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Opinion: U of T’s refusal to rescind a controversial scholarship is a tacit approval of harmful speech

The political science department’s inaction sends a dangerous message to marginalized communities
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REBECCA ROCCO/THE VARSITY
REBECCA ROCCO/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article includes discussions of sexual violence and suicide.

The University of Toronto considers itself to be Canada’s leading institution, with values including not only academic excellence, but the promotion of equity, diversity, and inclusion. It is reasonable, then, to assume such an esteemed institution would grant awards to students who reflect these values. However, the recent actions of the Department of Political Science call this into question.

The David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship is an award granted by the Department of Political Science to students who promote “greater public understanding of social and cultural diversity and enhanced inclusion of historically marginalized populations.” The department gave this scholarship to Arjun Singh, a student whose public statements are staunchly opposed to social equity and diversity. It was a move met with much controversy, with many students calling for the scholarship to be rescinded. 

Yet, the department did not act upon these concerns, announcing within days that it has determined that “all of the scholarships were awarded in a manner that was consistent with the rules set out in the application process.” The department also seemed to suggest that Singh’s inflammatory public statements did not disqualify him from receiving an equity-based award. 

However, it is important that we examine why these calls to action were necessary — and, by extension, why the department’s decision to take no action is harmful to not just the university’s own values, but to all of its marginalized communities. 

Singh’s tweets on undocumented immigrants, whom he believes should be deported, are a perfect place to begin. He wrote: “Illegal immigrants support organized crime.” In another tweet, he even included Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s contact information, as well as the CanBorder tip line. 

Undocumented immigrants are frequently blamed for increasing crime rates; the connections made here are tentative at best and amplify misconceptions about undocumented immigrants that paint them as a homogeneously heinous threat to our society. 

Singh’s inflammatory tweets contribute to racial stereotypes that, as history has taught us, often lead to a surge in hate crimes. However, a 2018 report by NPR revealed that undocumented immigration does not lead to an increase in violent crime. Immigrants are thus scapegoated for the United Statesʼ crime problems. This example alone is troubling, as it serves to endanger vulnerable immigrants who are undocumented, and is thus sufficient cause for the scholarship rescission. 

However, I’d also like to focus on Singh’s public expressions on sexual violence. In an essay titled “ ‘Believing Survivors,’ ” Singh wrote that there should be a deliberate change in how we talk about sexual assault victims. More specifically, Singh argued that they are not technically ‘survivors,’ but rather ‘accusers,’ writing that “From a logical perspective, sexual assault per se is not a crime that always threatens the mortality of a victim.” 

The essay seems to tie itself up in pedantic details to derail and delegitimize the issue of sexual assault. With these pandering justifications, Singh argued that sexual assault is not on the same level as unequivocally terrible crimes such as murder, torture, and terrorism. He introduced an inflexible hierarchy of crime to take legitimacy away from the trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault. 

With an argument born from technicalities and pointed language analysis, Singh’s public expressions contributed to the harmful rhetoric that victims of sexual assault are to be treated less seriously than victims of other crimes, suggesting that they belong on a lower rung of a ladder of suffering. 

The term ‘survivor,ʼ Singh continued, is a term used “to elicit empathy more than the truth.” Here, he seems to displace responsibility from the offenders onto the victims for even voicing their experiences. Furthermore, choosing to describe victims as ‘accusers’ elicits particularly insidious and harmful undertones.

Singh’s lack of engagement with sexual trauma in favour of some banal argument about prevailing democracy is extremely harmful. As Cathy Caruth wrote in her introduction of Trauma: Explorations of Memory, traumatized people “carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess.” Sexual trauma is not instantaneous like a bullet wound, it is pervasive, unsettling, and often permanent; it cannot and should not be minimized. 

Singh heartily misused statistics to support his points: “As to future psychological issues – particularly the issue of suicide (which 2/3 of victims never consider, and nearly 90% never attempt).” However, the source he provided within his essay to support this claim, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), framed these statistics differently

According to the RAINN, 33 per cent of women rape survivors contemplated suicide and 13 per cent of women rape survivors attempted suicide. Furthermore, RAINN, contrary to Singh’s conclusion, added that “the likelihood that a person suffers suicidal or depressive thoughts increases after sexual violence.”  

There is even more evidence to support this research. A study that examined the relationship between sexual abuse and suicidal behaviour in women found that 50 per cent of those who attempted suicide had experienced sexual abuse. A province-wide study in 2018 found 23 per cent of students and 17 per cent of U of T students experienced a non-consensual sexual encounter during that past academic year.

As an institution that has made a commitment to recognizing that “sexual violence is a serious issue that undermines the health, well-being, and security of individuals, communities and society,” U of T should find it antithetical to reward an individual whose public statements delegitimize the very issue that plagues so many of its students with such a prestigious equity award. 

Singh’s public expressions have consistently undermined the David Rayside scholarship’s goals. If the Department of Political Science truly believes that this scholarship was awarded in a legitimate manner, then it must reconsider how scholarships are awarded altogether. It is nothing short of a moral failing on the department’s part that the author of such public expressions can be rewarded with an equity scholarship intended to uplift marginalized groups.

Calls for accountability are so often dismissed as ‘cancel culture,’ and marginalized groups who are rightfully angry at rhetoric that will disproportionately affect them are painted as a vengeful mob out for blood — simply for daring to speak up. 

Let me be clear: the Department of Political Scienceʼs decision to award this scholarship to Singh and its refusal to rescind it has revealed that those who publicly express harmful views as an exercise of freedom can win awards under the name of equity and justice. It is a harsh reminder of the pervasive systems of oppression that plague marginalized groups to this day, and it sends a clear message to marginalized communities at U of T: we do not matter.

Sagal Mohamoud is a third-year English student at St. Michael’s College.


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.


Where to find sexual violence and harassment support at U of T

A list of safety resources is available at safety.utoronto.ca

The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s website is www.svpscentre.utoronto.ca

Individuals can visit the centre’s website for more information, contact details, and hours of operation. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266.

Locations:

  • U of T downtown Toronto campus: Gerstein Library, suite B139
  • U of T Mississauga: Davis Building, room 3094G
  • U of T Scarborough: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, EV141

Those who have experienced sexual violence can also call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (U of T Mississauga).

After-hours support is also available at:

  • Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (416-323-6040)
  • Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre (416-495-2400)
  • Trillium Hospital Sexual Assault Care Centre (905-848-7100)