You may have noticed that the Men's Team has been quiet for a while (I hope you have!). That's because the work I do for the Team causes me to be a member of the union CUPE 3903 and CUPE 3903 has been on strike. If you were unaware of that, I am pleased to inform you that the strike is over and we were successful in achieving all of our principal goals.
York University has a reputation as a site of social justice activism. It is a place where professors teach about politics, ethics, and equity in the classroom and where many students consider rallies, marches, and protests to be an essential part of their education. Yet, even on such a political campus, CUPE 3903 takes the cake as the most radical of the lot. This is a union that has struck three times in fifteen years -- indeed, that was willing to strike this year after a three month strike in 2008-2009 that culminated in back to work legislation. It is a union that begins every meeting with the reading of an equity statement and one that has mechanisms for interventions against bullying and sexism as part of its regular protocol. It is a union willing to challenge the logic of austerity in a historical moment that has normalized it as common sense.
For four weeks, I walked the picket lines with CUPE 3903 because I shared a belief that we could win better job security for increasingly exploited academic workers and more accessible education for graduate students. (Well, actually, I didn't walk the picket line as much as I directed traffic at Keele St. and Main Blvd. while serving as a human rage depository for the sentiments of aggrieved drivers -- but more on that later.)
Yet, even as I took satisfaction in struggling for a common goal with people who seemed to share a similar commitment to principles of equity and justice, I could not help noticing that even in this most progressive of spaces, hegemonic masculinity continually seemed to rear its ugly head. I am not writing this post because I am interested in besmirching the name of the union on the heels of one of its greatest victories -- to do so would be akin to an attempt to undercut myself, for membership in 3903 is an inextricable part of my own sense of identity. Nevertheless, no organization and no individual is completely immune to criticism and sometimes we must be willing to hold ourselves up to scrutiny in order to better fulfil the principles we aspire to. Indeed, by calling attention to the insidious forms toxic masculinity took during the strike in CUPE 3903, I hope to call intention to just how pervasive this form of identity is and how urgent is the need to combat it.
I should begin by saying that it is not at all surprising that white, hegemonic masculinity emerged to play a significant role over the course of the strike. In fact, given the history of the union movement, it would be far more surprising if the reverse were true. The reality is that since its inception, the union movement in North America has fashioned an identity predicated on a notion of rugged masculinity at the exclusion of women and non-white people. No doubt, this preoccupation is a direct consequence of a sense of emasculation at the hands of a capitalist system that seeks to degrade and exploit at every turn. The union as an institution historically provided men (and only later, for at first they were explicitly excluded in many cases, women) with an opportunity to stand up to this system and the capitalist class and fight for their dignity. Yet, it also provided a vehicle for members to position themselves as superior to other members of the working class (women, non-white people) who faced other structural barriers as well as those posed by capitalism (misogyny and racism, both institutional and otherwise). This is a legacy that continues today and is reproduced in various ways. [Author's note: I failed to mention that during the strike, members of CUPE 3903 formed a Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour Caucus and addressed many of these on-going issues and how they pertain to the local in a statement. That statement can be found here.]
The first example of this I want to touch on during the recent CUPE 3903 strike was the attitude of CUPE National (the parent union for 3903 to whom our local was beholden for strike pay after the first two weeks) to members attempting to participate in the strike. The conventional paradigm for receiving strike pay according to National was participation on the picket line every day. For many people, this was an acceptable arrangement and certainly one important to the strike (it became essential once the university attempted to re-start classes). For others, however, the picket line was not an option. This had to do with accessibility concerns of all types (disability, child care, etc.). The local referred to those members who participated in strike activities outside of the picket lines as the "8th Line" in order to acknowledge the equal significance of these strike-related endeavours to the overall cause, as well it should have.
CUPE National did not see it the same way. How do I know? Because they did not agree to sign off on payments to 8th Line members from the National strike fund even as all other picketers were granted their pay. The message was clear: only picketing constituted legitimate strike-related labour. Or, put differently, only a hyper-masculine willingness and ability to insert one's body between a vehicle and the site of employment could justify strike pay. I don't think I need to elaborate at length on the nature of the problems here. Only a unionist ideology rooted in ableism and hegemonic masculinity could produce such a policy. Only individuals who had fully internalized it could continue to apply it even when confronted with the plight of members who had worked for the strike and yet would literally not be able to pay rent without the cheques that they earned but did not receive.
