November 1, 2010
A proposal for a round table is being submitted to the Canadian Political Science Association to discuss research ethics and aboriginal peoples at the annual conference at Wilfrid Laurier University on May 16-18, 2011. The political scientists who have agreed to participate include myself, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann and Tom Flanagan. Invitations were also extended to promoters of indigenous theories and methodologies in political science, but these attempts have been met with silence (so far). Efforts to encourage intellectual diversity at the Canadian Political Science Association seem to have foundered once again.
The abstract for the round table is posted below. It should be noted that participants who would like to advocate different standards for the study of aboriginal peoples can be added to the round table at any time.
Aboriginal Peoples, Political Science and Research Ethics: Should Indigenous Politics be Studied Differently?
In the development of research in Canada, there are increasing attempts to ensure that the study of human subjects is conducted ethically. As a result, bodies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] recommend that research ethics boards should be put in place to review research applications requesting funding. Of particular significance is research pertaining to the study of groups that are perceived as vulnerable. There is great concern about the impact that research can have on aboriginal people, for example, because of the power imbalances instituted by colonization. It is argued that additional protection should be provided to the native population, and it is assumed that the enhancement of indigenous cultures should be a goal of the studies conducted. But to what extent do these developments in research ethics place onerous constraints on political scientists? Political scientists from a variety of perspectives will give their views as to whether it is appropriate to ask academics to take a position on cultural enhancement in their research. Presenters also will inquire if these guidelines have the potential to compromise academic freedom. Questions will be asked about the relationship between ethics guidelines and the politicization of research, and the possibility that this development could inhibit, rather than enhance, a researcher’s attempts to increase knowledge about the actual character of indigenous politics.
October 28, 2010
A new paper on “indigenous ways of knowing” has been posted on the Environmental Policy page of this blog (“Indigenous ways of knowing” and the environment). This paper was presented at the Under Western Skies conference at Mount Royal University on October 14, 2010. The introduction of the paper reads as follows:
An increasingly common argument, in the environmental policy literature, is that the incorporation of “indigenous ways of knowing” is necessary to understanding environmental impacts, contributing to the capacity of policymakers to address the environmental crisis. Two claims are made in support of this. The first is that aboriginal people are “keen observers” of the environment, and this will aid scientific research. The second is that native groups did not destroy the environment before contact and this is an indication of an aboriginal environmental consciousness that helps to shape their knowledge. Aboriginal peoples, it is argued, have a “way of knowing” that mandated them to “live lightly on the land”, in contrast to the “western” viewpoint of Europeans that prizes the control over nature and the exploitation of resources to spur industrial progress.
Using three case studies in western Canada – global warming research, the development of endangered species legislation, and aboriginal involvement in Alberta tar sands development – these claims will be investigated. This will first require a definition of “indigenous ways of knowing” and an understanding of how it differs from knowledge that is non-indigenous. Questions will then be raised as to how knowledge diversity can facilitate the development of a common understanding that is necessary to facilitate effective policymaking. Successful policy development, after all, requires that problems be clearly defined, causal factors identified and the severity of issues accurately measured – requirements that cannot be easily reconciled with postmodern assertions about different, but equally valid, “world views”. Finally, the paper will examine whether or not these assertions about “indigenous ways of knowing” are a response to the inadequacies of scientific theories and methods, or are a reflection of the economic and political context in which scientific research operates.
On July 22, 2010 the CBC repeated the documentary “The education of Ashif Jaffer” about a man with Down syndrome taking a course at Ryerson University last year (www.cbc.ca/globalperspectives/). Jaffer was taking the course Writing for Disability Activism and planned to apply to Ryerson’s degree program in Politics and Governance in the fall of 2009.
Jaffer’s attempt to pursue a university degree was not the first. In 2006 Jaffer was admitted into York University, but had to withdraw in his first year. This was because York University would not allow Jaffer to write his exams while accompanied by a teaching assistant – the extraordinary accommodation that had enabled Jaffer to graduate from high school as an “Ontario Scholar” (a student who achieves 80% or higher in six Grade 12 courses). It is asserted that Jaffer needs a teaching assistant during exams to “help get the full answers out so that he can write them down” because Down syndrome has “altered” his brain’s “retrieval functions ” (Daniel Girard, “School Denies Access”, Toronto Star, December 5, 2006, p. D6).
