Letter to the Editor: There is no frontier between politicizing and living

Re: “Last year was a pressure cooker — this one doesn’t have to be”

Letter to the Editor: There is no frontier between politicizing and living

It is a common perspective that ‘politics’ is some distant, abstract realm of discourse that takes place somewhere ‘out there.’ That smarmy intellectuals, twisting their moustaches in contemplation, on occasion deign to step in to explicate a few points, perhaps even condescend to let loose some passion, before removing themselves, tidying their suits, and going back to class to return to their actual and more serious education.

This designation of politics as a thing separate from real life and real education is nonsensical and unpragmatic. On the one hand, politics impacts and is intertwined with every nuance of how we navigate the world. On the other, political discourse teaches us how our societies function, how we want them to function, and who our adversaries are. That this is constructed as, somehow, a thing separate from our learning experience as part of a university campus is ridiculous.

This separation imposed between politics and life doesn’t extend to everyone. The ability to segregate politics from one’s daily life is a privileged position only granted to those that don’t feel the material impact of the current political discourse. It might be easy, say, for cisgender individuals to take a peek at what trans people and their adversaries have to say about protections against discrimination, and then step aside and go about their day, forgetting about it. But for trans people who face the hatred and oppression the world serves out to them on the daily, it’s less easy to ignore what political positions people are taking with regards to trans rights.

These political battles might seem messy and overwhelming on first glance, and for a lot of people, it seems easiest to declare neutrality on the issue, close one’s mouth and stroll back to lecture. But declaring impartiality is akin to the declaration that things are okay as they stand, that it’s inconsequential whether or not change is enacted. When political controversy is nearly always initiated when a marginalized group articulates a want of change in the current system, this declaration of neutrality means siding against the oppressed. It communicates to us that our issues are arbitrary, our struggles are not worth fighting over or even mumbling some half-hearted acquiescence to.

Political controversy might have inconvenienced the student body by materializing in all its chaotic and confused messiness on campus last year. It might have made it difficult for some students to concentrate on essays or exams with all that energy, frustration, and embitterment pulsing through. But occasions like that aren’t separate from one’s learning experience, one’s maturation and growth as a person. And if attacks on the marginalized and our subsequent retaliations function to primarily annoy and distract, perhaps one’s priorities and positionality should be reassessed.

As the Editorial Board’s article stated, battles like last year’s aren’t one-off happenstances. They’re manifestations of a larger struggle that has been ongoing for years. To delegate them to passionate arguments that students might want to ignore is to undermine the weight of them and the significance of what both sides are hoping to achieve. To have these perspectives surface on our campus could be a great learning experience for students — we get to reflect on how we truly feel about marginalized groups and their oh-so-inconvenient want for respect, and we get to see what our classmates have to say about that.

Op-ed: Understanding what is at stake

Shedding light on the world’s first scholarship in antipsychiatry

Op-ed: Understanding what is at stake

On October 7, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) announced the creation of a radically new scholarship — the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry. This scholarship is for OISE students conducting theses in the area of antipsychiatry, with the author matching up to $50,000 of donations by others. Following the announcement came an article in The Varsity on the scholarship, which, let me suggest, was sadly amiss.

What is wrong with the article? It makes Scientology ‘the issue.’ Who cares whether Scientology praises  — or for that matter, disparages — the emergence of this scholarship? In such framing, it prioritizes sensationalism over significance. Moreover, it creates serious misimpressions about antipsychiatry.

A question in the interest of remedying that: exactly what is antipsychiatry? It is a field of study and a movement. As a field of study, it advances foundational critiques of psychiatry. As a movement, it is dedicated to abolition and the creation of more respectful, helpful ways of approaching societal differences and human distress. Below are some myths and facts intended to shed light on the subject.

Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists deny that people can become seriously disoriented and troubled.

Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are extremely clear that such difficulties exist. What we contend, rather, is that what are labelled ‘mental diseases’ are not in fact medical disorders. That is, we have different explanations for what is happening — ones that include, but are not limited to, issues of social control.

Myth: Antipsychiatry theorists are ‘anti-science.’

Fact: Antipsychiatry theorists are pro-science and as such, oppose the ‘facade’ of science. Indeed, one of our central objections is precisely that the claims of psychiatry lack scientific and medical validity.

Myth: Major antipsychiatry positions such as ending forced treatment are extreme and something that no reputable body would ever support.

Fact: Besides the fact that ‘reputable’ and ‘extreme’ are judgement calls and that we are talking about fundamental human rights here, an organization no less ‘reputable’ than the United Nations (UN) has issued a prohibition against forced psychiatric ‘treatment,’ as per the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If the UN takes this position, how can it be extreme?

Myth: Antipsychiatry people are overwhelmingly involved with Scientology.

Fact: Almost none are — claiming or insinuating otherwise is a discrediting tactic. Surely instead, as academics, we should be dealing with facts, evidence, and logic.

Myth: Antipsychiatry is based on ignorance.

Fact: Pursued by folk who are leading scholars, antipsychiatry is a highly recognized field of inquiry, with courses offered in sociology, disability studies, adult education, and numerous other areas. Correspondingly, as researchers, antipsychiatry scholars knowledgeably draw on highly credible research methodologies, such as scientific meta-analysis, ethnography, critical discourse analysis, and institutional ethnography.

This brings us to the scholarship itself. What makes this scholarship significant is that it constitutes a historical breakthrough; it represents a triumph for academic freedom. With vested interests, such as the multinational pharmaceutics significantly dictating what is studied and rewarded at universities, the successful launching of this scholarship is a veritable coup.

This scholarship is likewise important from the more limited vantage point of student equity. The sad reality is that without it, students pursuing studies in this area have far less of a chance of receiving a scholarship than their peers.

