Rights and Responsibilities: Free Speech and Academic Freedom as Social Values

Historical Context and the Principles at Issue

Three recent controversies have raised questions about the value and limits to free speech and academic freedom.  The first involved the paintings of Canadian artist Amanda PL.  She claims that her paintings were  inspired by the work of the Anishnabe artist Norval Morisseau.  She has been criticized by the Chippewa artist Jay Soule as coming close to committing an act of  “cultural genocide.”  The second concerns an editorial penned by now-former editor Hal Niedzviecki in Write magazine.  He called for a “cultural appropriation prize”  for the author best able to write characters not of their own culture.  The third concerns a paper published in the journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia.  The paper argued that there was an analogy to be drawn between trasnsexualism and transracialism:  if people celebrate Caitlyn Jenner for changing sexes, then they should, by analogous reasoning, celebrate  Rachel Dolezal, (a white woman who lived for years as a black woman), for wanting to change races.  The article provoked an unprecedented public campaign that demanded the journal retract the article.

I will work through each of the criticisms in turn.  However, before any useful light can be shed on the controversies, the historical context of the emergence of the principles of free speech and academic freedom need to examined.  One of the most lamentable facts about public discourse in the age of Twitter is that even thoughtful people do not– indeed, cannot, because immediate comment is demanded– stop to think through the historical process through which contemporary political values  have emerged.  When we do stop and think things through historically, the political implications and limitations of the value in question become clear, and we are then better able to negotiate controversies and work out appropriate forms of response to controversial instances of their use.

On February 17th, 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome.  His execution was ordered by the Pope because Bruno’s teachings:  that matter itself could be understood as the active, self-forming principle of reality and that an all-powerful god would create a universe teeming with other forms of life were deemed heretical.  One hundred and fifty years later the Enlightenment would confront the violent dogmatism of theological authority with the rational principle that disagreements be settled by the better argument.  My point is not to compare critics of potentially offensive speech to the Inquisition, but to remind everyone that the right to free speech was (and should still be) a social value.  It defended the right of individuals to question orthodoxy and repressive  power.  As such, it was a powerful tool in the struggle against all forms of oppression.  It is not–as it is sometimes thought of today– a right to say whatever one wants and give offense just because one can.  Rather, it was a right, in its origins, to explore alternatives and criticize; to expand the scope of human understanding; to protect the voices of the less powerful; to create a social space for the formerly voiceless to speak; and to catalyze non-violent forms of social and political change.

Academic freedom is a species of the genus free speech.  It has no constitutional grounds but is protected only by convention and faculty collective agreements.  In Canada its origins date to the firing of Harry Crowe.  In 1958 the history professor was fired for criticizing the religious authorities who ran United College (today the University of  Winnipeg).  His firing spurred the formation of the Canadian Association of University Professors, whose core mission includes protection of academic freedom from threats inside of and outside of the academy. The only reason any critical voices are heard in universities anywhere today is because of the space academic freedom protects.  Marxists, feminists, trans-activists, and critical race theorists would all be gone if academic freedom did not protect their right to criticize established structures of power, gender and racial norms, and anything else that can be made the object of critical scrutiny.  Struggles around free speech, free expression, and academic freedom have often been led by the most marginalized and oppressed groups.  Their struggles to give public expression to their realities and needs  has radically transformed the cultural landscape of liberal-democratic-capitalist society for the better.

That free speech has been an important vehicle for the struggles of oppressed groups does not mean that it should never be limited.  What principles should govern its limitation?  If the basic social value of the right to free speech is that it allows for the expression of perspectives that would be silenced otherwise, then the basic limitation on free speech, expression, and academic freedom is the opposite:  when one group’s free speech actively silences another group or explicitly targets them for destruction (as in anti-Semitic hate or racist hate speech that calls for the extermination of the demonized group) then the speech is no longer properly understood as falling under the category of free speech, but becomes an expression of oppressive ideology.  Merely giving offense does not pass this test.  To be offended is not to be silenced (if it were, no one would know that someone is offended, because the offended party would be unable to express their displeasure).

Cases in Point

I think that of the three cases, only the case of Amanda PL comes close to crossing the line towards forms of expression that are justly censured.  However, even in this case I think the gallery was wrong to cancel the show.  The case of Niedviecki is a case of misinterpreted satire that was then exploited by right-wing forces who have nothing to do with Niedviecki.  The Hypatia case is a debacle of the highest order and a serious threat to academic freedom.

1. The artist at the centre of the controversy, Amanda PL, studied at Lakehead University and claims inspiration from Anishnabe artist Norval Morriseau.  From what I have seen of her paintings, they would be better described as vastly inferior mimicry rather than works of art.  The colours, the motifs, the enclosing of structures within coloured spheres all linked together with curving tendrils are obviously reminiscent of Morriseau and other Anishnabe artists.  But as Soule points out, in PL’s case, it is all surface and no cultural-spiritual depth.  Morriseau, according to Soule, was giving painterly expression to stories that PL did not know and whose spiritual depth she could not understand.

Soule is right to criticize her for cultural appropriation.  Even though she acknowledges the source, the source is so obviously grounded in a cultural tradition that informed the work, and which has not become internationalized (in the way, say, that the blues or jazz have) that her mimicry is illegitimate.  Cultural appropriation is different from being influenced and inspired by a foreign culture.  Beckett wrote in French to make language seem strange, to force himself to think about the task of writing, but he lived in France and learned the language.  Amanda PL has not served any sort of cultural apprenticeship amongst the Anishnabe, has not tried to get inside the culture to learn the stories or the connection between style and story.  She has tried to advance her art career with derivative paintings that nevertheless look enough like admired Anishnabe work that it might sell.

That said, I cannot agree with Soule that the work counts as cultural genocide.  The United Nations defines genocide as:

Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Cultural genocide would then be a set of practices, imposed by the dominant group upon the oppressed which is designed to systematically eradicate their culture.  The forced teaching of English in residential schools would be a clear example. There is nothing in PL’s work to suggest that she intends to destroy the Anishnabe way of painting, or to prevent its transmission and teaching. Her work is bad, but it does not prevent Anishnabe painters from continuing their traditions.
Because it does not directly prevent Anishnabe painters from painting, or criticizing her for her derivative work, I would argue that the gallery was wrong to cancel the show in response to criticism.  The show perhaps should never have been offered on grounds that the work is not good enough, but, once offered, it should have been seen through.  The principle here is: fight back with the weapons with which you are attacked.  If the weapon here is derivative art and the attempt to make a name for oneself by superficial copying of others’ traditions and practices, the response should be to publicly call attention to the problem and critique the work. Force her to answer and to become a better artist,  to find a way to creatively give expression to influences genuinely felt without just copying their surface appearance. Argue and critique, don’t ban.

2. The Niedzviecki controversy overlaps with the Amanda PL problem because it to concerns the matter of who speaks for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.  From my perspective it seems much less serious a violation of their voices than the Amanda PL case. Niedzviecki was clearly being satirical when he called for the creation of a cultural appropriation prize. The main thrust of his editorial was not about cultural appropriation but the importance of imagination to literature.  Literature is not just recounting stories, it is the invention of literary worlds.  Invention forces authors to go beyond their own private experiences to create worlds that do not exist in material reality.  Dostoyevsky did not have to murder a miserly slumlord in order to explore the psychology of guilt and the ethics of redemption in Crime and Punishment. If we limit art to mere description and representation, we destroy art, whose truth is the invention of worlds and not the accurate description and proportional representation of real members of this one.

Part of that invention has to be the imaginative occupation of perspectives different from one’s own.  If not, every work of literature would be nothing but monologue (but maybe even not that, since we are not transparent to ourselves but have different sides).  All writing therefore takes us beyond what the self has directly experienced. That was the main philosophical and artistic point he was making, but it got lost completely in the critique of an obviously satirical call for cultural appropriation and the cultural appropriation prize.

