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Alberta Diary

djclimenhaga's picture
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

CTF bullying and misinformation: just what's 'wacky' about rape prevention research?

| July 2, 2014
Dr. Melanie Beres

According to the comedians at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a $17,500 grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to a promising young Alberta-trained sociologist whose research looks for ways to improve rape-prevention education is a waste of taxpayers' money.

If you ask me, the CTF's sophomoric "tongue-in-cheek, cap-and-gown ceremony on Parliament Hill to shine the spotlight on some of the most wacky grants handed out by the federal government's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for university research over the past few years" misses the mark both as comedy and commentary.

Leastways, even if CTF Federal Director Gregory Thomas's news release and insulting video performance suggest otherwise, surely most of us think there’s nothing "wacky" about sexual violence. I personally would be pleased to see more of my tax dollars spent on research that seeks ways to reduce it.

But the CTF's frat-boy humour in the service of neoliberal economics and its apparent view that any topic sensitive to women's rights is inappropriate for government support reveals both sloppy research and a nasty bullying streak on the part of the organization, whose field operatives singled out the work of individual young academics for ridicule and public contempt.

It is no coincidence, it is said here, that six of the seven academic works named by the CTF for attack were authored by women.

But I guess if you’re a young scholar who manages to get a government grant for academic work in a field the CTF doesn't approve of -- which would presumably cover pretty well everything outside petroleum engineering and conservative advocacy -- you can count on being at risk of public derision by this AstroTurf group.

When the CTF boys picked on Dr. Melanie Beres, who received her PhD in sociology at the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Otago in New Zealand, they obviously didn't bother to read her thesis with much care.

For, while it uses colloquial language and a colourful title -- which is obviously what caught the attention of the CTF's "researcher" -- even at a casual glance by an old newshound like me, largely unschooled in academic sociology, it is quickly apparent it is an example of legitimate scholarly research.

That did not, however, deter the CTF from pulling a few lines out of context from Beres' thesis -- entitled Sexual Consent to Heterosexual Casual Sex Among Young Adults Living in Jasper -- in order to attack the fact she was awarded a $17,500 SSHRC grant for her work.

If they trashed the quality of Beres' research or hurt her personally by singling her out, they presumably felt this was legitimate collateral damage in their effort to work with the Harper Government to justify its attack on science and social science research that fails to reach the conclusions the government desires.

"My thesis is not so much about casual sex, but more about sexual consent," Beres observed in an email to me. "The goal of the thesis was to learn how young people consent to sex in order to improve rape prevention education. The context (Jasper) was chosen because of the high rates of casual sex and drinking. I wanted to choose a potentially contentious environment to examine issues of consent."

Interestingly, the CTF "researchers" seem to be obsessed with sex and sexual issues in the academic papers they singled out for attack. This reflects their sly understanding of the news judgment of lazy journalists, who have been socialized to believe the notion that "sex equals news."

Moreover, writing newspaper articles mocking scholars for their work is among the oldest and laziest tricks in the journalistic playbook. The CTF's operatives, at least one of whom typically dresses up as a pig for these events, merely exploited a couple of the most obvious failings of modern journalism and were rewarded with a few cheap headlines that reinforce their ideological goals.

The CTF obviously had to dig pretty deep to find topics that met its criteria for scorn. Beres' PhD thesis, for example, was submitted in 2006, marked as 2007 by the CTF's crack research team in its background paper.

"I could have titled my thesis Foucauldian negotiations: Discursive constructions of everyday intimacies," Beres observed dryly. "It would be more or less accurate and would likely have slipped past the CTF member who was looking for 'wacky' research."

"But this would also make my research less accessible," she explained. "I want people to be able to read it and to engage with it. As a former rape prevention educator it is paramount to me that my research speaks beyond the ivory tower."

"The fact that CTF picked out my research demonstrates that it is accessible to those not particularly used to engaging in scholarly endeavours. To some extent, this means my writing has been successful," she added generously.

As is well known, the CTF gives the impression it's a large membership-based organization, but in fact has only five or six members -- its board of directors -- at any given time. Similarly, the CTF purports to be non-partisan, but in reality acts in partisan support of the goals of the Harper Conservatives and their counterparts in the provinces.

The CTF's anti-SSHRC histrionics -- which the group tastelessly calls "Screwed U" -- is part of its "Generation Screwed Movement," an effort to propagandize college students in the Conservative Party's neoliberal worldview and encourage intergenerational strife to further tax gains for the wealthy.

CTF operatives and publicists have also proven to be an able talent pool for the federal Conservatives' political ranks.

Occasionally, it must be noted, the CTF protests Conservative policies -- such as the continued availability of SSHRC grants for young researchers -- but usually only in the furtherance of long-term Conservative policy goals.

Knowing this is important to understand the motivation of the CTF's attacks on Beres and her colleagues. They support a likely Conservative goal of reducing funding for all social science research, because too often it doesn't support party policy. This is the same instinct that motivates attacks on the traditional sciences when they demonstrate politically unpalatable truths -- such as, for example, the fact Earth's atmosphere is growing hotter.

Social science research findings, Beres observed, "often shed light on inequalities and injustices in the social world. This is the case for research on poverty, families, work, sexuality or any other social topic."

"Those who have a lot of privilege and don’t care to address these inequalities sometimes try to discredit research that exposes inequalities," she noted. "They do so because they feel threatened by the findings or fear the potential loss of their privilege if action is taken to address these inequalities."

Beres' research points to the way male and female desires are treated and valued differently in our society -- and how that can lead to sexual violence. That the CTF didn't bother to mention her conclusions, she noted, suggests they may not have wanted to hear them. "It is sometimes much easier for people to dismiss findings they don't like rather than to take a look at themselves and their social world and see things that need to change."

I'd say that's a given. Consider what Thomas, who presumably didn't actually read the paper himself, had to say when he trashed it: "Now that it's public knowledge that the federal government will pay you $17,500 to hang out in a ski resort for a couple of months and investigate casual sex, we expect every frat boy in the country to be lining up for a research grant to replicate this study -- in Whistler, Banff, Tremblant, you name it."

Well who would know frat boys like the frat boys at the CTF? Look to the Harper Conservative Government for the priorities and worldview of the CTF. They are the same.

As for Beres' 2006 thesis research, it has already achieved the goals she set out for it. "It has been used to inform and shape sexual violence prevention programming in Canada and in New Zealand," she told me. "I am currently on an advisory board to support the development of a national rape prevention program for New Zealand high schools."

I call that extremely good value for a very modest tax investment that all Canadians can be proud of -- we could fund almost 35,000 research projects like Beres' for the cost of one F-35 warplane!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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