in Canada and a potentially vital political program that offers an alternative to liberalism. The NDP is actually working hard on this from the left-wing of the political spectrum. They may succeed, or they may fail, but they are, at least, working to redefine what a progressive left-wing politics means as a political program that can be implemented. So far the Conservatives seem to have done little more than squander their opportunities. Let me start by asking why this matters and then turn to some first steps conservatives need to take. 

Why Conservatism Matters

I often feel compelled to note somewhere in blogs I write that I am not a liberal nor a member of the Liberal Party. I do that because conservatively minded people I know periodically say I am one and that, in their minds, provides a way to dismiss my comments. I think it is fairly evident that I'm not a conservative and I have little interest in nor support for the trajectory of the Conservative Party of Canada. I have also been deeply troubled by the New Brunswick PCs and their adoption of a soft anti-bilingualism as well as their support for hydro-fracking and I find some of the comments made, over the years, by Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, among others, odious. The decision of Kenney and Scott Moe, for instance, to double down on fossil fuel is, in my view, not just bad policy but shockingly short sighted. In even the short term, this approach -- and effort to force the feds to support a dying industry and coerce other provinces to do the same -- even hurts their own provinces. It looks to squeeze that last few dollars it can out of an industry that is past its best before date, as opposed to providing sound leadership to take their provinces into the future. Let me make this clear: I don't like these people and I don't like them -- much less Stephen Harper -- for a bunch of reasons that relates to what I will argue are clear and manifest policy failures. 

I still want to argue that conservatism matters both as an ideology and a political force and that is, I fully recognize, a tough argument to make. It is a tough argument to make because conservatives have not made it easy to argue that they should matter. I don't want to engage in nostalgia, but there was a time when politically and ideologically conservatism meant something in Canada and, most particularly, it meant a different way of seeing the country.  There were a lot of problems with that way. Canadian conservatism and the Conservative Party (which went by a number of names) was deeply implicated in colonialism. Its members were often xenophobic and it dragged its heals on a host of measure from LGBTQi+ equality, to women's right to control their bodies, to bilingualism. We cannot neglect these considerations because they are part of the history of Canadian conservatism and they part of the shadow from which Canadian conservatism needs to emerge. 

And, this is my key point. Conservatism cannot be simply the defense of the way things used to be. Whether it was a success or a failure, the kind of thinking that historically people like George Grant or Joe Clark did about conservatism and what it entails has been lacking. One might end up disagreeing with, say, Clark's "community of communities" or Grant's "public good" and rural organic society, but the important point is that they signified something other than opposition to the liberal policies of their day and a desire to freeze time. What does, for instance, social conservatism mean? It has come to mean opposition to LGBTQi+ equality and women's control over their bodies. Quite frankly, this is not social conservatism in the sense that it does not offer a vision of what a socially conservative society looks like other than rejecting the rights of different Canadians to control their lives, be equal in employment, make decisions about their own bodies, and not have to hide who they are. This type of perspective makes conservatism a small tent: it begins its entry into public discourse by rejecting the rights of others and this is a point on which it will not win ground because it is (a) wrong and intensely problematic from an ethical perspective and (b) stakes out a political and social space that the vast majority of Canadians cannot accept.  What it means is that to win election, conservatives have to convince Canadians that they, in fact, are not who they are claiming to me be or that other issues (say, the economy) outweigh the negative aspects of their politics. 

This matters not because I want conservatives to win or even agree with what they say. It matters for two reasons. First, on a simple level, because it shrinks the Canadian political spectrum.  There may be good reason for this and that can be a discussion for another day, but the failure of alternative political perspectives ultimately means that what we have as Canadians is a more limited choice of political futures. In effect, what the CPC offers Canadians is not a different vision of the future, but a less equal, less generous, less humane version of what the Liberals are putting on the table.  Second, and following from that, the morass into which Canadian conservatism has fallen legitimizes perspectives that never should have been legitimized. For instance, it tells people who oppose equality that they are not opposing equality (that is, being, quite frankly, bigoted) but guardians of an important ideology: social conservatism.  With regard to, say, opposition to Indigenous rights, it tells people that there is *no* conservative way to build positive relations between First Peoples and Canadians and that Canadians are legitimate in rejecting reconciliation as a meaningful goal for their country. Are these really messages we want to send? 