In humourous utterance, intent matters.  Niedzviecki intended to provoke, no doubt, but to provoke thought about the role of imaginative transposition, not to support cultural appropriation.  Now, I say this as white male philosopher not aware, from the inside, of what it feels like to suffer deprivation of voice. I am sure my history influences my reading. At the same time, I am not saying that Niedzwiecki is beyond criticism, but only that reasoned criticism takes time:  our world demands instant response, and instant responses are rarely wise.  A more productive conversation and critique might have been had had a moment’s reflection on context and intentions preceded the calls for retraction and resignation.  These do little to solve the deeper problems of First Nation’s and Inuit and Metis lives, but they do engage/enrage the right wing (like former national Post publisher Ken Whyte) who did intend to harm and humiliate by offering to fund the prize.

Niedzwiecki’s comments might have hurt the feelings of members of vulnerable cultures, but they were included in an edition of Write! given over to First Nation’s writers.  Clearly, in terms of actions, Niedzviecki was their ally, not their enemy.  All satire, all humour, runs the risk of giving offence to someone.  Do we really want a world without satire?  A world where everyone has to triple guess themselves before they speak lest some ears take offence? I’ll book my ticket for Mars — I’ll take a room in the Don Rickles suite, please– if jokes, satire, hyperbole, farce, and laughter are forbidden on earth.

Again, the principle is: fight back with the weapons that attack you (although in this case I do not see an attack).  If someone makes fun of you, make fun in turn.  It is better to laugh at each other than to destroy each other.

3. The cases of Amanda PL and Niedzwiecki at least raise important questions about cultural appropriation.  Hopefully these questions will generate on-going dialogue that explores the crucial issue:  how can members of dominant groups speak responsibly when exploring  problems stemming from histories of cultural oppression, and how can members of historically oppressed groups criticize that history as forcefully as they need to, without in effect silencing satirical voices.  The Hypatia affair has no such virtues.

The signatories to the letter demanding the retraction of the Tuvel piece are in open violation of the norms of academic freedom, and really over a paper that is eminently reasonable, whether or not one agrees with her conclusion.  The paper proceeds from the principle that thought must:

hold open a space for real intellectual curiosity, for investigations that deepen our understanding of how identity claims and processes function, rather than rushing to offer well-formed opinions based on what we already think we know” (Stryker 2015, quoted in Tuvel, p. 264)

The paper unfolds according to this logic of respectful inquiry and is sensitive to the ethical and political complexities involved.  Others may disagree:  they should do so and respond, but there is nothing in the paper that would warrant its retraction.

If we conspire to undermine academic freedom in the way proposed by the signatories of the letter we will all suffer.  I subscribe to the American Association of University Professors’ electronic bulletin.  Almost everyday it relates a horror story of a professor fired for running afoul of administrations or governments.  Turkey is in the midst of a purge which has seen thousands of academics lose their jobs.  The Turkish government’s position is clear:  academics serve at the pleasure of the President. Anyone who criticizes his line forfeits their job.

We cannot mince words here:  the principle that underlies the demand to retract the Tuvel piece is identical:  conform your thought to a reigning orthodoxy (or some self-elected group’s definition of orthodoxy)  or be placed on the Index.  That Hypatia is a path-breaking journal of feminist philosophy makes the demand all the more disgraceful.  Hypatia would not exist unless feminist scholars had successfully contested academic orthodoxy.  Academic freedom was a vital principle  in that struggle.

Philosophers, as philosophers, simply cannot call for any other to be silenced.  Ever.  Philosophy responds to untruth with better argument, always, everywhere, in all cases,  or it is not philosophy.  Not every political problem can be resolved by argument, but when we are active as philosophers, whatever our identity, we argue, we do not silence.  If people’s sensibilities and anxieties make it impossible for them to hear certain arguments, then philosophy is not for them.  “The study of philosophy is much hindered,” Hegel wrote,  “by the conceit that will not argue,”  a conceit which “relies on truths which are taken for granted and which it sees no need to re-examine.”  The truth in philosophy is always contested:  argument is the means of contestation:  no limits, no hurt feelings allowed.  Philosophers listen, think, criticize, accept criticism, re-think, revise, and re-argue, forever if need be.

The actual criticisms articulated in the letter may very well be sound. They should be developed into a rebuttal and published, perhaps with a response from Tuvel.  Maybe a special issue of Hypatia could be devoted to the controversy.  But the demand to retract smacks of the worst sort of moralistic Maoism.  Shall we have re-education camps next (or maybe just mandatory training)?  Thinkers who want to be taken seriously as philosophers have to speak out against this reactionary and repressive politics in the most forceful terms.

Indigenous Knowledge and Intercultural Dialogue

My previous post concerned some qualms I have about the ways in which Canadian universities are advertising positions asking for applicants to demonstrate how they will incorporate “indigenous knowledge”  into their courses.  As I was finishing that post, I received an email from Bruce Ferguson, an Algonquin philosophy student.  He was writing me as part of a an independent project he had undertaken to canvas Canadian philosophers about their understanding of and disposition towards indigenous philosophy.  The serendipity was spooky.  I told him about the post I just happened to have been working on, and he took the time to post a long thoughtful comment.  It can be found in its original form in the comments section of that post.  Since Bruce’s whole point in writing the philosophical community was to start a dialogue, I tried to respond at length to his substantive points.  With Bruce’s permission, I have re-produced his original intervention and my responses (in italics).

White people can’t teach indigenous philosophy! What?
Posted on February 4, 2017 by maqua2017


I recently started a research project that concerned itself with the clear lack of strategies and plans in which philosophy departments across Canada interact with Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, contemporary Indigenous Thought and ideas about how to systematically study the system of Indigenous thought and then the stupid question of whether indigenous though “qualifies” as philosophy.

This “stupid question” is often also asked of eastern philosophy.  If you were to make the comparison, I think you would find, with few exceptions, (Brock in St. Catherines and the University of Hawaii do take “comparative” philosophy seriously) that  Eastern Philosophy is generally treated as religion or spirituality.  Indigenous thought likewise (and also African philosophy).  Since the beliefs are often not expressed in propositional form, but as overarching world views, they are often not taken seriously as philosophy, because not articulated as arguments.  But of course much of the most important Western philosophy also uses allegory, myth, and metaphor to communicate overarching world views: Plato, most importantly, the long complex histories of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophy, many ecological and eco-feminist philosophies (which often derive inspiration and content from indigenous knowledge); Nietzsche and existentialist thought).  

I literally sent emails to every philosopher I could find listed in a philosophy department website of the post-secondary institutions listed by the Canadian Philosophy Association. While receiving encouragement and thoughts, observations and so forth from professors I noticed an emerging set of themes; self-disqualifying statements,lack of time statements, a few guarded statements of disinterest but mostly (and shockingly) a political sensitivity – privileging the idea that only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought – a trend that I do not agree with and will argue as misplaced and unnecessary.

I think there are two issues with the disavowal of ability.  The innocuous one and one that is true, is that most of us have no education in indigenous thought, either as regards its content or its form (the importance and veracity of oral traditions, how to interpret myths, what to make of the integration of what from a scientific perspective are totally distinct realms of material structure—lands and waters—and symbolic-meaningful cultural systems).  If there is such a thing as indigenous knowledges-  and I think there is-  it has a different structure than western philosophy and science which are, in the main, literalist, written, empirical-logical, and falsifiable or refutable.  The second, and more problematic, might be—and I emphasise might-  a polite way of saying:  I know what I know and I do not want to bother learning, or trying to learn, anything fundamentally different.