On a different level, it helps realize the university’s commitment to anti-oppression. In this regard, psychiatric survivors are oppressed not just by the world at large, but precisely by groups theorized as helpers. The particularly targeted include women, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and the poor — and as such, antipsychiatry yields an exciting opportunity for intersectional anti-oppression analysis.

On a more substantive level, the scholarship is positioned to advance research sorely needed by the world. Some significant facts here: not a single bona fide illness or indicator thereof — for example, no edema — has been shown to underlie any ‘mental illness.’ Ultimately, only biology can determine what is a disease.

Contrary to standard depictions, psychiatric drugs do not correct but rather cause chemical imbalances; by the same token, they do not redress but create disorders. This is according to the research of multiple scholars, including Breggin (1991), Colbert (2001), Burstow (2015), and Whitaker (2010). Moreover, with the rampant spread of psychiatric ‘treatment,’ the world is now facing a virtual epidemic of ‘iatrogenic’ or doctor-caused disease — hence, the emergence of this scholarship could not be more timely.

That being said, let me ask the reader: are you in favour of honest science and discovery? Do you want to go where the evidence points? Do you prioritize the search for truth over moneyed interests? Do you believe in academic freedom? Are basic human rights a concern for you? Would you like to see inquiry which stands squarely on the side of the oppressed? Would you like to help ensure that future generations are not brain-damaged in the name of help?

If most of your answers are ‘yes’, consider joining us in popularizing this scholarship and helping it grow.

Finally, in ending, I leave you with this instructive quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — then you win.”


Dr. Bonnie Burstow is an Associate Professor at OISE, an activist, a feminist therapist, and the author of the book Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (2015).

Why ban technology?

In response to “Why we are weaning our students from electronic noise”

Why ban technology?

A couple of weeks ago, an article written by two University of Toronto professors of political science was published in the Globe and Mail. The two professors explained the reasoning behind their decision to ban all electronic devices from their classrooms, arguing that doing so results in a distraction-free environment that is more conducive to learning.

In response, we asked students to weigh in on whether removing technology from classrooms is truly correlated with a more meaningful learning experience.


Taking notes on a laptop is actually much more effective than taking notes on paper. Admittedly, students retain more if they write by hand because it contributes to muscle memory. However, in lecture settings, students are always trying to remember what the professor is saying as they write. In my opinion, handwriting becomes difficult because both processes overload your senses to the point where you can’t remember what the professor is saying halfway as you write it out. With a laptop, you can focus your mind on the lecture, and directly copy it with effortless keystrokes.

– Remi Hossain, third-year Political Science and Criminology student

Accessibility is briefly addressed in Balot and Orwin’s piece, but only as an afterthought. While perusing the article’s online comment section on the Globe and Mail’s website, I found dozens of hateful comments supporting the authors’ neglect of some students’ needs. This was truly disheartening. Balot and Orwin’s attitude reflects society’s problem of questioning the legitimacy of accessibility needs. If these professors are interested in students getting the best learning experience from class, why is this limited to able-bodied/able-minded individuals? Isolating students with unique needs is not productive, and they are only reinforcing the hesitancy towards asking for help that these students experience.

– Elspeth Arbow, fourth-year Cinema Studies and Buddhism, Psychology, and Mental Health Studies student

I believe that this electronics ban policy is motivated by the same frustration that causes just about every professor I know to be bothered by laptops in class. The prof spends time planning and preparing lectures, yet the students who attend class are likely browsing Netflix, Facebook, or Twitter instead of listening and absorbing the material.

That said, it is unreasonable and outdated to ban the use of all technology in a learning environment. The considerate and tactful thing that should have been done in this situation was to make a negotiation. Instead of having TAs patrol the aisles for students sneaking a look at their phones, why not simply allow laptops, with TAs monitoring screens to avoid the unproductive use of these devices? Since this may be more difficult to do in a tutorial environment, an electronics ban may be limited to tutorials, because this a discussion-based environment in which little rigorous note-taking is required. It is hard to imagine how two political science professors did not at least make the effort to negotiate a policy that is fair, and accommodates both students and professors.

Marina Bozic, second-year Political Science student

When cellphones, laptops, and tablets are framed as “electronic noise,” technology can be easily construed as a barrier to communication. A technology ban is most conducive within smaller, seminar-style classes in which discussion is central to how the course is taught. Such classes require a two-way form of communication, in which students are active contributors to the lesson, and not just passive recipients of information. This active style of learning enables students to better synthesize, record, and retain information. In this setting, the absence of technology bolsters students’ engagement with professors, peers, and material by preventing them from hiding behind a screen.

– Zara Narain, second-year Ethics, Society, and Law student

In my experience, technology bans allow for a greater understanding and engagement with the material. However, an important thing to note is that these bans will not work in all classroom settings; smaller seminar courses and lectures that focus on the rigorous study of texts and complex analyses benefit most from this policy. Moreover, when professors no longer have laptops and phones to compete with, it means that they need to perform at a much higher level, and must deliver quality lectures that can catch a student’s attention for two to three hours at a time. Professors who embrace this new teaching policy should be ready to rise to these higher expectations.

– Ramsha Naveed, second-year Political Science and Philosophy student

The move to ban all electronics from the classroom is the failure of these professors to understand and adapt to an ever-changing learning environment. This almost guarantees that students who aren’t familiar with this style of learning will do worse than those who are. Rather than embrace new ways of teaching a perpetually connected generation, they’ve hunkered down to the past, and insist upon forcing students who have otherwise had the freedom to learn as they choose to adapt to a form of learning that may not be familiar to or effective for them.

– Ross Johnston, second-year Political Science student