Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bones in the Basement

One of my all-time proudest moments occurred during my grade 10 religion class. At the time, I wasn't yet an atheist. In fact, I don't recall really considering myself anything at all as far as religiousness goes. I just hadn't really thought about the whole spiritual question very deeply.

As the students all took their seats and the bell rang to signal the beginning of class, the teacher, Mr. Radoux, announced, “There are bones in the basement of St. Patrick's High School.” The students looked confused and glanced around at each other, not quite sure what he was getting at. Mr. Radoux repeated, “There are bones in the basement of St. Patrick's High School.” Then, after pausing to great effect, he asked, “Who believes me? If you believe me, I'll show you where they are. If you don't believe me, you can stay here in the class. Let's have a show of hands of who believes that there are bones in the basement.”

Slowly at first, and then quite quickly, every student in the class put up their hands; all except for one: me. Noticing that I was the lone non-believer, Mr. Radoux pointed me out and began to interrogate me.

Why don't you believe me?”

“Well, can you tell us more about these bones? What kind of bones are they?”

“I can't tell you any more.”

“Can you show us a picture? Or anything else that would be evidence that the bones exist?”

No. You either believe or you don't believe.”

Well...then I guess I don't believe you.”

“That's fine. Class, follow me down to the basement. Robert, you stay here.”

One by one, everyone else in the class got up from their seats and walked past me out the door. Most of them looked at me. Some snickered; some looked confused; some looked concerned. Soon, I was left completely alone with my thoughts.

After about 10 minutes, the class filed back in with smiles on their faces. Some even said, “It's true! There were bones!” as they walked past my desk. At this point, I was sure that it was just a big practical joke; that Mr. Radoux had simply convinced them all to lie to me for some strange reason.

It wasn't until the next week that I was brought down to the basement along with one other student who had been away from school on the day that everyone else “saw the bones”. As he was leading us down into the bowels of the school, Mr. Radoux explained to us that many years ago, the basement of the school was excavated in order to build a swimming pool. During that excavation, the workers had come across bones, which turned out to be human, and were from a forgotten cemetery that the school was built on top of. The ironic thing is, that we didn't actually see any bones in the basement. The ones that were found had been removed, and the rest of the bones that were probably buried there, were encased in concrete so that they could not be disturbed.

Despite Mr. Radoux's intention to make me feel guilty for not believing him in the first place, I can remember feeling vindicated. Why should I have believed him without any good evidence? Why couldn't the other students have been playing a prank on me? Isn't that much more plausible than there actually being bones in the basement that I had never heard about, despite being a student at the school for three and a half years?

At the time, I didn't grasp the implications of the the lesson that I was meant to learn, or the lesson that I had actually learned. With years of reflection, I can finally say that I understand. I was meant to agree that believing things just because it was asserted by a person in a position of authority (e.g., teachers and priests) or books in authority (i.e., the Bible) was a virtuous trait. What I actually learned was that believing things without evidence was silly; arguments from authority are silly; the Bible is silly; religion is silly; many firmly held and popular beliefs are silly; and although it seems scary, it can be fun, exhilarating, and empowering to stand up for your convictions, even when (perhaps especially) you're standing completely alone against unthinkable odds.

I have carried these lessons with me ever since and they have had a powerful influence on how my sense of self has developed and on every significant decision I have made since.  I am very proud of those decisions, and I am very proud of the person I have become. If it wasn't for those lessons, I probably wouldn't have become the radicalized critical thinker I am today.

I will leave you with a quote from one of the most influential authors in my life; a quote that serves as a direct extrapolation of the lessons I learned during that fateful week back in Mr. Radoux's grade 10 religion class.
"When, in the course of human development, existing institutions prove inadequate to the needs of man, when they serve merely to enslave, rob, and oppress mankind, the people have the eternal right to rebel against, and overthrow, these institutions.

The mere fact that these forces--inimical to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--are legalized by statute laws, sanctified by divine rights, and enforced by political power, in no way justifies their continued existence."
-Emma Goldman

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What I'm Doing Now (writing scholarship essays?)

For those who are curious about what I'm up to these days and where my head is at, here's an essay I wrote in order to apply for scholarships through Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg. I know, I know, I thought I was done with universities for good too. Just read the essay and you'll understand my perspective (although it's a sanitized version of reality; talk to me if you want the real scoop).

