The criminalization of the oppressed

A personal reflection on how restrictive definitions of violence work against the marginalized

The criminalization of the oppressed

In the fall of last year I was involved in a somewhat controversial happening at UTSG. A group of students were hosting an event in response to Bill C-16, a bill that adds “gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected grounds of discrimination” under federal law. This reactionary rally was held because, according to some, the inability to discriminate against trans people constituted a violation of one’s fundamental freedom of speech.

Fear-mongering over alleged restrictions on free speech has been a particularly widespread and accelerated epidemic as of late. Anxieties over restrictions on speech are almost always retaliatory responses to being called out for bigoted or discriminatory behaviour. According to those that are concerned over restrictions on speech, the inability to perpetuate racism, sexism, transphobia, or otherwise oppressive dynamics through language, without any consequences, is a violation of freedom.

This is a deeply flawed understanding of freedom. Even with protections such as C-16, these people are still essentially free – free to believe in white supremacy, free to think of trans people as subhuman, free to harbour oppressive views of women. They are still free to own these thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and are even free to talk to others about these views.

However, when others begin to use these views to materially discriminate against the demographics concerned, when they start to do things like deny people of colour jobs, or use their positions as professors of prestigious institutions to publicly advocate for discrimination against trans people, consequences will result. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. In cases like C-16, the state is the one facilitating these consequences because the groups targeted have no power to respond themselves.

This group was rallying against their newfound inability to discriminate against trans people without consequences. They invited professor Jordan Peterson, well-known for being outspoken on this issue, and Lauren Southern, a then-commentator for The Rebel.

A few trans and non-binary people, including myself, showed up to counter-protest the event. We were rushed and disorganized. Being extremely new to activism, I was not really sure what to expect.

Someone had rented a couple of amps, thinking that we would try and out-voice them and deny them a platform. I suggested that we play harsh noise — music made up of abrasive, continuous, screechy and loud frequencies.

The harshness and violence of the music set the mood of the rally – it quickly became explicitly antagonistic and confrontational, instead of just implicitly so. Everyone became agitated and some became physical with us, attempting to sabotage our equipment or shove us aside. Many yelled slurs, while the official speakers for the event calmly droned on about the illegitimacy of trans and non-binary identities.

At some point, through all of this mess, Southern approached me and held out her mic to me. It felt to me that she genuinely took glee in our hurt and anger. Faced with such blatant disregard for both myself and for those like me, I snapped and lashed out at her, grabbing her mic and trying to yank it out of her hand.

Of course, I was arrested, charged with assault, and obliged to navigate the legal system for the next several months. This was all reported very publicly by Southern, The Rebel, and their fans. I continue to receive hate mail to this day.

There is a lot of discussion about whether actions like mine are justified, even within left-leaning groups. Consequently, I received essentially zero inter-community support after this happened. I was condemned online even by those who claimed to support the fight against transphobia, because I had become violent and had broken the rules. Yet, when rules are established and maintained by a system that condones and perpetuates consistent and pervasive discrimination against trans people, we hardly work on an equal playing field.

An expansive definition of violence is in order here, considering the many forms of harm that discrimination takes. And contrary to what is condemned by law, in exchange, the violence that others use against trans people is violence in accordance with the rules — it is legitimized and legal, and can be used to invalidate and erode our identities in a hundred different ways.

We do not have the power or the social capital to be violent towards our aggressors in non-physical, state-condoned ways. The system is set up this way – so that the only way we can fight back is with our bodies. When we do, we are unjustified, criminalized, penalized.

After I was charged, my only real option was to enter into a peace bond – meaning that I am not allowed to be in the same spaces as Southern. Because she’s a far-right reporter whose method is to enter politicized spaces and attempt to agitate the left, this essentially means I am altogether barred from entering political spaces.

After the terrorist act on the mosque in Montréal, people here in Toronto stood outside the US Consulate, in solidarity against Islamophobia and Trump’s attempted ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. I was barred from attending this protest because of the reporter’s presence there.

I am now, in a large way, denied political voice — denied the ability to exist in certain spaces. I decry this restriction on my freedom of movement, these constraints that play out on my body, as a form of violence enacted on me by the state that both justifies and continues to perpetuate anti-trans discrimination.

My crime here was nothing but becoming angered at those that deny the validity of my identity and my existence. Yet, the retaliations of the oppressed against their oppression will always be illegitimized.


Meera Ulysses is a first-year student at New College studying philosophy and equity. 

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

Disproportionate media and public attention granted to certain tragedies reflects the valuing and humanization of some lives over others

Where is our Iraqi flag filter?

As June turned to July this year, in the span of six days, three capital cities – Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad – were targeted by deadly terrorist attacks. The attacks were among the worst to hit the countries. Over 200 people died in Baghdad alone, making it the deadliest attack in that city since 2003.

Yet, despite their magnitude, these attacks have received the bare minimum in terms of coverage from major news sources, social media attention, and public vigils. The few Facebook posts I saw about the attacks linked to a handful of New York Times or BBC articles, often captioned with a statement expressing disbelief that the story hadn’t received more media attention. Perhaps even more lacking than mainstream media coverage of the attacks was the social media response. There were no Facebook flag filters or trending hashtags for Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq.

It is clear where in the world the media’s gaze tends to fall, and this is by no means a new phenomenon. There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.

