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Dr. Bonnie Burstow is best known as a philosopher, a social theorist, an antipsychiatry activist, a feminist psychotherapist, and a prolific author. Deeply informed by anti-oppression and community engagement perspectives, she is the author of Psychiatry and the Business of Madness: An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting and is a regular contributor to Mad in America. She is also a faculty member in Adult Education and Community Development in OISE at the University of Toronto.

Standing tall, thinking clearly: Threats against feminists at University of Toronto

| September 13, 2015
Image: Flickr/Jay Morrison

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A new academic year is about to kick off at universities throughout the nation, including Canada's largest university -- the University of Toronto -- but at this one university minimally, not totally as we had hoped. As a feminist faculty member, I awoke a few days ago to news about blog threats against women faculty and students at our university, also to an alert from the university administration. Within a very short time highly concerned students began writing to me asking if my Monday class would be canceled.  One emailed me a copy of a letter which they'd sent the president of the university asking for the cancelation of classes throughout the university. And one sent me pictures of some of the threats that had been issued, gleaned from the internet.

The threats were of a diverse nature but all clearly targeted women. Some were against specific institutes or departments at University of Toronto. Others were far more general. In all cases, there was a promotional quality to them, with the author actively urging others to turn up in feminist classrooms and to kill women. Both feminist faculty and feminist students were identified as targets, with special emphasis placed on the faculty. Correspondingly, people were given a vague sense of where to go to rent a gun for $40.00 a day in order to shoot the feminists. That said, the write-ups of the story in newspapers to date all convey the sense that the messages are highly disturbing but very few convey the flavour of it. To give you a sense of the highly graphic nature of the posts, one fairly typical message read, "Walk into the classroom and fire a bullet at the feminist Professor's head and proceed to spray bullets all over the classroom until all the slutty women are killed."

There have been various reactions to this unexpected turn of events by the U of T community and by the community at large. A police investigation immediately ensued which assessed the risk as very low. The University of Toronto, nonetheless, has stepped up its security -- a responsible reaction. There has been calls here and there for classes to be canceled -- an understandable reaction, but a worrisome one when you consider the message that it would send -- that if you want to shut down all feminist education, all you have to do is compose an internet threat, then click post. On a very different note, feminists have been mobilizing. And CUPE 3902 (the Women's Caucus) has called a demonstration for Monday (the first day of classes). And, to my relief, classes are more or less carrying on as planned.

As I sit with this, naturally, I am first and foremost alarmed that anyone would send such messages. And as an old-timer who helped deal with the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre, I naturally flash back it. Is this a would-be copy-cat? Or someone who wants others to be copy-cats? More general questions also crowd my mind like: How is it that dreams of murdering feminists is still such a turn-on for a subsection of the population?  How have we tried to change that? What new could we try? And what role might feminist men play here?

At the same time, I ponder the various responses. In the alert sent out by the university administration, a threat was mentioned. At no time was the nature of the threat specified -- not even that it was against feminists, or more basic still, even that it was against women. Why not? How can people protect themselves from an unspecified threat? How can they know that they are the target? And more generally, how is it that violence against women is, as it were,  "unmentionable"?  And if this vagueness is itself an attempt to protect -- and quite possibly, it is -- at what cost is that protection happening? And exactly who or what is bring protected? 

Contrasting with the scrupulous vagueness on the part of the university administration is the specificity of the union and the conversations happening informally throughout the university, in which the targets are indeed identified.  Everyday members of the community and workers representatives appear to want the nature of the problem visible. Which again brings me again to ask why the university administration does not.

Other queries likewise come to me as I reflect on what has happened. Everywhere throughout the campus, people have been talking, trying to grapple with what has happened. Naturally various depictions have been made of the person or persons behind the threat. Except where they are long time feminists, almost invariably, whatever other descriptors they have used, people speaking with me have described the person(s) as "crazy," "crazed," "psychotic," "deranged." Not an accurate description, I would suggest, and not a good direction for us to be taking.

A few salient points here: These are all synonyms more or less. All refer to people who are "mad." And these synonyms dramatically miss the mark. Alas, mad folk have no monopoly whatever on misogyny. Nor are the "mad" particularly noted for misogyny. As "othered" people, if anything, they are slightly more reticent to engage in "othering." And so the inaccuracy and the stereotyping is worrisome. It becomes more worrisome when you consider the possible consequences of such error. We have a responsibility to bear in mind all oppressions when trying to address one. In this regard, consider what happens when people automatically identify the initiators of such a threat as mad. University officials have asked members of the academic community to be on the lookout for "suspicious behavior." Insofar we are constructing this misogynous rant as the act of a mad person, we are willy-nilly turning mad folk into suspects and taking a group already viewed with suspicion and rendering them more suspect. Not an acceptable thing to do in itself. Correspondingly, in the process we are also invisibilizing and trivializing the real issues.

What we are up against here is misogyny and violence against women, and while what we see here for sure is an extreme, the extreme merely writes large a more formidable societal problem. We live in a patriarchy -- or a series of intersecting patriarchies, where hatred of and the subjugation of woman are normative. A man advocating shooting feminists, of course, is hardly the norm, but underpinning this incident is everyday violence against women -- wife beating, rapes, harassment. The reality of the underlying problem is invisibilized when the threats are sanitized by leaving their nature unspecified but also when we they are depicted as but the actions of a madman.

In the long run, let us work for a better society where everyone has a place. Let us foster a less alienated world, where people do not look for scapegoats to blame for their feelings and/or on whom to unleash their rage. At the same time, let’s make what is happening visible. Let’s name things for what they are. And let’s not buy into a discourse that replicates the mental illness myth, that places an already badly oppressed community in further jeopardy, that seriously mistakes the nature of what we are actually up against. Again, this is about sexism -- note -- this is not about madness.  By the same token, while for sure there is an individual threat here that must be attended to, the systemic is inherently involved.

That said, to return to where we began, a new academic year is about to kick off at universities around the nation, including at Canada’s largest university -- the University of Toronto -- and without question some wonderful learning and some terrific events are in store. Indeed, already there have been phenomenal orientations, students are urging professors of full classes to squeeze them in, and excitement runs high. That noted, in this one university, it is hardly beginning as we might wish. And even if nothing further untoward materializes, it will minimally be difficult here for the next little while.

My invitation? Stand with us in denouncing these threats. Create you own feminist events. If in the greater Toronto area, consider turning up at 1:00 p.m. at the south east corner of Spadina and Bloor for the demonstration called by CUPE 3902. Correspondingly, whoever you may be, from whatever parts you may hail, as an act of solidarity, consider wearing purple.

In short, let's stand up together. Let's make visible both what has happened and the values that we are trying to promote. Let’s work to build an egalitarian society in which women are respected, where oppression of any sort is a thing of the past, and where everyone has a place.

And in the process, let's be mindful of all oppressions, including (and perhaps especially) the ones seldom mentioned, including (and perhaps especially) the one almost everyone slips into when a crisis is at hand.

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Image: Flickr/Jay Morrison



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