Ever since I took Law as an elective in grade twelve and felt the adrenaline rush of participating in a mock trial, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I felt passionately that becoming a criminal defence attorney would be the best way to advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised and the best way to push back against our deeply flawed “justice” system. I would work pro bono as much as possible and win huge precedent-setting cases that would erase unjust laws from the books in one fell swoop. In university, I signed up for every law-related class I could and watched Law & Order religiously. I needed two attempts, but I passed the LSAT with flying colours and was accepted at the prestigious University of Manitoba law school.

Then, after two weeks of mental and emotional anguish, I dropped out. Every fibre of my being rejected the closed-minded, uncritical nature of the classes and my fellow students; yet my whole life had been building towards having the privilege of being in those very classes and working with those very students. At the time it felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, but in hindsight, dropping out was the best decision I've ever made.

In the subsequent two-and-a-half years, I dedicated myself to exploring as many aspects of myself and social justice work that I could in an attempt Рas clich̩d as it sounds Рto find my life's calling. To add another layer of clich̩, I chronicled that journey of self-discovery in a column in the Manitoban (which, if you are so inclined, you can read here: The culmination of that journey is me envisioning a career in mediation services and hence, writing this letter to you.

Before we get to the present day, you'll probably want to know some more details about my experiences at university and during those two-and-a-half years of self-exploration. I enrolled at the University of Winnipeg immediately following high school and I received the President's Award of Merit for having one of the top five highest grade averages of all students entering the Faculty of Arts that year. It took a few years to get my feet wet, but I eventually became very involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities at the U of W (including several that I don't have space to mention).

I used to be a huge music geek, so my first foray into non-academic participation at the U of W was writing album reviews for Stylus Magazine and the Uniter. My ties with the Uniter later led to a job as assistant to the business manager. Soon after I began writing reviews, I got a gig as a volunteer DJ for the U of W's campus radio station, CKUW. For a about a year I had my very own very early morning (4:00 am to 6:00 am) music show called (sound of impact.), the title of which is an obscure reference to an obscure bootleg album from the obscure post-hardcore band Big Black (did I mention that I was a music geek?).

In early 2008 I got involved with a group on campus called Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy that advocates for just and humane responses to the social problems associated with drug use and abuse. I was elected to the position of vice-chair where my major responsibility was to moderate the discussion at meetings and ended my tenure with CSSDP as the chairperson of the chapter. Highlights of my time with CSSDP include giving many classroom presentations at the U of W, attending a national CSSDP conference in Ottawa and meeting with several MPs and finding out how very little they knew or understood about drug policy.

I had some direct involvement with the University of Winnipeg Students' Association during my first stint as a student at the U of W as well. I ran for Vice President Advocate in 2009, and in order to do research for that job, I attended many UWSA board meetings as a non-board member (which earned me a lot of strange looks from people who had to be there) and participated in the Executive Review Committee which evaluated the performances of the current UWSA executive. Although this taught me a lot about how the UWSA was run (mostly not very well), it didn't end up helping me to win the election. Looking back, I'm quite glad that I lost because if I had won I would probably still be sadly embroiled in claustrophobic bubble of student politics rather than being happily embroiled in the claustrophobic bubble of radical politics as I am now.

The three major activities that occupy my heart and mind these days (aside from CRS-1200) are volunteering with the John Howard Society, volunteering as a collective member of Winnipeg Copwatch, and co-hosting another CKUW show called Black Mask.

Through the JHS, I'm able to work directly with incarcerated men and help improve their lives in whatever small way that it is possible to do so. I spend every Friday night in Winnipeg Remand Centre with these men and teach them literacy skills through one on one tutoring. I hope that the skills they learn might eventually improve their lives in some way, but the job is mostly about helping them to stave off the crippling boredom of incarceration and to treat them like the human beings that they are. Besides tutoring, I also run a JHS program called “Get the Story Out”, which involves having the inmates read storybooks out loud into a recorder and then sending out the recordings and the books to their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. who they have either limited or no access to while they are behind bars. Prior to volunteering with JHS, I worked with the Elizabeth Fry Society doing a very similar program for the women at the Remand Centre.

