Who speaks for Palestine?

U of T must condemn Efraim Karsh’s recent lecture and address its double standard on free speech

Who speaks for Palestine?

This year, Israel and Palestine have entered their seventh decade at war. As one of the world’s most conspicuous international conflicts, opinions on the subject vary widely among both scholars and observers, and everyone is entitled to speak freely, engage in dialogue, and offer roadmaps to peace.

With this in mind, every debate, if it is to effect meaningful change, must provide a fair voice for all sides, and, more importantly, outline reasonable limits to drown out the extremes. But that wasn’t the case on January 17, when U of T welcomed Israeli-British historian Efraim Karsh to deliver a lecture entitled “Back to Basic: Rethinking the Arab-Israeli Conflict” at Seeley Hall.

Even though the event was co-sponsored by U of T’s prestigious International Relations (IR) program, my expectations of respectful and constructive academic discourse that would subject neither Palestinians nor Israelis to offence did not come to fruition. The views that Karsh expressed reflected anti-Palestinian racism, and the U of T organizers of the lecture remained, and continue to remain, silent and therefore complicit with the issue.

A beneficial presence?

In the lecture, Karsh indicated that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was self-inflicted by Palestine. This was not surprising. After all, the event’s description foreshadowed Karsh’s problematic view that the Palestinian Arab leadership is to blame for the current lack of Palestinian statehood.

He indicated that Israel saved Palestine from its neighbouring Arab countries, whose agendas were supposedly to take over the territory for themselves. He also claimed that “most Palestinian Arabs benefitted greatly from a growing Jewish presence [in the 1920s and 1930s]. Their situation improved tremendously.”

Karsh did not opt to provide a middle ground argument either, failing to hold Israel accountable for its actions. Beyond this one-sided view, Karsh went to the extreme of ascribing saviourism and patronage to a state that has subjected Palestinians to decades of illegal occupation, settlements, expulsions, mass murders, and bombings. This is not a controversial description — the international community has consistently criticized Israel’s occupation. In sum, Karsh excused the violence in and justified the colonization of Palestine.

When The Varsity contacted Karsh for clarification on his “benefit” comment, he pointed to the socioeconomic development in the region during the interwar period and prior to Israel’s creation. But Karsh’s previous comments, such as in a 2017 interview with YouTube channel J-TV, point to his belief that Palestinian Arabs also benefitted, at least regarding life expectancy increases, under the existence of Israel in the decades following World War II.

The creation of Israel resulted in the expulsion and flight of 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland in the first year of the conflict alone. Karsh failed to explain how this supposedly beneficial interwar period was relevant in light of the history of the occupation that has devastated the Palestinian people.

“An invented people”

Karsh also denied the legitimacy of a Palestinian identity, declaring that “they are not a nation,” but rather an “invented people.” He elaborated that “they are just some Arab tribes, a collective of people from other Arab countries.” When asked by The Varsity to elaborate on these claims, he responded that “no independent political entity called Palestine had existed prior to the revival of the name by the British in WWI,” and that it “hardly developed from the 1920s throughout the late 1940s.”

While the origin of Palestinian identity is subject to considerable historiographical debate, Karsh’s description of Palestinians as an “invented people” is a racist trope designed to reduce the gravity of, and even justify, Israel’s treatment of Palestine. Denying the identity of the Palestinian people is to deny the legitimacy of their grievances as an occupied people. If there is no legitimate ‘ethnicity’ to begin with, then the ethnic cleansing that Palestinians have experienced did not happen.

Today, Palestinians embrace their national identity as a mode of claiming their homeland and resisting Israel’s occupation. While all nations are indeed constructed, they become real to the people who identify with them. If Palestine is to be called invented, then so should Israel, Canada, and every other nation-state. To selectively focus on Palestinian identity is to justify political imperatives, namely colonization and ethnic cleansing.

However, Karsh arguably gave his worst responses when discussing the prospect of peace in the Q&A period. The Gaza Strip and West Bank are the only territories left under Palestinian self-government. His view was that even these two territories should not be joined into one state, although a unified Palestine under a two-state solution is the best solution by the consensus of the international community. He later said that, were the two territories to join, “some Palestinian will pop up from the ground and blow [Israelis] up.”

Although Karsh did not recognize this claim at all in his comments to The Varsity, multiple sources present at the lecture independently corroborated the statement. In my view, what Karsh implied with this claim is that a unified Palestine is an inherent terrorist threat to Israel.

Ultimately, Karsh’s reading of history overlooks and correspondingly justifies Israel’s past and present actions against Palestine. In light of U of T welcoming such views, it is worth considering whether Karsh’s lecture is an isolated and unusual incident on our campus or not.

A broader pattern: U of T and Canada

This is certainly not the first time that a speaker with such extreme views on the conflict has been welcomed on campus. In 2005, controversial US scholar of the Middle East Daniel Pipes was invited, despite backlash and protest from students. Academics and students refused to give Pipes a platform for what they called “hate, prejudice and fear-mongering” on campus, but ultimately, his ‘free speech’ argument won and he was able to speak.

Meanwhile, U of T itself has a history of limiting free speech when it comes to pro-Palestinian advocacy. This is especially the case for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) groups on campus, as argued in a 2009 article by activist Liisa Schofield. Schofield argues that the administration engages in active opposition to pro-Palestinian activism.