The second example of hegemonic masculinity during the strike actually pre-dated it (barely) and was simply brought to the attention of membership during the first ratification vote which occurred after the first week of the strike. I am referring to the revelation that a member of the local was (allegedly) raped by a member of the local's executive just a month before the strike began. The survivor released a letter about what happened to her which can be found here. There is not much for me to say beyond what she herself has articulated. But, what I do feel needs to be underlined is the fact that we can never, under any circumstances, assume that a space is safe from gender-based violence, regardless of its supposed credentials as a site of social justice and equity.
My third observation, and it is less painful, but, perhaps, more symptomatic of the pervasiveness of hegemonic masculinity than the previous two, is of the behaviour of certain members of the picket line. I heard frequent reports throughout the strike, and witnessed for myself, white male picketers acting in a confrontational, aggressive, and insolent manner seemingly designed to signify their authority over the picket lines (and other members walking the lines) and their dominance over members of the community crossing those lines. This behaviour was both counter-productive (given that one of the principal purposes of the picket lines was to provide information to those entering the campus and an antagonistic approach was certain to subvert that project) and fundamentally unethical. Although the picket lines produced a type of space and dynamic that has become increasingly unusual in our society due to the paucity of such labour disruptions, there is simply no reason why basic ethical imperatives should have been abandoned (by anyone, and I will get to those crossing the lines in a moment). The choice to use the threat of physical violence to intimidate is another hallmark characteristic of hegemonic masculinity.
The fourth point I wish to make about hegemonic masculinity and the strike pertains to the behaviour of those crossing the picket line rather that of those on strike. This, of course, is not a reflection of the membership of CUPE 3903, but rather of the broader York University community. To put it quite simply -- and I will speak only of experiences at the Main Gate line -- we were confronted with some shocking demonstrations of toxic masculinity expressed as violent temper tantrum. These tantrums came in many forms. The most overt was captured on the video below and circulated widely during the strike.
This was far from the only example, however. Despite our persistent attempts to inform any motorists entering the line of their projected wait times, and to engage them always with an attitude of equanimity and patience, we were treated to all manner of abuse. I can simply catalogue some of the examples I experienced personally.
Early in the strike, as I attempted to direct traffic entering York Blvd. off of Keele (in order to ensure that drivers did not have to endure the stressful experience of feeling like their vehicle was protruding into the heavy traffic on Keele St), one driver decided to ignore my instructions (delivered verbally and through hand signals) and instead drove directly over my foot. That's right, with no provocation whatsoever, a man deliberately drove his (sports) car over my foot. Fortunately, I was wearing steel-toed boots at the time and was unharmed (or perhaps you would have heard about this sooner on a news report).
This was not the last time my body was placed at risk by aggressive men in vehicles who seemed to feel the need to assert their dominance over me (to be fair, I was causing them a mild inconvenience). On a later occasion, as I stood in the right turn lane on Keele into York Blvd., I indicated to a driver that he needed to stop and allow another vehicle to turn around out of the lane he meant to enter (again, this was a service I was providing another individual -- we could just as easily have allowed them to sort themselves out anarchically and heaven help them if we had). Instead of slowing down to honour my request, he accelerated directly at me, forcing me to leap out of the way. When I asked him what he thought he was doing and told him that he had almost hit me, his response pretty much said everything you need to know about toxic masculinity: "I wish I had."
Masculine violence comes in many forms, not simply the threat of vehicular manslaughter that we came to so dearly know and love. It also comes in the form of verbal abuse, sometimes strangely coded through the threatening spectre of an exotic bogeyman. I will explain. First, I was told by a man that the fact that I was forcing him to wait in a line in order to enter the university was "highway robbery." Don't worry, I didn't follow this logic either. That wasn't all, though. For this atrocity, I apparently warranted the harshest of punishments: "If we were in Syria, you would be executed for this." Yes, a death threat. In a similar vein, I was informed by another man that "If we were in Russia, they would punch you in the fucking face for this every single day."