Although it is not clear if Jaffer was accepted in a degree program at Ryerson, the documentary raises questions about the extent to which universities should accommodate the mentally disabled. It is one thing to allow intellectually challenged people to audit courses and benefit from participating in a university environment; it is another to award degrees that assume that certain skills and learning outcomes have been achieved.
Jaffer’s actual intellectual abilities are difficult to determine because he is always accompanied by his mother, Fran Marinic-Jaffer (or a hired note-taker), and the analysis of his case is influenced by advocates for the disabled who are prone to wishful thinking. There is no exam in the Writing for Disability Activism course, and Marinic-Jaffer oversees all of her son’s assignments. Although Marinic-Jaffer insists that her son does his own work, it is hard to take her assertions at face value because of her emotional involvement. In the documentary, Marinic-Jaffer defiantly states that there was “no doubt” in her mind that, when her son was born, he would go to university. As a result, she has continuously waged battles against educational institutions, even suing York University for three million dollars, and is adamant that “no” is not an option with respect to her son obtaining a university degree.
While the obsessive advocacy of Marinic-Jaffer could be attributed to parental narcissism, more disturbing is the fawning tone of the documentary, and its assumption that obtaining a university degree is a “right” regardless of one’s abilities. One is also left with the impression that those trying to uphold academic standards are unreasonable and lack compassion. Similar responses were received by Leonard Stern, when he commented about Jaffer’s withdrawal from York University in the Ottawa Citizen last year. According to Stern,
“…parents of children with Down syndrome have suggested that it is wrong to make intelligence a requirement of university.
One mother accused me of ‘IQ’ism.’ One father was furious that I said York University would be devaluing its undergraduate degree by changing the goalposts for Ashif Jaffer. He wrote that I have ‘entirely missed the point of education.’ What matters is that Ashif would ‘command respect for his efforts’ in a way that would bring honour to York University.
Other parents of children with Down syndrome talked about the ‘diversity’ that cognitively impaired students could bring to a university seminar room. It was pointed out that people with Down syndrome are ‘inspirational’ examples for the rest of us. Others argued that ’emotional’ and ‘spiritual’ intelligence — the kinds that can’t be assessed by any exam — are more important than the measurable intellectual achievement which York University is unfairly demanding” (Stern, “Devaluing a University Degree”, Ottawa Citizen, May 9, 2009).
And it is not just parents of Down syndrome children who put forward such arguments. These sentiments are consistent with the belief that anyone can achieve anything, regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way. They also reflect the postmodern confusion of political equality with intellectual ability. Recognizing that certain people do not have the intelligence to master the abstract reasoning needed to obtain a university degree has nothing to do with a person’s political rights. This is a reality, and it is counterproductive to award mock degrees so as to satisfy confused thinking and false hopes. It is becoming increasingly difficult for qualified students to attend university because of financial restrictions, and the lawsuits, teaching assistants, disability consultants, etc., required in cases like Jaffer’s mean that even fewer resources will be available for those who are actually capable of obtaining a degree.
February 27, 2010
On Friday February 26, I spoke at the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA). I was invited to speak by Hope Knudsen, the President of GETCA, after she heard me interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC radio on June 14, 2009 about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (the interview is available on the Video/Audio/Interviews page of this blog and the CBC’s website). In the interview, I argued that funding for aboriginal education was being diverted to non-aboriginal lawyers, consultants, and comprador aboriginal elites, and this money should be spent on hiring specially trained teachers to improve native educational deficiencies.
Ms. Knudsen was honestly responding to the ideas that were being presented, and was unaware that they were controversial. She was unprepared for the fact that there are a number of people in Canada who do not want critical viewpoints on aboriginal policy development to be expressed, either because of their vested interests or the fact that they are “humanitarian” opponents of free speech – an ideology that is discussed in “the kindly inquisitors” post on this blog. “Humanitarians” maintain that ideas should not be criticized if this “causes hurt” or “gives offence” (especially if the ideas are being put forward by groups that have been the historical victims of oppression).
The first I became aware of the opposition to my speech was on the arrogantly irrational website of Taiaiake Alfred, a romantic indigenous “warrior” employed in the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Governance advocacy program. A posting from “Barry” on February 10, 2010 noted that “unbelievably, Ms. Widdowson is being allowed to speak at an upcoming Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA) convention at the end of this month. Upon finding this out today I have contacted one of the Local presidents of the Alberta Teachers’ Association as well as the president of GETCA to find out how this has happened and to inquire if they know who it is they have invited. Ms. W. is not part of a panel (this I would have encouraged) but will, to my understanding, have a captive audience with her as the sole presenter. I am appalled! However, I promise that I will condense many of the arguments presented here and confront her when she appears in Edmonton. I am expecting she will be as slippery as anything I have heretofore encountered” (http://www.taiaiake.com/42).