Although BDS is a peaceful human rights movement that seeks to use economic means to pressure the Israeli state to comply with international law, similar to past calls for the boycott of apartheid South Africa, it is frequently misconstrued and conflated with antisemitism.

When the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) motion supporting the creation of an ad hoc BDS committee was first turned down in 2015, executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto Marc Newburgh stated, “This decision is an important step toward building a campus community where all students, regardless of their background and identity, feel safe, welcome, and secure.” In 2016, U of T President Meric Gertler similarly rejected the idea of a BDS ad hoc advisory committee because it did not make sense to “[boycott] interaction with an entire nation.”

Just last month, at a town hall at Brock University, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his November parliamentary condemnation of the BDS movement, in which he associated it with the kind of antisemitism that saw Canada turn away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This is unsurprising — Trudeau has been criticized before for his government’s silence on Israel’s atrocities in Palestine.

In other words, BDS is misinterpreted as targeting Israeli and Jewish identities. But BDS has actual political objectives, such as ending the occupation of Palestine. BDS supporters have not even been allowed to make their case through these committees, however, and the university continues to invest in companies that are complicit in illegal Israeli activities in Palestine.

In a HuffPost article, U of T student Alex Verman notes the ways in which pro-Palestinian activism is being intimidated and silenced by our governments. They also point to well-financed and organized pro-Israeli groups, like StandWithUs, that have harassed pro-Palestinian students and staff.

The point is that, if our universities and governments are so invested in the Israeli state, it should be of no surprise that free speech on campus regarding the conflict doesn’t apply fairly across the board. While pro-Palestinian BDS advocacy is dismissed as racist, pro-Israeli speakers who distort history and justify Israel’s widely condemned actions against Palestine are welcomed, whether in 2005 or 2019.

Whose free speech?

Prior to the current conflict, Jewish and Muslim citizens lived in Palestine for centuries in peace. But Karsh, and those who echo his anti-Palestinian sentiments, serve to widen the divide between these peoples.

Following Karsh’s lecture, I contacted organizers of the event expressing my shock and anger toward his views, and demanded recognition for the offensive content of the lecture and a publication of a letter of apology.

Professor John Kirton, the interim director of the IR program and organizer of the event, wrote in response that “the mission of [U of T] is to enrich the critical thinking of our students, professorial colleagues and others in our scholarly community on issues of importance.” He continued, “We also are committed… to exposing our students to a diverse range of views.”

It is clear that hate speech is being confused for freedom of speech and diversity of thought. The purported objective of Karsh’s lecture was to bring light to an issue of importance. Instead, the Palestinian identity was degraded.

The event organizers could have demonstrated real ‘diversity’ if they had hosted panelists with other views or invited a moderator to question and challenge Karsh. Instead, Karsh was given an unrestricted platform at the expense of the well-being and security of students for whom Palestine carries deep meaning.

I have not heard any substantive follow-up feedback from Kirton in our correspondence, and given the history of U of T’s responses to similar concerns, I am sadly not anticipating any either. Nonetheless, I have mobilized the support of over 100 Ontario students who now await U of T’s response to this issue.

The university should consider implementing an outline of clear limitations on advocacy around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Just as justifying violence against Palestinians should not be allowed, Israeli and Jewish students should be protected from racial and religious discrimination too. But this cannot be conflated with political criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation and treatment of Palestine.

Freedom comes with responsibility. U of T must carefully assess the content of speeches that take place with its endorsement and apply a vetting policy for guest speakers accordingly. If we support a kind of free speech that enables attacks on already marginalized identities, then whose freedoms are we even fighting for?

Lina Lashin is a first-year Social Sciences student at New College.

Editor’s Note: Because Karsh contested almost every claim in Lashin’s account of his lecture, Karsh’s responses have been included in this article. Multiple sources who attended the lecture independently corroborated Lashin’s account to Varsity editors.

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

How we support students — beyond just buttons and free coffee

Op-ed: Vote ‘yes’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

During the 1960s, students were faced with large class sizes and a sense of alienation on campus. In response, course unions were founded across the arts and science disciplines to advocate on behalf of student issues within their respective departments.

Ultimately, this led to the formation of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) in 1972 to ensure stronger representation for all students in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Today, ASSU represents over 23,000 full-time undergraduates, and we’re asking you to vote in favour of the upcoming referendum to increase our levy by $1.50 per semester.

We support course unions

We at ASSU are comprised of seven executives, three staff, and over 60 recognized course unions. The structure of our council, which meets once a month, allows course unions to best represent the voices of their students. We fund over $180,000 to our course unions, which work tirelessly to meet student needs through interesting and innovative events.

The Indigenous Studies Students’ Union’s Honouring Our Students Pow Wow and the Philosophy Course Union’s Symposium on Love are just a few examples of the ways by which course unions are able to connect with their peers.

Course unions also provide a multitude of platforms for students to showcase their academic work, including journals such as the Classics Students’ Union’s Plebeian and the Health Studies Students’ Union’s Health Perspectives. Our course unions will directly benefit from our proposed levy increase as the funds will be used to further support their projects and events.

We support campus life

For student support, Executive Martha Taylor started the Moving on From… campaign to showcase the obstacles that students face during their undergrad. The campaign now features multiple students covering a range of themes, including international student life and mental health.

Executive Victoria Chen started the ASSU Mentorship Project (AMP) to establish a student support system, especially for first years, international students, and students with accessibility needs. The AMP received hundreds of applications, proving the necessity of such an initiative.