The Tough Road

Canadian conservatism entered this year in a mess. It was in a mess before Covid-19 and the pandemic has not been kind to it.  CPC leadership contender Peter MacKay called the 2019 election loss the equivalent of taking a shot on an empty net and missing. That is not 100% accurate but the metaphor captures some of the situation. In 2019, the CPC seemed to have the cards set in its favour. It had experienced candidates, they were facing a weak PM who had back-tracked on key issues, broad provincial discontent with the federal Liberals, disaffection among a significant section of the Canadian population, and what appeared to be little competition for Canadian votes form the NDP and BQ. Said in other words, the CPC could have done what opposition parties want to do: gain power by providing an alternative to the government that speaks to Canadians. 

This perception disguised a deeper level of malaise. Canadians never warmed to Sheer, the first past the post political system worked in the Liberals favour (and there is some irony in this in that CPC fought so hard to maintain it), and the CPC's association with some provincial conservatives became a liability.  Canadian conservatism appeared internally divided, hypocritical, and reactionary.  Sheer and his supporters seemed to have little direction and seemed to be trapped in their own base of support. They offered Canadians not a different future but a recycled version of a past that most Canadians had already rejected. 

For Canadian conservatives, there were other warning signs that they should have read and these are some of the things that conservatives will need to jettison if they want to provide a real alternative to the governing Liberals. First, disaffection with Trudeau was odd and gendered. The anti-Trudeau cohort and symbolism (particularly but not exclusively the gun lobby, big oil, and the carbon copy "yellow vests"), were the kind of votes the CPC felt they needed but also the kind of voices that sound good only in an echo chamber. The idea that the solution to Canada's problems lay in a dying carbon-based energy industry was simply difficult for Canadians outside Alberta and Saskatchewan to believe and should have been difficult for conservatives in those provinces to believe as well. 

Second, conservative parties have been colonized by the very industries that they have to regulate if they are in government. In particular, the Saskatchewan Party and the United Conservative Party often appear as little more than fanboys for the oil and gas industry. What if you have legitimate environmental concerns? The conservative answer is that the economy is more important and so you need to hold your nose and vote for them. When pressed on this issue on the news one day, I listened to a conservative commentator trot out Brian Mulroney era policies to explain since the feds had once done something for Quebec, they needed now to support oil and gas in Alberta and Saskatchewan come what may. Hard feelings die hard. It is true, but as I listened to him I wondered how many people in the audience actually knew about something that happened 25 or 30 years ago? What is more, this commentator missed a chance to do something profound. Instead of fanning regional discontent (which was what he did), he could have offered alternatives to address the economic problems of those provinces. For whatever reason, he chose not to. 

Finally, the conservatives need to get recognize that they need more than an election issue to win. In the absence of doing the hard work of figuring out what conservatism means in 21st-century Canada, conservative commentators and political figures have moved through Covid-19 as if they were ready to form a government. They might be, but it won't be a good government. They have desperately searched for an issue and settled on the idea that their route to electoral victory rests in trying to portray Justin Trudeau as "unaccountable." I expect this line of attack will continue and perhaps even accelerate with some comments built in about the need to control budget deficits. Why do conservatives need to ditch this line of attack? Because it is sound bite politics that cannot provide the basis for reasoned public discourse. 

The Bad News

The bad news for conservatives is that their intense dislike of Justin Trudeau keeps them focused on slagging him. Trudeau symbolizes everything conservatives hate, much in the manner that Hillary Clinton symbolized everything the American alt.right despised. But they need to get their attention off him. Will they? I honestly don't know but if I were advising CPC leadership contenders, this is what I would be telling them. 