In addition to misplaced political sensitivity is the problem of workload and priorities. Philosophers engaged in academia are very busy ensuring their responsibilities to the department are met, they are engaged with students at the level of teaching philosophy and forming “next generation philosophers”. Administration, evaluating students, career and academic interests and priorities all work towards philosophers who are too busy to do philosophy because of a demanding education system. We non-academic types “get it”.


Now here’s the emerging paradigm; Non-indigenous teachers cannot teach indigenous knowledge. – a statement I consider to be pure political and academic rhetoric.

I would repeat my two points above.  I think that you are right in one sense, but not in the other.  In principle non-indigenous scholars can learn and teach indigenous knowledges, I agree, but that would require much learning on our part (and maybe learning such a we are not used to—from elders not from books). It is/would be a big challenge.

So, why would I be against this well meaning and emerging paradigm? Simply because it is misleading, it indirectly validates the other side of the intellectual colonization coin. So let me get into explaining my thoughts on this.

I sense that this kind of political statement is influenced by the indigenous struggle for equality in Canada as well as the development and articulation of indigenous scholars in the sciences and social sciences. The territories of the humanities [philosophy] as a discipline versus the emerging territories of Indigenous studies all coming into conflict with one another and making for a politically sensitive environment that distracts from the role of teaching, learning and developing. I think both disciplines are too focused on themselves and ought to consider inter-disciplinary approaches as a balanced way to explore indigenous philosophy not to appropriate the philosophy but to develop some anchor of understanding that is qualified by relational statements such as “to the best of my experiential knowledge, cultural ability and limits within my life” and this is also true for me as an indigenous person. I can only make limited truth claims that relate to my own experience and shared experiences I have with my group in the human species. Beyond that, the possibilities of meta-analysis of emerging knowledge due to approaches such as ethno-philosophy can then reach beyond socio-cultural and experiential limits I sense (but am not certain of).

I think these points are well-made.  In work I did more than a decade ago (Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference) I was interested in exploring the common values beneath the different cultural systems in which people live and interpret their lives.  I focused on different groups in struggle (both within and outside the Global North) and abstracted the common themes that emerged.  The overwhelming commonality was that all asserted a right to self-determination and focused on some underlying shared conditions of achieving this goal (control over land and resources, economic forces and political institutions).  I claimed that these underlying conditions framed a core set of human needs (which I have explored in more detail in later work) and thus a core humanity, expressed different in different times and places.  Despite the differences, cross-cultural understanding and political solidarity is possible, because we can each interpret the other from the shared perspective of needs and conditions of self-determination.  Nevertheless (and I probably did not emphasise this aspect enough in the early work), cultural differences are real, and globally enriching, to the extent that they do not depend upon the oppression and domination of others.  The condition of realizing this value is intercultural dialogue and mutual learning, from a framework of equality (as I think you are also suggesting).   


The misplaced sensitivity held by non-indigenous philosophers in this regard ( often encouraged by political rhetoric of indigenous academics who are forging out boundaries to protect their discipline(s) which are often an inter-disciplinary approach with all subjects indigenous) is that it puts a strangle hold on gathering and sharing knowledge; it is an indirect silencer of free speech and thinking, it is a dangerous precedent for a nation that values freedom One professor – in response to my emails – wrote back to me indicating a great interest in promoting and supporting indigenous philosophy in the academy; she discussed this with her indigenous colleagues but was told that her areas of study do not intersect in any way with indigenous philosophy and she could not be of help! How do these indigenous professors/teachers know this, how can they make this as a truth claim? The apparent messaging of these indigenous professors does nothing more than to promote the other side of the intellectual colonization picture. (And I am aware that I am responding to what I heard as a secondary source I have not heard this directly, so this statement is in no way judgemental of those indigenous academics – I treat this as a scenario or thought experiment).

This point raises an important underlying philosophical problem about solidarity:  what if the type of solidarity demanded by the historically oppressed group is passive; i.e., letting the oppressed have their space to find and articulate their voice.  I have no problem with this approach in the sense that one of the key aspects of oppression is loss of voice, not being able to peak in your own voice, and one of the things that non-indigenous members of the academy need to do is to make sure that our efforts to create space for indigenous scholars do not substitute for their efforts and voices.  Well-meaning attempts to broaden perspectives can reasonably be seen as appropriating voice if they are not combined with serious institutional efforts to change the composition of the professoriate.  I think that criticisms of solidarity can go too far, as when some members of oppressed groups argue that it is impossible to understand reality from their perspective and that the only solution is separation of some sort or other (some radical feminists in the 1960’s made this argument, the Nations of Islam make similar arguments vis-à-vis relationships between white and black America.  I take it from your position you would reject separatism, but I think the more limited demand for passive solidarity:  (Let us speak our own voice!!) must be respected by non-Indigenous academics, at least until the composition of the academy has changed more fully).

However, if certain academics believe in what I like to refer to as an academic ghetto of inherent rights to a monopoly on certain discipline then what is the danger here? Nothing less than strangling knowledge! How do we know what intersects with what? The apparent statements from the indigenous scholars imply to me that they have either bought into traditional western divisions of knowledge; perhaps they do not see the validity in promoting a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach that much better reflects an indigenous methodology in gathering knowledge. The approach that is inclusion of all in the creation of ways of understanding what everyone is thinking within our limited ability as humans. Whatever the reason is, I would argue that it is wrong to promote the idea that only indigenous professors can teach indigenous philosophy.

Possibly, but might they not also be saying that prior to a productive inter-cultural dialogue, indigenous thinkers need time and space to think and talk amongst themselves.  Is the division permanent, or a precondition that can one day be dropped once conditions of equality (material, institutional, etc.,)  have been achieved?

Saying that though, there is no excuse for the academies to avoid hiring indigenous scholars because it is precisely that socio-cultural and experiential knowledge that helps a teacher delve further into the subject of indigenous thought, bringing it home as it were. It is an indigenous professor that can bring the non-native student deeper into an indigenous experience. I don’t think the majority of professionally trained philosophers would disagree with that.

I think this argument is dead on.  Real equality of voice and inter-cultural learning requires the presence of members of indigenous nations in the academy (just as the transformation of scholarship that feminism has produced and is producing required the presence of women).


The position promoting “indigenous only” professors to teach indigenous philosophy is not just a power grab for resources, it is an inauthentic and unnecessary condition for philosophy departments to be avoiding the taking on “indigenous philosophy. Are indigenous academics prepared to live the consequences of this separatist position? If only indigenous peoples can teach indigenous philosophy, then does it follow that only western people (white) can teach western philosophy? I don’t think so; in fact, the other danger that comes in this statement is one of indoctrination and not education.

A very important point.  Certainly it would undermine the deep value of including other voices if those voices were then limited to speaking only what the existing authorities are prepared to hear:  the indigenous thought in some sort of ‘authentic” expression, but not interventions on his this thought re-contextualises and forces a re-thinking of the authoritative tradition.  It would also rule out—as you note-  indigenous scholars teaching whatever they happen to want or have expertise in, and that would be just another form of suffocating confinement and exclusions.  The Argentinian-Mexican philosophy Enrique Dussel has some important things to say about what the western philosophical canon looks like when viewed from the perspective of the Global South.   

In the 80’s I was asked by my anthropology professor what was it about me that made me “Indian” (the terms we used back in the day). I could not think of anything that “made” me Indian as I thought everyone else thought like me, I was not sensitive to my own reality. When I told the professor that I did not know, he proceeded with a litany of observations he had about me that was particularly native (if one can anthropologically define “nativeness”). Anyways, he said, how I wrote my papers, how I participated in groups, how I treated others, how I respectfully challenge the establishment of the 80s and so forth gave me away as aboriginal. Go figure.