It was no surprise, therefore, when, upon returning from dinner the night before I was scheduled to speak, I found a message on my answering machine inviting me to come for a drink with the conference organizers. Upon arrival, the organizers informed me that one professor and two graduate students from the University of Alberta had been lobbying to have me excluded from the program. Fortunately, GETCA was standing firm but they were concerned about the reception that I might receive; I assured them that I was not worried, and hoped that the humanitarian censors from the University of Alberta would attend the session and engage me in a civil debate. It was then decided that another session, presented by Patrick Loyer, “Addressing Aboriginal Learning Outcomes”, would be cancelled so that he could comment on my speech (presumably so that the convention could meet the demands of people like “Barry”, who were concerned that I would have a “captive audience”). Loyer’s session was intending to show that “it is becoming increasingly important for all teachers to know about aboriginal history and culture to address curriculum outcomes”. He was also going to distribute a document entitled Education is Our Buffalo: A Teachers’ Resource for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education in Alberta” (produced by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, and also available on the internet – http://www.ldaa.ca/assets/pdfs/freeResources/EducationIsOurBuffalo.pdf ).
Although I was pleased that Loyer would be providing comments, because bringing together opposing viewpoints is how we move closer to the truth, his response to my speech “Speaking Frankly About Aboriginal Education” (the transcript/speaking notes is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog), was very disappointing. This was because Loyer appeared not to have read my work and did not provide any evidence for his criticisms, but instead relied upon the biased commentary of people like James Frideres and Peter Kulchyski. Loyer began with the inane observation that my speech “was only words”, and then went on to make the following points:
1. That I discussed technological development that had occurred in Europe but had not recognized the sophistication of aboriginal technology (when pressed, the example that he came up with was the canoe).
2. My presentation gave the appearance of being reasonable and offering conclusions, but it did not “meet the minimum of research” (the wording of the unsubstantiated argument was very familiar, and was likely plagiarized from a speech given by James Frideres in December 2008 that was subsequently posted on the internet).
3. That I had a “euroecentric” view of science and used methodology that was akin to “logical positivism” (an argument that was not substantiated and appears to have been plagiarized from Sandra Tomsons).
4. I was guilty of “intellectual dishonesty” (a claim that was not substantiated, and presumably plagiarized from Peter Kulchyski);
5. Aboriginal peoples also had made advancements in science, mathematics and logic; the substantiation for this claim was the example of the Mayan calendar.
6. That I had dismissed aboriginal oral traditions, which have value because they have been around for a long time.
While these criticisms were superficial and largely unsubstantiated, there was some fruitful dialogue that took place in the question period. One of the most important outcomes was that I was able to articulate how important science was for all people, and that assertions about “eurocentric science” discouraged non-Europeans from accessing this essential educational tool. The fact that GETCA stood up to the political pressure and allowed the talk to go forward also was a victory for science and a blow to the “humanitarian” agenda of censoring ideas under the auspices of professed offence. As Rauch points out, we have to realize that “humanitarianism” is contrary to critical thinking and scientific progress because it fails to understand that “knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test and criticize our ideas, we feel angry, hurt, embarassed” (Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors, p. 125).
February 17, 2010
I have just had the pleasure of reading Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (www.amazon.ca/Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought/dp/0226705757). Although the book was published in 1993, all of its arguments continue to have relevance today.
In the book, Rauch outlines three threats to free thought – what he calls “fundamentalism”, “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism”. While the threat of fundamentalism – those who are convinced that they know the truth, and therefore do not need to listen to criticisms and opposing points of view – has been extensively documented, the impact of what he calls “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism” is not well understood.
According to Rauch, “egalitarianism” appeals to the ideal of fairness and has two principles – one simple and the other radical. In the case of the former, it is maintained that “all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect”, while the latter is modified so that it is “the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups [that should] get special consideration” (p. 6). Egalitarianism essentially denies the validity of the scientific method for improving our understanding of the natural world, and it maintains that oppressed groups, because their views have been historically excluded from the academy, should have their “perspectives” incorporated into the educational system.
