The University of Toronto Engineering Society’s humour newspaper, the Toike Oike, was pulled from stands last month amidst a sea of complaints.
“We feel that the content written in the Toike Oike was grossly inappropriate, and we are taking action to remedy the situation. The Engineering Society has removed all October issues of the Toike Oike from newsstands across the University of Toronto St. George Campus, and have removed the offensive images from the online version of the paper,” reads the Engineering Society’s statement on the matter.
The “offensive images” in question are two stylized photos of an older man and young woman at a dinner party, with captions reading “I don’t always drunkenly beat my wife, but when I do, I prefer being whiskey drunk,” and “I don’t always beat my wife, but when I do, I prefer beating her to within an inch of her life.”
“Understandably, everyone is extremely in outrage about this,” said Kevin Siu, EngSoc president, “as are we.”
A meeting was called soon after the issue hit stands. Navid Nourian, Editor-in-Chief of the Toike, said he “almost had to be pulled out of a mid-term.”
The Vice-Dean, Undergraduate, for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, Grant Allen, insisted that the decision to pull the newspaper from the stands and change the online content came from the students. “At that meeting, we had the President of EngSoc and the editor of the Toike, and out of that meeting the students, they went and pulled the paper off the shelves.”
EngSoc funds the Toike — this past year, some $9,764 — and is itself funded by a student levy. With ad revenue low (this year, a projected $1,800) the student levy, directed through EngSoc, is by far the Toike’s largest source of income.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of the Toike,” said Siu. “I don’t read it all that much.
“It’s a lot of low brow humour, potty humour, inappropriate jokes,” said Siu. “I think they strongly believe the purpose of the Toike is to provoke a reaction. The culture is, they feel that the more over the line they are, the more of their job that they’re doing.”
Nourian said that he agreed to pull the paper and change the online content because, with regard to the joke about domestic abuse, “if we could make everyone happy by changing the joke, that’s the easiest solution. It’s not worthwhile to stubbornly stick it out.”
Meanwhile, the issue as published on the Toike’s website now, still has content members of the U of T community find offensive.
Third-year student Ben Peel sits on the board of LGBTOUT and is active in the queer community. Though he found the whole issue offensive, he wrote to Nourian specifically about an article on the third page of the paper entitled “Faggots! All I see is Faggots!”
“I guess I was just really appalled,” said Peel, who was disappointed that, though the paper had changed the domestic abuse-related content, it hadn’t felt it necessary to change this.
“I didn’t really think there was anything wrong with it,” said a Toike staff member. “I don’t think there’s anything racist [sic] against gay people in it. It’s just the word faggot. Yes it is an offensive word, but in the context there’s nothing saying: ‘hey, we hate gay people.’”
Nourian maintained there was nothing wrong with their usage, arguing that “this is not normal conversation, it is a crazy homeless man raving, an exaggerated caricature, and to bring the point through we made him yell a lot of words that offensive people do yell. We’re in no way saying that the word ‘faggots’ is okay for normal conversation, we’re in no way saying it is acceptable, but I would argue that had we put the word ‘bastard’ there instead of faggots, then, should we have pulled that, because there’s plenty of people who might find the word ‘bastards’ offensive.”
Peel finds this argument dubious. “He acts as if the word was used by a crazy person on the street, as if it was [this person] writing it and not he and his editorial team, but it’s being expressed by them, not by someone else.”
Nourian asserts that “every swear word has a history, some maybe are more fresh than others, but when you use them out of context, they shouldn’t be tied to their connotations.”
In this context, he insisted, there is nothing offensive about the word.
“If you only read the headline, I’m sure you would be struck by it, but […] any great joke you hear starts off with something offensive and then pulls it back from the brink.”
Nourian also argued that printing the word could have positive ramifications. “The more you use ‘faggots’ in a context that has nothing to do with homosexuality, the quicker it’s going to become a word that has nothing do with homosexuality,” he said, pointing out that “hundreds of years ago, it used to be a term that meant the burden of the elderly. Then it started getting used in other contexts, and now no one remembers the fact that faggots was originally used as an insult against the elderly.”
Peel finds this argument unacceptable as well. He pointed out, in an e-mail correspondence with Nourian, that the word had originated from the practice of burning queer people with the wood left over from burning witches. Its meaning today, believes Peel, in any conventional use is derogatory, and specifically targeted at homosexuals.
“I find it kind of ridiculous. The idea that this is being reclaimed, especially using it in a negative instance like ‘you’re a faggot,’” said Peel.
Nourian justified his use of the word further, arguing that “I can only say this personally, in thinking that we live in a world where maybe homosexuality is accepted, and sometimes on the assumption that for the most part it’s not something that people hate any more. I don’t want to say it’s not an issue, but basically I like to pretend I live in a world that’s better than it is right now, and in that world, we can make fun of these things, and maybe by making fun of them we can actually make them something that we can get over.”
To this point, Peel claims, “either he’s making that as an excuse, or he’s completely unaware of the world around him,” pointing to the recent wave of suicides in queer youth among other proof that homosexuality is not yet, in fact, unequivocally accepted.
However, Peel maintained, “even if we were living in a world without homophobia today it doesn’t mean the word doesn’t have homophobic roots,” arguing that Nourian’s argumentation “just doesn’t make sense, it’s not logical.”
Siu says EngSoc has “taken a pretty hands-off approach to the Toike.”
“I agree that the Toike is offensive, but it’s hard to go to the Toike and say ‘this is unacceptable,’” said Siu, who claimed that “looking forward,” EngSoc is looking at different solutions to the problem.
“There are a lot of ideas flying around here,” he said, including cutting funding to the Toike and encouraging students from outside the current staff to be elected to the masthead. Ultimately, though, Siu maintains that “if change is going to last, it has to be from within […] if there is going to be a change, it has to be sustainable, and so it has to be grassroots.”
Nourian stated that “The number one rule for humour publications of any kind is that if you don’t like it, don’t read it. And the only time we ever drop that rule is if the writing is in fact hate speech. We’re not implying any sort of hate towards homosexuals, we’re not even mentioning them, other than the word faggots, twice. And if you don’t like that article, then I guess the Toike Oike isn’t your brand of humour, so put it down.”
In fact, both Siu and EngSoc’s VP External, Mauricio Curbelo, cited the Toike’s shrinking popularity as proof that “they are not reflective of the rest of engineering culture. The proof is in the fact that people don’t pick this paper up.”