An additional danger to education by the assertion that “only indigenous philosophers can teach indigenous philosophy” is the lack of a third and “objective” party that can look at indigenous knowledge from a non-indigenous perspective. So, as an indigenous person, there are two take away points for us to consider with regards to the separatist position stated above; (1) Am I not qualified to teach western philosophy because I do not come from the cultural and scientific roots of that philosophy and (2) what are the costs tom my intellectual development by not experiencing objective and third party, western and eastern philosophical input into class discussions, thinking and so forth. Indigenous people must avoid intellectual ghetto’s where we only hear our side of the story. Indoctrination via university education has gone on far too long in the academic establishment and the issue of indigenous academia brings an opportunity to deconstruct that bias for academic indoctrination for community based involvement in the development of knowledge.

I think that your idea of knowledge networks helps avoid these dangers.  Networks interconnect different elements each of which, in becoming part of the network, influences the whole, without losing its unique and particular function.  In the case of knowledge networks, since that which is brought into networked connection are reflective individuals, any genuine network would promote learning and change in all the parties.  I suppose that if indigenous thought is to remain living it cannot simply about the past and present, but will also grow and develop, in complex and critical interaction with European and North American traditions and disciplines.  Those traditions too can learn about their own partiality and blind-spots through real dialogue with indigenous thought, but also, learn something new about the world it sometimes claims to have already mastered.   Beyond mutual learning, one can see the possibility of new forms of hybrid thought develop which (perhaps) eventually grow beyond their particularist cultural origins towards a new human comprehensiveness.


Philosophy and indigenous philosophy should no longer be the sphere of the lone western white male academic, the rest of us have arrived, we want to be taken seriously and we want our ideas analyzed and critiqued from all angles and that includes western bodies of knowledge, scientific scrutiny and so forth. The critique forces us as indigenous philospher-thinkers to dig deeper into our arguments, find ways in which we can validate our arguments in the face of western and eastern academia.

I think this point is very well put.  It is the utmost disrespect to not engage with it critically and to respectfully question it:  for the sake of deeper understanding.  We spare children the full force of criticism because if we clip their wings to early they will cease to grow.  But dialogue between mature cultures and people has to involve criticism, just because no perspective or theory is fully adequate or comprehensive.  The key is to make sure that there is institutional equality (which means that indigenous thought is respected as a complex symbolic mediation of the natural and social world and not some feel good new-agey ‘spirituality’  that white people can drape themselves in to feel better about themselves.

Finally, non-indigenous professors should adopt the idea that they can teach indigenous philosophy in the sense of explaining what they understand the key concepts to be, they can adapt indigenous metaphysical claims (like they adapt other claims from western academic sources) to make their arguments, they can facilitate and challenge indigenous students to dig deeper and look harder through introducing native students to non-native thought and that includes eastern philosophy as well.

This is an important challenge to us all.  I think that if we can learn to teach Greek metaphysics (which was articulated in cultural world very different from our own)  we can learn to teach indigenous thought in the way that you suggest.  I would add that pushing ourselves (white academics) to expand our courses to include indigenous philosophy cannot be seen as sufficient, but only one part of a broader struggle to make the academy more reflective of the cultural etc., complexity of the country.  In philosophy that means learning about Eastern and Islamic philosophy as much as it means learning about indigenous thought.  And, to reiterate, it also means allowing indigenous scholars to develop whatever expertise they want to develop as scholars.   I think your final two paragraphs sum matters up in an appropriately philosophical way, so I leave them as the final words (but not absolutely final, of course. 

I have come to the belief that the nature of the societal trend called “political correctness” has no place in philosophy, it is in the nature of political correctness enforced by political pressure and legal mechanism to silence thought in society and therefore is dangerous. No matter who the source (and many of our people are benefiting by the politics of political correctness) we ought to see the danger of the politically correct theme within the emerging paradigm of “only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought”, which is a very dangerous road to travel.

Finally, non-indigenous professors are quite correct in understanding the limits imposed upon them by not being indigenous with regards to teaching indigenous philosophy; they can’t teach it as an indigenous professor can BUT they can offer things the indigenous professor cannot offer, critique, analysis, challenging our people to think deeper and argue better, these are gifts the non-indigenous teacher can bring to us and I say ‘bring it on!” Please let’s replace political correctness with academic integrity, old fashion courteousness and above all respect in it’s full academic expression.

The Wish to be a Red Indian

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.

(Franz Kafka, “The Wish to be a Red Indian” Meditations, 1904-1912)

Kafka’s meditation is a brilliant evocation of untrammelled natural freedom and a model of poetic brevity.  It is not a documentary record of “Red Indian” life but the expression of a need to occupy open spaces.   The drama plays out not on the Great Plains but in Kafka’s head, in his room in the Jewish Quarter of Prague (which is everything the Great Plains are not:  cramped, twisty streets, confined, bustling).  Kafka’s wish is to be unfettered, to be free from everything constructed and mechanical (the rider needs no reins or spurs; by the end  even the horse itself is dissipating into into pure motion).  The wish is perhaps not to be some particular other, but, to become one with space and time, pure forward motion.

In that respect it goes beyond the typical sort of European fantasy projection that has informed, since Jacques Cartier kidnapped Dom Agaya and Taignoagny from Hochelaga and took them to France, the European construction of the native as “noble savage.”  Kafka’s wish clearly trades on some of this construction, but also dissolves it into the pure freedom of movement.  It is not the ritual, or the dress (there is no description of the rider at all) or the cosmology that elicits the wish, but rather the space  (and thus the freedom to move through it), that summons Kafka’s imagination.

Deadly irony, then that Kafka was writing this “meditation” at time when that very freedom of movement towards the endless horizon of the Plains had been robbed from their original inhabitants.  After the Indian Wars in the United States and the Northwest Rebellion in Canada, after the destruction of bison herds that were the foundation of the Prairie economy, on those plains and in the cities that colonialism created, a more prosaic reality ruled and rules still:  the reality of displacement, marginalization, racist hatred, poverty, and, violence.  But also:  a history of resilience and creativity, political struggle and demands for redress and social transformation, and also calls for solidarity, not separation, and self-change on the part of the descendants of the European colonizers who have (unequally of course) materially benefited so much from colonization.

An important step towards recognition of the reality of Canadian colonial history and a new political relationship with the people of the First Nations was the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  One of the demands that it made was for a re-thinking of the teaching of Canadian history in particular and educational curricula in general, at all levels, to incorporate indigenous knowledges.  I think this demand is valuable for three reasons:  1) it will present a more comprehensive, and therefore, truer account of how Canada came to be;  2) by presenting a truer account of our history, it will give people the knowledge that they need to overcome the racist stereotypes that still dominate too many white Canadians’ images of people of the First Nations; and 3) it will contest the myth of the ‘noble savage’ naturally at one with nature, and remind people that First Nations’ communities always were and are human cultures with complex symbolic structures and thoughtful relationships to the environment and each other.

Still, as important as the task of re-thinking our history and reforming our curricula is, I worry that it is becoming abstracted from the deeper structural changes a full reconciliation with First Nations communities will require.  Let me give you and example to illustrate my concern.

Recently, I was asked by a former student to write a letter of support for an academic position for which he had he applied.  I noticed an addition to the usual boiler plate about commitment to equity.  The relevant section of the ad reads that the successful candidate will have a  “demonstrated understanding of the ways in which equity, indigenous knowledge, and sustainability are  fundamental to the student experience, to innovative scholarship …”   While there is nothing objectionable in itself about this requirement, I could not shake feeling supremely bothered by it.

On the one hand, there is the usual institutional hypocrisy of these requirements.  At the same time as all universities insist upon equity and sustainability, they trip over themselves to attract private funding, often from corporations who could care less about either, and all of which, no matter what their internal culture, drive the capitalist system and its exploitative, alienating, and habitat destroying effects on people, other species, and the environment generally.