Humanitarianism, on the other hand, is a “challenge from compassion”. It argues that words, as well as physical harm, can be “violent”, and therefore no one should cause offence. Humanitarianism is the driving force behind the howls of outrage that greet any person who dares to question the assumptions informing gender feminism, multiculturalism and “queer theory”. One should not criticize the claims of historically oppressed minorities, it is argued, because this would lower their self-esteem, resulting in further marginalization and oppression.
Egalitarianism and humanitarianism are related, in that the eqalitarian idea that all beliefs deserve equal respect cuts the legs out from under the argument that sometimes it is necessary to offend to be able to pursue the truth. The egalitarian assumption that there is no truth, only “equally valid” truths, justifies the assertion that it must be hatred of “the Other” that drives criticisms of cultural relativism.
It is these two ideas – egalitarianism and humanitarianism – that shape a great deal of public discourse today, including many university courses. Particularly informative is Rauch’s discussion of the argument, common in various “advocacy studies” programs, that “only-minorities-can-understand” their circumstances. As Rauch points out, this argument is “denying the very possibility of …science, whose premise is that knowledge is available to everyone and comes through public inquiry and criticism, not from the color of your skin or your ethnic heritage or your social class” (p. 146). He goes on to point out that it does not make sense to claim that there are racially-based perspectives since “within any racial or ethnic group that you care to define, perspectives are much more different than alike. Knowing a man’s color or descent tells you nothing whatever about his ‘perspective’; nor does it make him a bit more or less credible as a player in the game of science. No personal authority is allowed – nor any racial authority”.
With this statement, Rauch is able to clarify how egalitarianism and humanitarianism are undermining science, and to encourage people to “stand firm” on the following principles:
“No one is allowed the right to end any debate, or to claim special control over it or exemption from it. No one under any circumstances is excempt from criticism of any kind, however unpleasant.
No one will be punished for the beliefs he holds or the opinions he states, because to believe incorrectly is never a crime.
Criticism, however unpleasant, is not violence. Except in cases where violence or vandalism is threatened or incited, the very notion of ‘words that wound’ or ‘verbal harassment’ is to be repudiated and junked.
Those who claim to be hurt by words must be led to expect nothing as compensation. Otherwise, once they learn they can get something by claiming to be hurt, they will go into the business of being offended” (pp. 158-9).
January 14, 2010
On January 12, 2010, the CBC Radio program, The Current, investigated the topic of “Women’s Studies” in universities today (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/). It noted that, with these programs, “women created a new field of study… one centred on their own experiences and perspectives”. There was also a discussion of the fact that Women’s Studies programs are transforming themselves into “Gender Studies” and “Sexuality Studies” because it is becoming difficult to attract sufficient numbers of students to major in these programs. To investigate this topic, Catherine Porter (a columnist with the Toronto Star) and Barbara Kay (a columnist with the National Post) were interviewed.
Although a number of important criticisms of Women’s Studies were expressed by Barbara Kay, the columnist’s anti-feminist stance inhibited an understanding of the troubles the have been brewing for quite a while in these interdisciplinary programs. As has been argued in Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge’s Professing Feminism and Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism?, one can be a feminist while still being opposed to the field known as Women’s Studies. This is because it is currently not a program that focuses on women as a subject (a valid and important topic for academic study) that can be analyzed with a wide range of theoretical perspectives. Instead, it insists that women must be studied in a particular way, which, as Patai and Koertge have pointed out, results in all sorts of ideological policing.
The main problem, which was not discussed on The Current, is the insistence of Women’s Studies programs that biology determines knowledge (i.e. “perspectives”). Women have a special “way of knowing” that is different from how men understand the world. Those who do not study women in the right “way” are not welcomed into the postmodern sisterhood. The result is the isolation of the study of women from mainstream disciplines, and an entire body of research that has not been scrutinized by scientific methods accessible to all.
Studying women is very important to the knowledge of humanity as a whole, and it should not be immune from rigorous scholarly evaluation. To do so makes the entire field subject to wishful thinking, demagoguery and superstition. Instead of understanding women’s role in history and the social and economic conditions influencing female-male relations, the field is contributing to sexual segregation. Taking the arguments of Women’s Studies seriously would mean that women cannot participate equally in scientific research and modern occupations because their “way of knowing” would prevent them from collaborating with men for the benefit of all. This obstructs, rather than facilitates, the achievement of gender equality.