More broadly, providing our students with strength and guidance during stressful times is an area that ASSU aims to continue to focus and grow on, such as through our bi-annual Exam Jams — the ones with the cute puppies — and access to our past test library for over 500 courses.

We support student research

Last year, we recognized the lack of opportunities available for students to present their own research. In response, our Undergraduate Research Conference was created, inviting students from across disciplines to present original research to fellow students, professors, and the general public.

In addition to the conference, ASSU provides travel grants and undergraduate research funds to help students afford the costs of creating and presenting novel research. Our Arbor Journal of Undergraduate Research furthers our commitment to celebrating student work. With an increased levy, ASSU hopes to create and contribute to projects and grants that prioritize undergraduate research.

We support accessible education

Treasurer Ikran Jama created ASSU’s Student Success Day High School Conference in an effort to help marginalized youth explore the prospect of university education. Invited students attended workshops run by our course unions, listened to professors, and spoke to campus leaders.

Our Project: Universal Minds matches U of T students as tutors for high school students. Our scholarships and bursaries give our students greater assistance with continuing their education. Our levy will always contribute to projects and increases in scholarships and bursaries in order to ensure that the academic needs of all students are fulfilled.

We continue to build on our past accomplishments, including the implementation of our annual Fall Reading Week, the credit/no credit option, and the 24-hour study space in Robarts. Currently, ASSU is working to extend the credit/no credit deadline, revise our course retake policy, and create an American Sign Language course.

We need your support

Our levy, unlike that of most other student societies on campus, is not attached to the Consumer Price Index, meaning that it does not reflect the changes of dollar inflation over time. As a result, we have had to make strategic cuts to line items in our budget, which we hope to reverse and provide additional funding to, such as award bursaries and course union funding.

We encourage you to read our official referendum statement, and to contact us with any questions or concerns. We need your support to continue supporting you: please vote ‘yes’ to our levy increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Victoria Chen is a second-year Psychology and Cell & Molecular Biology student at Trinity College. Ikran Jama is a second-year International Relations and Criminology and Sociolegal Studies student at Victoria College. Martha Taylor is a second-year Life Sciences student at Trinity College. They are members of the ASSU executive.

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

Before asking for a raise, the group should improve its governance and finances

Op-ed: Vote ‘no’ to the ASSU levy increase referendum

With the recent postsecondary fee changes announced by the Ontario government, student groups across the province are under attack. It is more important than ever to fight for the existence of strong, well-funded, and democratic student societies. It would feel almost irresponsible to urge students to vote against a student organization’s fee increase at this time.

However, these changes have placed a new emphasis on accountability, and it remains important to speak out against student societies that, whether through apathy or malice, act in undemocratic ways. As such, I cannot support the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) upcoming referendum to increase its levy from $9.50 to $11 per semester.

ASSU’s primary function is to organize, aid, and fund arts and science course unions. The union proposes to distribute about $180,000 in course union funding each year. It also offers essential academic services and advocacy. While there’s no evidence that ASSU is acting maliciously, it is clear that little progress has been made to address the union’s long lasting problems.

A read of ASSU’s constitution shows that there is no avenue for a member to engage in the union’s governance process. ASSU holds no general meeting at which all fee-paying members have voting rights, does not advertise the dates of its regular meetings, and holds no public forums to hear student concerns.

Furthermore, although it holds its presidential and executive elections at open council meetings, ordinary members are not eligible to vote. It seems that the only time that ASSU offers its membership basic democratic control is when it needs a fee increase.

Instead of being governed by its 23,000 full-time undergraduate student members, ASSU is governed by the course unions to which it provides funding. ASSU defends this structure because it views itself as a federation of course unions rather than a student union made of individual members.

However, the union cannot expect its members to pay fees if it is not ready to give those members the right to participate in its governance process. If ASSU wants to be more than a middleman for distributing funding, it needs to acknowledge that it is accountable to all full-time Arts & Science students at UTSG.

With little oversight, it’s easy for an organization to slide further away from its mandate and democratic norms, and a look at the ASSU budget tells us that this is exactly what has happened. ASSU has three full-time staff members in addition to its elected executives. The most senior of the three staff members receives a salary of at least $100,000 before benefits. The remaining two employees receive salaries of about $55,000 each.

Student society staff are essential and deserve to be compensated fairly. However, ASSU spends about $280,000 on salaries and benefits each year, and these salaries are increasing at an annual rate of three per cent above inflation. With every year that goes by, a larger and larger share of ASSU’s budget will be taken up by its staff’s salaries — leaving less and less money for bursaries, scholarships, and course union funding. The ASSU executive has not, and likely will not, admit that these salary increases are an issue.

ASSU’s financial statements paint a picture of an organization that’s running out of money as staff costs increase. While the union claims that it needs a fee increase to fund bursaries, scholarships, and the growth of course unions, it hasn’t made any assurances that this is how the new funds will be used.

The proposed increase is a band-aid solution for ASSU’s problems, and those in charge have demonstrated no intention of finding a long-term fix. Even if this referendum passes and allows for inflationary increases, between each referendum, staff costs will increase at a rate greater than these levy increases due to inflation. Eventually, the union will run out of money, be forced to cut services, and will come asking for another increase.