Despite all of this abusive masculine posturing, I am proud to say that I never once raised my voice at a person attempting to cross the picket line. Well, not until the very last day. At that point, the strike was effectively over and we were simply holding a symbolic picket while waiting to vote for ratification. We were holding all cars in the line for a total of less than one minute at a time maximum. A man in a Porsche drove up to the gate, approximately two metres away from it, revving ominously. I was disconcerted. A member of our picket line had her back to him, her body between the car and the gate. Suddenly, he revved again and accelerated forward.
That was it for me. A month of toxic masculinity culminated in that moment and I screamed at him, asking him to account for what he had done, the harm he had nearly inflicted. He told me that I sounded like his wife. No doubt, for a man invested in hegemonic masculinity, this was the worst insult he could conjure. It was a windy day, tears streamed down his face. He rushed to assure me (and others who had gathered) that he wasn't crying.
If only he had been. It would have been the most human thing about him (as one of my fellow picketers pointed out).
On January 28th, like most Canadians, I watch as my Twitter feed explodes with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. Facebook too is crowded with celebratory messages about how important it is that Bell Canada is opening up both its coffers and a discussion about mental illness. People react this way, they react this way every year when Bell does this, I think, because they truly want to talk about mental illness. Bell taps into something simmering beneath the surface of the lives of most Canadians, and in response, many of us react by throwing our respective arms around the opportunity, and Bell itself, for providing it.
Now, this is a topic that is close to my heart. Mental illness runs in my family. Indeed, it was responsible for taking my father's life. I think that it is safe to say, then, that I am anything but dismissive about the significance of efforts to battle stigma related to mental health issues.
It also stands to reason that I would be as thrilled as anyone that Bell invites Canadians to talk, right? Well, wrong, actually. While I watch so many others talk about how wonderful it is, how it is an initiative worth getting excited about, how at the very least, it is something as opposed to nothing, I am the grump on the Facebook thread trying to pop everyone else's balloon.
Again, don't get me wrong. I think people need to talk about mental illness. For the most part, talking is good. It makes people feel better, more connected, to one another. Indeed, talking can actually be therapeutic in its own right (which is why I think that pretty much every single person in the world would benefit from seeing a psychotherapist). But, I also think the "better than nothing" rhetoric of awareness-raising initiatives such as the Let's Talk campaign can be dangerous. It is, in my opinion, possible to have the wrong type of conversations, the kind that cause more harm than good. Just as small talk at a party amongst strangers can cause someone to feel isolation instead of connection, it is possible to talk about mental illness in a way that drives our society further from mental health.
And, I'm sorry to say, that's the sort of conversation I believe that Bell has been asking us to have. Despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the obvious interest of everyday Canadians, I don't think Bell is truly interested in provoking a conversation about and around mental health. Or, perhaps somewhere in the centre of this morass of intention there is a hard kernel of legitimate care. I cannot be certain. What I am nearly certain of is that Bell is more concerned about initiating a conversation about its own altruism. (And we must call the corporate entity "it" here, I'm afraid. Bell is not, and never will be the oft-used and more human-sounding "they" though many individuals toil under its banner.) For, in the face of a country disgusted with years of telecommunications monopoly, Bell seeks to change the conversation. Let's talk about mental health really means let's not talk about how Bell is gouging consumers and exploiting employees. It means, let's talk instead about how Bell is a corporation with heart.
Well, that's nonsense. In fact, there is a very different kind of conversation about mental health that needs to occur and it's one that Bell doesn't want to have anything to do with.
I think we really need to talk about the relationship between capitalism and mental illness. This may sound strange. After all, we live in a society that says mental illness is a chemical issue that should be addressed pharmaceutically. (Specifically, I am speaking here about the two relatively-pretty poster children for mental illness: depression and anxiety. We don't, as a nation, generally speak of the many other forms of mental illness that exist. Schizophrenia, for example, isn't allowed on the poster at this time.) However, that would suggest that mental illness would be prevalent in any human society, regardless of economic system. A compelling case, except for one small problem: evidence suggests that the impact of pharmaceuticals on mental illness may be significantly smaller than we have been led to believe -- it suggests, in fact, that the difference between anti-depressants and placebos may be clinically meaningless.