January 10, 2010
Stuart Soroka, the 2010 Programme Committee Chairperson for the CPSA, had a message posted on the Women’s Caucus listserve before it was moderated (see Email from Stuart Soroka – January 4 on the Ethics page of this blog). In this message, Soroka assured members of the Women’s Caucus that my paper was transferred to a poster session because it “did not easily fit into a panel with other papers from the REIPP [Race, Ethnicity, Indigenous Peoples and Politics] section”. He goes on to point out that the “the committee approved of the decision (as the committee must approve of all section heads’ decisions for CPSA conferences)” and that “the charge of any unprofessionalism on [Kiera Ladner’s] part is, to be frank, wholly unfounded”.
While “the charge of any unprofessionalism” could very well be without merit (it was merely noted that Ladner “seems to have left herself open to a charge of unprofessionalism”, and this suspicion was based on Ladner’s previous inability to be objective about my work on aboriginal policy), there are a few things that should be mentioned in response to the committee’s decision about my proposal’s lack of “fit” within the REIPP section. I have been told that the CPSA, in the past, has been concerned about placing me on a panel with other scholars who study aboriginal politics out of fear that my ideas could create a hostile reaction (a circumstance that was realized at the 2008 conference). The creation of the REIPP section has exacerbated this problem because it has tended to move presentations about aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations out of more traditional academic sections (comparative politics, Canadian politics, etc.), and into a section that is influenced by an “identity politics” orientation. Therefore, the idea of “fit” could have more to do with trying to avoid conflict than with academic considerations.
Second, it seems odd that the CPSA would not want to have a proposal concerning research ethics and aboriginal peoples, aboriginal epistemology, etc., discussed in a formal panel. The CPSA devoted a section of its report on research ethics to “Research involving Aboriginal peoples”, and the second draft of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans’ chapter concerning “Research Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada” has just been released for scholarly consideration. Brock et al., in their letter “Racism, chilly climate, our responsibility and the discipline”, even suggested that a “major CPSA *Plenary on Responsibility Difference and the Discipline* might be productive” and “would attract a phenomenal attendance and would generate the kind of constructive professional debate we desire within the CPSA, and would be a mentoring opportunity for graduate students and junior faculty” (the people recommended for the plenary, however, did not come from a wide range of perspectives and were largely supportive of the existence of different “ways of knowing”).
Past CPSA sessions also have sparked considerable interest in these topics. The panel that Albert Howard and I participated in with Sandra Tomsons in 2009 was packed and led to a lively, but restrained, discussion. Kiera Ladner’s proposal last year entitled “Decolonizing the Discipline: Respecting Indigenous Knowledge & Using Indigenist Methodologies” was also accepted. The abstract for this presentation was as follows:
“Since Columbus was discovered, knowledge of the Americas and the peoples who lived there captured the minds and imaginations of some of Europe’s greatest political philosophers: More, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Spencer, and Engels, to name but a few. Despite the fact that Indians of the Americas have occupied the imaginations of the world since the time of ‘discovery’, Indians have not occupied the imaginations of modern political scientists. Political science has ignored Indigenous political traditions and studied contemporary Indigenous politics only from the vantage point of the western-eurocentric tradition. Simply put, most have been unable to escape their paradigm paralysis to understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms or as separate from the western-eurocentric experience. In so doing, political science has perpetuated a western-eurocentric understanding that virtually denies ‘others’ a voice within the discipline. This paper draws on the theoretical undertaking of my dissertation and updates the uncirculated paper presented at UofA (the abstract of which led to a heated exchange at CPSA). It engages the discipline’s construction of the Indigenous and argues that it is necessary to understand the ‘other’ not from the vantage of the western-eurocentric intellectual tradition as this readily perpetuates misunderstanding but from the vantage of their own intellectual and political traditions. It argues that proceeding as such enables a trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science and that the effect of such a paradigm shift has the potential to be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”.
A number of assertions put forward by Ladner still need to be analyzed and debated (for some reason, Ladner did not produce a paper fleshing out this abstract). What are the “Indigenous political traditions” to which Ladner refers? How do we “understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms”? And what is a “trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science” and how will this “be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”? Once again, we seem to have the contradiction of saying that there should be a “different” understanding that only the identity group can have (i.e. it cannot be evaluated with universally accessible social scientific methods), yet this “understanding” must be accepted by all as a benefit to political science.