Monday, July 06, 2020

The Politics of Exaggeration: Is Freedom at Risk?

There are many things wrong with Canada. Anyone who has been listening at all to the world wide Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the death of George Floyd knows this.  It is something that we already knew, or should have known if we did not. And, we now cannot turn away from that knowledge or qualify it or mitigate it. I say that because I don't think I should speak to it. There are other people far better equipped and far better positioned than I to comment on BLM and so I will leave them to do that and respect and support what they have to say. 

I want to speak to a different kind of protest and a different kind of Canada: a simmering, largely male, copy-cat alt.right movement that looks to fault Justin Trudeau for everything. This movement comes in various forms, some of which are simply annoying in their inaccurate understanding of Canada. Others seem decidedly more militant. All aspects of this movement are concerning, although I will be arguing, for different reasons. It is this simmering movement of sort that this blog is devoted. I have a clear thesis: this alt.right politics of discontent is empirically inaccurate in its assessment of Canada. They clearly feel something of their Canada is under threat and they have latched on to Trudeau (among others) as the key architect of that threat. But, their concept of the problems they confront is in error and it is that very error that, I will suggest, tells us something important about their politics. 

Here is an example that hit home to me. The other day I was listening to CBC News in advance of the opening of the "Atlantic Bubble" and the host was engaged in one of those "man on the street" interviews with an "ordinary person" who was complaining that he had not gotten to go to his cottage so far this summer even though he clearly did not have  Covid-19 and lived very close to the NB border.  He began his discussion in a polite, sounded completely reasonable, way and recognized that there was an unusual situation but then began to deploy an exaggerated language about the supposed threat of Covid-19 restrictions. This was, he said, an impingement on his freedom. His freedom, he said, had been taken away.

What is important here is that this individual's freedom was not under threat. In fact, there were virtually no differences in his life as a Canadian citizen -- in terms of the rights he enjoyed -- before and after Covid-19. And, as it has turned out. what restrictions there were are turning out to be both temporary and effective in controlling a deadly disease to the extent that it can be controlled. What do I mean? 

First, there is no doubt that freedom is one condition of democracy but that freedom is always bounded. Every legitimate political theory that there is imposes limit on freedom. In a liberal democracy like Canada those limits are supposed to be far broader than in non-democratic societies, but they exist and we all recognize and support that fact. This is the basis of the one cannot "yell fire in a crowded building" (allowing that there is no fire) aphorism. The point is this: one cannot use one's freedom to needlessly endanger the lives of other people. One's freedom stops, another aphorism goes, at the point that it impinges on someone else's. Neither you, I, nor anyone else can use our freedom to commit a crime (my freedom does not allow me to rob a bank or walk into my neighbour's house and take her TV).  So, we need freedom for democracy, no doubt and to be sure, but we also know that freedom does not mean that one can do anything anytime one wants, particularly if the exercise of freedom brings harm to others (because that would hamper their freedom). 

There are other limits to freedom that I have mentioned over the years but you get the point. This is a light burden. We all accept these limits because they provide the basis for a good society and, in fact, protect us. When someone asks "why can't I steal my neighbour's TV if that is my exercise of freedom?", the answer is: the same thing that stops your neighbour from stealing your TV. The same thing that is supposed to ensure that the food you buy or the medicine your kids take is safe or that prevents someone from parking on your front lawn.  The good news is that the vast majority of us don't want to do these things and so the idea that this is some serious limit on our freedom (as opposed to a matter of, say, the rule of law) never enters into our calculation. To ensure the safe exercise of our freedom, we give up something that we were never going to use anyway (in my example, the right to commit a crime or harm someone else for no reason other than my own gratification). 