If ASSU wants a fee increase, its leadership needs to show that it understands who the union is accountable to. It can begin by giving all members the ability to elect their own representatives. It should also follow the lead of similar unincorporated student societies and voluntarily hold annual meetings for members of the executive to hear and address the concerns of students.

It also needs to prove that it has a long-term plan to fix the union’s financial woes. ASSU should work with the labour union that represents its staff to limit salary increases and ensure its long-term welfare.

Until ASSU starts to take the students’ concerns seriously, and addresses them with long-term solutions, they shouldn’t be given a fee increase.

The ASSU levy increase referendum will take place from February 13–14 at voting.utoronto.ca and in Sidney Smith Hall.

Daman Singh is a fourth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Operations of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The curious case of Anup Atwal

The drama-ridden 2019 SCSU elections can be understood backward and its lessons must be lived forward

The curious case of Anup Atwal

Student union elections provide student politicians and voters the opportunity to discuss the possibilities of change and improvement to livelihood on campus. The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) spring election was supposed to be no different.

Debate

In an exciting start, UTSC student newspaper The Underground hosted a debate on February 1. Shine Bright UTSC, SCSYou, and independent executive candidates took to the stage to present their platforms, answer questions, and display their smack-talk ability. Of note was the rivalry between Shine Bright UTSC’s presidential candidate, Chemi Lhamo, and SCSYou’s presidential candidate, Anup Atwal.

Atwal’s answers to debate questions reflected his solemnity and passion as a presidential candidate. Students responded positively when he addressed student issues like financial security and academics.

Atwal also took the opportunity to criticize current Director of Political Science and Vice-President Academics & University Affairs candidate Raymond Dang for proposing a motion to limit media at SCSU meetings in December. Dang later expressed some regret, claiming that he “absolutely never intended to make that policy about controlling media.”

Atwal’s criticism was well-founded. Dang’s motion was a self-caused controversy. Hopefully, his participation in the Underground-hosted debate has pushed him to better recognize the value of the campus press. Indeed, for student media to host student politicians not only better informs student voters, but also creates a positive image of student engagement and campus democracy.

Drama

However, the debate was soon followed by the issuance of demerit points. By February 5, Lhamo had received 25, while Atwal was handed enough points to be officially disqualified from elections for multiple violations, including criticisms of Dang, described in the notice as a “direct and misleading comment towards another candidate.”

But Atwal’s disqualification was not justified given the accuracy of his comments. He was right to subsequently criticize the SCSU for undermining free speech. Furthermore, given his resonance with students, especially as the Scarborough Campus Union Reform Club president, the demerit point system detracted from what could have been an exciting contest.

It more or less guaranteed the presidency to Lhamo, an establishment politician. Although independent candidate John John received 519 votes, only Atwal had presented a serious challenge to Lhamo. This likely lessened student motivation to vote and therefore the chances of other SCSYou candidates to be voted in. But the drama did not stop there.

Atwal was shrouded with even more controversy when fellow slate member Armaan Sahgal leaked a chat to The Underground. It exposed Atwal for transphobic remarks directed toward Leon Tsai, Shine Bright UTSC’s Vice-President Equity candidate. There is no doubt that this was a turning point in the election in terms of Atwal’s reputation.

Even as a candidate advocating for change in the SCSU, Atwal failed to perceive his own actions as requiring remorse and reform — for example, he has been called out for his transphobic remarks, but refuses to apologize and stands by his words. He ultimately drew much attention to the election for the wrong reasons, and his initial association with action and policy has been replaced by drama. Public opinion has justifiably turned against him.

Running for an important position of power means being responsible and accountable for one’s actions, both in public and private spheres — the ability of a student politician to conduct themselves with dignity and command the respect of voters is as important as matters of policy debate. Atwal has disregarded these responsibilities as SCSYou’s leader, and thus he has seriously compromised the quality of the election at UTSC.

Democracy

But students have voted in a new SCSU executive. Although a split ticket, I hope that the executive learn to work together and overcome the election’s negativity to effectively develop policy and address student needs. Interestingly, Dang was outvoted by SCSYou candidate Carly Sahagian, whom he had called “utterly unqualified” during the debate, another comment unappreciated by students. In this sense, the election was a success: students cast informed votes based on candidates’ questionable behaviour.

But beyond policy, the SCSU must find a way to improve its own quality and legitimacy as an institution. From Atwal’s rise as a reformist candidate, to his controversial disqualification, and finally to his disgraced fall, it is clear that there is much work to be done when it comes to electoral processes and decorum.

One positive spillover is that the election was subject to intense media coverage by The Underground and The Varsity. The importance of the press for ensuring student awareness and engagement in campus politics should not be taken lightly. This sort of precedent should inspire students to better exercise their rights to vote or run for office and effect change in the future. Student participation is essential to democracy on campus.

This year’s SCSU elections have unfortunately been more dramatic than democratic. But the dissatisfying experience gives students all the more reason to care about what their politicians are doing. Hopefully, students come to understand the power of their voice, and that the SCSU is ultimately what they, the students, make of it.

Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.

No, The Varsity doesn’t silence conservative (or other unpopular) opinions

A letter from the Comment Editor

No, <i>The Varsity</i> doesn’t silence conservative (or other unpopular) opinions

Recently, two contributors, in separate cases, wanted to write responses to recent Varsity News articles. The catch was that their viewpoints were conservative — or contrary to popular opinion — and they wanted to be granted anonymous bylines. One justified this request based on a fear that publicly expressing their views would cause retribution in terms of employment prospects.