Why the reliance on medication, then? Well, this is where we come back to capitalism. There is an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to market their drugs, just as there is an incentive for them to induce psychiatrists and general practitioners to prescribe those drugs. This isn't particularly aberrant or corrupt behaviour; the logic of a capitalist system demands that corporations find a market for their commodities. After all, if you can't sell the thing you're making, then you can't make profit. Simple as that.
There are a couple of lessons we can draw from this. First, perhaps mental health cannot be reduced to chemistry after all. If this is so, or even if not, if we are to allow for the fact that environment might be as important as chemistry, then social context must be brought into the equation. Within a social context, individual circumstances (such as family culture, for example) are an unavoidable environmental factor, as is the broader environmental context which we all share. And that context is capitalism.
This brings me to the second lesson, which is that capitalism is not a solution to mental health issues. The pharmaceutical industry, like any other industry in a capitalist society, is concerned with one thing and one thing alone: generating profit. Mental health drugs are a commodity. To the companies that produce them, they are simply something that can be made and sold (because there is a market that demands the product). In this way, they are no different than a pair of shoes or bubble gum. Or cell phones and cable television, for that matter.
And that, for me, is really the crux of the issue with the Bell Let's Talk program. Like Eli Lilly and Pfizer, Bell isn't really concerned with mental health. It's concerned with making profits. It needs to be. That is its reason for being, it's raison d'être. Whatever service a corporation provides, whatever objects it sells, it exists to generate money. In this case, Bell thinks, no doubt, that by attaching itself to a cause that people care about, it will appear to be a gentler, kinder, more giving company than its monopolistic competitor, Rogers. And that will translate into dollars. Don't imagine that it won't. The plan to create and nurture the notion of Bell as a benevolent group of human beings who care about other human beings, as opposed to a corporate entity that cares only about money is part and parcel of Let's Talk. It is simply a marketing ploy. Every time it is tweeted out, one might as well be tweeting, "Buy Bell!"
The issue here is not that Bell is doing something particularly egregious. Certainly, I find it personally distasteful that they have hypocritically and cynically chosen to pretend to care about mental health in order to improve its brand (even as it places more and more pressure on consumers by raising prices, and more and more pressure on its own employees by setting increasingly-unreasonable financial goals each subsequent year, as all corporations do). No, the problem is really that we are looking for a capitalist institution to solve a problem that is caused by capitalism in the first place. That cannot work.
Capitalism is a form of social and economic organization that isolates, alienates, exploits, and dehumanizes people inherently and systematically. What I mean by that is that in a capitalist system, if individuals who work on the side of capital behave rationally (by doing their basic jobs properly), they will necessarily isolate, alienate, exploit, and dehumanize other people (and, frankly, due to the pressures of competition, they will likely feel many of these consequences themselves). Corporate executives and managers are hired to boost productivity and reduce costs. That means compelling workers to work as long and hard as possible, for as little pay as they can. There is a human, psychological cost to this pressure. It also means fostering competition amongst employees for jobs and resources. This is an environment that produces stress, fatigue, and mistrust. These are all tremendous pressures upon mental health. Likewise, employers themselves are subject to the stress of satisfying shareholders. Profits are never high enough; there is always a competitor out there trying to outperform their business. In these ways, capitalism creates the conditions for mental illness.
My point is this, then: the struggle for mental health is a struggle, too, against capitalism. It is also a struggle against racism, homophobia, gender inequality and all other systems of bigotry and bias. Each of these systems of injustice causes systematic psychological harm and none of them can be addressed without attention to the others.
So, let's talk. But, let's not talk about how generous Bell is. Let's talk about how the vice-grip of capitalism is hurting human beings all over the world. And let's talk about the fact that the pain is as much mental as physical. That's the kind of intimate conversation that brings people together. It's the kind of conversation I'll tweet about all day long.
Well, it's December of a year that feels like it has been dominated by stories of gender-based violence. Of course, gender-based violence was no more prevalent in 2014 than any other year, it just feels that way because stories of domestic and sexual violence that are typically ignored or suppressed have achieved notoriety due to the celebrity of the figures involved.