Second, we also all recognize that freedom can and should be limited in emergency situations. Emergency situations are, by definition, temporary. You might recall that that was one of the problems a lot of people had with the so-called "war on terror": it appeared to be never-ending and so temporary limits were extended into some future time without a clear end. Covid-19 is obviously a key example of an emergency situation, but there are others (ice storms and hurricanes; threats to national security; crimes in progress; fires). In all these instances, and I use them as examples, we as citizens cede authority to the state or institutions it designates (paramedics, fire fighters, police officers, etc.), in order to address that emergency situation. We do that because as a society we have determined that addressing that emergency situation  -- which often involves saving someone's life -- is important and because, again, the burden is light. The police officer who stops me from driving down a road because there is a crime in progress is, indeed, limiting my freedom but she is doing so in the name of someone else's (or, say, my) life. In this example, as soon as the way is clear (the crime is over), I can drive down the road again in an hour or a few or the next day. 

With these points in mind, let's think about the claim that restrictions on travel to cottages posed a threat to freedom. On the one hand, mobility was limited and I will come back to that. On the other hand, what bad happened? A whole series of other freedoms were not limited. For instance, legislatures and Parliament continued to meet, albeit in changed circumstances. Freedom of the press, speech, and protest were not limited. Freedom of assembly was curtailed but not eliminated: one could assemble, for instance, virtually and in small groups provided that social distancing was followed. No one lost their property (the status of which as a "right" in Canada is not clear); the rule of law was not suspended (so police could not just show up and drag people away). The right to equality and worship was not abridged.  One could, in other words, continue to say what one wanted (within the framework of the law), worship as one wanted, think what one wanted, live in one's house, drive to the store, buy things, watch whatever one wanted on TV, write blogs, etc. 

I don't mean to say that things were normal so don't hear what I am not saying. What I mean to say is that the entire infrastructure of freedom  (equality, rule of law, free speech, conscience, protest) continued to exist. There was no change to these things. No new censorship was introduced; no new laws were created that allowed for legalized bigotry; due process was not suspended and one could go down the list. And, this was done, in the midst of the global pandemic. 

Let me pause here to say that I am not writing in support of the federal Liberals' management of the pandemic. That is not my aim. We can and should think of provinces, territories, and municipalities, as well as the federal government. I am talking about an unusual convergence on the part of a range of political parties that worked together to address a national emergency. In NB, for instance, members of at least three different political parties supported emergency measures. This is not, then, a JT fanboy post. 

Where, then, is the loss of freedom? If we acknowledge that things changed -- parents were more responsible for the education of their kids, people lost jobs, people had to work from home, etc. -- there were significant changes that affected people's lives and we do need to reflect on these. But, in terms of the infrastructure of freedom -- in terms of those things that make for liberal democracy -- shockingly little changed.  In fact, in the case of this individual, the threat to his freedom lay in this and this alone. He had to argue that a late start to his vacation constituted a threat to freedom. I don't mean to minimize the hard work that went on. Indeed, it is what I going to say next. To make their case, this individual has to argue not only that a late start to their vacation by itself (since no other rights were affected or affected in only a minimal temporary way) posed a threat to freedom. Does that seem like a serious threat to you? Does it seem like a serious threat when weighed against the potential harm -- say to someone's life -- that could be caused? 

I argue not, but someone now might ask: why talk about this? After all, someone might say, this is just a guy who wanted to get to his cottage; not a political theorist. That is true. Except ... I select this example because it seems to me to point to something that is important: the politics of exaggeration and its link to an alt.right politics of discontent. In my next blog I will try to argue that the alt.right in Canada is different than in the US.  But, one of the things that is not different is that it is fueled by discontent and exaggeration and misapprehension. Exactly how a late start to a summer vacation in the midst of a global pandemic becomes a threat to freedom in a functioning liberal democracy is not clear. Nor, should it be. Quite simply, there was a reasonable and temporary restriction of some -- not all -- forms of mobility in the name of protecting lives. 

This is, I will argue in my next blog, one of the characteristics of the alt.right in Canada. It works through a politics of exaggeration and points to threats that do not exist. It attempts, in other words, to convince us of things that are manifestly and demonstrably untrue. It sees, in this case, temporary inconvenience in the face of an emergency as a threat to fundamental freedoms. A late start to a vacation is a drag, but it is not a threat to democracy. 