But there was something especially irksome about the inclusion of “indigenous knowledge.”  It is not that I think, as someone who lives within the self-enclosed world of the academy, that historically oppressed people have no business demanding that curricula change to include their previously excluded realities.  Curricula should always be changing to ensure ever more comprehensive scope of coverage and understanding.  If universities want to be at the forefront of progressive social change (and they should)  then academics have a responsibility to rethink what they are teaching and find ways to include the excluded.  To be sure, academics must be in charge of these developments so that the changes are made in a way that coheres with the disciplinary traditions and methods that students still need to know, but the demand itself is legitimate and in keeping with the vocation of the university to make available to students the totality of human knowledge in its on-going development.

So what bugged me? The first problem is that the very idea of “indigenous knowledge”  as a generic universal seems to me to be the product of a European perspective.  Indigenous people are not “indigenous,”  save in contrast to settlers and their descendants.  In their own communities– which would be the ground and source of their knowledge– they are Cree, or Iroquois, or Dene, or Inuit.  Clearly, no one who is not form those communities is going to understand, from the inside, the details, the nuances, and especially the meaning of their specific worldviews.  The abstraction “indigenous knowledge”  thus negates the nature of indigenous knowledge, which is not generic, but always specific to actual indigenous communities.

(Is this not true also of “Europe?”  In a sense it is, but its scientific-philosophical outlook has always been cosmopolitan and universalizing.  It is true that we can identify general differences between French, English, and German philosophy, for example, but most of these philosophers would also identify with a pan-European philosophical project.  That point would apply with even greater truth to the sciences).

The abstract generality of the requirement leads directly to the second thing about it that bugged me.  I have worked in universities for 20 years and studied in them for 10 before that.  First Nations people and their historical knowledges are underrepresented everywhere.  It is overwhelmingly likely that none of the people who wrote this ad were  members of any First Nation.  Who, then, is fit to adjudicate the extent to which any applicant (most of whom almost certainly will be white), is or is not well enough versed in “indigenous knowledge”  to incorporate it in to their teaching practice?  Is this not a case of the colonizer (even if unwittingly)  defining for the colonized the very knowledges that define them?

But then I think:  surely the implications of my being irked are absurd.  One does not have to be a woman to understand that curricula have to include women’s perspectives.  Thus, by analogy, one does not have to be a member of a First Nation in order to understand the need to include First Nations’ perspectives.  I suppose there is some truth here.  Understanding the value of a perspective is different from sharing or living that perspective.

Still, it seems true that with some forms of understanding, inhabiting the perspective is part of what it really means to understand it.  I could read about the cosmology of the Iroquois, for example, even talk with elders about it, and I am sure I could learn to explain it, but if I did not grow up relating to the universe through that cosmology, I would not say that I understood it.  Is the “indigenous knowledge”  my learning to explain it, or is it the living the life from within the set of beliefs?  I would say the later.

So I suppose that what is bothering me here is the (probably) unintentional presentation of ‘indigenous knowledge’ as something that non-indigenous academics can just “pick up”  and mechanically build into their curriculum and that the mechanical addition makes us white academics satisfied that we have incorporated  “indigenous knowledge.”  That is not enough, of course, any more than it would have been enough for male academics to be satisfied that they had included women’s perspectives had they just grafted a “feminism unit” on to their courses, but otherwise failed to hire women.  If there is to be a genuine incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the academy, then the academy is going to have to invest seriously in First Nations’ scholars.  In the same way that the academy has been transformed (and the project is not yet complete) by feminism, which could not transform disciplines until there was a critical mass of female academics, so too the organic incorporation of the perspectives and knowledges and life-ways of the various First Nations can only be accomplished by similarly transforming the composition of the professoriate and student body.

Just as conservatives prophesied that feminism would destroy academic integrity and rigor, so too will conservatives rail against “indigenization.”  But just as feminism brought new perspectives to bear on traditional subjects, expanding their scope, not destroying them, so too will the knowledge of different indigenous communities expand but not destroy existing disciplines.  But that means having indigenous scholars across disciplines, and not only in Indigenous Studies programs, all of whom can cross traditions in the academy, speaking in their own voice within and against the voice of the disciplines in which they work.

Of course, that too is only a partial step in transforming the colonial history of the country.  The bigger issues concern land claims, honouring the treaties, and working out some means of systematically compensating the peoples of the First Nations for the material losses colonialism imposed upon them.

Identity Politics, Cultural Appropriation, and Solidarity

The Political Aesthetics of Abstraction

It is easy to change the appearance  of political arguments by abstracting them from the historical context in which they emerge.  Just as the apparent colour of an object can be changed by altering the light in which it appears (an object under ultraviolet light looks to be a different colour than under infrared or sunlight) so too serious political arguments can be made to appear frivolous when separated out from their historical background.  Certain figures in the media are masters of the parlour trick of cherry picking titles and argument-fragments that, in abstraction from the argument as a whole and a longer-term view of history, sound absurd.  Margaret Wente is a paragon of this intellectual non-virtue.  In a recent article she makes fun of academic cultural studies for making what sound like non-sensical critiques of the “whiteness”  of pumpkin latte and the sexism of glaciology.

Let us be fair:  if you only read the title, and you do not link the particular claim (about lattes or glaciology)  to longer term histories of racism and sexism, then it does sound ridiculous to claim that pumpkin lattes are racist or the study of glaciers sexist.  But is it ridiculous to argue that there is a history of sexism in Western science or that Tim Hortons has built a coffee empire on an advertising construction of a very white Canadian cultural practice:  early mornings drinking coffee at the rink while your boy (and now girl) plays hockey.  How many women scientists were there in 1820?  How many black Canadians do you see in Tim Horton’s commercials?  Not many, because the image of Canada those commercials are conjuring is an anachronistic image of the cultural essence of Canada as the small town arena and hockey as a democratic cultural glue.  Now, there is some truth to that picture (I lived it in fact) but it is only one fragment of a much more complex cultural picture, and it leaves out of the frame everyone who cannot afford to play hockey or who does not care about it.

When we put the deconstruction of the pumpkin latte in this context its claim is not so silly.   What makes it seem silly is the micro-focus on a drink, and peoples’ assumptions that something so trivial as a cup of coffee cannot be so pregnant with offensive symbolic meaning.  But a cross abstracted from context  is just two pieces of wood intersecting at a right angle. What could be more banal?  But put that banal construction in a Christian Church and it becomes symbolic of the suffering and redemption of humanity.  The same general process of the inflation of symbolic value is at work in the Tom Horton’s commercial.  When set in the context of the construction of Canadian culture around spaces and practices that are predominantly white, the symbolic value of the coffee cup rises, and it can be a fit subject for cultural criticism.  So:  seemingly insignificant elements of a culture can have profound symbolic importance, and the value of work that brings this importance to light is that it opens a space for critical reflection and the democratic construction of new cultures in which more voices are heard and new practices born.

This critique is liable to get people’s backs up, because they sometimes think that if the symbolic value of something which they enjoy has racist implications, then they are being called racists for enjoying it.  Sometimes claims of cultural appropriation are made with an air of self-righteousness moralism that makes them easy targets for rejection on these defensive grounds.  It is certainly not the case that every white person who wears dreadlocks is a racist any more than heterosexual white transvestites are sexist for wearing women’s clothes.  In matters of politics, intentions matter as much as actions, and sometimes the intention is just to look a certain way, or respectfully (and playfully) participate in a practice that one finds valuable even though participation demands a certain degree of transgression of cultural or gender-boundaries.  Sometimes a dreadlock is just a dreadlock.