I rejected both requests, because it is protocol at The Varsity to attach an author’s name to their article. This is especially the case for the Comment section, as it is an arena for public discussion, dialogue, and debate in the U of T community. It is essential to contextualize who you are, and where you are coming from, when you provide a perspective. This is why every Comment contributor receives a short biography at the end of their article.

The hope is that productive discourse, in good faith, can lead to better understandings of the opposition’s views, even if the issue or policy in question is a contentious one to start. Anonymity, however, means that the original author cannot be held to account for their words.

If you hold a conservative or unpopular opinion, and you want to share it with the community, you ought to be able to publicly stand by and defend it. This means building a strong and robust case for why you believe what you believe, even if it is unpopular, and why other students should listen to you.

But some students may feel that publicly sharing conservative views leads to backlash, especially given our left-leaning readership and contributor base. They therefore refrain from contributing, which leads to their underrepresentation in The Varsity’s opinion pages. Others accuse The Varsity of an outright biased, ‘social justice’ agenda that caters to its ‘social justice’ contributors and audience.

Given that most of The Varsity’s opinion pieces are left-leaning, where politics is concerned, it is important to take these accusations seriously — especially since some students are pleased by the prospect of opting out of our levy with Doug Ford’s recently announced Student Choice Initiative.

First, it is true that our readership tends to respond unfavourably to conservative articles. But that is not something we can control, be assigned responsibility for, or answer to. What we do control are the publication standards that guide what kind of opinion pieces are published. Simply put, if you have a well-reasoned, substantiated argument on a topic that affects students, and that might nudge students to think differently, we aren’t concerned about ideology. We will publish you.

What we won’t publish is anything that is hateful — for instance, views that sympathize with white supremacy — because that won’t productively engage with readers, to say the least, and it will irredeemably compromise our reputation.

We also control for conspiratorial, speculative, and contrarian viewpoints — that is, opinions that alarm audiences based on conjecture rather than evidence, or that stokes controversy for the sake of controversy. We also don’t like strawmanning. Both sides of the spectrum are subject to this sort of opinion writing, and we try our best to reject these kinds of articles.

When it comes to accusations about our ‘agenda,’ it is important to clarify that editorials written by The Varsity’s editorial board represent the opinion of the newspaper and typically lean left. The board, like the rest of the Comment section, is also strictly separate from and does not influence the News section, which is obligated to factual reporting. Furthermore, independent opinion pieces that oppose the editorial board and our left-leaning readership are regularly commissioned.

For instance, even though the editorial board has consistently opposed Ford’s policies, The Varsity has also published numerous pro-Ford pieces, whether defending Ford’s campus free speech policy, minimum wage freeze, Toronto city council size cut, or Ford’s postsecondary education announcements. Aside from Ford, we have also published letters that defended anti-abortion protests and an article that defended Steve Bannon’s right to speak at the Munk Debate.

When it comes to student politics, contributors have written about the value of conservative students getting involved in their unions or holding them to account from the outside, or how voluntary student unionism might improve political participation. I encourage readers to especially read through the past work of Sam Routley, the UTSG Campus Politics Columnist, to get a sense of what well-written and reasoned conservative pieces might look like.

When it comes to unpopular opinions in general, consider the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP). While the editorial board was critical of the UMLAP, and numerous other anti-UMLAP pieces were published, we did not hesitate to feature a pro-UMLAP op-ed.

Ultimately, we value opinion pieces that go against the views of the editorial board and most readers because, within reasonable limits, they provide balance and prompt folks to consider and learn from the opposition’s views. Indeed, our Governance Policy obligates us to a diversity of opinion. And if you review our letters to the editor this past year, both online and in print, we’ve also been very open to criticism of our coverage.

If you’re a conservative, or you hold an opinion that might be unpopular among fellow U of T readers, that shouldn’t be the reason that you hold yourself back from writing for us. What is important is the quality of your argument, the relevance of what you have to say to the U of T community, and the prospect of engaging in good faith with the other side.

And remember, The Varsity is student-run and is the product of the hundreds of students who choose to participate in it each year. If you don’t see your views reflected well in the opinion pages, go beyond just criticizing — pitch your ideas and ask to write for us. The Varsity is what you, the students, make of it.

 Ibnul Chowdhury,

Comment Editor

Love beyond romance

Make Valentine’s Day about family, friends, U of T, The Varsity, and yourself

Love beyond romance

Every February 14, the capitalist cisheteropatriarchy (we’re not social justice warriors; we’re being satirical, somewhat — we promise!) calls on us to perform, or yearn for, ‘romance.’ That is, lavish expenditures and material offerings for ‘the one.’ But love is much more than romantic gestures directed toward a single target.

Spreading affection to the broader community and to oneself ought to be the goal of Valentine’s Day. So we challenge you, U of T’s student body, to give your love to something different this year.

Love your family

The rigour of studying at U of T often results in a disconnect from what really matters: family. If you live on or near campus, you likely don’t see your family for weeks at a time. For international students, this might even be months or, god forbid, years. If you’re a commuter who still lives with family, it’s likely you’re too busy at school, doing extracurriculars, or on transit to spend as much time with your folks as you should.

In some ways, this is what we all dreamt of. University was sold to us not just as a pathway to better employment, but as an escape from home, to experience independence and responsibility. And this is an important step for young adults. But homesickness is a real phenomenon for many — it doesn’t take long to miss home-cooked meals, for example.