Should the journalist have called the "man on the street" on this point? Initially I thought they should but I now thing a different approach is needed.  Exactly what that will be, will be a matter I address later too. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Rethinking Teaching: Trigger Warnings (Part II)

Trigger warnings are warnings (alerts) given by faculty to students. They indicate that potentially disturbing material will be addressed in future lessons. They are easy to implement and don't take a great deal of time, but serve to create a higher level of transparency in teaching. In my last blog I argued that a standard critique of trigger warnings -- that they are, in effect, caving in to too-sensitive "snowflakes" -- missed the pedagogical mark and was, in fact, more a form of politics disconnected to teaching practices than anything else.

At this point, someone might say "Ok, sure, I can give a trigger warning. But, aren't they about so much more than that? Aren't they about letting students opt out of difficult subjects or about policing language or about alternative assignments?" This is a good question because it alerts us to the fact that there are implications to designing courses. Said differently, there are considerations that we need to build into what and how we teach. I will argue that it is easier to build these considerations in on the front end of course development than to try to gerry-rig something on the back end. 

Let me be clear about my point: I see nothing wrong with the range of instructional practices that follow from trigger warnings. Why? Because without them, the trigger warnings run the risk of becoming meaningless. They become simply words that one says. From a teaching perspective, this is the equivalent of saying something like "here is a problem and I want to alert you to it, but I will not do anything about it other than tell you that there is a problem." Let me be clear: I don't think warnings are meaningless. I think that they do help students get ready for difficult material. (Or, even for material that is not difficult. I often let students know in advance what they will be addressing in future lessons.) But, I also think we should take the next step and pro-actively consider the practices that can give meaning to trigger warnings.  

If you disagree with me (which is fair enough) let me begin with a question: what is wrong with this range of teaching practices (alternative assignments, changes in language use, etc.) associated with trigger warnings? When I talk to people who don't like them, they paint their adoption in stark terms. They suggest that there is something horribly wrong with a student missing a class or completing an alternative assignment or with some modifications to the language we use and within which we teach. I think we need to ask: is there something horribly wrong with this? What bad actually happens if students have, say, alternative assignments? Or, with faculty providing information on resources for students who need counselling? Or, with modifying our language? What bad actually happens in terms of teaching and learning? 

"What are you going to do next?" someone might now say "let students design the course?" 

Well ... no. I'll leave off student involvement in course design for another day because I think that  can be a good pedagogical tool, but let's take alternative assignments as an example that can illustrate the broader trends. The point of alternative assignments is not to let students do whatever they want but, in fact, precisely the opposite. The instructor is still designing the assignment. It is just that students are given a range of different assignments that allow them slightly different pathways through course material. I think most instructors run into problems with this because the request for alternative assignments seems to "pop up" and so they are caught off guard in the middle of a course. 

But we shouldn't be and this is an important point. The fact that there are deeply disturbing and traumatizing elements to, say, teaching about residential schools should not shock anyone who is actually teaching about them. If you are teaching about Indigenous issues are not aware of, say, intergenerational trauma, you need to pause and reconstruct your course materials. If you are teaching novels with graphic descriptions of violence or racism or works that might, say, present LGBTQi+ as "perverts," you should be aware, from the beginning of your course, that there will be students who find this material troubling and disturbing and that it will affect students differently depending on their lived experiences. Instead of asking "why should I have to design alternative assignments?" the more pressing question should be "why did I not think of this before I began teaching this subject?" 

This is a mea culpa. I'm not looking to fault anyone here but I am looking to provide what strikes me as sound teaching advise: begin from the beginning. If you are teaching in subject areas that you know involve difficult and disturbing materials, build that consideration into your course design. This allows the instructor to retain control over assignment design (if this is a matter of concern to you) while simultaneously building a more inclusive pedagogy that addresses the diversity of our student bodies. Said differently, alternative assignments are ways of meeting students where they are, of teaching them difficult subjects, and working with them in a way that builds a strong pedagogical relationship that is, after all, what we are all about? 