But sometimes  not, too, and again it will be context and intention that determines the political meaning.  Wearing dreadlocks because you love reggae is one thing, going in blackface to a hallowe’en party is another.  Wearing blackface has an undeniably racist history; reggae, while rooted in a trenchant critique of the slave trade and colonial domination, nevertheless (at least in its original expressions) preaches a universal set of values:  peace between nations and cultures and the equality and dignity of all people. Burning Spear’s magnificent song The Invasion begins with the line “They take us away from Africa, with the intention to steal our culture,”  but continues with the invocation of the need for “Love in Africa, Love in America, Love in Canada”  i.e., not retreat into a closed community but openness towards difference and reconciliation (but without forgetting the history of violence, either).

So:  the problem of cultural appropriation is real, but becomes pernicious only when it involves the permanent appropriation of essential elements of a group’s conditions of life and self-understanding, as in the history of colonial domination.  The aim of opposing cultural appropriation should not be to prevent real communication, inter-cultural dialogue, and the creation of new forms of expression and identity, but to ensure that all members of all cultures have secure access to that which they require to live freely.

Against the Politics of Banning and Apology

Unfortunately, the goal of cultural critics is not always to widen the space for novel cultural interactions  and inventions but to justify banning and silencing and to demand apologies for arguments and theories that give offense.   It would be wrong to argue that there are never grounds to ban certain forms of speech or representation. However, the bar must be set very, very high:  1) There must be demonstrated and pervasive harm to an identifiable group and not a merely asserted harm to a random individual or individuals claiming to speak for the whole group, and 2) harm must be understood as equivalent to a physical barrier preventing the group from exercising its full range of life-capacities.  So, it would be reasonable to ban Ku Klux Klan outfits from a university campus, because the Ku Klux Klan is inseparable from a history of racist violence, and any black student who saw people walking around in Klan gear would reasonably fear for their safety, and this fear could well prevent them from freely enjoying campus spaces and feeling safe enough to think and study.  Racist jokes, on the other hand, while offensive, should not be banned, but their teller challenged, because it is not always the intention of the teller of racist jokes to promote racial intolerance. Often times the teller does not think that they are racist, because they think that humour changes the literal meaning and implications of words– a not unreasonable position that must be answered with a reasoned critique. The ensuing argument can thus be a moment of productive political engagement and education rather than the regressive alternative:  censorship imposed by the ruling powers.

This argument applies with double force to the lamentable and frankly reactionary practice of trying to silence theories and political positions which might give offense to some group by banning speakers from campuses or trying to control the content of courses.  Academic freedom is not a liberal platitude but has been, overall, a force of progressive change, and a crucial contributing factor to why there is any political criticism on campus at all.  There would be no women’s studies department without the struggles of women academics, but those academics would never have survived the wrath of the boy’s club without the protection of academic freedom, because it gave them the space and time necessary to defend the integrity and value of their work from charges that it was intellectually weak.  There is no doubt who will be swept out the door if academic freedom is fatally compromised by misplaced political outrage and moralistic whinging:  feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and critical race theorists as well as heterodox critics of the history of science will be gone and universities returned to what they were formerly:  transmission belts of the ruling ideas of the age, taught to the sons (and only much later) daughters of the ruling class.

Thus, activists and critics need to recover the value of political argument.  If there are fault lines in a society, then it follow as a direct consequence that there will be groups on the other side of an issue, and they will not go away unless the fault line is  sealed through some sort of fundamental social change.  Silencing the opponent through whatever means has never worked (even revolutionary attempts to ‘liquidate the class enemy’ have never succeeded).  There is no alternative but to argue (not only argue, obviously) and convince the opponent to change their position.  Hegel is correct:  the conceit that refuses to argue impedes political progress because the “achieved community of minds”  which our rational nature makes possible depends upon the “power of the negative,” his name for the ability of philosophical thinking to detect and overcome contradictions.  If the other side does not speak, the contradiction is hidden from view but not resolved.  The strategy of banning and silencing is therefore self-undermining and must be rejected save in the most extreme cases of overt advocacy of violent assault on vulnerable groups.


However, rejecting a self-undermining politics of the silencing (but not defeat) of the opposed position leaves open the more difficult question of how the positive programs of movements against different forms of oppression can be brought together in some sort of coherent political synthesis.  A coherent political synthesis would allow for the elaboration of shared goals without requiring the submerging of particular histories or subordinating the particular identities to an imposed agenda.  It is crucial to remember that the emergence of radical feminism, Black Power, the American Indian Movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1960’s was in part made necessary by the woeful failure of the Marxist left to acknowledge the political reality of different histories of oppression.  Of course, these movements were made necessary by those histories, and their successes owe to the intelligence and energy of their organizers.  At the same time, part of the reason why these movements had to split off from the Marxist left was due to a mechanical and dogmatic insistence on the “primacy of class.”  There is a non-dogmatic argument to be made for the primacy of class, but I am not going to make it here.  Instead, I want to conclude with a different account of how solidarity might be built in the present, which draws on some core ideas of Marxism, but re-interprets them in light of contemporary political realities.

The core problem of building real solidarity is how to identify real common interests and articulate them in such a way that their pursuit does not demand subordination of particular identities to another identity presenting itself as universal. The historical problem of the dogmatic Marxist approach was that, from the perspective of a radical feminist or black power militant, class was itself an identity as particular as the Marxist charged feminism or black power with being.  If a common interest is to be found, it has to be deeper than class.  I think we find this deeper ground in the idea of a shared set of socio-cultural human needs whose satisfaction allows anyone to realize their latent human power of living as a social-self-conscious agent; i.e., a person who has the power to shape their own identity rather than than be dominated as an object of oppressive power.  When we focus on needs first, it becomes apparent  that oppression is essentially about demonizing specific groups of people and using that demonization to justify the fact that they are systematically deprived of one or more of the set of fundamental human natural and social needs.   They are oppressed because they can live as full social self-conscious agents, and they cannot, not because they are not essentially social self-conscious agents, but because they are deprived of that which they require to live as such.

So, to give only one example, when women were denied the vote (their need to participate in the determination of the laws they were forced to obey) sexist ideology argued that women lacked the intellectual capacities to effectively participate in government.  When African Americans were denied the same means of satisfying their need to participate, racist ideology argued that they were similarly intellectually unfit for self-government.  Here we have two distinct groups denied the same means of satisfying a political need  by reference to a false construction of their nature and possibilities.  The details of the histories of their respective deprivation differ, but the cause is the same:  the system-need of the ruling class to ensure the conditions of its own rule.  If the ruling class is primarily white and male, then the demands of women and blacks for political power is a threat, and racist and sexist ideologies a means of warding off that threat.  Solidarity in the struggle can be constructed by appeal to the shared need, while the specific identity of the group is preserved because they orient their contribution to that struggle on the basis of their own particular experience of the general causes of the deprivation.

This example abstracts from a great deal of complexity of the contemporary political terrain, but I believe that if people examine fundamental problems of structural oppression, they will discover at the root of that oppression deprivation of needs that are also felt by other groups.  I have defined and defended a theory of what fundamental human needs are in two previous books, Democratic Society and Human Needs and Materialist Ethics and Life-value.  The practical implication of the argument is that all the particular histories of oppresion converge on the control of natural resources, social wealth, and social institutions by a ruling class.  Solidarity in struggle is rooted not in everyone identifying themselves as working class against the ruling class, but in all oppressed and exploited groups articulating the specific ways in which they experience the deprivation of their needs, and working together to reclaim the resources and institutions that can satisfy them.

Politics cannot ensure that no one is ever offended, and if it tries to do so, it will degenerate into irrelevant squabbling (or worse, demands that the authorities solve the problem through repressive measures).  Progressive politics is about people seizing the power to solve their own problems by changing the system at the foundations.  It would be best if this were a simple and swift problem to solve, but it is not.  Because it is not, and because opponents cannot be wished out of existence or completely destroyed, the patience of argument will always have to be part of the tools of struggle.