We have attempted to engage with many of these stories in the inaugural year of the Men's Team blog, from Isla Vista to Ray Rice. In these pieces we have tried to unpack from a structural standpoint how masculinity, particularly in its more extreme or toxic forms, invites men to perform acts of violence. This is an important project and one we remain fundamentally committed to. Indeed, one might say that spreading awareness about this reality is the reason why the Men's Team exists.
Yet, as the year comes to a close, I want to touch on a different dimension of gender-based violence, one that we have yet to engage and one that relates to perhaps the two highest-profile cases of the year (at least in Canada): Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby. Of course, we could examine the violence performed by these two men over the years through the lens of toxic masculinity and coercive entitlement and it would certainly shed some light on their actions. That, however, is a project for a different day.
I want to end 2014 by focusing not on those who perpetrate gender-based violence, but those who are subjected to its horrors. The most resounding lesson to be gleaned from both the Ghomeshi and Cosby sagas is how remarkably difficult it is for a woman who has experienced sexual violence to speak about it and be believed.
Let us focus on the Ghomeshi case, for it is the most relevant to us here in Canada (indeed, it is particularly relevant to us here on the Men's Team given that Ghomeshi is a former York graduate who once led the York Federation of Students). When the news that the CBC had fired its most prominent radio host first emerged, Ghomeshi released a statement on Facebook exonerating himself of responsibility for any wrong-doing and instead cast aspersion on unnamed women he claimed were about to accuse him of significant sexual misconduct.
Within a day, those accusations emerged in the form of a report by the Toronto Star citing four anonymous women who all stated they had been subjected to sexual violence by Ghomeshi. This is the moment I want to dwell on, for it is the one that says everything about what women who experience this form of violence must endure.
The seemingly-overwhelming reaction online in the press and through social networking platforms was the call to reserve judgement. Let the legal process play itself out, we were told. This was a case of he said-she said. It would be wrong to make any assumptions about what actually happened.
Now, of course, hindsight makes it easy to suggest that this was not the most appropriate or rational response. And, it should be added, there is something deeply damning and disturbing that the word of one man was taken as commensurate with that of four women. Certainly, it speaks to the level of internalized misogyny that remains pervasive in our ostensibly post-feminist society.
But, that's not what I want to focus on either. No, rather, the point that I believe must be underlined repeatedly is this, and it is really very simple: we have an ethical obligation to believe women who say that they have experienced sexual violence. This moral imperative has nothing to do with the particular contingencies of the case in question. Instead, it is predicated on the fact that in the context of a patriarchal society - a society that systematically privileges and empowers men over women - it is inherently unsafe for women to publicly articulate the harm they have experienced at the hands of men. If we are interested in building a world that is genuinely equitable from the standpoint of gender, we need to begin by acknowledging the systematic nature of women's oppression and the violence men perform against women. We need to believe women when they say that they have experienced sexual violence. Every single time.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we abandon the legal system or the safeguards that exist to protect the innocent from being falsely proclaimed guilty. (I do reject the insidious and pervasive myth of the false rape accusation, one of Hollywood's favourite tropes most recently seen in the film Gone Girl, a myth that distorts the reality that the rates of false rape accusations are no different than those of false accusations of other crimes.) Men deserve a day in court, just like anybody else.
But, when it comes to the court of opinion, impartiality is no longer a legitimate option. Those who are genuinely concerned about the prevalence of gender-based violence need to stand by those who make accusations whenever they make accusations. We need to start believing women systematically in order to counter the systemic barriers to being believed that women face.
So, the next time that there is a Jian Ghomeshi, don't say you don't know who to believe. In 2015, when the time comes, believe every woman who has the remarkable courage required to say what happened to her.
I promise that there will be plenty of opportunities.
Ray Rice is now one of the most notorious people in the world. I will not explain why, but if it is possible that you are unaware, I invite you to click here. (The link takes you to the story, NOT the video.) In the past few weeks, I have been providing four reasons why we need to stop demonizing Ray Rice as an individual, and start examining his behaviour as a product of some powerful cultural forces. For reason number one, click here; or two, click here; or three, click here. Today, I conclude with reason number four.