I won't belabour my the other points (although I might return to them in future blogs) because you can see where I am going. My interest lies in pedagogies that promote learning and judged in that way, I think we can accept and design alternative assignments, encourage guidelines on the use of language, include information on counselling, provide alternative resources to address a subject matter, and a range of other practices that give substance to the trigger warning. 

Here are a few practical steps we can take.

  • Provide students with diverse trigger warnings. Particularly now, as we make use of different "delivery" modes for teaching, we are becoming more attuned to the fact that using a range of media can help teaching. Trigger warnings can be included on a syllabus, a web page, a recorded lecture, a voiced-over powerpoints. This provides multiple access points for students to the warning. 
  • With your course materials provide a list or resources (in effect contact information) for students who may have trouble with material. Don't try to solve problems of trauma yourself. Direct students to the resources on you campus or in your community. 
    • You likely should, btw, check into these resources in advance yourself. Give a quick call to your universities counselling services to ask what resources they provide. 
  • Provide a mechanism for students to raise their concerns with you. It could be a meeting, a virtual interchange, or e-mail but provide some dedicated space for students to indicate their potential problems.
  • If your course addresses disturbing subject or language, address that as a pedagogical matter early in the course (perhaps even, say, second or third day). You can do this in the abstract. For instance, I ask students to think about how they feel about having me, a white Settler Canadian, teach about Indigenous issues: do they see any potential pitfalls?  Would they recommend any particular strategies to address those?
    • Build in diverse voices where you can. Guest speakers, videos, artwork, discussions, poetry, painting, and the like all provide mechanisms through which students can gain by listening to different voices. 
  • Build alternative assignments in advance. Just as an example, a student who cannot write a short paper on residential schools might be asked to read look at other issues (say, compensation, land use, environmental protection, artwork). They key is that this is ready to go. 
One of the interesting things about this level of pedagogy is that I find it often helps me think more clearly about what it is that I want students to learn and why. And, no good assignment need go unused. If there is no need for an alternative assignment, you can use it in the course the next time you teach. 

What if a student indicates to you that they need to miss a class or not address a subject? This is trickier because your plan for a course might rest on a certain progression through material. I do understand that and I have never actually encountered this situation or, if I have, the students involved did not feel comfortable enough to discuss the matter with me (which is completely fair) and simply absented themselves from the class. 

My recommendation, then, comes from a place of theory as opposed to practice and someone might correct me.  If a student indicate this to you, I'd suggest that you acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns and indicate that you respect them. I'd suggest as well, that you explain the importance of the unit, or lecture, or text within the framework of the course without going into details.  IOW, give the students the most information that you can about course development. Then, with the student, suggest a different approach to the material or other material. For example, one might exempt a student from, say, reading a certain poem but a different poem (perhaps with a written response) would be useful. A student might miss a lecture but you might be able to point them to a video or a on-line source. 

Both of these approaches require that as instructors we think about our goals: what is it that I am trying to accomplish with this lecture, the reading of this poem, this assignment, etc.? If we make that the first step, I am convinced that adaptions are possible, ethical, and do not disrupt teaching. 



Friday, June 19, 2020

Rethinking Teaching: Trigger Warnings (Part I)

What good are trigger warnings and why bother to discuss them now? I think this is an opportune time to address some of the basics of higher level teaching. I'll make just a couple of comments about Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter. First, the idea that there are more important things to discuss than trigger warnings is true. Covid-19 with all its implications is one of them. The dramatic and important rise of anti-racist activism is another. I'm not blogging about these things because there are better people than I to comment on them. I'll leave that truth there. I support Black Lives Matter and it is because I support it that I -- as a self-identifying white man -- want to listen to what others have to say instead of trying to put my views on the table. Second, I will try to offer a thought or two about Covid-19 and BLM another day with regard to its impact on American republicanism. But, enough people are doing that already and so jumping into a crowded field and competing for space is not going really advance any consideration of that issue and so I'll leave it of for a bit. 