Readings: Carlo Fanelli: Megacity Malaise: Neoliberalism, Public Services, and Labour in Toronto

Carlo Fanelli, Megacity Malaise: Neoliberalism, Public Services, and Labour in Toronto, Fernwood Books, 2016.

Although the basic driver of capitalist society is easy enough to understand, its system-need to turn money-capital  into more money-capital manifests itself as a series of intersecting contradictions: political, economic, social, and cultural.  These contradictions affect different regions of the globe and different groups of people differently.  In Guangzhou, China, the destruction of the industrial working class of Southern Ontario and the US mid-West is experienced as the birth of an industrial working class, with all the pain and promise that process entailed in the West one hundred and fifty years ago.  In the world’s ever larger megacities, the loss of manufacturing has been off-set by the explosion of finance and cultural industries as the main drivers of capital accumulation. Cities too small to act as a magnet for finance capital and cultural industry monster-spectacle are left desperate and dependent.

The contradictions of twentieth and twenty-first  century capitalist urbanization provide the socio-economic frame for Carlo Fanelli’s political analysis of labour struggles against austerity in Toronto.  While a mid-sized city by global standards, Toronto is by far the dominant city of Canada, with a metropolitan population bigger than Montreal and Vancouver combined.  As the mass culture and financial centre of Canada, Toronto is a a global city which sees itself (and not incorrectly)  as a key competitor with New York and London.  In the contemporary world, inter-national capitalist competition increasingly plays out as competition between major cities.  Finance capitalists and the captains of the culture industries are the winners, peripheral cities and  workers across sectors are the losers.  Yet, as Faneli shows, despite being obviously the victims, workers, and especially unionized workers, are blamed as the cause of their own demise.

Fanelli is uniquely positioned to both explain the socio-economic context of labour struggles against austerity and critique the limitations of their existing forms.  As a working class child and adolescent growing up in Rexdale he learned first hand the range and the importance of the public services the city offered.  After having benefited from those services growing up, he later helped to provide them, working for many years for the City of Toronto in different capacities.  During his career he was also an an activist member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 79– the largest union of municipal workers in the country.   He is also a political economist with a gift– due to his not having forgotten his working class background– for bringing complex economic problems down to their real world implications for working people.  Although the book focuses on Toronto, the lessons he draws are of general significance to Canadian public sector workers.

The book is admirably concise, managing in 100 pages to provide a brief constitutional  history of the status of cities in Canada, the global socio-economic causes of neo-liberalism and the austerity agenda, the local contours of those causes as they have shaped the political agenda of Ontario and Toronto over the past twenty years, an ethnography of two pivotal CUPE strikes in Toronto, a critique of the political limitations of the CUPE Toronto leadership, an affirmation of the public sector as a counter-weight to capitalist market forces, and general ideas about how that counter-weight can be used as a platform for the development of renewed union radicalism and anti-capitalist mobilisation.  Despite the number of foci, the book reads as a unified whole.  Theoretical claims are empirically substantiated. There is no extraneous detail, but the reader wanting more fine-grained content is always pointed to the primary sources.  The book needs to be part of any conversation around the political re-birth of the union movement and the re-invention of the Canadian left.  In that regard it could usefully be read alongside of Alan Sear’s The Next New Left.

Fanelli begins with a cogent explanation of the causes of the austerity agenda in Toronto.  These causes are both general and specific.  The general cause is the global reign of neo-liberal orthodoxy, according to which unions and the public sector have undermined the competitive dynamism of capitalism and slowed economic growth. Hence the goal of neo-liberal policy has been to weaken unions and privatize public services.  The tactic is the same everywhere:  first tax cuts create a revenue crisis, which leads to service cuts, which are blamed on workers high salaries and secure pensions, which are used to demonize workers, eroding public support  for job security and living wages at the same time as it increases popular support for state-led attacks on public sector workers.  “This is a recurring feature of neo-liberal administration in which tax cuts are firs used to degrade the quality and breadth of the service provided, which governments then invoke as justification for “tightening spending.”  When this fails … this manipulative strategy is then used to justify privatization.”  (p. 41)   Fanelli explains the logic of manufactured crisis clearly, substantiates his analysis with concrete examples from Toronto, and avoids repeating at length the historical development of neo-liberalism already well-analysed in works like Harvey’s Neo-Liberalism:  A Brief History.

The specific cause of the austerity agenda is the  constitutional status of cities in Canada.  Fanelli weaves his way through the relevant constitutional arcana to explain the core problem:  According to the British North America Act (1867)  and the Constitution Act (1982), cities are the creatures of the provinces with very little room for independent fiscal maneuvering.   Overwhelmingly, cities rely  on property taxes to raise the revenue they need to pay for public services.   Property taxes, are, however, regressive:  if home value rise property taxes will rise, but there is no guarantee that wages will rise in lockstep with property taxes.  In booming real estate markets working people, whose wages have been suppressed over the last three decades, can find themselves with a growing tax bill–  and moved by the resentment higher taxes and more or less fixed incomes  to set out looking for scapegoats.(p.33)  Right-wing politicians are happy to point them in the direction of public sector workers grazing by the side of the road.

These general and specific causes have combined with a series of disastrous (for cities) provincial decisions, beginning with that of the hard-right government of Mike Harris (1995-2003) to download significant new costs to cities (public housing, social assistance …),  without any corresponding increase in their ability to borrow or otherwise raise revenue in new ways.  Although a right-wing ideologue of the most objectionable sort, Harris was simply mimicking what his supposedly progressive federal Liberal counterpart, Jean Chretien, through the agency of then-finance Minister Paul Martin, was doing to “solve” the deficit crisis:  download costs to the provinces.  Martin set in motion a vortex of downloading at the bottom of which is the political unit least able to fiscally cope– cities.  Since most of the services that people depend upon for the day to day quality of their lives are delivered and paid for at the municipal level, the overburdening of city budgets by these newly imposed costs was felt in a very real way, especially by the poorest and most vulnerable:  fewer services,  higher user fees, and more encouragement from politicians for them to take their anger out on the workers who deliver the services.

Toronto city governments from the reign of clown the first Mel “Bad Boy” Lastman to clown the second Rob “Real Bad Boy”  Ford have claimed that Toronto faces a spending crisis.  But professional audits have revealed that the city is and has been very well-managed from a spending perspective.(p.26) The real problem, as Fanelli demonstrates, is “a revenue crisis rooted in the constitutional constraints of municipal government and public policies of the neo-liberal era.”(p.3)  However, failure to recognize the truth of the political economic situation has led the public to support, to various degrees of intensity in different periods, the overall program of “competitive austerity” successive governments have recommended.  Fanelli refers to Greg Albo to explain competitive austerity as a set of policies which makes “labour markets more flexible, enhances managerial prerogatives, reduces government services that act as a drain on competition, shedding public assets and weakening labour laws and employment standards, aiming to turn the state into a series of internally competitive markets.” (p. 28)  The program of competitive austerity can only be realized through the defeat of organized labour, since the entire point of organized labour is to shield workers from the life-destructive effects that unregulated market forces generate by pushing down real wages.  If competitive pressure increases, then the power of unions must  proportionally decrease.  Hence we would expect a period of competitive austerity to be a period of class struggle in the form of public sector unions trying to preserve past gains against cost cutting municipal governments.  That is exactly what we find in Toronto.  Its CUPE locals (79 and 416) have been involved in work stoppages in 2000, 2002, 2009, and 2012.  The results, as Fanelli explains, have not been catastrophic for CUPE, but they have been defeats.