Ladner’s proposal was included in a workshop on “‘Race’, Racism and Anti-racism as Political Science: Framing and Re-Framing Relationships”, which also included presentations on “Race, Empowerment and Crisis Management: Black Political Leadership and Hurricane Katrina” and “Beyond Racial Exceptionalism: Explaining the Convergence of Mixed-Race Census Categorizations in Canada, the US and Great Britain”. Interestingly, the two latter presentations are very dissimilar from Ladner’s and do not really concern epistemological matters. Ladner’s presentation, in fact, would have “fit” much better with the presentations of Tomsons, Howard and myself, but, for some reason, Ladner was not included on our panel, which largely concerned epistemological questions. Therefore, “fit” appears to be a very subjective determination of the programme committee.
It should be noted that unscholarly responses to work critical of the prevailing “aboriginal orthodoxy” have been occurring for quite some time, and so it should not really be surprising if this is continuing in my case. Radha Jhappan, for example, stated publicly that “fundamental racism” formed the basis of Tom Flanagan’s book First Nations? Second Thoughts even though no evidence was provided to sustain this accusation. Similar problematic conduct occurred when Flanagan’s book was awarded the Donald Smiley Prize. The chair of the jury, Gurston Dacks, quit when he was outvoted, displaying contempt for a process that he had agreed to participate in (rejecting it only when he lost the vote). Joyce Green has noted that the political science community was “fractured” because the jury’s decision “implicated us all in rewarding something that many of us felt was deeply wrong” (Marci McDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper”, The Walrus, October 2004, www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/the-man-behind-stephen-harper-tom-flanagan/5/).
Green’s comments reflect the deep problems that exist in political science with respect to the study of aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations. What is meant by saying that someone’s scholarship is “deeply wrong”? Shouldn’t political scientists be concerned about the quality of the arguments and the amount of evidence that is being put forward to support them? Unfortunately, the characterization of Flanagan’s work in moral terms has prevented a comprehensive analysis of his arguments. Postmodern political scientists feel justified in dismissing Flanagan’s arguments as reprehensible, when engaging with them would help us all to more fully understand aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations. One does not have to agree with arguments to critically analyze them; avoiding opposing viewpoints because one dislikes their preconceived implications, however, is anti-intellectual and is harmful to the academic integrity of the discipline of political science.
January 6, 2010
Subscribers to the Women’s Caucus listserve received a message yesterday with the following information: “Due to the volume and content of recent messages on the WC-CPSA list serve, and following consultation with members of the WC, the WC-CPSA is now a moderated list-serve. Its purpose is to share information about job opportunities and future events of interest to WC subscribers”. It is also noted that Janice Newton is the person who will moderate the listserve (see Email from Jane Arscott on the Ethics page of this blog).
And just when things were starting to get interesting. I had posted a message (see Widdowson Letter to Women’s Caucus – January 4 on the Ethics page) in response to an email from Jill Vickers, who was warning Janet Ajzenstat about the perils of “casting aspersions on a colleagues’ [sic] professional reputation using this public medium without [key] information” (see Email from Jill Vickers – January 3). Then, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann told me she was intending to send a message to the listserve encouraging the Women’s Caucus to support the presentation of my work (see Email from Howard-Hassmann – January 4). Unfortunately, members were prevented from receiving Howard-Hassmann’s message, which also provided some important criticisms of research ethics restrictions on the study of aboriginal peoples.
Now, I would be a little more open to the idea that the listserve is only supposed to “share information about job opportunities and future events of interest to WC subscribers”, if it had not been used for a month in 2008 to make libelous claims about my conduct. “Casting aspersions” about my “professional reputation” was certainly not objected to; rather it appeared to be enthusiatically supported. Janice Newton, the person now appointed to “moderate” the listserve even compiled the anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations that “overt and blatant racism” had been expressed at a CPSA panel – “aspersions” that were then distributed on the listserve and then made public on the Women’s Caucus’ website.
There is one other interesting piece of information in Arscott’s message. It is noted that the decision to go to a moderated discussion occurred “following consultation with members of the WC”. But who are the “members of the WC”? All women in the Canadian Political Science Association? All women who subscribe to the listserve? I am a female member of the CPSA who subscribes to the listserve, but I was not consulted. This means that “members of the WC” are actually a clique masquerading as the voice of women within the CPSA.
December 26, 2009
When double checking how the list of women attending the 2008 Women’s Caucus’ meeting was represented on the minutes (Kiera Ladner, who is now helping to vet proposals for the 2010 CPSA conference, played a prominent role in this meeting but was not recorded as being “present”), it was discovered that these minutes have been removed from the CPSA Women’s Caucus website (www.cpsawomen.ca/lucheon/index.htm). Fortunately, I was able to retrieve a cached version from November 2009 and have made a PDF and posted it on the Ethics page of this blog.