We can and should discuss pedagogy because we have an opportunity to do so. The changes forced on higher education by Covid-19 allow us to revisit the way we teach and the ideals and values that animate our teaching. They allow us to think about what makes for good and effective teaching in a more concerted way. My goal is to try to engage a serious points relating to pedagogy over a series of blogs and I thought I'd begin with a matter that has become controversial for reasons that, I will confess, are not entirely clear to me, at least from an educational perspective: trigger warnings.

I support trigger warnings and I have, without actually using that term, been providing them for years. It seemed only proper. In fact, I was surprised to discover that there could be some debate about them because just about everyone else I knew treated them as an ordinary -- and non-controversial aspect -- of their role as a post-secondary instructor and as one of the bases of effective instruction. 

Trigger warnings are warnings (alerts) given by faculty to their students in advance of engaging subject matter that might cause some form of trauma or mental distress. For example, if one were going to address a subject that might create a situation where a victim of, say, some sort of violent act, had to mentally relive that violence. Trigger warnings, as I understand them and practice them, involve something more than a mild concern with course materials. I might be annoyed, for instance, by a particular aesthetic style because it does not appeal to me or because I find it kitsch-y, but that is something different than having to relive a deeply violent situation. Trigger warnings might be given for things like depictions of violence, or when students will encounter racist, sexist, or homophobic language. 

The argument against trigger warnings is, in fact, multiple and -- without supporting these arguments because I will argue against them -- there are a couple of points that do require some attention, along with some that don't make much pedagogical sense.  The arguments against trigger warning are that most things are disturbing in one way or another. This is particularly true in post-secondary educational environments where we necessarily address mature, controversial, and disturbing issues. Nothing is gained, or so the argument runs, by coddling university students.  The most extreme versions of this argument become deeply politicized: trigger warnings are presented as little more than a-historical efforts to police language in ways that protect the sensitive feelings of "snowflakes." There is a need, for instance, in viewing films to work with the original language of that film, the original images in it, however disturbing these might be. We should not, so this argument runs, strip works of their original language or engage in acts of self-censorship because of misplaced concerns about propriety. 

In my view, these arguments don't hold up well and, in some cases, completely miss their mark and end up addressing other matters that are not pertinent to the discussion. How so?

The first key point I would make is that trigger warnings do not distract from what is being taught. They don't prevent me, say, from showing, say, The Barbarians Invasions. What they ask of me is relatively modest: that I alert the students in my class to the fact that this film is going to be disturbing and perhaps to provide some overview of that disturbing character. In my view, and I could be wrong about this so feel free to let me know, I don't see anything wrong with letting students know what is coming. I do it for all matters of other things as a ordinary element of my teaching. I let students know when we are discussing the constitution and that this discussion (along with the reading and assignments) will require certain things of them (in this case, for instance, the exploration of a legalized language with which they might not be familiar). I do that to aid my teaching. Why would I do something less -- or, more to my point, stop doing the same thing -- when it comes to disturbing images.  As an instructor, I focus on the idea that I got into this gig to teach. Why would I not use a tool that would aid in my teaching? Why would I not use an easily implementable tool that takes little time if it could improve student engagement with the subject at hand and create a better teaching environment? 

Here is where I think the objectives of teaching have been lost in a politicized discourse. The idea that supposed "snowflakes" (not my term) are the problem misses the point for anyone who has taught. The goal of teaching is to teach. The critique of "snowflakes" is a matter of politicized rhetoric that engages none of the key elements of post-secondary instruction. Instead, it dismisses a potentially useful educational tool for political reasons. As an instructor, I'm not at all certain that that is a good ground on which to make decisions about teaching. 