The most important contribution the book makes is its political analysis of these strikes and the lessons for the future development of the union movement.  Fanelli is fair (and not out of loyalty to his CUPE brothers and sisters).  The bargaining situation for all unions in the context of competitive austerity is extremely difficult.  Anyone who thinks sloganeering or sideline invocations of the need for militancy can overcome these objective barriers to success simply has not been involved in union politics for the past thirty years.  There are reasons why concessions have been made: the increased mobility of capital has put workers in competition with each other, internationally, nationally, provincially, and between cities.   While public services are not subject to relocation in the same way a car factory is, private sector dynamics, as Albo noted, have been replicated in the public sector, weakening unions’ bargaining strength.  At the same time, legislative changes (making the use of scabs easier, declaring more and more workers “essential” in order to strip them of their right to strike) have coalesced with competitive pressures to objectively weaken the labour movement.  The objective forces have subjective implications:  workers feel beaten down, targeted, worried about job security, and thus defensive.  Mobilizing militant action in this context is extremely difficult.

Difficult as it is, it is also necessary (if the competitive austerity agenda and, beyond that, capitalism itself are to be eventually overcome).  Fanelli acknowledges the challenges, but he also (hopefully, not naively) teases out the possibilities for union renewal in the unique role public sector work plays in a capitalist economy.  As Fanelli notes right at the outset, public sector work satisfies real human needs, and in so doing, improves the lives of those who access those services.  These needs run the gamut from basic physical needs like health care when sick to socio-cultural needs like engaging in organized play and education.   Thus, the first step in recreating a fighting, progressive, and democratic trade union movement is for public sector workers to connect the life-value of the services to the workers who provide those services:  “The public provision of goods and services, well-managed in a way that fosters sustainable development and social justice initiatives, and which is accountable to the community, significantly improves standards of living …  It is necessary to ensure that the public at large understands this through community engagement initiatives led by unions.” (p. 86).  “Sustainable development,”  “social justice”  and “accountability” all need to be more clearly defined, but the general point that Fanelli makes is sound: the public sector constitutes a counter-logic to the money to more money sequence of value that determines the capitalist economy.   Its principle is: satisfy human needs regardless of ability to pay because good human lives demand need-satisfaction.

Of course, this principle exists in tension with the driving force of money-capital accumulation in capitalism.  Fanelli acknowledges this fact:  “”Public services address real needs and result from previous rounds of class struggle, but they also address the need of the capitalist state to reproduce class society.”(p. 83).  Moreover, public sector workers can often also stand in relations of power over and against the communities they serve, often in racialized and sexist formations (welfare case workers vis-a-vis their clients, for example).  Overcoming the later contradiction requires building alliances and coalitions with communities, while the former requires defending, extending, and democratising public services; a reverse process of publicization against the privatizing agenda that has dominated over the past thirty years.  That campaign requires militancy, and militancy requires education and member mobilization. “Considering the concerted attacks against labour, should unions wish to regain their once prominent role in the pursuit of social justice and workplace democracy, they will need to take the risks of  organizing working class communities and fighting back … This requires a radicalized perspective that seeks to develop both alternative policies and an alternative politics rooted in class-oriented unionism.”(p. 61)  It should be added:  it will also take a new layer of younger leadership educated in the history of militant trade unionism while attentive to contemporary realities and open to and capable of inventing creative responses appropriate to the twenty-first century.   One worries (or I do anyway)  that the culture of expressive virtual individualism works against the emergence of such a leadership layer.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish and ahistorical to simply abandon the union movement as a potentially transformative movement while it still organizes millions of workers (and especially the public sector union movement, where union density is far higher than in the private sector and where the services the workers provide must be fixed in local space).  As long as there is a union movement, it needs spurs to reinvention such as Fanelli has written.  Still, arguments like Fanelli’s are always subject to the objection that despite their forward-looking rhetoric they are rear-guard actions whose conditions of historical possibility have passed.  The only sound response to the objection is practical success, for which the author cannot be held responsible, since success will require contributions from thousands of people acting politically over open-ended time-frames.

At the level of argument,  Fanelli’s set of reform principles:  coalition building, community engagement, internal democratization,  and member education steered by the goal of preserving public services and extending the logic of public provision are sound and what one would expect.  There is one blind spot that is worth mentioning.  In Fanelli’s version of cities, what makes them great is the range and depth of public services available to citizens.  I agree without reservation, but would venture to add that the cultural and intellectual dynamism of great cities needs to be included.  Fanelli is largely silent on the cultural wealth of Toronto:  its bands, performances, public talks; its eccentrics, artists, and folk heroes, its neighbourhoods, galleries, universities, clubs, restaurants, and book stores; its magnificent cultural, intellectual, and sexual diversity.  Unlike David Harvey (whom he cites)  Fanelli’s version of the “right to the city”  is largely confined to affordable housing,transit and other (vitally, vitally important, no doubt)  basic human needs.(p.78).

But human beings are creatures of mind and imagination too.  The right to the city must also include the right to access the extraordinary cultural (and intercultural) dynamism of the world’s great cities.  Often times the barriers here are not financial, but cultural:  the snobbery and closed-mindedness of cultural elites who often (although not always) function as gate-keepers to these institutions and events.  Working people are often made to feel as thought they lack the “symbolic capital”  to borrow a phrase from Bourdieu, to take advantage of cutting-edge art and thought that cities incubate and nurture.  And that is wrong, for art and thought are not the preserve of financial and cultural elites but should be open to everyone.  The left needs to extend its historical commitment to egalitarianism beyond access to the requisites of life to the requisites of a liberated mind and imagination.

The modern city is certainly a creature of capital, but it is also a creature of human labour and human imagination.  Great cities have long been attractors of genius and eccentricity and spaces where difference can be protected from bigotry by force of concentrated numbers of the like-minded and tolerant and experimental.  Cities are contradictory spaces just because they concentrate in a relatively small geographical space the most inventive and forward-looking human beings with the most brutal indignities that capital can inflict.  The struggle for the city must be a struggle to overcome the structural causes of those dignities, but also a struggle to open the horizons of working people to the creative and intellectual wealth that already exists.  Beyond opening up access to what already exists, a re-vivified struggle for the right to the city must also be a struggle to widen and deepen that wealth by enabling people to live as subjects of their own activity and not objects of money-capital.  Fanelli has written a short but important intervention into the debate over the shapes that that struggle should to take.



Ten Theses: A Coda

In the past five days more than 17 000 people have read my Ten Theses.  This number of readers is two orders of magnitude greater than my previously best read posts.  If anyone still thinks that the contemporary university does not take teaching seriously, the scope of interest in the piece and the seriousness of the debate which followed is evidence that it does.  I do not expect my position or the criticism it aroused to be the final word.  I have been making these arguments for a decade (without much practical success at the institutional level) and, while I am always open to counter-argument and to developing my own pedagogy in light of others’ good ideas, I remain committed to a more open practice of teaching which I do not think is well-served by learning outcomes.  For those who in good faith disagree and argue that without clear objectives students’ interests are compromised, I ask you to look at the debate here.  It was not framed by any extrinsic outcomes, was not steered or conducted by any extrinsic goals, but developed spontaneously through the considered interventions of the participants, but a coherence evolved that enabled all of us to learn a great deal, just by virtue of our participation and not because we gave each other assignments to assess.  I prefer the higher intensity of face to face argument to the flatness of electronic communication, but even so, the argument as it evolved here is an excellent illustration of what I meant in the post where I identified the dialectic of problem-question-re-posing of the problem as the life of a well-taught class.  I do not mean that I assumed the role of teacher here, but rather that this spontaneous energy of idea development is analogous to what happens in a class when it is doing what it should:  stimulate in the students the desire to think and contribute and see where the argument leads.  Thanks to everyone for their contributions.  The conversation can of course continue and I will respond as best I can to subsequent comments and criticisms, but other projects call.

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.
2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.


10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.


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