Remember, the number one supporters of what we’re trying to achieve at U of T are those whom you consider family, whomever comes to mind with that word. On Valentine’s Day, give them a call and tell them you love them.

Love your friends

Yes, friends do exist at U of T — and no, the library doesn’t count. During your time here, you are bound to have made some acquaintances, whether through your college, classes, events, extracurriculars, or the gym.

In any case, you probably have multiple social networks that fuel your enjoyment at this university. Whether helping you with homework, listening to you vent, or discussing how problematic that one professor’s views are, you were never in it alone. Take a moment to appreciate the community around you by letting your friends know how central they are to your university experience.

Love U of T

Okay, this one is controversial. How can you possibly love U of T, or even like it? After all, this is the school whose grandeur radiates alienation until you feel like a nobody, and makes you tired from walking so much. This is the school that refuses to close its downtown campus as early as its satellite campuses, leaving commuters to suffer. And, above all, this is the school that engages in contentious policies, be it the university-mandated leave of absence policy or investments in fossil fuels.

But, by the time you leave U of T, you’ll probably feel kind of cool for having gone here. I mean, what’s not to love about those emails you get about the school being ranked number one in Canada, yet again?

In all seriousness though, going to U of T, despite all its challenges, puts you right at the heart of a buzzing metropolitan city. There’s always so much to do and somewhere to be, and you can easily hop on transit to get there. Be an explorer, and learn to love the adventures and little pockets that you didn’t know existed. And there’s a world unto itself on campus, with plenty of activities and events to experience. So take the day to love what U of T has to offer.

Love The Varsity

Obviously, at some point, we’re going to ask you to love us, your student newspaper. To be honest, we get more hate than we deserve, especially when we’re accused of being biased and having a political agenda. We’d like to tell you that what we do is actually invaluable on campus.

First of all, we keep the student body informed about what’s happening on campus. When the university or a student union does something questionable, we communicate that information to you. On the bright side, when a theatre show, sports game, or scientific discovery is really worth tuning into, we let you know. And we provide you, the students, a platform to express yourselves.

We’re always looking for writers, designers, photographers, illustrators, copy editors, and more, so join us if you’d like to make a difference in how this paper is run. And if you’re a reader who wants to know what U of T is up to, pick up a print issue on a stand near you, or hit up our website.

Our doors are always open, so drop by on February 14 to say hi.

Love yourself

No matter how much you might be struggling with school right now, or stressing over getting into graduate, medical, or law school in the future, remember that everything working out depends on you taking care of yourself.

So get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and do things that make you healthy and happy. Life is short, but university life is even shorter. So take it day by day, and make sure that moving forward doesn’t mean leaving you and your needs behind.

On Valentine’s Day, remember that love starts with loving yourself.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Comment in Briefs: Week of February 4

Students react to SiV report, VUSAC goal to change residence name, and recent OPCCA conference

Comment in Briefs: Week of February 4

We have the facts, so will U of T comply?

Re: “Silence is Violence releases years-long report on sexual violence at U of T”

The 2019 Silence is Violence (SiV) report was thorough, wide-ranging, and, unfortunately, not shocking in the slightest. It revealed just how much students have suffered and continue to suffer, along with the little confidence that they have in Campus Police when it comes to reporting sexual harassment cases.

Although U of T has established a Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre to deal with reports of sexual misconduct, I’m pretty sure the SiV report was the first time most of us had ever heard of the centre. Nevertheless, the report has shown us that we still have a long way to go. That starts with the university prioritizing sexual violence as a central threat to student safety and health. It’s also about creating more systemic changes within both the U of T centre and the branches that work around it, including rehabilitation and protection for students dealing with this type of violence.

SiV also shed light on the number of students who were unable to differentiate between sexual violence and harmless interactions. Not enough is taught and said about sexual violence on campus, other than the very basic education on consent during frosh week.  

The university must also delve deeper into different dimensions of sexual violence that include coercion, power imbalances, and intersectionality. It is important to consider how and why Indigenous, disabled, mentally ill, genderqueer, transgender, and queer persons reported the highest estimated numbers of sexual violence on campus.

It would not only be a disservice but also a dishonor to our student body if these numbers continue to rise or remain the way they are now.

Janine Alhadidi is a Political Science and Diaspora and Transnational Studies student at St. Michael’s College.


Let’s carefully consider the VUSAC residence rename proposal

Re: “Victoria students’ council attempting to rename Ryerson residence building, Vic One stream”

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

In his novel Crabwalk, Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, himself disgraced by his teenage WWII service in the notoriously evil Waffen-SS, advised future generations that wherever there are grievances, one should confront issues directly instead of simply  dismissing what’s difficult and uncomfortable. The concern is that, if we do dismiss unresolved matters, we forfeit control of the narrative at our peril, and often to those with perverse interests.

This is especially important today, given the recent emergence of nationalist populism, with venomous personalities like Faith Goldy in Toronto and Kevin Johnston in Mississauga, and, also at U of T, with the recent appearance of white nationalist posters on campus.

It’s in the best interests of society that the dark legacy of residential schools never be owned by nationalist populists, especially as they might misconstrue the removal of Egerton Ryerson’s name from landmarks as an attack on Canadian identity. This is how they derive an exclusivist sense of belonging, build their movement, and push their own twisted political agendas to indoctrinate others.