At this point, when I talk to others about trigger warnings, someone usually says something like, "OK, true, but trigger warnings are not just warnings. They are about all kinds of other things: creating safe spaces, providing mental health resources, designing alternative assignments, and the like. And," whomever is speaking usually continues, "you still haven't addressed the point about the disturbing character of the world and whether or not we should shelter students from it." 

I am going to come back to the other points (alternative assignments, resources, etc.) in a second blog on this subject because they are important matters and I want to address them. I want  to close of my first part of this discussion with the last point: the disturbing character of the world. 

I am aware of this argument, as I think we all are. If we want proof of the disturbing character of the world, it seems to be right in front of us on our TVs every day as we watch protests, and killings, and the spread of disease. But, I might ask two things:

  1. Is this all there is the the world? Is the world simply disturbing and, even if it is, is that what it should be? 
  2. Are our students actually unaware of the disturbing quality of the world? 

Let me start with the second point first.  My answer is this: I don't think so. I think that students who have suffered from racism or homophobia or gendered violence are well aware of how dark and disturbing the world is. In fact, they are likely far more aware of the problems of the world than I am. I don't, in fact, think they are trying to hide from the world and the suggestion that they are -- I'll return to this point in my next blog -- disguises their intentions. I think they are looking for ways to engage the world that does not promote re-traumatization. I think they are saying "hey, we should be careful and polite in the use of our language." I think they are saying "we need to take steps to ensure that we don't replicate racism or intolerance." I might agree with any given point a proponent of trigger warnings is making or I might not. That can be a matter for further conversation. What I don't doubt is their commitment to addressing the problems that created trauma in the first place or their knowledge of it. 

This strikes me as particularly important to acknowledge when dealing with situations where individuals who have suffered from racism, or sexism, or homophobia, etc., are speaking about issues to which they have direct experience but, say, the instructor does not. As a heterosexual male I have never suffered from homophobia. I am not at all certain that I should claim the right to define what should, or should not, trouble people who have. I am not at all certain that I should say, to, say a victim of a racism that I have never experienced that they should accept my use of slur terms because the world is tough. Who am I to define what is, and is not, tough for that person? Or, equally importantly, what could, or could not, be an effective response for them? 

And, herein lies one of the key problems with this level response: the idea that people who have not experienced racism or violence or sexism should claim the right to tell those who have that they should, in effect, "suck it up," is not a pedagogical position. It is not predicated on any theory of effective education.  What good does this view serve? How does it advance education? The statement that "the world is disturbing" is not a reason to continue to be disturbing and does not provide rationale for ignoring simple and easy responses (trigger warnings) that could advance the pedagogical enterprise. 

I also think that using racist terms in class or showing deeply sexist representations and claiming that one is only holding a mirror up to the world is problematic for another reason. This is, for me, a matter of faith, but I think it is one that I could support if called upon to do so. I don't think the world is all pain and all suffering and just disturbing. Even in the most difficult moments, people find reasons to hope. Even in the most trying circumstances people seek to build connections with each other across gender, ethnic, linguistic, identity divisions. They seek to promote what is right in the world and to neglect that by saying that the world is disturbing or mean or tough is to neglect the complexity and nuance of human behaviours and the diversity of humanity. 

In teaching, the question we ask our selves is this: on what assumptions do I build my pedagogy? Should I begin from the assumption that the world is simply disturbing and use that as a rationale to replicate its disturbing elements. Or, should I assume nuance and complexity and diversity and mixed motives and try to illustrate what an inclusive and positive response to the deeply disturbing elements of contemporary life might be by illustrating that I care about my students whether or not I share there experiences. Trigger warnings are not a panacea. They do not solve all problems. But, I chose to build my pedagogy on this latter perspective and to try to model that behaviour. I will undoubtedly not succeed. But, I'd rather not succeed caring about my students than not. 

Thinking After Trump: Canada and US Foreign Policy

 On August 15th, the UN Security Council voted against a US motion to extend the international arms embargo against Iran. The US government ...