As I am not included in the correspondence about these matters, I have no idea what the removal of the minutes means. Is there now concern, after over a year, that making unsubstantiated allegations about the expression of “overt and blatant racism” is at best unethical, and at worst libelous? Or perhaps it is the fact that not recording Kiera Ladner as being “present” at this meeting (a fact publicized two days ago on this blog) might result in a questioning of the professionalism of this body?
This omission in the Women’s Caucus’ minutes, in fact, led me to be much too charitable about Kiera Ladner’s behaviour last year. As I stated in the following comment on Janet Ajzenstat’s blog “The Idea File” on November 22, 2008: “It should be noted that this letter [to Canadian Political Science Association members] does not concern the conduct of either Joyce Green or Kiera Ladner, two political scientists were originally mentioned in relationship to the events that transpired… The people to whom this letter refers are those unidentified members of the Women’s Caucus who were in attendance at the June 6 meeting and stated that my presentation expressed “overt and blatant racism” (according to the Women’s Caucus’ minutes, neither Green nor Ladner were present at the meeting [emphasis added])” (http://janetajzenstat.wordpress.com/2008/11/02/from-fierlbeck).
If the Canadian Political Science Association really wants to repair the damage caused by its affiliate, it should demand that those present at the 2008 meeting either substantiate their accusations that “overt and blatant racism” was expressed in my presentation, or a retraction should be posted on PolCan for all members to see. But since the CPSA seems reluctant to take a principled stance against this clique of its membership, this remedy is likely to remain elusive.
December 19, 2009
Over the next few months, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona is considering a proposal to ban bullfighting. The debate is occurring because 180,000 signatures have been gathered that propose including the bull in animal rights legislation (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8418014.stm).
Eric Gallego, a representative of the group Prou, which supports the ban, argues that bullfighting is cruel and “a bloody entertainment”, and that stopping the spectacle is necessary to prevent Spain from being seen as “a barbaric society inside Europe”. Bullfighting is described as “barbaric” because it involves the torture of animals for entertainment purposes – a practice that traces its roots to prehistoric bull worship and sacrifice. Throughout the fight the bull is tormented by picadores and banderilleros who stab the animal repeatedly with sharped barbed sticks. These rituals are constructed so as to tire the bull and make it easier for the matador to produce a “beautiful display”. After three to six hours of this torture, the bleeding and exhausted bull is killed by the matador.
Supporters of the bullfight respond by noting that the bullfight has a long history in Spain and it is deeply intertwined with the culture. Bullfighting should not be thought of as animal torture, advocates assert, but a “struggle between man and beast, transformed into art”, which involves the “dignified death of an animal that has been able to fight for its life”. Bullfighting is also justified on the basis that animals suffer in slaughterhouses all over the world (ignoring the fact that while cruelty to animals during slaughtering should also be opposed, slaughtering is undertaken to acquire food, not for entertainment).
For proponents of cultural relativism, the arguments in favour of bullfighting must be accepted. After all, how can one oppose a practice that has informed a culture for “thousands of years”? Wouldn’t this be “cultural genocide”? There is a huge problem with the cultural relativist position, however. This is that all people, at one time, engaged in forms of sacrifice. Some societies gave this up, yet their cultures continued. Cultural change cannot be considered a form of “genocide” because it is necessary to discard some cultural features to ensure a group’s survival. In the case of bullfighting, this barbaric practice is impeding the survival of Spanish citizens because it glorifies suffering and death. Celebrating such cruelty towards a sentient being impedes the development of empathy. A person who enjoys a bullfight is much more likely to accept and condone suffering more generally. Increasing cooperation in society requires that empathy be encouraged, and the continuation of bullfighting is an obstacle to the development of socially positive human emotions.
It should be noted that most Spaniards (68.8%) have “no interest” in bullfighting, while only 10.4% are very interested (20.6% have “some interest”). The younger generation also has much less interest in bullfighting than their elders (77% of youth are not interested versus 49% of seniors). Even in the areas where bullfighting is the most popular, 63% of the population has “no interest” in the spectacle (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/spanish/cultura/texts/gallup_corridastoros_0702.htm). These statistics are very encouraging for those who are disturbed by the continuation of primitive cultural practices in the modern world.