Winnipeg Copwatch is an anti-police brutality collective that does regular street patrols in order to deter police violence and misconduct and also puts on Know Your Rights workshops at schools, community centres, and social service agencies to teach people what their rights are when they are dealing with the police. Besides patrols and workshops, I've helped organize International Day Against Police Brutality events for the past three years. Through Copwatch I have become fluent in the process and values of consensus decision-making, which I believe all mediators should understand and use. Perhaps what I have gained with the most value from Copwatch is a systemic analysis of our society; in other words, an understanding that problems don't exist because of a “few bad apples,” but because the barrel itself is rotten to the core. I have learned that capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and other systems of oppression infuse society and are deeply destructive.

I made my return to CKUW this past summer to join the Black Mask radio collective. Black Mask is an anarchist-based news and views program that focuses on interviewing people that can give an alternative and critical view of the world that is not found in the mainstream media. I've been able to interview radicals and non-radicals alike, both local and international, including an animal liberationist, a critical prison theorist, indigenous rights activists, and feminists of all stripes. I believe that the skill-set required to be a good interviewer overlaps significantly with the skill-set required to be a good mediator: active listening, knowing the right questions to ask, and being able to challenge while not offending or embarrassing.

After all that time and all those pursuits, and after participating in a mediation myself, I fell in love with the notion of being a mediator. My epiphany came in late December of 2011 and I was sitting in my first Conflict Resolution Studies class just days later. Now nearing the end of my first semester as a CRS student, I can honestly say that I'm more adamant about working in the field of mediation than ever. In many ways I see mediation as checking the same boxes that I thought being a lawyer would check. It will allow me to help people in transforming and resolving conflicts that may or may not involve a so-called “crime” in a far more humane and collaborative way than could ever be possible within the confines of our inherently inhumane and adversarial “justice” system.

My plan is to begin volunteering with Mediation Services this summer and to earn a BA major in Conflict Resolution Studies by the spring of 2013. After graduation, I will endeavour to provide mediation services to the social justice, non-profit, activist and radical communities of Winnipeg. Having come to intimately know these communities and the people within them, I believe I will able to effectively help them transform and resolve their conflicts while being especially sensitive to the nuances and peculiarities that make them different from traditional work places. While doing this work I intend to stay active within JHS, Copwatch and CKUW in order to stay grounded in those communities and to truly be of those communities.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Change in Medium

For the next year, I will be focusing most of my efforts in the realm of public education and communication about radical politics on producing episodes of Black Mask for CKUW 95.9 FM, the campus radio station out of the University of Winnipeg. I may still write intermittently for The Manitoban (see my past articles here) and I will probably write just as infrequently on this blog as ever before.

Here is a link to the latest episode of Black Mask that I hosted solo: right click and save as

I'm not sure that radio is a "better" medium in terms of getting radical politics into the ears, eyes, and minds of the general public. That's a question that I should contemplate more deeply over the next little while. Something that I also need to contemplate is how to continue to promote the idea of "The Plan" itself, rather than just general radical political concepts and analysis.

In the mean time, here's an excerpt from a book called Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers : A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman. I'm quite smitten with the quote for obvious reasons:

Those pioneering women who did marry generally selected very atypical men. Perhaps something of an extreme, Carrie Chapman Catt, who even married a second time after she was widowed at the age of 27, was specific about what she needed to make a heterosexual relationship palatable to her. Her second marriage lasted for fifteen years, until George Catt's death, but during their marriage they seldom lived together, since she was busy pursuing voting rights for women. She claimed that her husband, who left her a sizable income to continue her pursuits even after his death, had said to her, 'I am as earnest a reformer as you are, but we must live. Therefore, I will earn the living for two and you will do the reform work for both.' She added, 'The result was that I was able to give 365 days work each year for 50 years without a salary.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Long- Awaited Wedding Video

Since it's a few days past mine and Jacquie's one year wedding anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to post the actual wedding video for your viewing pleasure. Click here for the transcript.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Confronting Privilege

I try to make a conscious effort to be aware of my privilege and to examine it in relation to the lack of privilege possessed by others. I'm blessed/saddled with just about every privilege I can conceive of: I'm white, I'm male, I'm cissexual, I'm heterosexual, I'm educated, I was raised in a 'middle class' household (which put me in the top 0.5% of wealthiest people on earth), my family has no history of criminality that I'm aware of, my family has little to no history of 'substance abuse' issues and I have the exceptionally extreme privilege of not having to work as a wage/salary slave. Despite my best efforts, most of the time I'm completely oblivious of my privilege .

