Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why I Hate the SIC

Ok ok, I don't actually hate the Social Issues Commission of your favourite organization. I just wanted your attention. I realize the importance and value these groups bring to the table, and I do not mean to undermine it whatsoever. But I think such said commissions are guilty of simplifying the issues at hand in their honourable crusades to eradicate "isms" everywhere, which unfortunately, ultimately negate from the goals they are trying to accomplish. I read a life changing book that I reference a lot "The Opposable Mind." In it, Roger Martin talks about how issues and situations are usually much more complex than we are willing to admit. We simplify things because it's easier to get our points across if we don't take all of the overwhelming details and complex interactions of these details into account. Sometimes we don't have the resources to thoroughly analyze the relationships between all of the factors at play, or sometimes we just want to be right, so we generalize, glossing over things that might be important. Unfortunately, this is destined to lead to sub-standard decision making.

Due to the complex nature of social issues I think this happens a lot in this particular arena.

In my experience, (my name comes up in paragraph 6...I also realize that now even the term "Sensitivity Training" is insensitive...) in working with Social Issues Commissions, they try, but generally fail to do much in the ways of educating people. At the end of anti-oppression training sessions, majority groups are left quivering in fear that they might accidentally step on toes; or worse, they feel as though they are being lectured and tune out. I've been out of the establishment for almost 8 months now and I sincerely hope things are changing for the better through the encouragement of dialogue and discussion by all parties. Though I maintain a healthy skepticism.

In my short time away from Kingston, I've come across some extremely overt and systemic acts of racism. The most prolific example is the engrained hate in Eastern Europe directed at the Roma people (colloquially referred to as Gypsies).

I was shocked when I heard my new Slovak friends talk about these people as second class citizens. They referenced their low standards of education, and their exploitation of children and child welfare laws. Coming from a left-leaning, uber-inclusive environment I was astounded at the blatant disregard for the rights of another group of people. The racism was overt and systemic and unlike anything I had been privy to. But rather than judge and condemn my new-compatriots, I tried to understand where they were coming from. After all, earlier in the week I had had a Roma man spit in my face when I refused to give him a cigarette (I don't smoke, so I didn't have cigarettes) and I had seen many children begging for money as their parents stood around the corner egging them on.

So I did a little research. In true Dr. House fashion, I figured that their must be a reason behind such behaviour. It wasn't until I saw a BBC Documentary, "The Lost World of Communism" that I began to understand. To continue with this Roma example, which hits particularly close to my new home, we must go back to Romania in the 1960s. Particularly, we must examine the reforms instituted by the man who I believe, is quite obviously one of the primary culprits, Nicolae Ceausescu. As the leader of Communist Romania in the late 60's, old boy Nicolae was in quite the position of power (I've learned in my time in my own new home/post-communist country that things were not NEARLY as egalitarian as the propaganda would have you believe. Orwell's Animal Farm paints a surprisingly accurate picture of the corruption and greed by those in power, but that's a story for another day). Ceausescu had great dreams for his society but lacked execution, you might say. To build his palaces and optimally exploit the natural resources of the land thereby maximizing his countries economic output he came to the logical conclusion that he would need a massive labour force. He demolished rural dwellings and communities, removing people from their homes all over the country side and built giant panelak housing units (lit: concrete panel houses) on the outskirts of Bucharest, not unlike the one I live in today (ok, way more decrepit and derelict than my current abode in Bratislava, but the same idea) in which to house the new and centralized work force in. He made physical labour the new national priority, forget education. Let me say that one more time so you can grasp the magnitude of it: He destroyed homes and forced the majority of the population to do physical work for low wages (sounds like little more than slavery, if you ask me). He then figured that to optimize national output he would need the largest workforce possible. So he outlawed abortion. This was even more significant than you might think because he had already made all methods of contraception illegal. So now if you are a Romanian in the late 60s you have in all likelihood been forced to do physical labour at low wages and are forbidden by the federal government from having safe sex. But that wasn't enough for Nicolae, he went on to hail mothers of 10 or more children as state heroes and instituted income taxes of up to 50% on married couples above the age of 25 who had no children. A myriad of terrible side effects ensued but the most obvious are that the education of the Roma people declined and a culture of child-bearing was established.

So the crazy racist ramblings of my new neighbours suddenly seem a lot more understandable. I don't think it's justified, but I can clearly understand why these attitudes exist.

Now maybe this is an isolated experience and all other attitudes and isms are not based in such obvious fact. However we are all able to speak only from our own practical experiences, and my most recent ones have been extremely eye opening for someone who considered himself at least somewhat educated vis a vis social issues, and which I had to travel half way around the world to attain. So I would love to see those campaigning for social issues (which include some really great people, I don't mean to cast broad brush strokes) seek to educate as to why these attitudes exist. It did a lot for me to understand that some of the stereotypes I had heard about Roma were quasi-truths, or at least had some foundation in fact. From there, it was much easier for me to understand where the racist attitudes of my colleagues and friends were coming from. So rather than explain to frosh leaders and students-at-large that racism, sexism and all other kinds of oppression are wrong, I am beginning to believe we must strive to explain why these attitudes exist before we go on to debunk them, challenge them and/or examine ways to change them. Rather than the current practice of throwing terminology and best practice at everybody enrolled in a post-secondary institution and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done (I'm guilty of this part too)!

Anyways, my point here, and the big angle I'm trying to play is not to hate on people championing human rights, (I reiterate that I think the work is critical despite what the title of this post might suggest) but that we can always do things better and we must not be afraid to objectively analyze and critique our methods lest we remain blindfolded to better solutions that we may not have yet imagined, even when the subject matter is sensitive.

As always, comments, questions and discussion are welcome and encouraged.
Thanks for stopping by.


  1. Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu got theirs when they were executed by firing squad on live tv.

  2. Spectacular. From one recovering AMS-type to another, kudos.

  3. @Shane, INDEED. That was more or less the finale of the documentary I mentioned. Their helicopter escape plan didn't workout so well.

    @Anonymous. Thanks!