We shouldn’t shrug off the past. However burdensome it may be, it can still instruct us. Yes, Ryerson can still serve to instruct us, especially on how not to go about designing an educational system that ensures the wholesale and systematic annihilation of human cultures.

A solution is to keep Ryerson’s name while also providing comprehensive educational displays at the residence that inform students and the public about his true history.

Perhaps future residents of the college will take the duty upon themselves to learn that history and share it with others on campus so we never forget or repeat such shameful mistakes, which continue to haunt and blight Canada’s international reputation, however false,  as a moral leader.

Oscar Starschild is a second-year Mathematics, Philosophy, and Computer Science student at Woodsworth College.


PC youth and party leadership are on the same page, at least for now

Re: “Ontario Campus Conservatives debate public transit, mental health at regional conference”

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

For most parties, policy conventions are typically inconsequential. While it is true that they often produce official election platforms, there is little that binds leaders to their promises, especially when they enter office. Thus, more than anything, conventions have become public relation performances in which parties can project unity, a strong leader, and the image of a diverse, open dialogue.

Nevertheless, policy conventions are often a good place to determine where party membership is, as it is rare that the tightly-controlled communications of leader takes a secondary role.

As part of an Ontario-wide program of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA), the South Regional Policy Conference will contribute to the understanding of OPCCA’s broader policy preferences, which will then, it seems, be brought to the attention of the party during the policy convention.

The policies adopted here don’t seem unusual, nor do they contradict the party’s current agenda as of yet. There was a particular focus on expanding transit service to Niagara, which seems to be the current position of the province, as it has begun to do so. The biggest decision that the government seems to be moving forward with is the provincial ‘takeover’ of the TTC, which appeared to draw divides among party members. The dispute, however, was less about the principle than it was about the financial cost. Mental health resolutions, the second topic of discussion, remained vague and difficult to dispute in and of themselves.

Thus, while there appears to be some minor disagreement, there is no indication that some sort of confrontation between the PC youth and party leadership will occur in the near future. Although, should the government continue in its current policy direction for postsecondary institutions, I would not be surprised if this outlook changes.

Sam Routley is a fourth-year Political Science, Philosophy, and History student. He is The Varsity’s UTSG Campus Politics Columnist.

Believe them

Examining sexual violence in academic spaces through the Neil deGrasse Tyson case

Believe them

A problematic side effect of the #MeToo movement is its overrepresentation of the stories of celebrities who have experienced sexual assault, at the expense of the experiences and stories of ordinary people. We need to remember that sexual assault is not an issue specific to Hollywood.

Of course it’s important to listen when any person, famous or not, speaks out about their experiences. But by focusing mostly on the experiences of those who are wealthy and privileged, we inadvertently ignore the experiences of everyone else.

This mindset is pervasive — it exists here at our university, and at many others too. As a recent report by the group Silence is Violence has revealed, around 20 per cent of students surveyed had experienced an incident that may be considered sexual violence. The report includes alleged perpetrators who are academic authorities: professors.

In the academic sphere, the deep power imbalance at every level contributes to the pervasiveness of sexual violence. As students, we might feel pressured to go along with inappropriate behaviour to maintain a formal relationship with certain professors we may even think it is the norm. And when the person in question also happens to be well-known, respected in their field, and charismatic, it becomes that much more difficult to come forward.

Nowhere is this power imbalance better exemplified than with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is currently the subject of an investigation by Fox Entertainment and National Geographic, the networks that air one of one of his programs, Cosmos. His other program, StarTalk, was put on hiatus by National Geographic in early January while the investigation is being conducted.

Tyson is the crossing point between academic and celebrity. He is a household name, thanks to his accomplishments in astrophysics and scientific literacy advocacy. Thus, he presents us with a headlining case of how predators in academia can operate.

The accusations

Tyson has four accusations levelled against him. Dr. Katelyn Allers, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, alleges that Tyson grabbed and touched her inappropriately during an American Astronomical Society (AAS) gathering in 2009.

Ashley Watson worked briefly as an assistant and driver for Tyson, while the show Cosmos was being filmed. She alleges that he repeatedly acted inappropriately toward her, made sexual advances, and invited her to his home, alone, for alcoholic drinks.

Another woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, alleges that he made inappropriate comments toward her at a holiday party in the American Museum of Natural History in 2010. Then, there is the fourth and oldest accusation. A woman named Tchiya Amet alleges that Tyson drugged and raped her when they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984.

In response to all but the anonymous claim, Tyson made a Facebook post on December 1, writing, “In any claim, evidence matters. Evidence always matters. But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree? That’s when people tend to pass judgment on who is more credible than whom.

In and of itself, that is a valid point. In cases of sexual assault and harassment, which so often happen in private, with few or no witnesses, it can be hard to provide solid evidence beyond the memories of those involved, especially if the event happened years or decades ago.

Tyson’s response to Katelyn Allers and Ashley Watson

Tyson frames the incident with Allers as him taking a quick look to see if her tattoo of the solar system included Pluto. Allers describes Tyson’s behaviour as “uncomfortable and creepy” and says that he does not have “great respect for female bodily autonomy.”

Allers has also said that, had she been able to, she would have probably reported the incident as sexual harassment. But at the time, the AAS did not have a mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. Like so many academic institutions, the AAS took far too long to develop a response to what was a clear issue.

Here at U of T, resources for those who have experienced sexual violence are still few and far between. The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre only opened in 2017.