A few months ago, they put up a sign at my local IGA saying that customers can no longer put groceries directly into their cloth bags as they shop and must instead use a shopping cart. Around the same time, they hired a store security guard to stand near the checkout with his arms crossed and glare at customers. They also put up several sets of security camera photos of shop-lifters near the entrance so that they're the first thing you see as you walk in the door. In a very short period of time, grocery shopping changed from being an overall pleasant experience into a depressing and oppressive stint in a miniaturized security state.

Well, I don't like being told what to do and I certainly don't like being treated as if I'm a potential criminal in the course of doing something completely mundane and habitual. My little act of defiance is that I keep behaving as if the 'no bags' rule doesn't exist.

Shortly after the new 'no bags' rule was put in place, I was in the store minding my own business and bent over while putting some cans of beans into one of my bags. A voice behind me asked in a rather stern tone, “Excuse me sir, can I see your receipt?” I was a little startled at first and by the time I looked behind me to see a mustachioed man I had never seen in the store before I felt a strange combination of embarrassment and anger come over me. Despite feeling my cheeks beginning to flush, I gathered all the indignation and sarcasm I could muster and answered, “No. Because I haven't bought anything yet.” The manager muttered something apologetic and then left me alone.

After having some time to process the experience, I became really angry. How dare they accuse me of shop lifting? Don't they know that I'm one of their best customers? Don't they know I'm a good person? I've never been treated so terribly by a store employee in my life! I should steal from them! It would serve them right for how they treated me.

Then a sobering second thought came into my head: I have never been accused of shop-lifting before. I guess being white and 'presentable' (rich) looking allows me to avoid accusations like that. I know from observation and bad comedy routines that racialized minorities get followed around in stores all the time and that if you look homeless you're bound to draw more scrutiny from store owners/managers. I am god damned lucky to have the privilege of feeling as indignant as I did. If I was born into a different social class or with a different skin tone those sorts of accusations might be such common occurrences that they would become imperceptible background noise.

A similar interaction occurred when I was in the same IGA, this time with Jacquie, about two weeks ago. We were walking through the aisles, putting groceries in our cloth bags as we went like normal when we were approached by the aforementioned store security guard. He said that there was a store policy against using bags in the store. We put up some resistance and said that this is the way we've been shopping there for years and that we walk home with our groceries so this makes it easy to gauge whether all the groceries fit in the bags and whether they are light enough to carry back to our apartment. He went and got the manager for us, the same mustachioed guy who had accused me of shoplifting a few months prior. We reiterated our same talking points and tacked on the threat of shopping somewhere else. We went back and forth a few times, and in the end the manager had a pained and defeated look on his face, told us that he would let it slide because he knew we were “good customers” and went away.

Basically, our argument came down to: No, we like shopping this way and our preferences take precedent over your store policies. On the one hand, I think it's extremely important to put up a fight and resist attempts to restrict personal freedom and autonomy, especially when they are being imposed by corporations. On the other, we sounded like entitled assholes.

Our privilege was not only demonstrated in the fact that we won the argument, but also in the fact that we put up any sort of resistance at all. Who else but a pair of educated, white, heterosexual twenty-somethings from middle-class families would actually have the audacity to argue with a manager about cut and dry store policy that he had no hand in creating. We had no fear that he would kick us out of the store because that sort of thing doesn't happen to people like us. We had no fear that he would call the cops on us because that sort of thing doesn't happen to people like us. We certainly had no fear that our demands would not be met because if we argue hard enough and threaten to take our business somewhere else, the rules don't apply to people like us.

After it was over, I felt both glad that we had stood on principal and won our point, but also guilty for the fact that we had been able to parlay our privilege into being allowed to be exceptions to the rule. Clearly, if we had wanted to act in solidarity with those who lack our privilege, our arguments should have focused on having the rule abandoned altogether rather than having it stay in force but just not apply to us. What good is done by having an unjust rule no longer apply to someone who already has every advantage afforded to them while it still applies to everyone else who is consistently discriminated against? At the same time, I'm not too down on myself for behaving like I did at the spur of the moment in a sudden tense situation. I hope to take the lessons learned from these experiences and keep them in mind when I inevitably find myself in similar situations in the future.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were forced to come to terms with your privilege? How did that make you feel? On the flip side, have you ever been in a situation where you were lacking in privilege compared to someone else who was treated more favourably than you? Tell me about it in the comments.