November 26, 2009
It has just come to my attention that Norman Levitt died on October 24, 2009 (http://spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_article/7652/). I never met Norman, but became aware of his views through reading the book that he co-authored with Paul Gross, entitled Higher Superstition: the Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. After reading his book I contacted Norman by email, and he generously provided me with a number of insights that helped Albert Howard and I write our book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry.
Although the subtitle of Higher Superstition is a little misleading, in that it refers to the “Academic Left” when “postmodernism” or “pseudoleft” would be a better description, the work is invaluable in that it offers one of the first comprehensive critiques of epistemological relativism and its corrosive effects on a scientific worldview – defined by Alan Sokal as “a respect for evidence and logic, and for the incessant confrontation of theories with the real world; in short, for reasoned argument over wishful thinking, superstition and demagoguery” (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/nyu_forum.html). It also prompted Alan Sokal to submit a parody article (later to become known as the “Sokal hoax”), “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, to the postmodern journal Social Text. This journal accepted Sokal’s parody as a real, academically credible article, because it pretended to oppose the “(so-called) scientific method” and to end “the [enlightenment] dogma that…there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity”.
Norman Levitt’s struggle against postmodern relativism lives on. It is particularly relevant in that the opposition to science is still being promoted under the auspices of left-wing ideology (see, for example, the paper on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog – “Indigenous Knowledge(s) and the Academy”). Levitt was very effective in exposing this pernicious development, which was masquerading as “progressive politics”. As Stuart Derbyshire explains, “Levitt was brilliant at uncovering attacks on science made under the guise of ‘democratisation’. He rightly pointed to the absurdity of advocating teaching intelligent design or creationism alongside evolution in American schools. Many on the academic left, and Steve Fuller, support this campaign on ‘democratic’ grounds. Levitt correctly observed that teaching creation as science whitewashes the rigours of science and threatens to reduce science to a popularity contest about belief”.
This comment by Derbyshire reminded me of a segment of a recent CBC radio interview with David Suzuki on November 25, 2009 (http://www.cbc.ca/q/pastepisodes.html). In the program, Suzuki claims that the idea of objectivity is “ridiculous”, and that we should be promoting a diversity of values and beliefs and be open to new ideas. But what happens if these ideas are contradictory, Dr. Suzuki? As a “scientist”, shouldn’t you be concerned about the quality of evidence that is put forward to support a claim? And if you cannot make some objective determination about the evidence, what makes you a scientist, and not an ideologue or mystic?
It is this kind of thinking, in fact, that leads Suzuki, in the “personal foreward” of Wisdom of the Elders to promote the “wisdom” of the “shaking tent” – the Innu’s “traditional way of communicating”. In his account, Suzuki passes over the essential characteristic of the shaking tent – that a Shaman enters a tent alone and then claims that it shook because he was able to make a connection to the “spirit world”. Instead, Suzuki relays an Innu story about how “a man once ‘flew’ over a long distance and ‘saw’ friends at a winter camp struggling for help. So the person in the shaking tent sent for help and saved them”. After recounting this anecdote, Suzuku makes the following comment: “I am not in a position to pass judgement on such stories, but as a scientist, I know that Nature posseses inexplicable mysteries. We have no theories with which to make sense of many of the phenomena that indigenous people describe”. He concludes the discussion by stating that “the phenomenon of shaking tents should arouse interest and curiosity rather than dismissive snorts of skepticism” (xxix-xxx).
But Suzuki doesn’t “know that Nature possesses inexplicable mysteries” because he is a scientist. It is the anti-scientific tendencies in his philosophy that enables him to claim that there are “inexplicable mysteries” in the first place. A scientist would ask what these “inexplicable mysteries” were, and how they are revealed by the Innu’s belief in the “shaking tent”. What Suzuki should have said was “when I am not being scientific, I know that Nature posesses inexplicable mysteries”.
Besides, it is not difficult to explain the particular “mystery” that Suzuki describes. The Shaman goes into a tent, shakes it, and then claims that he was able to do this because of his “powers”. Then, when something good happens to the community (the “friends struggling for help” being found, for example), the Shaman takes credit for it. This, of course, makes the community beholden to the Shaman, enabling him to control others for his own benefit. Encouraging people not to approach the shaking tent with skepticism is to make the Innu susceptible to the Shaman’s manipulation. It is outrageous and hypocritical for Suzuki, when he is presenting himself as a scientist, not to “pass judgement” on such obvious charlatanism.