As for Watson, Tyson similarly tries to reframe the incidents to make himself seem more innocent. He characterizes their relationship as being close and friendly during the time she was employed as his assistant.

He does acknowledge saying to her, “If I hug you I might just want more,” but he also describes the incident as a well-meaning attempt to “express restrained but genuine affection.” And then, rather than acknowledge the discussion that he allegedly had with her when she came to his home for wine and cheese, he skips ahead in his narrative to her coming to his office afterward to describe the event as “creepy.”

Tyson straddles the line between trying to say that he had, and still has, the utmost respect for Watson, while also casting doubt on her narrative. Tyson writes, “She viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her,” adding that their conversation was similar to how they always spoke to each other.

Tyson is selective when responding to Watson’s accusations, which gives him the wiggle room to selectively apologize. In Watson’s telling of the story, Tyson took off his shoes and shirt, put on “romantic” music, began talking about how humans need “releases” including “physical releases,” and referred to Watson as being “distracting.”

Tyson reframes both Watson and Allers’ cases to his advantage. Merely reading his response to the accusation makes him seem well-meaning and apologetic, and the accusations less serious. But as Tyson himself points out, the different versions of these stories don’t line up.

Tchiya Amet’s allegation

According to Amet, she and Tyson were friendly but did not date during their time together as graduate students. Then one day, in 1984, Amet says that Tyson offered her water, which, unbeknownst to her, was drugged, causing her to pass out and awaken with him performing oral sex on her. When he saw that she was awake, Amet says, he got on top of her and continued to rape her, and she passed out again.

Tyson acknowledges the seriousness of Amet’s allegations against him, but he frames the story quite differently. First, he says that he and Amet dated briefly and had been intimate a few times at her apartment. And then, rather than simply deny the allegations, Tyson goes further and brings up several facts about Amet, most of which are irrelevant to her story. He discusses how she dropped out of her graduate program failing to mention that Amet says this was because she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the alleged incident — how she changed her name, and that she holds some unusual spiritual beliefs.

Tyson brings up Amet’s idiosyncratic ideas and beliefs for no other reason but to discredit her. He  tells his audience to associate her with something unscientific, thus positioning himself as correct, logical, and honest. This creates a narrative that we have seen time and time again. Instead of discussing Amet’s allegations at a human level, Tyson positions himself as a logical, calm, scientific authority, and characterizes Amet as ignorant and confused.

Indeed, he even writes, “As a scientist, I found [her beliefs] odd.” It is Tyson’s analysis of her actual story, however, that seems most disturbing. He repeats that some parts of her memory are fuzzy and that she cannot remember every detail, suggesting that she has a “false memory” of the event.

As a scientist, Tyson should be aware that trauma can have profoundly strong effects on memory. Indeed, a large part of PTSD, according to researcher Dr. Kristin W. Samuelson, includes “the inability to recall important aspects of the trauma” and “that memory deficits are a product of neurobiological abnormalities caused by PTSD.

Combine this with Amet’s claims to have been drugged and passed out several times, and it’s no wonder that she has some difficulty recalling details of the alleged event. But for Tyson, and for his supporters, nothing Amet claims really matters. As a scientist, Tyson is given the kind of benefit of the doubt that Amet would never be given. By merely pointing to his own credentials, he is able to dismiss her claims entirely, because, again, he is a scientist and academic, and she is not.

While Tyson responded fairly quickly to the accusations by Watson and Allers and the media was also quick to report upon them, Amet has been telling her story since 2010. However, her accusations have only gotten mainstream press coverage recently. Since Amet has such “odd” beliefs, and since she dropped out of her graduate program, she has likely lost some credibility. Also, unlike Allers and Watson, Amet is a Black woman, which likely contributed to her being seen as less believable.

Believe them

At the end of the day, the strongest evidence anyone has to go on about all of these accusations is what those involved say. Tyson presents himself as an honest and trustworthy scientist. Conversely, he presents his accusers, particularly Amet, as untrustworthy. He reframes incidents to seem more innocent and to make his interactions with Allers and Watson seem like innocent mistakes, instead of predatory behavior.

But it shouldn’t matter at all what his motivations were. It doesn’t matter that he’s a famous scientist, or if Amet has strange spiritual beliefs or not. The only thing that actually matters is that we have four women who accused Tyson of predatory behaviour. We have to listen to them.

In the beginning of his Facebook post, Tyson notes that, “For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s ‘me-too’ climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion.” This argument is a misleading one. It suggests that such allegations should instead be dealt with in a court of law, because a “court of public opinion” unfairly judges the accused without due process.

But the #MeToo movement is not a legal phenomenon. I doubt most of the people who believe Tyson’s accusers want Tyson to automatically be sent to jail without due process. #MeToo is primarily about providing voice to those who have been long silenced.

For so long, survivors of sexual violence, be they Hollywood starlets or students right here at U of T, were not believed. They were — and still are — dismissed as liars or attention seekers. There was no public accountability. And so their anger turned into decades of silence and shame. Meanwhile, those accused were always given the benefit of the doubt.

Even now, as the recent report from Silence is Violence shows us, institutions that are meant to protect survivors too often let them down, especially when the accused are intellectual authority figures who have gained public trust. As a society, as a university, and as individuals, we have to do better at doing the work of listening to survivors and taking them seriously. So let’s listen to Amet, Allers, and Watson.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.