[pullquote-default]There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.[/pullquote-default]

Paris, for example, received an outpouring of support from the media and the international community after the November 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks. Well-publicized public vigils were held in dozens of cities internationally, and websites such as Skype allowed users to make free calls to France to connect to their loved ones following the attacks. Even Saturday Night Live started its show with a somber opening, something that has only ever been done after the 9/11 and Sandy Hook attacks, both of which took place in the United States. Landmarks around the world were lit up in the colours of the French flag when, only days earlier, they had remained dark while Beirut was mourning the worst terrorist attack to hit the city since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.

Similarly, after the Brussels bombings in 2016, London’s National Gallery, the One World Trade Center, and the Toronto sign were all lit with the colours of the Belgian flag. Yet more recently, not one of these landmarks lit up in honour of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq.

[pullquote-features]The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels.[/pullquote-features]

In fact, the extensive media attention given to terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels have prompted the creation of Wikipedia pages dedicated solely to reactions to the bombings in both cities. While it is too early to tell whether Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad will have similarly detailed pages, the small section dedicated to “Reactions” on the general 2015 Beirut Bombings Wikipedia page tells a different story.

Though this level of neglect for non-‘Western’ tragedies is troubling, it is also not something we can chalk up to being the responsibility of politicians or the media alone. The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels. Hashtags expressing worldwide support for victims do not gain “trending” status because of media conglomerates, but rather because of the use of the hashtag by everyday Twitter users. Public demand for official Facebook filters in support of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq would undoubtedly yield results.

But a perceived lack of public interest in either of the above tragedies, reflected in a real absence of social media attention, has given mainstream media the fuel they need to justify their minimal coverage of these tragedies. Regardless of whether or not one believes social media has any real credence, it cannot be denied that Twitter and Facebook can be used to gauge interest. As the reaction to recent tragedies – or the lack thereof – has shown, our interests are very specific, and our sympathies, selective.

So what is it about France and Belgium that makes them easier to empathize with, compared to countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq? Two things stand out: both countries are described as ‘Western’ in terms of culture, and their inhabitants are mostly white. When attacks in predominantly white Western cities get more media attention and support from the international community than attacks elsewhere – in essence, when the world is so brazen about valuing of certain lives over others – readers are presented with two harmful narratives.

The first of these narratives involves the normalization of terrorist attacks in “non-Western” cities. When criticism of disproportionate media attention arises, it is not uncommon to hear it dismissed by respondents claiming that “it happens all the time there.” These comments are not only unrelated to the issue at hand, as patterned terrorist attacks in certain areas provide all the more reason for the issue to get more media attention; they also spawn the idea that the death of people living in cities that regularly experience violence is not worth the time of readers and viewers.

But, as the targeted audience of ‘Western’ media, we know that this is not necessarily true. Mass shootings are on the rise in the United States, and we hear about them both frequently and extensively in the form of cover page stories, opinion pieces, and even the life stories of victims. While it is true that gun violence is pertinent to us as North American media consumers, terrorist attacks are by no means irrelevant to ‘Western’ media, given the often fear-mongering rhetoric employed by various governments and the “War on Terror.” Why is the same level of attention not paid to terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world?

This ties into the second narrative presented by the media, which paints terrorist attacks as tragedies that should only be mourned if those affected are white, or more specifically, non-Muslim. By releasing feature articles and profiles on white victims of violence while remaining silent about a predominantly Muslim city that has been attacked – and during Ramadan, no less – the media humanizes white victims, while simultaneously dehumanizing Muslim victims.

[pullquote-default]By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights.[/pullquote-default]

The perception that Muslim victims don’t make good news stories also contributes to the minimal coverage given to terrorist attacks in Muslim cities, and it perpetuates the idea that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are irrelevant to Western media. Furthermore, a study published in the American Sociological Review has found that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media get more attention than positive ones, a finding that sheds light on the potential purposes behind the media’s manipulation of Muslim lives and suffering.

Much of this also comes as a result of the ‘Muslims killing non-Muslims’ rhetoric that has risen in the wake of the recent wave of terrorism. By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights. It takes the focus away from the violence faced by people hailing from countries all over the world and places it instead on religion by using Islamophobia to push a political agenda.

Any publicity gained by terrorist attacks in Muslim cities therefore dismantles this “Muslims killing non-Muslims” narrative, and threatens the culture of fear that allows governments to get away with drone attacks and the like. And whether knowingly or unknowingly, the media has latched onto this Islamophobic rhetoric.

As consumers of this media, we have had a hand in this demonization and dehumanization of Muslims. While the perceived interest of readers does not write the headlines, it shapes them. Our likes, shares, and use of hashtags reflect what we consider to be newsworthy, and when we ignore the few stories that are published by mainstream media about these attacks, we only prove these harmful narratives to be true. The media wields the power to disperse these narratives on a wide scale, but it is people like us who perpetuate them in smaller and more pervasive ways.

The fact remains that the issue at hand is much bigger than a seemingly trivial Facebook flag filter — but meaningful discourse starts with questioning why Paris got one, but Beirut did not. We must therefore start paying attention to the stories we don’t hear about, and learn to challenge what mainstream media presents us with. But more importantly, we need to start questioning our own sympathies, and why our hearts break for one city, and not for another.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies.