The Belief Issue
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The Varsity Magazine Vol. X No. 2 Winter 2017
fect and ebo e t plac e Th
er of the pow h e h
out ho p lding Ho
n mind — page 36
o r th ef
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re s e n ly curated online p
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The plight of a pe
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campus — pag lar e4 u 4 ec
for stories in our h e c om t ic ro liv
Winter 2017 —— 1
2 â&#x20AC;&#x201D;â&#x20AC;&#x201D; The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
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4 Likes can be deceiving
14 Degrees of reality
27 Aliens ex machina
44 Best of luck
They have faith
The Mandela Effect
36 Exploiting expectations
50 Growing up and getting out
Values and wagers
40 Outside the circle
Vol. X No. 2 The Belief Issue
Copy Editors Eduardo Montero, Lauren Park, Ilya Banares, Julie Shi, Christy Ahn, Nadin Ramadan, Sean Smith, Ramsha Naveed,
Evan Maude, Alexandra
Grieve, Alisha Farrow, Srishti
Krishnan Creative Director Mubashir Baweja
Designers Christy Ahn, Pearl Cao,
Baichao Chen, Mahdi
Chowdhury, Sissy Hu, Alex Hurka, Piyumi Konara, Jillian
Senior Copy Editor
Schuler, Laura Wang
Dear Etiquette Squirrel,
writing for The Varsity, and as I was
I love my family — for the most part
explaining how warm the offices are,
Managing Online Editor
Special thanks to Tom Yun, Sean
— but there’s just one thing they do
he bolted. I should have known he
Smith, Sila Naz Elgin, Piyumi
that really gets to me. How do I get
would be squatting with you fine folks.
Konara, Back Pack, and our
my family members to stop cutting
Next time I see him I’ll give him a
canine correspondents Nora
open resealable packaging? I’ve
talking to, but maybe he just wanted
and Tucker for the extra help,
tried showing them the ways of the
to crack a story? Please don’t judge
encouragement, and snacks.
zipper seal to no avail. It’s the best
all of us squirrels against Ricky’s
thing since sliced bread though. I
Design Editor Vanessa Wang
The Varsity Magazine has a
just don’t get it. Please help!
circulation of 10,000 and is
— Broken Freshness Seal
published by Varsity Publicatons
Inc. It is printed by Masterweb
There is a boy who is breadcrumbing
Inc. Content © 2016 by The
Some people will simply sit back and
me. How can I throw his bread-
Varsity. All rights reserved.
watch the world burn. Or rather,
crumbs right back at him? I want to
Any editorial inquiries and/or
they will watch the world mould and
coat him in his own breadcrumbs
letters should be directed to the
rot and become inedible. I suggest
like Panko! Please help me pull off my
associated editors; emails listed
that you eat all the food before they
above. The Varsity Magazine
have a chance to let it rot, and then
— Master Chef
reserves the right to edit all
they’ll go hungry next time they open
the fridge. That’ll teach them about
misusing resealable packaging in the
After my extensive research, I think
breadcrumbing means that he is
Web Developers Isaac Seah and Tony Lee
Please recycle this issue after Associate Magazine Editor
Hello Etiquette Squirrel,
leading you on? If so, he’s completely nuts if he doesn’t go for you. I rec-
Aidan Currie 21 Sussex Ave, suite 306
Dear Etiquette Squirrel,
ommend that you don’t give him the
Toronto, ON, M5S1J6
A squirrel has been secretly living
time of day. He doesn’t deserve you,
Kaitlyn Simpson and
somewhere at The Varsity head-
and you don’t deserve that kind of
quarters since the beginning of the
treatment. If he’s actually a good guy,
year. We thought it died at one point,
he’ll come around and show himself
Associate Design Editor
but it seems to have made a remark-
able recovery and now sporadically roams the design office. How do we
Associate Photo Editors
get it out? Unless... is that you?
Stephanie Xu and Steven Lee
— Concerned About Asbestos
Wherever you are
And it’s you that I want.
No, it isn’t me, as I live in a rather
— Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland circa.
well-decorated elm tree on Sussex
I’m all alone
Avenue, but I do apologize for the
situation nonetheless. Unfortunately,
Dear Nelly Furtado ft. Timbaland,
you have my cousin Ricky staying with
Sorry, I’m already taken.
Advertising Executives Yaakov Spivak and Dan Silveira
you. I told him once that I did some
Letters from us
I’m pretty bad at explaining myself. Once in an attempt to justify something I said, I told my roommates that I was “questioning the questioning the questioning.” While I don’t remember what I was talking about then, I find it an apt phrase to describe the university experience. University takes everything you believe in and attempts to rip them apart. If you weren’t able to defend those beliefs before, you sure as hell had better learn how to quickly — unless you want to let them go or keep them buried, away from interrogating minds. People believe in a lot of things, from the Maple Leafs (page 2) to themselves (page 50). In this magazine, we explore weightier beliefs too, from how political beliefs form (page 18) to how religious beliefs stand strong (page 44). While The Home Issue was familiar — comfortable even — this issue delved into the uncertain and controversial. How can we analyze core beliefs critically, without undermining them or the people holding them? It turns out, this was a difficult magazine to create. We pushed our boundaries both in the editorial and design, as did our contributors. The results are challenging, sometimes uncomfortable. Rather than drive you away, I hope they lead you to deliberate what you believe and question why things are the way they are. Our intent is not to shatter any beliefs. Instead, I invite you to refine and mature your beliefs so that the next time they are tested, you are prepared. Alternatively, you could have an existential crisis — just kidding. — Rachel Chen, Magazine Editor
The Home Issue was the first magazine I was in charge of visualizing from start to finish. The Belief Issue is the last. This time, I wanted to take a bolder approach, to take more risks. Instead of the generally safe pastel colours and largely squarish photo-based layout of The Home Issue, this magazine features all sorts of wacky colours, shapes, and visuals. Moving away from the old format allowed us to experiment more with layout. Outside the circle (page 40) features irregular organic shapes that add character to otherwise simple event photos. Christy Ahn’s wonderfully crafted polymer clay figures scattered throughout Read me (page 6) and on the cover add charm to the mostly digital magazine. From Mirka Loiselle’s quirky alien illustrations (page 27 ) to Mahdi Chowdhury’s pill-andjelly bean explosion (page 36), the visuals in this magazine are unique and interesting, all enclosed in Julien Balbontin’s “book-end” beeleaf patterns in the front and back. This magazine production has been another unintentionally week-long journey. This time it included waffles, a lot more work, and utter exhaustion, but it turned out to be just as rewarding. Thank you to everyone who worked to make The Belief Issue look as good as it does. — Mubashir Baweja, Creative Director
Winter 2017 —— 1
Toronto’s hockey team often disappoints; what keeps us optimistic? Words | Jacob Lorinc Photo | Nathan Chan
2 —— The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
fter an impressive performance in the 1966–1967 NHL season, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Larry Hillman sought a modest increase on his yearly salary. He had been earning around $15,000 at the time, but knowing that many of his teammates made significantly more and given his valuable assistance in the Leafs’ latest Stanley Cup victory, Hillman asked for no less than a $5,000 salary increase. The Leafs’ General Manager at the time, Punch Imlach, was a scrappy former hockey player and World War II veteran and he countered Hillman’s request, offering a new salary of $19,000 instead. When Hillman declined, Imlach increased his offer to $19,500, but also began deducting $100 from Hillman’s pay for every day he didn’t sign. Hillman eventually caved to the offer, but by then he had lost $2,400. Humiliated by Imlach’s negotiation tactics, Hillman left the team 55 games later to join the Minnesota North Stars — but not before bestowing a curse upon the Leafs now known as the ‘Hillman Hex.’ After the way they treated him, Hillman swore the Leafs would never win a Stanley Cup again. So far, the curse appears to be working. The collapse of Toronto’s hockey empire This season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are celebrating their centennial year of existence. Founded in 1917 under the name the ‘Toronto Arenas’, Toronto became one of the first four teams to play in the NHL, along with the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and a short-lived franchise by the name of the Montreal Wanderers. In 1918, the NHL team became the first to win a Stanley Cup and, subsequently, a dominant force in the increasingly popular sports league. The Leafs won three championships in a row between 1947–1949 and again between 1962–1964, eventually solidifying their legacy as the team with the second-most Stanley Cup wins behind the Montreal Canadiens. But the glory days have since concluded. Following the Leafs’ 1967 Stanley Cup victory, the success of the team crumbled almost instantly. In the 1967–1968 season, the Leafs failed to make a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. The franchise owner at the time — a notoriously grouchy businessman named Harold Ballard — overhauled the management team, fired the coaches despite the players’ wishes, and slowly ostracized star players that refused to comply with Ballard’s low wage offers.
Ballard then left the team after being convicted on 49 counts of fraud, theft, and tax evasion — he was sentenced to serve nine years in the Kingston Penitentiary and Millhaven Institution — but by then he had already caused enough damage to the Leafs’ standing that the remains of the team resembled a pile of rubble. It’s been 50 years since the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup. In that time, the Montreal Canadiens have won 10 Stanley Cups, and Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s greatest player, has started and finished his career. Disco has come and gone. Saturn has made an orbit of the sun. Biggie and Tupac have lived and died. And the Leafs have accomplished nothing. In the last 10 years, they’ve made the playoffs only once. The irrational optimism of the fanbase Given the recurring failures of the Toronto franchise, we’re led to wonder how such an underwhelming team continues to attract an abundance of devoted fans. While the Leafs have been pummeled by rivals and eaten alive by mediocre expansion teams, the Air Canada Centre continues to sell out consistently. As successful as the Raptors or the Blue Jays may be, Leafs games remain by far the most lucrative. Why? In short, the answer resides in the illogical yet unbreakable optimism of Leafs fans, invoked by a sort of recreational purgatory to which the team is seemingly forever confined. Allow me to explain. Statistically speaking, the Leafs aren’t the worst of the NHL’s 30 teams. In fact, the Leafs lie somewhere in the middle of the best and the worst. On average, since their playoff run in 2003–2004, the Leafs have placed eleventh out of the 15–16 teams in their conference — not good, but not bad either. The Leafs usually land within one or two spots of making the playoffs, barely missing the cutoff. This, however, is the worst possible scenario for a hockey team. In the NHL, being statistically mediocre is actually worse than being the worst. This is because, while the teams that perform best in a season are rewarded with a playoff run, the teams that perform worst in a season are rewarded with a better chance of acquiring a first or second round draft pick the following season. This leaves the teams that finish in the middle struggling the most, as they don’t have a team strong enough to make the playoffs, nor one that’s weak enough to be compensated with better draft picks. In a nutshell, this is why the Leafs keep sucking.
But this is also why Leafs fans are left in a perpetual state of cautious optimism. To be mediocre in the NHL means that the mediocre team must demonstrate at least some strength prior to self-destruction, and it’s that demonstration of strength that gives Leafs fans hope. This manifests itself in the trajectory of a Leafs season. While the team often performs admirably at the start of any given season — in turn, drumming up support from a rabid fan-base — the Leafs are prone to devolving into infamous, full-blown breakdowns midway through the season. In turn, the Leafs cope with their losses by entering what’s commonly known in Toronto as a ‘rebuilding year.’ This is where the team rids themselves of their current management and, hopefully, the bad habits they picked up along the way. But the rebuilding years have had little success, as demonstrated by the four coaches and four general managers that the team has let go in the past 10 years. Nonetheless, the rebuilding years are Leafs fans’ perfect fodder for false optimism. During every year that the team rebuilds, they recruit new household names that give Leafs fans something to talk about. In 2005, it was former star Eric Lindros; in 2006, it was goaltending-hopeful Andrew Raycroft; in 2008, it was General Manager Cliff Fletcher; and in 2009, it was Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Each aforementioned name entered Leafs Nation with extraordinarily high expectations from Leafs fans and each proved incapable of meeting them. Which brings us to this season. Like every other season for the past 10 years, the 2016–2017 season has been conveniently labelled a rebuilding year, with much of the same characteristics. Old managers and coaches have been swapped for new ones. The team roster has been remoulded significantly. A first-round draft pick — Auston Matthews — has been added to the lineup along with hometown kid Mitch Marner, the prior year’s fourth round draft pick. As usual, Leafs fans have been gifted with a familiar reason for hope. But perhaps there’s another reason to restore our collective faith in the Leafs. On the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Hillman Hex, Hillman was asked if he would ever lift the curse he had burdened his former team with so many years ago. Hillman, who by then had ample time to cool off, said yes, but not yet. Only after 50 years, he said, would the curse be lifted officially. This year, we celebrate 50 years of the Hillman Hex.
Winter 2017 —— 3
Likes be can dec eiving
4 â&#x20AC;&#x201D;â&#x20AC;&#x201D; The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
We buy into a meticulously-crafted, alternate reality on social media, but we can no longer ignore the real life effects Words | Laura Siracusa Illustration | Mubashir Baweja
t is both satisfying and shameful when I first meet someone in real life whose name, dog’s name, and favourite coffee shop I already know from too many hours spent on the Instagram Explore tab: “Hey, nice to meet you! My name’s Annie.” “Hi, I’m Laura, nice to meet you. I think we have the same kind of dog!” Meeting people in the flesh for the first time when you are already familiar with their online persona can reveal how social media identities can be, in many ways, disconnected from reality. As everyday users of social media platforms, we are participants in this — our posts are all carefully curated, contrived, and filtered. We know our social media profiles are not representative of the entirety of our life experience, but it doesn’t matter because they provide us with a place to express the parts of our identities that we don’t always nurture. They also provide a place for the parts of our identity that we are proud to share. Our posts are dictated by the way we wish to interact with the world around us, rather than the way we actually do. In effect, they are the means through which we attempt to secure agency over how we want to connect with the world. We know that we shouldn’t believe everything we see on Instagram because ‘that’s not actually what so-and-so looks like in real life,’ or ‘those pictures are all from the same vacation they went on two years ago.’ Yet, to some extent, we believe it anyway. It is no longer just images of models or celebrities that are distorted on social media. We all create distorted, ideal online worlds that conceal the less desirable aspects of our everyday lives. And whether we engage with these platforms by tapping ‘Like’ or ‘Follow,’ sharing with our friends, or dwelling in jealousy or selfdoubt, we buy in. Social media users share the better moments in life and omit the unpleasant ones. As a result, they offer incomplete, deceptive representations of reality. We post a fairy-tale account of girls’ night, but leave out the part where we left the bar with smeared makeup and a missing earring. We share a gorgeous view from our picturesque weekend escape,
but leave out the part where we got into a fight that ruined the whole trip. Naturally, people have caught on to this disconnect between social media and real life, and some of them are cleverly shedding light on the topic. In 2014, 25-year-old Dutch student Zilla van den Born deceived her friends and family into thinking she was on an exotic five-week vacation in South East Asia. In reality, she was at home in Amsterdam using Photoshop to create impressively manipulated images before sharing them on Facebook. Throughout the five weeks, her profile featured pictures of her snorkelling, walking along tropical beaches, visiting temples, and eating ‘local’ food. Van den Born constructed the elaborate project to show how easy it is to manipulate your personal narrative in the sphere of social media. Amalia Ulman’s selfie-based Instagram artwork Excellences & Perfections sought to prove a similar point. For five months, she staged a digital performance and embodied a fake narrative by posting images of herself inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online. Her deceptive portrayal gained her almost 90,000 followers who bought into her luxurious lifestyle and racy photos. Ulman’s ultimate goal was to prove that femininity, among many other things online, is merely a performance. Our representations of life on social media are, of course, not always as staged as van den Born and Ulman’s projects were. Still, it’s not hard to imagine why we would consciously cling to perfectly altered portrayals, given the messy, unfiltered, and frequently disappointing state of real life affairs. Regardless, manipulating reality can be dangerous. Numerous research studies have investigated the potential dangers associated with social media. For example, especially when it comes to young people, heavy social media usage has been linked to poor mental health. The negative effect of social media on mental health is inextricably connected to its highly convincing and all-consuming character. Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) indicated that young people who engage with social media for more than two hours a day are far more likely to rate
their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor,’ in comparison to occasional users. Another study by Lancaster University that analyzed the relationship between social media and mental health found that people who compared themselves with others online were more likely to feel depressed; the same result was observed in those who spent extended amounts of time thinking about what they had seen online. Separate research from scholars at Germany’s Technische Universität Darmstadt and Switzerland’s Universität Bern in collaboration with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, shows that social media interactions which involve users comparing themselves to others lead to jealousy and bitterness, which can ultimately result in depressive symptoms and anxiety. These dangers are real even though the flawless lives we follow on Instagram are not. This powerfully persuasive character of social media is likely why so many people take ‘breaks’ from Instagram or deactivate their accounts entirely. The reasons as to why are familiar to many of us: ‘I was spending too much time on it,’ ‘it was making me too angry,’ or ‘it was distracting me too much,’ for example. In the case of van den Born and Ulman’s pursuits, it is evident that awareness of the distorted quality of social media isn’t always enough to stop us from falling into its traps. In turn, we can end up engaging in self-deception. Social media can intensify the problem of self-deception by allowing us to ignore or minimize the aspects of our lives that we are less comfortable expressing. When social media allows us to deceive ourselves, our perception of reality may become blurred, which may then manifest in harmful real life effects. Although we have an impulse to deceive and be deceived on social media, we mostly do so without malice and for understandable reasons. Suffice it to say, it is very hard to imagine a version of social media that is in no way distorted. Evidently, when it comes to how we represent ourselves online, we rely on some element of picking and choosing which moments to share. However, it is clear that we cannot escape the consequences in real life no matter how much time we spend online.
Winter 2017 —— 5
From novels to video games, fiction is indispensable to children and adults alike Words | Linh Nguyen Visuals | Nathan Chan and Christy Ahn
hen I was five, my father read me fairy tales as he put me to bed. I fell asleep enchanted by the magic of Cinderella and the adventures of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. As I grew older, my love of stories did not fade, but my father’s encouragement did. Reading fiction, particularly children’s fantasy, was downgraded to a guilty pleasure, incompatible with the reality of working towards a well-paying career. What is art good for? My father’s view is not uncommon. U of T English Professor Nick Mount says, “I think humans generally feel guilty about any occupation that isn’t useful, anything that doesn’t contribute directly to wellbeing or to a capitalist economy. That would include playing video games, reading comic books, and reading literature, because it’s not demonstrably useful in any kind of way. It’s a ‘waste of time.’” In recent years, this dismissive attitude towards the arts has manifested in a defunding of the humanities. In 2013, The New York Times reported that financing for humanities research had fallen steadily since 2009 — a global trend. In 2012, Governor Rick Scott of Florida expressed through a task force that humanities and social science students should pay higher tuition fees, because these were “nonstrategic disciplines.” Mount concedes that art may not be absolutely essential to human existence. “But boy, it’s a big part of what it means to actually stop caring about just sustenance and become more fully human,” he adds. Despite the apparent decline of appreciation for the arts, thousands of people — academics as well as the general public — have defended their value. Not only can fiction entertain, it also plays a significant role in helping people understand each other and see life from varying perspectives. “Literature can give you windows on lives of people whose lives are very different from your own,” says Mount, “so it’s a way to cross classes, cross races, cross genders.” As U of T Professor Deirdre Baker, who teaches several courses in children’s literature, puts it, “It takes us into many people’s heads.” Additionally, Mount expresses that reading can help prepare us for difficult experiences, such as death. In times of grief, stories can help us to feel less alone. At the end of a long day, reading can even help people get to sleep. “It’s a lot better than taking sleeping pills as a way of easing yourself out of the world and putting you to sleep,” Mount says. “Good fiction reflects reality” Often, criticisms of art originate from the idea that fiction is harmfully distracting from real life — an idea that suggests that make-believe and reality may not coexist. People ask, why should we believe in these stories when we know
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them to be false? But many people who engage frequently with literature dismiss this assertion. Mount argues for the coexistence of art and reality. “I don’t see why you can’t have both at the same time,” he says. “You can care about more than one thing at once.” Lindsay Yates, a third-year Women and Gender Studies major, offers a similar opinion: “I don’t think the knowledge that fiction is fake matters... I have never really read a book and been aware of its falseness or found it to distract from the story itself.” When I ask author Susan Cooper her thoughts on this distinction, she likewise answers, “This thing people say about the damaging nature of ‘fake’ is so ludicrous that it belongs with the Puritans in the seventeenth century.” Cooper, who wrote the popular fantasy series The Dark is Rising, goes on to say that “good fiction reflects reality.” Dr. Michael Johnstone, who teaches speculative fiction in the U of T English Department, offers several examples of this notion in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror texts that he teaches. “Alien encounter novels have always addressed issues of imperialism, colonialism, [and] the other,” he says. “Dracula gives us an opportunity to look at the figure of the monster, which gets us into discussions about otherness and identity and even colonialism. [Shirley] Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, published in the fifties, can be a really great opportunity to think about women’s roles, the idea of women in domesticity, and the horror of that kind of life, which can be seen as quite constricting and restrictive.” Johnstone concludes, “With fantasy, it’s a great opportunity to get into the idea of the hero, what constitutes heroism, and talk about issues of power.” Within President Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office, Amazon made headlines after the online bookseller sold out of George Orwell’s classic dystopia novel 1984.
The Belief Issue
“Not only can fiction entertain, it also plays a significant role in helping people understand each other, and see life from other perspectives.”
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It is possible to view this as one way that people take note of the ways that art reflects reality. On this point, Johnstone emphasizes that science fiction writers are not “soothsayers looking at crystal balls,” but rather just people who “look at current social, cultural, scientific, technological, and political trends and ask those ‘what if’ questions.” Many people, myself included, feel apprehensive looking to our political or technological future, and science fiction explores the consequences of those uncertainties. As Julie Zhang, a fourth-year Global Health and Peace, Conflict, and Justice student puts it, “Reading science fiction can allow us to be more critical of the society we exist in and conform to.” The stigma and appeal of speculative and children’s fiction Despite its strong grounding in our world, speculative fiction — any fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements — often gets dismissed more than other genres. Because of its apparently constructed and fantastic nature, many have more trouble buying into the story than they do when it comes to realist fiction. “There are these negative views of fantasy in particular,” says Johnstone, “that it’s childish and unproductive and escapist.” He goes on to say that speculative fiction is often seen as immature or as poor writing, and he partially attributes this reputation to marketing. “You go to the bookstore and fantasy [and science fiction] novels have certain kinds of covers,” he says, “and they’re off in their own section... You can even think of Harry Potter, for instance. The original books would come out, and then they would give them different covers and put them in the adult section... so an adult’s not embarrassed to be reading Harry Potter. But I know many adults, myself included, who loved Harry Potter.” Certainly, children’s literature is another category of books that experiences contempt. Many people feel that these books, though acceptable to read as kids, shouldn’t be engaged with or taken seriously by adults. I ask Kyle Sharratt, a fourth-year English and Classic Civilization student, if he’d ever felt that people looked down on him for liking children’s literature. His response is unequivocal: “Of course I have... Liking children’s lit is definitely something you feel you need to hide.” Yates expresses a similar sentiment saying, “I remember feeling embarrassed for a while at the end of high school when I still found pleasure in reading [Young Adult] novels, because I felt I was too old for them and should be reading more adult stories.”
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The Belief Issue
Sharratt elaborates on this idea, saying, “The moment ‘children’ is used, everybody’s first thought is ‘childish.’” Speaking to why speculative fiction might be less respected than other types of fiction, Johnstone echoes that thought: “There’s this idea that particularly with fantasy — things like fairytales, children’s literature — that’s what we read when we’re children; and as we get older, we set childish things aside and read more adult stuff like literary fiction and historical fiction... despite the fact that a lot of fantasy deals with very complex, very adult subjects.” Baker cautions against underestimating the scope of children’s literature. “I wouldn’t attribute generic qualities to children’s lit,” she says. “I think the problem is that a lot of people do, and that’s why they avoid it. But I would say Howl’s Moving Castle is highly entertaining, extremely intelligent, and really perceptive, and makes you think differently about fairy tales and adolescence, for example. So why wouldn’t you read that?” Like Johnstone, Baker also attributes part of the stigma to marketing. “This is like calling everything adult fiction,” she says. “It covers all genres. It covers poetry and drama and fantasy and realism and experimental work and conventional [work]. It’s inadequate, that kind of categorizing, and I think it comes out of expediency.” This idea rings particularly true for Cooper, who notices little difference in the writing process between adult and children’s literature. “Once I wrote what I thought was an adult book called The Camp, and it was published as a children’s book, Dawn of Fear,” says Cooper. “I write the book that wants to be written, and the editor/publisher decides what list it should go on.” Mount agrees, “I think the categories that you’re talking about, they’re just marketing tools. Even the invention of fiction and nonfiction is a relatively recent, I think twentieth century, invention. They’re just useful ways to sort books in classes, in bookstores, that kind of thing.” For various reasons, many adults clearly still find value in engaging with fiction that is categorized as ‘young.’ “Children’s literature creates universes that are not constrained by the pretentiousness of the writer or in anticipation of the reader’s cynicism,” says Zhang. “As such, dialogue and plot can become unrealistic, exaggerated, or embellished, but this can sometimes produce refreshing and unique results. And sure, the dog doesn’t die at the end, but there is something restorative and healing when a good story ends happily... Children live in a more imagina-
tive and kind world than adults, and it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what that’s like sometimes.” She adds that, though we read children’s books differently as adults, this new perspective is a positive one. “Rather than believing that we can all cast spells, as we may have as children, as adults, we can believe that magic exists intangibly and metaphorically as a way to appreciate the events in the world we do live in,” says Zhang. However, Zhang admits that she has mostly stopped reading young fiction in recent years. “I can’t relate to the characters and their predicaments the way I used to,” she says. In response to this type of scenario, Baker says, “We go through different phases of enjoying something and then, suddenly it’s not as enjoyable anymore.” She associates this experience with other books as well. “You might’ve gone through a phase of reading Trollope and just loving it,” she says, “and then you go back and you think, ‘You know what, I just can’t get into this anymore.’ And you wouldn’t say it’s because it’s for adults. And I think that’s true for kids’ stuff.” Baker also breaks down the perception of reading children’s literature as childish: “I think there’s a kind of anxiety about seeming juvenile, which I associate with a certain kind of immaturity — the fear that if you’re reading a children’s book, it somehow indicates that you’re not fully mature. Whereas it probably indicates that you are fully mature... I think if you’re certain about your maturity, you read books that are written for any age and in any genre, by people that have something to say, who are enriching and rewarding and consoling — all the things that art does for us.” As an upper-year university student looking back on her high school reservations about young fiction, Yates affirms, “If I heard about a great [Young Adult] novel now, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. I think there are things to appreciate and get out of any book, and my age can’t determine what I read anymore.” How should we read? Mount offers one argument in favour of literary fiction. He suggests that while commercial fiction “tells stories we’ve already heard but with different characters and in different places,” literary fiction “tends to be as or more interested in making something new, trying to say something new in a new way.” He does not make the case, though, that one kind is better than the other. “I just think it’s a different kind of pleasure,” he says. “I don’t see anything wrong with me reading detective novels one time and then reading Nabokov — hell, Nabokov wrote detective novels.” Baker agrees that a distinction exists between reading for comfort and for learning or innovation. However, she argues that the distinction lies more in the way we read rather than the material itself. “You can read [texts] in a
Winter 2017 —— 11
very analytical and critical way or you can just read [them] because you’re revisiting comfort zones,” says Baker. “Both are valid, although you probably don’t want to spend your whole life revisiting comfort zones.” She emphasizes that reading for familiarity applies as much to literary fiction as it does for commercial or children’s fiction. “How many people go back and read Austen every year?” she remarks, “Nobody would say it was bad for you to be reading Austen.” Though the stigma of certain literary categories suggests that not everyone will agree, Mount states that in the end, “There [are] only two kinds of literature. There’s good literature and there’s bad literature. It really doesn’t matter what the genre is,” he says. “To me, the genre distinction between them is far less important than whether the book is rewarding.” He elaborates on this claim, explaining what he believes makes “rewarding” art. “Art that, for whatever reason, moves us. The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web or
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Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or Shakespeare — there’s a fair bit of evidence that [all] of these things have managed to hang around, impress, and move a lot of people,” he says. Their value, therefore, should be judged solely on impact. Buying into video games Like children’s literature and speculative fiction, video games are another art form that often gets derided. Having been exposed to few games as a kid, I am guilty of deeming them a trivial, unproductive pastime. Only recently did I start to respect them as a type of story, not dissimilar from a book or film. “I’d suggest that most video games have a plot element to them,” says fourth-year History and Criminology student Brennan Jackson, “ranging in themes seen in print or film mediums such as fantasy (the Elder Scrolls series), science fiction (the Mass Effect series), historical fiction (the Assassin’s Creed series), the Western (Red Dead Redemp-
The Belief Issue
tion), apocalypse survival (The Last of Us), dystopian (the Deus Ex series), film [noir] (L.A. Noire), and more.” Johnstone agrees that video games possess storytelling potential. “I think video games as much as anything can be a means of introducing people to and challenging people with certain ideas, certain ideologies,” he says. He affirms that they have a “valuable cultural role” and also points out the possibility of global engagement brought on by online gaming communities. “These days you’re potentially playing with people from different parts of the world,” he says. “You can have a really interesting communal experience, whether that’s through World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.” Both Jackson and Johnstone speak to the value of choice and active engagement in gaming, which allows for a “more personal” storytelling experience. “I’d get invested in the story and I get to be a part of creating the story and playing the story out and seeing where it leads. You also get that satisfaction of success and achievement even if you die ten times trying to complete a certain level,” Johnstone says. A case for escapism It is likely that one of the main reasons that people enjoy playing video games is the chance to escape. “Personally, I’ve always seen it on the one hand as a nice way to tune the world out for a little bit and escape into another world and engage in a story,” Johnstone says. This idea brings us back to the initial question of what art is good for. While we can defend stories for being educational, consoling, and capable of affecting political change, those arguments ignore the main reason why so many people buy into them: because they’re fun. As Mount puts it, “Art isn’t water; it’s wine.” Mount is not alone in pushing back against the need to justify art’s purpose. “I think there’s value in the enjoyment of art for the joy, or really any emotion that one may fancy,” says Jackson. “It can be a mindless game, or a game where you may learn something about history, or deduction, or task management. But an art that makes time better is well worth the time spent.” Jackson further defends the value of escapism and entertainment by comparing stories to food: “We may justify putting in time to have a great tasting meal, rather than a bland paste of the same nutritional value, both for the joy of cooking and/or for the pleasure of a savoury meal.” Fantasy author Neil Gaiman questions, “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, with people you want to be with.” Johnstone agrees, “Escape gives us a chance to break free of [our]
prison and it also challenges us with or gives us the opportunity to see things in a different way.” While art and specifically literature certainly has the power to create positive changes in our society, there is also the opinion that it should not have to. “In a world in which everything gets measured by its use value, I’m content that there’s something that we don’t have to care about whether it’s useful or not,” Mount says. Why do we care? Though some may argue against investing in art without tangible results, our desire for it has always been apparent. “In the very early stages of any society, the primary needs are food and shelter, but they still made art. You go in the caves, and they’ve got stuff scratched on the walls... The evidence is already in that art does matter. Even if we can’t say why, or how it matters, it clearly does matter,” Mount says. As academics and general readers suggest, art’s impact includes offering comfort, providing pleasure, escape, igniting political or cultural movements, and much more — all of which are equally valid and equally possible across genres and forms. Students and professors alike emphasize that good readers know to seek a range of literature for a range of purposes. Sharratt, when asked why we should choose to engage with fictions, says simply, “Do you enjoy the book? Read it. Does it give you some sense of nostalgia? Read it. Did you set it down 10 years ago and never pick it back up? Read it.” We should not, according to Sharratt, have to justify what we want to read; the desire alone is reason enough. Whether we believe in stories because they’re fun, educational, or anything in between, their impact on us has always been felt. Avid readers often claim that the effect alone makes fiction valid, significant, and worth being seriously considered. “If the books move you,” says Mount, “what does it matter whether they’re real?”
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Degrees of reality
Words | Lila Asher Illustration | Pearl Cao
Navigating credibility in a post-truth world
14 â&#x20AC;&#x201D;â&#x20AC;&#x201D; The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
s university students, we are faced with the difficult task of planning the rest of our lives. Though Canada and the United States have typically been fairly stable countries where conditions are predictable enough to give us confidence in our plans, the current political climate is throwing all of that up into the air. With ripple effects from the election of President Donald Trump extending north of the border, we are heading towards a future full of environmental and political uncertainty. This is not the least because of the increasing influence of ‘post-truth’ politics around the world. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named ‘post-truth’ the 2016 word of the year, due to spikes in its usage surrounding the US election and the UK Brexit vote. The OED defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to opinion and personal belief.” It is not a stretch to say that, by this definition, post-truth circumstances are commonplace now. In a post-truth climate, the task of making wise, personal decisions seems simultaneously more pressing and difficult than it might otherwise be. Prior to the post-truth era, a university degree may have been understood as a vessel by which to gain requisite knowledge for a particular career. While this may still be the case, the value of higher education may now centre around gaining critical capacity to make sense of divergent accounts of the truth in addition to objective knowledge. The consequences of falling prey to faulty information in a post-truth world range widely from professional blunders to health and safety risks. To mitigate these effects, it is contingent upon responsible citizens not only to seek out various sources of information, but also to critically discern salient information and analysis from politically loaded rhetoric. Post-truth The anti-vaccine movement in the US provides one early example of post-truth ideology having a real world influence. Catapulted into the mainstream by celebrity and mother Jenny McCarthy, anti-vaccine sentiment has taken hold across the continent. Proponents of anti-vaccine beliefs claim that essential vaccinations cause autism in children. These claims have been widely debunked by medical professionals. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control published in USA Today, parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children has led to outbreaks of preventable diseases like whooping cough and measles. Once parents start down the anti-vaccine path, they are often caught up in a web of false information that reinforces their beliefs. Blogger Megan Sandlin, a former member of the anti-vaccination community, writes of her experi-
ence as a science-skeptic parent and her eventual decision to vaccinate her daughters. “In the end, I couldn’t continue to deny the science. It’s hard to believe now how easily I bought into everything I was hearing from the anti-vaccine crowd,” she explained. Sandlin counts herself and her daughters as lucky, because her skepticism led her to seek out views that contrasted those of her anti-vaccine friends. There are a number of ways that skepticism may be viewed as an asset in a post-truth world. One is the opportunity for productive dialogue resulting from divergent viewpoints. In the case of the anti-vaccine example, we may look to the role that the doctor-patient relationship may play in increasing patient understanding. Second-year medical student William Wu said, “It is important for the parents to obtain the correct information, and also to understand the gravity of the risks regarding anti-vaccination.” Though ‘anti-vaxxers’ may eschew medical attention entirely, doctors have an important role to play in exerting a gentle influence whenever they can in broadening patients’ minds. When patients arrive at the doctor with preconceived notions of the dangers of vaccines — or for that matter any other inexpertly developed medical opinion — that would be an opportunity for elucidative dialogue. According to Wu, this shift towards more dialogic clinical relationships may not be entirely negative. “Doctors may not have the authoritative powers they once had, but our current role provides us with the fantastic opportunity to aid patients in a way that they feel best suits them while working as a team,” he explained. In some cases, a more collaborative relationship between patients and care practitioners may expose failures within healthcare that have long been ignored due to the longstanding reverence of medicine as an objective field. For example, there is a long history of Euro-Western medicine being used to control and marginalize non-white communities. Françoise Verges, Consulting Professor at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of London, explained how the French used psychiatry to pathologize the Creole population of French Réunion Island and delegitimize their culture. This is just one of many instances in which colonizers have cloaked violent motives in discourses of ‘curing’ the target population of their supposed dysfunction by making them conform to the norms of white society. Stepping away from this relationship of domination may be seen as a positive thing, but it should not diminish the expertise that doctors have on healthcare matters, which is based on scientific evidence. Wu noted, “I personally believe it is healthy for people and patients to challenge what we know, because this creates opportunities to improve and clarify our own understanding. However, if a movement is based upon
Winter 2017 —— 15
falsified and previously rejected research, then it becomes difficult to constructively progress. We will forever focus on a circular argument regarding falsified data instead of looking at new studies that provide evidence.” It is important for doctors and patients alike to critically reflect on all the available information, not just circle back to ideas that align with what they already think. Political lies Confirmation bias has implications outside of the medical community as well. People are naturally inclined to search out information that supports their beliefs, and there is growing buzz about how social media’s algorithm-curated feeds contribute to the problem. During the heated US election season, The Guardian conducted a small experiment in which people with opposing political views swapped feeds. The things people saw when they stepped outside of their own Facebook bubble shocked them. For Alfonso Pines, a Black union organizer from Georgia, the stark racism of the right was jarring. “It’s just a racist kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s cleverly disguised,” he told The Guardian. Meanwhile, those on the right, like Trent Loos from Nebraska, didn’t find liberal views convincing at all. “Instead of luring me in, it pushed me away,” he said of the left’s relentless support for Hillary Clinton. The polarization between the left and the right now leads not only to differing opinions, but also to divergent narratives of what is true. Politicians such as Trump have been quick to capitalize on this confusion, discrediting the media and scientists in bids to define people’s understanding of reality. Satirical sources such as the Journal of Alternative Facts ridicule the Trump administration’s manipulation of information. Even the title is a jab, adopting White House Counselor and former Trump Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term ‘alternative facts.’ Boasting articles such as “Reduced Access to Contraception Reduces Abortions” by Amaleauthor, I.A. and “Quantifying Crowd Size with Empirical Data: A Wishful Thinking Approach” by the United States Press Secretary Sean Spicer, this journal of fake facts lends a lighthearted tone to a serious problem. The Trump administration’s attitude towards the media falls in line with that of other repressive regimes around the globe. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star interviewed journalists from Venezuela and Turkey, all of whom expressed their concern about the current pattern in the US. According to Phillip Gunson, a Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Caracas, Venezuela, it is a common trend among populist leaders to constantly reframe situations until “even those who don’t necessarily believe the government no longer have a firm grip on reality.” Oftentimes, the ways that Trump reframes situations serve racist or Islamophobic ends. For example, one of Trump’s first executive orders as president was to ban entry
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into the US for people from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. The administration is trying to frame this as a national security policy, protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. On February 1, Trump tweeted, “Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!” In his tweet, Trump labels everyone from these nations “bad.” Far from being an evidence-based conclusion, this is a clear example of using post-truth rhetoric to advance a xenophobic and Islamophobic policy. Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly stays far away from Trump’s aggressive anti-media rhetoric, Canada has its own brand of alternative facts. In the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” However, as Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism noted, a mere three days earlier, Canada reached its goal of admitting 10,000 refugees and quietly announced that “applications received after reaching the limit [would] be returned.” When the apparent sentiments behind Trudeau’s statements as a national leader are not reflected in government action, it should be a cause for concern. The future of belief Post-truth politics pose an array of risks: both blatant and insidious in nature. Critical engagement will play a major role in countering this trend. To this end, it is useful — if disheartening — to consider the role of university education in the post-truth era. What is the role of empirical research when politicians are able to publish alternative facts on Twitter in order to drum up support for their actions? Will professional degrees still command the same degree of respect if false claims to expertise are widely accepted? The answers to these questions are unclear and up for negotiation. It seems clear though, that if we want substantiated information to retain its worth, we are going to have to fight for it. Being in university means we all have some degree of privilege. Regardless of identity and background, we have opportunities to access knowledge because of our position within this institution. With this privilege comes the responsibility to stand up to politicians’ attempts to manipulate reality. This does not mean that university-education professionals have a monopoly on truth though, or that we should parade around saving people from their ‘ignorance.’ As we move forward, it is crucial for us to interrogate our own beliefs and values, making sure that our claims to credibility are in line with the kind of world that we want to see.
The Belief Issue
The Mandela Eﬀect describes scenarios where people collectively misremember facts. Fiona Broome coined the term in 2010 after a large group of people incorrectly remembered that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison, even though he was still living at the time.
Winter 2017 —— 17
Values Words | Jack O. Denton Photos | Stephanie Xu
18 —— The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
What are political beliefs and where do they come from? Discourses around the free speech debate on campus help us shed a light on this.
and wagers Winter 2017 â&#x20AC;&#x201D;â&#x20AC;&#x201D; 19
stood on the sidewalk in front of Sidney Smith Hall on October 5 with my notebook in hand. I was there to cover a teach-in and rally hosted by trans and non-binary students. Neither the attendees nor I expected a disruption — or what that disruption would entail for the next few months on campus. Professor Jordan B. Peterson, a U of T Psychology Professor since 1998, had released a YouTube video on September 27 called “Fear and the Law,” the first part of a threepart series called Professor against political correctness. In his first video, Peterson focuses on critiquing Bill C-16, a piece of legislation that proposed to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include harassment and discrimination based on gender identity, in the legal definition of what may constitute hate speech. Speaking about non-binary gender identities in the video, Peterson says, “I don’t think that that’s a valid idea. I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.” Peterson also claims in the video that he wouldn’t necessarily choose to respect the pronouns a student might request, saying, “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I used to address them. I won’t do it.” Organizers of the teach-in and rally expressed a desire to counter Peterson’s statements by affirming the humanity of trans and non-binary individuals. One of the organizers, Qaiser Ali, said that the goal of the event was to “humanize the issue” and “show that these are people you could walk by on the street, have a class with, or be your neighbour.” Enter Lauren Southern, a young conservative activist and commentator for online right-wing media platform The Rebel, who began defending Peterson at the rally. Choosing to not identify herself as a media correspondent, she was quickly shut down by counter-protesters and showered with chants of “shame.” Pushing and shoving ensued as people tried to block The Rebel’s cameraman. On October 11, I once again stood on the front steps of Sidney Smith Hall with my notebook in hand. Covering
this event would be slightly different: it was a rally for free speech featuring Peterson and Southern as guest speakers. As organizer Geoffrey Liew described, “The event was intended to be an affirmation of freedom of speech, which includes contrary views. We could’ve had a peaceful, agreeable afternoon which would’ve made it look like there was no issue at all.” He went on: “Instead, we faced disruption, shouting down, cord-pulling, and white noise.” Counter-protesters, including Ali and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams, who is a trans woman, went to the rally to blast white noise and drown out the voices of the people whose views they opposed and saw as an affront to their identities. The rally devolved into chaos and outbursts of violence as Liew’s speakers were shut down, and it became a brawling, brash free-for-all characterized by disorganization and a smattering of isolated conflicts. In the aftermath of the October 11 rally, there has been widespread debate about free speech on campus. A Ulife-recognized group called Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) was formed. A second, far tamer rally in support of free speech was hosted in the rain before the UTSU Annual General Meeting on October 27. Moreover, the university hosted a debate about Bill C-16 and freedom of speech featuring Peterson on November 19. More recently, on February 4, SSFS co-hosted an event on campus called the Toronto Action Forum, which featured Peterson and The Rebel’s Ezra Levant as keynote speakers. The event was interrupted by protesters, including Ali and Williams, during Levant’s closing keynote speech. Clearly, something far greater than an academic or philosophical disagreement about the logic and limits of free speech is at hand here; something powerful is pushing students to disagree on a fundamental level about what should be allowed to be said on campus.
“I assume that most people seek out information in a motivated way — one that is more likely to expose them to information that is already consistent with their beliefs.” 20 —— The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
Betting on beliefs Professor Emeritus Ronald de Sousa is a soft-spoken philosopher with an outspoken philosophy who made a YouTube video refuting Peterson’s videos. “In both our mental and practical economy, there are two very different things that beliefs do. And for that reason, because they do very different things, they actually behave very differently. And we think of them very differently,” de Sousa tells me. “One set,” he continues, “which are perhaps more readily called opinions, are attitudes that we have to certain statements, such that we would say that they’re true and would use them in arguments as the basis for saying other things. So, they are the things that you assent to.” He is outlining a binary system of beliefs: either you believe something or you don’t. You may not be sure of it, but in this model to be on one side of an issue is to be opposed to the other. “But another function of belief is the way in which beliefs are involved in our actions,” de Sousa continues. Actions like,
I thought, blasting white noise, pushing protesters, or hurling slurs. “And in that sense every belief is a bet, a wager.” Every action is a wager of belief, informed by how much we want something and how much we believe in that thing’s relevance. Beliefs inform our attitudes and actions, and de Sousa says that these beliefs are applied in degrees. Peter Loewen is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the School of Public Policy and Governance at U of T. “When I think in political terms, I suppose I would think of political beliefs as a set of assumptions about what is right and wrong in the political world,” Loewen says. For instance, he asks, “What should governments and citizens do and why should they do it?” Loewen tells me that first, this implies that there are values underlying beliefs — that there are normative reasons for citizens’ beliefs. “Second,” he says, “I assume that most people seek out information in a motivated way — one that is more likely to expose them to information that is already consistent with their beliefs.” What these academics are telling us is that there are two basic types of beliefs: simple, binary notions that you can assent to or refuse, and gradated beliefs — essentially, degrees of wagers based on how you believe you should act.
Geoﬀrey Liew is the Vice-President of Students in Support of Free Speech.
At its core, that ‘something’ is a powerful difference in the value-driven political beliefs of participants on both sides of this debate. It informs their understanding of this issue, as well as the lens through which they view it. Having observed a number of these events and the tensions they inevitably invited, I wanted to dig deeper. I sat down with a number of key participants in the free speech debate and asked them to discuss their political beliefs. I also sought the advice of two academics to help me learn more about the theories underlying how political beliefs are formed.
Where do political beliefs come from? “A political belief isn’t a belief, it’s an attitude to the relative importance of different things,” says de Sousa. He argues that political beliefs are about personal, ordinal values imposed onto political priorities: “They have more to do
Winter 2017 —— 21
with what you think is important and what your emotional attitudes are to certain things.” Loewen believes that this is a complex issue, calling it “a very deep debate within political science.” He notes, however, that the field is reaching a resolution on the topic of where political beliefs come from and outlines three broad claims that he feels political science can make about the origins of political beliefs. “First, political beliefs typically follow from a deeper set of values. We have basic intuitions or moral tastes, and our political beliefs often follow from these,” Loewen says. “Second, politicians, political parties, and other ideological actors often form the link between those underlying values and political beliefs,” explains Loewen. “An example: left wing candidates are more likely to use the language of care and concern than right wing candidates, who are more likely to talk about order and tradition.” Loewen is quick to point out that he makes no normative claims about the importance of one priority over another. He continues, “Individuals who are higher in empathy are more likely to be attracted to left wing candidates, because of what they talk about and how they talk about it. In turn, they learn from these politicians what they should believe about individual issues.” Third, and what seems crucial to the controversial subject matter debated in campus discourse over free speech this year: “Political beliefs are often subject to myopia, inconsistency, even hypocrisy, and certainly motivated reasoning,” he says. What remains indisputable is that beliefs form a core part of how we view the world. Political beliefs seem particularly salient because they form the basis of how we interact and engage with society at large, which is political by nature. Their political beliefs I decided to interview four major student participants in the free speech debate to hear about their own political views. I made a number of attempts to contact Peterson to request an interview for this article, but did not receive a response. Williams was a prominent figure at the October 5 teach-in and rally and was amongst both the counter-protesters who blasted white noise at the October 11 rally and the protest group at the February 4 Toronto Action Forum. Liew is the Vice-President of SSFS and was an introductory speaker at the Toronto Action Forum. Theo Williamson is the Equity Commissioner on the New College Student Council and a trans man. Following the October 11 rally for free speech he became a face for ‘social justice warriors,’ an often contemptuous label for people promoting social justice. Videos of him claiming not to have seen an incident involving Southern — whose microphone was grabbed by a counter-protester at the rally — were circulated online
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and turned into memes. He was also ‘doxxed’, meaning he had his personal information published on the Internet. The outspoken Public Relations Officer for SSFS is Chad Hallman. He spoke to Southern during her coverage of the trans and non-binary teach-in and rally and spoke publicly at both the October 11 and October 27 rallies for free speech. Hallman introduced Peterson’s keynote speech at the February 4 Toronto Action Forum. According to Williams, her politics “adhere to some sort of view in the family of socialist anarchism or anarcho-communism.” Her political beliefs, she says, do not fit neatly into a left-right or libertarian-authoritarian spectrum. “I’m committed to something that is socialist and something that is anarchist in broad strokes. On a left-right spectrum, I tend to think of that as being a position that doesn’t really fall on the spectrum,” she explains. “I think that insofar as the political spaces that we were sort of interacting with are dominated by a capitalist, an imperialist, a neocolonialist worldview — something which is fundamentally a revolutionary or a radical viewpoint has to position itself in opposition to the spectrum itself.” Liew says, “At heart, I am a person who is very concerned about freedom and liberty. Some would even call me libertarian.” He digresses, “Ultimately, I’m interested in people having freedom, whether it be in their social sphere or in their economic sphere. I don’t really care what sort of associations people have between them, what sort of things they want to do between them,” he says, “as long as nobody is hurt.” Williamson says he is “definitely more left-leaning. Definitely somewhere in between communism and socialism.” Hallman considers himself “a pretty moderate libertarian.” He explains, “On some economic policies I’m probably closer to a social democrat.” Socially liberal, fiscally conservative is how Hallan sums up his philosophy. He’s also a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party of Canada, Ontario PC Party, and the PC Party of Alberta. Where did their political beliefs come from? Williams is quick to say that her political beliefs developed over time: “I think that initially they were very much informed just by my… own experiences. But that’s growing up, like how I interact with my family members; obviously you’re informed to some extent by what your family members believe and the way that the spaces you interact with constrain your access to knowledge.” Over time, Williams has interacted with different communities and socialized with more people, creating experiences that she credits with shaping her political beliefs. “Not only can you learn about the experiences of your peers, people who exist in different communities from you…
The Belief Issue
Peter Loewen is the Director of the School of Public Policy and Governance at U of T and an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. PETER LOEWEN
“And in that sense every belief is a bet, a wager.”
Ronald de Sousa is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at U of T. Winter 2017 —— 23
Cassandra Williams is Vice-President, University Aﬀairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.
24 —— The Varsity Magazine
You can learn about the history of these things, you can learn about these things in the abstract, you can learn about what people like throughout time, [and] what people around the world have to say about these issues,” Williams says. Liew describes a process of growing up in the exceptional environment of Hong Kong and being educated at an English school as partly shaping his commitment to freedom and liberty. “When you’re from Hong Kong, you have an understanding of how important freedom is... Most people who came to Hong Kong escaped communist China, and they lived through the Maoist period,” he says. “So they understand the price of freedom.” Liew says that in the past he has supported and felt very strongly about liberal issues like marijuana legalization and gay marriage. A strong commitment to social freedoms came from years of curiosity, browsing the Internet, and a longstanding skepticism of authority during his teenage years. “I listened to a lot of metal music. I like to smoke pot,” he says. Wider engagement in socially liberal values, he went on, “came together and created a lot more individualist, rebellious attitude that was the genesis of all this.” And then things got political for Liew. “I paid attention to a lot of figures like Ron Paul, [von Mises], and Rothbard, all these libertarian philosophers. Since that time, my beliefs have become set in those ways.” Williamson credits his religious — “Christian, not like super hardcore” — upbringing for the instillation of wholesome values centred on helping, being kind, and loving. “Love your neighbour, treat others how you ought to be treated, that sort of thing,” he explains. Growing up with disabled parents, too, showed Williamson from a young age what discrimination can be like. “My parents are very caring and loving people, and I grew up watching them helping their friends and helping family, and volunteering,” he says. Hallman describes an experience of having shifted political beliefs away from the far left. “I think everyone would like to think they sit down and think meticulously through what the best beliefs are,” Hallman says. “When I was younger — you know, a lot of people are naive and stuff and are very far to the left. I was totally a militant communist.” It was watching the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential debate that changed his mind from communism to libertarianism and more conservative sensibilities. “I was in grade 10 at the time, and I don’t know what it was but something just clicked. You can’t really ignore money or quality of life,” he explains. In one way or another, each of these students can identify how their values were shaped by social and educational
The Belief Issue
processes set in motion by family, friends, society, or self. These factors, moral tastes, as Loewen calls them, root political beliefs. Discourses in the free speech sphere Belief in freedom of speech? Not really. “It isn’t really a belief, it’s a value,” de Sousa says. “So when Peterson says that free speech is at the very core of the possibility of democracy, well, that means that he thinks that free speech is more important than any single value.” de Sousa argues that free speech is too complex to be in the first category of binary beliefs; you can’t just assent to it or refuse it. It does not fit into the category of wagers either. Free speech is too relative and too contextual to be a “wager,” which involved taking action based on personal beliefs or ideals. Free speech is part of a wider hierarchy of values that are ordinal, as decided by individuals, according to de Sousa. “It looks like whether free speech is respected or not has consequences for democracy, which are more important than the consequences for any other thing you might value,” he explains. “But of course, one of the specific things that [Peterson] thinks is a competing value, but should be held much lower in its importance, is the value of respect for people’s individual differences.” Does Williams believe that she and others were stifling free speech at the October 11 rally by blasting white noise? “I think that was a group of students or a group of people showing resistance to hatred that they face,” she says. “My actions were deliberately meant to shut out speech that was meant to incite hatred for trans people, speech that was deliberately meant to degrade trans people and which, incidentally as it happened at the event, was also a speech that ended up degrading Black people, that ended up celebrating police violence against Black people,” Williams says. Loewen offers a partial explanation for why individuals might disagree on the degree of importance of protecting freedom of speech. “When one understands free speech to be a fundamental right and one that can be exercised without regard for the feelings of others, then one might be more likely to want to protect it, especially in the extreme,” he explains. “But if one is more inclined to be sensitive to the feeling of others — if even occasionally at the cost of not telling the truth — then perhaps there’s more of a willingness to see more expansive restrictions on speech.” Debates about free speech vary and, unsurprisingly, seem to accompany controversial topics witin the current sociopolitical climate. Our own free speech debate, for instance, centres around the discourses of identity and gender politics. Loewen says that despite the particulars of free speech de-
bates, some considerations apply to them universally. “I think principles are very important in this, but we should also be realistic in how we analyze and assess these conflicts,” Loewen explains. “I am inclined to think that most of these debates are actually about something else, or several other things at once,” he suggests. “Some of it is about giving offence or taking a radical position for the sake of being radical. Some of it is about actual principled opposition to some policy or idea.” Other aspects of a free speech debate, he says, are “about trying to suppress the speech of someone else for reasons of pure power or politics. And some of it is genuinely about trying to protect vulnerable populations or groups.” As for Hallman, he is staunch in his free speech philosophy. “I don’t think the government has any place in moral questions really, and I don’t think there is any need to legislate morality,” he says. “As a general rule of thumb, I’m against hate speech laws because I think it drives that sort of movement underground and I’d rather it be exposed.” This is consistent with Peterson’s arguments about the importance of free speech and the airing of all opinions. Hallman believes that all opinions, no matter how despicable, should be allowed to be heard, at least in order to be derided. “You know, if you give an idiot enough rope he’ll hang himself,” he says. Beliefs, values, and the post-materialist age of politics Post-materialist politics is the idea that the traditional social divisions that defined political life are being pushed aside for more abstract, moral, social, humanitarian, and environmental issues. These issues transcend traditional divisions defined by class, race, nationality, gender, and policy topics like tax rates, infrastructure, and foreign policy. The free speech debate is a typical post-materialist issue. Is it representative of society increasingly engaging in discourse and making decisions based on post-materialist values and beliefs? “I think this is probably right, in broad strokes,” Loewen says. “We’re living in a pretty lucky time — the best of all time, actually. We are richer, more peaceful, more free than any time in human history. We are healthier, smarter, and more humane.” Loewen says, ironically, this doesn’t mean that people should be more content with the world: “Instead, it invites them to find other sources of injustice and unfairness, and I suspect more esoteric ones will be found. It’s as though we’re going the last few steps, and I suspect they’ll be the hardest.” Loewen thinks the social topics that will dominate and define political discourse in the future will include gender and identity. He calls this part of a broad trend “towards something like personalized, self-constructed differences, where fundamental identities are not determined by the
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Chad Hallman is the Public Relations Director of Students in Support of Free Speech.
more obvious categories of class, race, and gender, but instead by other things.” de Sousa is not so sure about the post-materialist age of politics, but he thinks that a lot remains to be said about material influences on political beliefs and behaviour. de Sousa stands by a more traditional approach to social cleavages and political beliefs that inform, for instance, voter choice. In addition to a person’s identity, he cites time and place as determining factors for political views. The students involved in the free speech debate are hesitant to accept it as a notion of a post-materialism shift. Liew says,“There is a lot of work out there that is post-materialist, post-20th century, post-modernist thinking, but it would be a rather presumptive conclusion to say that we have completely escaped our material bases for beliefs.” Williams says she is opposed to making political decisions based on post-materialist values. Political beliefs and “political activities have to be informed by the material conditions that we experience in the world, like both in the present and also our historical conditions,” in her view.
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What about abstract, moral discussions based on post-materialism? “Those sorts of discussions miss the point. I think that political activities have to be grounded in the actual goings on of the world,” Williams says. Incongruence, not enmity Loewen told us that most debates surrounding free speech have two distinct parts: principle and application. Whether fighting for the principle of free speech or applying their right to challenge statements threatening their identities, both sides have points to make. de Sousa told us that values lead to wagers, especially in how they connect to action. Liew, Hallman, Williams, and Williamson all continue to make wagers in this debate. Wagers, by their very nature, do not have to stand in enmity of each other. While there may be incongruence in the beliefs of the participants in the free speech debate, that does not mean that they stand in necessary opposition. At least, that’s my wager.
The Belief Issue
Aliens ex machina
Words | Elise Wagner Illustrations | Mirka Loiselle
The pyramids were extraterrestrial power plants and other conspiracy theories that people actually believe
worship at the altar of primary sources, Margaret MacMillan writes my dogma, and libraries are my churches. As a U of T student, studying of history and political science has become my religion. People are always looking for an explanation of life’s greatest mysteries, and when they find a set of beliefs that gives them the correct answers, it becomes all-consuming. We take for granted that our doctrine based on centuries of study is accepted as legitimate in our society. Some are not as lucky. I was first introduced to Ancient Aliens — a cult television show that makes the rather outrageous attempt to explain historical events as products of alien interactions — in the eleventh grade. My history teacher thought it would be entertaining to begin a semester of ancient history by showing us an early episode. When the bell rang, I walked straight to the
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guidance counsellor’s office and dropped the class. Even if you haven’t seen Ancient Aliens, you’ve probably seen the meme of a man passionately waving his hands with the word ‘aliens’ written underneath. That man’s name is Giorgio Tsoukalos, one of the original hosts of the series. He and his colleagues have been on the air for seven years, having wrapped up the eleventh season of Ancient Aliens last fall. I avoided the show for years, until two weeks ago, when I decided to investigate how people could buy into the show’s conspiracies by embarking on the frustrating task of actually watching it. I made it through half an episode before I began to loudly argue with the hosts. I paused the show every 10 minutes to look up a Wikipedia article with an urge to prove the theories wrong. These socalled historians were challenging everything that I had studied for over four years, and even though they couldn’t hear me, I made sure to voice my arguments and include an adequate number of sources. Over the course of 119 episodes, every historical question or mystery is explained by a bogus theory of aliens meeting humans and providing them with technology to help accomplish monumental tasks. For example, according to theorists on the show, the Pyramids of Giza were built with the help of aliens that cut stone blocks, while Machu Picchu was built using an alien forge that could melt rock. For the uninitiated, Ancient Aliens begins rather innocently, showcasing the mysteries that surround some of the ancient wonders of the world. But the show quickly descends into madness and by Season 2, Episode 5, “Aliens and the Third Reich”, pseudoscientists tout theories of collaboration between the Nazi regime and aliens through Adolf Hitler’s supposed use of alien technology. One Ancient Aliens
contributor, Henry Stevens, even published a book on alleged Nazi development of flying saucers, aptly titled Hitler’s Flying Saucers — a book which permanently altered both my faith in humanity and Amazon.ca recommendations. As a history student, I have no desire to watch a so-called ‘documentary’ that claims to upend the thinking of “mainstream archaeologists.” But fans of Ancient Aliens are far from few. Millions have watched the show and each episode can be streamed online, free of charge. There are also sizeable online communities that discuss both old and new evidence of the influence of extraterrestrials, hosted by a range of socalled experts. While ‘Aliens!’ is undoubtedly not the best answer to big, historical questions, it is possible to understand Tsoukalos’ and his colleagues’ perspectives. There are incredible ancient structures that have inspired awe and raised questions of how they were used and built without the technological advances that we enjoy today. It wouldn’t be the first time that a community of people celebrated the wisdom conferred onto them by cosmic beings. It is astonishing how easily the followers of ancient alien theories adopt a set of beliefs that willingly disregard the presence of proof. Indeed, it is strange that long passages of the Great Pyramids are coated in salt, but that does not mean the pyramids were built as a power plant that converted hydrogen into microwave energy like the show suggests. In an age of ‘alternative facts’ and derision of the ‘mainstream media,’ the culture that surrounds fringe theories and pseudoscience are all the more obvious and worrisome. Near the end of my Ancient Aliens binge, a couple of friends joined me to watch an episode. They sat in stunned silence as I tried to keep the eye-rolling to a minimum. As a former jet propulsion scientist described how Nazis created a wormhole to escape justice at the end of World War II, one of my friends asked incredulously, “Do they believe their own bullshit?” “I think so,” I replied. And if so, should we judge them for it?
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PHOTO FEATURE: Winter
Lucid dream A winter wonderland experience through the eyes of an explorer
Words and photos | Steven Lee 28 —— The Varsity Magazine
The Belief Issue
This photo series depicts a typical jaunt of mine through Evergreen Brickworks. It starts as an escape to view local nature in an area void of human presence and ends as a maddening descent into a winter snowstorm.
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PHOTO FEATURE: Winter
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The Belief Issue
Toronto, with its perceived dullness, is the perfect place to explore. It has often been called bleak, ugly, and dirty — especially in the winter.
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PHOTO FEATURE: Winter
While irritation and weariness are normal reactions to numb feet and a frozen face caused by the desolate winter weather, there exists nonetheless an alluring quality to watching the snow fall on barren land. It allows my imagination to run free.
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The Belief Issue
Winter 2017 —— 33
PHOTO FEATURE: Winter
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The Belief Issue
Many believe that Toronto is at its worst in the drab colours of the coldest season. I believe that Toronto’s true beauty lies in its scenic diversity, which is on display even in the winter. A juxtaposition of urban infrastructure and gems of nature, Toronto is a testament to how a blend of grey and white can make the most straightforward landscape into a work of art.
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Exploiting expectations While modern medicine accelerates toward futuristic solutions to health problems, the placebo effect serves as a reminder of the power of our minds
Words | Kawmadie Karunanayake Illustration | Mahdi Chowdhury
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he scope of treatment options being researched or offered by doctors in 2017 is baffling. While in vitro fertilization procedures shook the consciences of many when they were introduced in the late 1970s, the extent to which these procedures intervene with natural human systems seems innocuous compared to today’s nascent medical controversies — gene editing and the use of technology to compensate for failing organs, to name a couple. Given the apparent omnipotence of modern health care professionals, it would be easy to write off less tangible treatments, especially those that are not well understood. The ‘placebo effect’ may be one of those elusive treatments. In medicine, a placebo may be used in place of a drug or procedure. It has no direct therapeutic effect on an illness but can still cause a patient to feel better. People expect doctors to prescribe treatment that will cure them and their expectations alone result in the feeling of being cured — this is known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect demonstrates how our expectations can literally change how we experience the world. The placebo effect exploits this belief to allow us to subconsciously change our physical and mental interior worlds using our faith in medicine and healthcare providers. Mind over matter? The power of our minds is immense. Studies on the placebo effect show how we enable sugar pills, sham surgeries, and homeopathic medicine to ‘cure’ us. Acupuncture, for example, may rely entirely on the placebo effect, as the majority of research on the topic has shown that acupuncture has no specific restorative ability. By comparing results from participants who went through acupuncture and those who went through simulated acupuncture, researchers have concluded that the physical relief acquired from acupuncture is based on the belief the participants had in its ability. This, of course, does not invalidate the fact that patients felt better after treatment — simulated or real — and many continue to seek out acupuncture to treat a wide variety of ailments. Perhaps, then, the placebo effect is strong enough to sustain entire industries. Though this may be true, Ted Kaptchuk, a leader in placebo effect research and Director of Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, has cautioned that you can’t just “think yourself better.” Instead, Kaptchuk’s research shows that the placebo effect is real in a biological sense, and it can also be considered a treatment of its own. The neurological basis for the placebo effect is still being tested. Current research shows that the placebo effect can
measurably change neurotransmitters and other biological conditions, such as heart rate and blood pressure, though only so much as medication is capable of impacting these factors. One study by Kaptchuk gave participants either a placebo marked as a drug or a medically active drug marked as a placebo. The placebo did significantly better than the active drug in mitigating the symptoms of a migraine according to patient reports. Another study was conducted by Dr. Michael E. Wechsler, Kaptchuk, and other scientists on asthma medication and placebos. Two placebo trials showed equal benefits in self-reported outcomes as the medicinally-active drug, and all three trials showed more improvement with the use of the placebo compared to no treatment. Though the two placebos caused no improvement in the presence of the chemical cue, the placebo patients felt equally improved, which is an incredible reaction. The most important factor in these studies is that the patients were primed beforehand into thinking the placebos were effective. The priming effect occurs when people are exposed to positive or negative stimuli before experiencing an unrelated situation. The formerly presented stimuli change the way the latter situation is perceived, even if the two are unrelated. Many studies on this topic have come to the same conclusion: people’s reaction to the world can be changed completely to match the tone of the original stimuli. Our mind creates the world we inhabit based on the sensations and memories it has available. Ethical controversies Placebos have been used both in experimental trials and clinical practice. While their use in experimental science is unquestionable, the ethics of their use in clinical practice is dubious. Physicians swear to cure and provide medicine for illness and disease. Placebos do not ‘work’ insofar as they do not actually cure. Patients feeling better but not biologically recovering is a major point of contention when it comes to placebo as a medicinal tool. Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired physician, commented on the asthma research by Wechsler and Kaptchuk for The Atlantic: “Asthma can be fatal. If the patient’s lung function is getting worse but a placebo makes them feel better, they might delay treatment until it is too late.” Results of studies considering the neurological and biological components of the placebo effect show that changes in actual symptoms and physiological causes of the illness are very minor or the variations seen are to be expected from the sickness. This means that, even if patients feel better, they
Winter 2017 —— 37
might not actually be getting better. The purpose of medicine is to heal and cure, and many believe that prescribing ‘medicine’ which doesn’t do so is unethical. A major problem in the practical use of placebos has to do with the types of patients that are more likely to be prescribed placebos. Studies have shown that physicians tend to underestimate the level of pain and intensity of symptoms in women and people of colour; doctors are more likely to under-treat these populations. Therefore, should the placebo effect be accepted in mainstream medical practice, it may only further jeopardize already vulnerable members of society. Doctor-patient relationships Placebos are also controversial for the way they necessitate deception in the patient-doctor relationship. Dr. David Gorski is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and a faculty member at Wayne State University who doesn’t believe in using placebos. In an essay for Science Based Medicine, Gorski critiques the ethics and healing capabilities of the placebo: “Basically, in medicine it is very unethical to lie to patients, and inducing placebo effects requires lying to patients.” The doctor-patient relationship is a cornerstone of medicine; trust and understanding needs to be present on both sides for the patient to get appropriate treatment. When a doctor lies, they reduce trust in them and in the entire institution of medicine. What is more, science has shown a positive correlation between the amount of information a patient has of the treatment and their level of recovery. A patient who has all the information about their condition and treatment may be in a much better situation to recover. The modern version of the Hippocratic Oath includes the following line: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” In other words, it is part of a doctor’s job to provide warmth and demonstrate empathy to the patient. Showing empathy leads to reassurance and creating a state where the patient believes that they can get better, which is where the placebo effect can be most useful. Placebos are used to pacify — to treat mild or psychosomatic symptoms. Medical conditions such as broken bones, heart disease, and cancer will not heal themselves, no matter what we believe. Yet our minds still play a role — it has been shown that even the medications for these sicknesses work better when the patient has a better understanding or trust in the treatment and the physician administering it.
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Placebo in practice Some nations and medical associations have guidelines that consider placebos unethical. The Canadian Medical Association, however, does not provide guidelines for the use of placebos in clinical practice. The lack of regulation allows them to be used by physicians. Regardless of the ethical concerns, some reports have indicated that around 20 per cent of Canadian doctors in some disciplines prescribe placebos. Between 17–80 per cent of doctors from other nations use them. These statistics show that, whatever moral concerns about placebos there are, at least some medical professionals consider the practice useful. Kaptchuk conducted a study on patients with irritable bowel syndrome, with three treatment groups. Group One had no treatment, Group Two had treatment with a distant, quiet acupuncture practitioner, and Group Three had treatment with a warm and friendly practitioner. The most important factor in patient relief turned out to be the interaction between the patients and practitioners. Group Three had significantly higher improvement rates at 62 per cent, compared to 28 per cent and 44 per cent for Group One and Group Two, respectively. While the methodology of placebo studies is tricky, Kaptchuk’s study emphasizes that when it comes to the power of the placebo effect, its greatest strength lies in the relationship between doctor and patient, not necessarily in the patient and treatment. As Hall put it, “It’s not just about curing; it’s about caring and comforting when we can’t cure.”
The Belief Issue
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Outside the circle Done
Inside the Toronto branch of Oasis, a secular congregation
Gretta Vosper is a minster at the United Church of Canada and one of the organizers of Toronto Oasis since 2015. Her position as a minister, due to her atheism, has proved controversial.
Words | Jaren Kerr and Tom Yun Photos | Steven Lee
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ebruary 12, 2017 was a Sunday. The roads were treacherous and the sidewalk was slippery. There was a snowstorm; the kind that encourages most people to stay in their homes, but that didn’t stop over 100 people from visiting U of T to talk about anything other than God. The first gathering — service, meeting, it’s still not decided what to call it — of the Toronto chapter of the Oasis network was held in the Koffler House Multi-Faith Centre. The Oasis network, established in the US, provides a community similar to that of a church or a mosque for the non-religious, the secular, the skeptical, and the curious. “Whether you are continuing within religion, or if you don’t identify with a religion, or if you don’t follow any religion or belief structure, it’s irrelevant. What we’re coming together to do is to focus on our core values and build our community,” explained Eve Casavant, one of the chapter’s organizers. The core values Casavant references are authoritative: people are more important than beliefs; reality is known through reason; meaning comes from making a difference; human hands solve human problems; and people must be accepting to be accepted. These values drew many to fill the Multi-Faith Centre, a room with wood-panelled walls and a ceiling that looks like marble. Minutes before the meeting, a bluegrass musician played his banjo, mothers helped young children into seats, and people pecked on an array of snacks at the back of the room. The audience demographic was skewed towards those white and older, but people of several races and ages were also in the crowd. The banjo stopped playing, and the meeting began. A large projector displayed the Oasis logo. Gretta Vosper is another organizer who helped bring Oasis to Toronto. The spectacled woman with short grey hair addressed the group; she explained why she was there, thanked the volunteers who made the event possible, and expressed the importance of the newfound community. “People came from up to three hours away in one of the worst snowstorms of the year to come and talk about how isolated they felt, because whether they were members of a church, or they couldn’t find a church to go to, they were constantly outside the circle of belief. You are all outside that circle in one way or another,” said Vosper, who understands being outside of the circle very well. An atheist church minister Vosper is a minister at the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Vosper became the subject of national headlines after she publicly identified herself as an atheist, despite her position with the Church. She does not believe in a literal interpretation of God.
“My beliefs were formed in the United Church. So, when I was in Sunday school, I was taught about a God that was really love,” explained Vosper. “It wasn’t a being that I needed to obey or that was watching me all the time. The God that I was taught about was about what we needed to live out in the world.” These beliefs continued to manifest during her years at Queen’s Theological College. “We were invited to explore the Bible as it were written by humans, for humans, for very human reasons, to explore the variety of ways that people had struggled with the concept of God and articulated that,” she said. “And liberal theologians for decades and decades have been talking about God as a human concept or a construct of some kind of or another.” Initially, Vosper called herself a ‘non-theist’ but took on the atheist label in 2013. At the time, she wanted to become more explicit about her beliefs and join in solidarity with persecuted atheists in other countries. “We’re taught to speak about what we believe in in softer terms. In my first book, I refer to myself as a non-theist. In my second book, I realized that non-theist didn’t really cut it because some people called themselves non-theist even though they had a supernatural idea,” said Vosper. “The short of it is, when authors started getting killed by machetes in Bangladesh because they were being called atheists, I had to take a look at my beliefs and said, ‘Well, my beliefs are consistent with atheistic beliefs, so in order to express solidarity, I’m gonna take that label,’” she said. Vosper’s church, West Hill United Church in Scarborough, is also quite secular. She speaks every Sunday — a commitment that mostly prevents her from taking part in Oasis meetings — and calls her talks ‘perspectives’, rather than ‘sermons’. “You don’t hear us read from the Bible very often,” said Vosper. “You don’t hear me talk about Jesus as a moral standard and you don’t hear the word God shared regularly, but we still talk about values, a commitment to live.” It is unclear how many clergy within the United Church have similar views, but Vosper claims that such interpretations of God and the Bible are common. “If you go into any United Church congregation and many other liberal denominations… in Canada, and you listened to a service, you would hear language that [refers] to a pre-Copernican order of the universe, with heaven and earth and hell,” she explained. Vosper continued, “You would hear about the divine Son of God through whom we are saved. You would hear about a God who was a supernatural God, who listens to our prayers and acts on our behalf, but then if you sit down on Tuesday morning and had coffee with the person who led that service and asked them if they actually believed in all of those things, I think you would get a very, very different answer.” Vosper’s position as minister despite her atheistic views, proved to be quite controversial in the United Church. A review committee within the Toronto Conference of the United Church recommended defrocking Vosper in a report released September 2016, stating, “In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.” The findings were subsequently presented to the sub-executive committee of the Toronto Conference, who asked the United Church’s general council to conduct a hearing about defrocking Vosper and placing her on the church’s Discontinued Service List. It is unclear when the general council will make its final decision.
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Setting the stage for Oasis Vosper’s involvement with Oasis began in 2015, at which point she was already looking into creating a community like West Hill in the downtown core. “We have a lot of people who travel a lot of distance to come to West Hill, so in 2014, we wanted to start a community on the west side of the city and we did that. They meet monthly. In 2015, we wanted to start in the community in the core of the city, but we realized that we needed to have more than monthly gatherings,” Vosper explained. Much like a church, Oasis meets on Sunday mornings, despite attempts from organizers to meet at a different time. “The first time we started talking about when it would be, people said, ‘Anything but Sunday morning! I just want to sleep in and have my coffee.’” Vosper explained. “But as we started talking about time, it became apparent that if you want to have children involved, you can’t do anything in the evening. That took all the evenings out. The only mornings are Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. Well, nobody wanted it to be Saturday morning. So, it ended up on Sunday morning.” Vosper said that she was looking for an organizational model that wouldn’t focus on a single leader. Her search led her to Oasis, a pre-existing network of secular congregations located in several US cities. Vosper expects religious discussions at Oasis to be “limited” and notes that it will not be an “atheist” community. “There may be groups that form that want to have conversations about religion,” she said. “There may be groups that form for people who have left a fundamentalist religion and they’re trying to recover from the realities of that.” Raihan Abir, an atheist writer from Bangladesh, fits this description. Although he wore a smile for most of the day, he had many difficult stories to tell. Abir came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2015 and is now a permanent resident, living with his wife and daughter in Toronto. His journey to Canada was necessitated by his beliefs, which put his life at risk in Bangladesh. Atheist thinkers like Abir are common targets for violent religious extremists. “Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, they established themselves in 2012 with the hope in mind that they would convert the whole Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, this whole region,” Abir explained. “To do that, Al Qaeda’s strategy is [that] they will attack people who are generally seen as a taboo, like, they will attack atheists, gays. They will attack any secular activist.” Abir continued, “[Al-Qaeda’s] greatest enemy is the United States. It’s not right now, but when they started, their greatest enemy was the
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United States. So they think [of us] as Western agents who are polluting Islam. So they think of us as anti-Islamic spies from the West. And with that accusation, they killed us.” Many of Abir’s friends and colleagues were killed by Al-Qaeda for blogging about atheism. Abir himself was attacked. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was largely indifferent to such attacks, criticizing atheists for writing “pornography.” The Islamic State (IS) would join Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh soon after. “IS started their operation in 2014 in Bangladesh because they started out around that time in Syria as well,” said Abir. “And they also wanted to make the whole Indian subcontinent as an Islamic state. Same as Al Qaeda. And they have India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, that region, the whole region.” The two groups share the same mission but employ different tactics. “IS wasn’t actually making any list of atheist bloggers. They still hate us, but they’re kind of [an] authoritarian movement,” he continued. “On the other hand Al-Qaeda is populist. OK. So that’s the difference between them. So the government is very hard on IS, but very soft on Al-Qaeda.” Abir grew up in a Muslim family, but found other worldviews and perspectives online. “When I first started blogging in 2007, in a post people were mocking Allah. And I thought ‘Whoa, you can mock Allah?’” Abir said. “So literally I thought that you can’t mock Allah before something bad will happen… So many religions had that capability of making people think this way. But when you just say, ‘Well, we didn’t come from Adam and Eve,’ many people say ‘Really?’... I try to do that, feeling that it’s my responsibility.” Abir is a fan of ‘New Atheists’ like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom have gained massive followings for criticizing and advocating against religious ideas and supernatural beliefs. On its online FAQ page, Oasis notes that it is not a place to “denigrate” religion. “I have an incredible amount of respect for many religious people,” said Vosper. “If someone is going to use their [religious] beliefs to get in the way of someone else’s human rights, then I’m going to get in the way of them, opposing them.” In time, Oasis may provide a platform for Abir’s ideas to challenge Vosper’s and vice versa, but the first gathering had little to do with religion. Rick Miller, a playwright who resembles famous American preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen, delivered a talk called “The Architecture of Creativity.” He has taught a class at U of T based on this concept. “If we can get our butts out of bed on a Sunday morning, it’s always valuable to see yourself amongst a community of people who don’t so much share similar beliefs but [are] at least on a journey of trying to expand and understand each other a little bit better and that’s what I feel here,” said Miller. “These are inquisitive people. They’re not just here accepting anything by rote.”
The Belief Issue
Best of luck Superstitions make the world go ‘round Words | Zeahaa Rehman Illustration | Diana Pham
am short. If I were one or two inches shorter and lived in the USA, my height would fall within the Little People of America’s description of dwarfism. If you asked me why I am vertically challenged, I would talk about genetics and how most women in my family are short. If you asked my grandmother why I am short, however, she would give you an entirely different answer. According to her, my height was caused by someone hopping over my legs when I was lying down as a child, stunting my growth. There is no rhyme nor reason to her belief — or, as I would call it, ‘superstition.’ My grandmother has never given me an explanation as to why or how this could be true, yet she refuses to believe anything else. A superstition is a belief that a certain action or practice leads to a particular consequence by means of supernatural forces. Historically, superstition has been associated with religion. Even though superstitions sometimes stem from religious stories — such as biblical theories surrounding the number 13 — they are often cultural by-products passed down from generation to generation until they become so deeply ingrained that no one questions why they exist anymore. So why should my grandmother believe anything else, when her culture firmly trusts and reinforces these superstitious beliefs? After all, superstitions exist all around the world. My grandmother would be glad to know that it isn’t just people in Pakistan who believe that jumping over someone’s legs stunts their growth. People in South Korea, Japan, and Turkey share her belief. Also, people in South Korea and Japan believe that writing someone’s name in red ink is considered a kiss of death.
The number four is fervently avoided in many East Asian countries. This is due to it being nearly homophonous with the Chinese word for death. Similarly, Italian people are wary of the number 17, since its roman numerals, XVII, can be rearranged to VIXI, which implies death. In Pakistan, the left eye twitching can be an omen of bad luck, whereas an itchy right palm foreshadows money in the near future, but the palm cannot be scratched on purpose. In Brazil, letting a bag hit the floor means losing money. Anyone debating eating the last slice of pizza or swiping the last cookie should just go ahead and grab it — eating the last piece of food is said to bring good luck in Thailand.
If it is ever night and you are exhausted, but your parents are telling you to clean up, tell them that sweeping at night is inauspicious, especially in India and in Turkey, as it will deter the goddess of luck or angels from visiting you. These superstitions will likely seem strange to any who trusts scientific evidence. However, you need only go into an apartment building and look for the missing thirteenth floor or take in the abundance of beards among male athletes during playoff season to realize the ubiquity of superstitions present in our lives. There is nothing wrong with being superstitious. Most of us possess personal rituals or talismans in the form of lucky t-shirts, special underwear, or pieces of jewelry that we utilize before important events in our life. Primarily, we utilize superstitions because they give us some semblance of control. They allow us to fill in and explain the gaps of the sometimes inexplicable events in our life. Superstitions can also provide comfort; following a certain ritual or practice gives us a sense of routine. Lastly, superstitions create a sense of community; it is fun to practice and pass down traditions, credulous or otherwise, that have been in your family, culture, or country for years. However, when we start believing superstitious rituals and talismans are the only way we will succeed in life, things start going south. It is not healthy to be entirely dependent on rituals and talismans, because the absence of them may lead to panic, paranoia, and stress. When superstitions start dictating every aspect of our lives — like not buying something that has the number four written on it or going back home because a cat crossed the path — perhaps it is time to distance ourselves from them. And if you still can’t break free of your superstitions, you should try and try again — remember, third time’s the charm.
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H Y E T A H V A F FEATURE: Religion
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The Belief Issue
Religious students look to reconcile their beliefs with an increasingly secular culture
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Words | Gabrielle Warren and Ibnul Chowdhury Illustrations | Corals Zheng
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or students of faith, the university space poses unique challenges regarding reconciliation with the self and the world. Faith is not erasable; for those who are religious, it exists at the core of their conscience and defines their sense of dignity. When spaces that foster faith do not exist, are lacking, or are threatened at university, communities of faith become ‘othered.’ To build true inclusivity, it is important to reflect upon the unique experiences of people of faith and how it is possible to build new dialogues, relationships, and solidarities that can forge real plurality in Canada. Why faith matters Sarim Irfan, a Muslim first-year student at the University of Toronto, sees his faith and worldview as intertwined. His faith has played a major role in determining his morals, values, and general sense of conduct. “The Islamic perspective influences me such that, where problems arise, I look for the outcome that satisfies the most people without compromising my religious rules and regulations,” Irfan reveals. “Islam preaches love and respect for others, as well as steadfastness in practice,” he explains. Martha Nussbaum, an ethics theorist at the University of Chicago, argues for the importance of accommodating different belief systems. She writes that two elements make people equal: dignity and freedom of conscience. Though the sources of dignity may differ, possessing it always means having autonomy over your mind and body. For Ifran and others like him, faith is a filter through which to reason, evaluate, and view the world, and to realize dignity in the sense that Nussbaum describes. To learn and embrace each other’s faith opens up a channel to mutual understanding. Fady Andraws, an Egyptian Orthodox student, describes her faith in a similar way. She sees it as a vital part of her culture, family life, and value system. “It provides an ethical code, as well as a familial and national identity,” she reflects. For others, the integration of faith and behaviour happens more gradually. “I’ve begun the process of incorporating my religious beliefs in my day to day life,” comments Monique Gill of the Sikh Students Association. “Specifically, Sikhism places a high value on community service or ‘seva’ and for the past few years I’ve been restructuring my
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personal and career goals with seva in mind. This relationship between belief and action in Sikhism is what I’ve been focusing on implementing as an integral part of my worldview.” However, when people of faith’s personal experiences, worldviews, and dignities are subject to reduction and homogenization, the consequences are alarming. This is evident in the way popular Western culture commonly portrays Islam — not as a faith comprised of unique individuals and diverse communities, but as a monolithic, dangerous ‘ideology.’ Being the ‘other’ It is clear that religious beliefs are not just individual and personal. They are subject to politicization, which may result in exclusion and even violence. At a Québec City mosque in February, a white university student massacred six praying Muslims. Atrocities like this shed light on the skepticism people of faith may have surrounding the Canadian narrative of multiculturalism, progressiveness, and tolerance. The regularity with which the Muslim community is described as separate from a Canadian identity accentuates a pitfall of Canada’s multiculturalism myth. At a vigil held at the University of Toronto for the Québec City attack, Muslim third-year Afghan Students Society Vice-President Madina Siddiqui vocalized the challenge of her own competing identities. “I grew up with little knowledge of my own culture. And my parents always pushed me to be more Canadian. To learn English. To forget my own culture,” she said. One way to understand Siddiqui’s experience is to conclude that the visibility of visible minorities of faith — whether at mosques, in the appearance of niqabs or beards, or in foreign names — is not always accepted as ‘Canadian.’ That Muslim Canadians are made to view their faith and their Canadian identity as competing attributes demonstrates how assimilation marginalizes these minority groups. The Québec attack is part of a broader history of Islamophobia; it is not new on campus, let alone in other spaces in Canada. Siddiqui’s speech cited an event that took place in 2006, when a female Muslim student was assaulted at Hart House. The following day, on International Women’s Day, female Muslim students were egged. Ten years later, in late 2016, St. Michael’s College student executives were exposed for
Islamophobic behaviour via leaked Snapchat videos. Despite how internationally-accepting the University of Toronto appears to be, it is clear that Islamophobia systematically thrives here. What is more, the response to Islamophobia is not sufficient, as the denunciation of Islamophobia by public officials has been criticized for being superficial. For example, York University-based spoken word poet Nasim Asgari told CP24 that the presence and speeches of Mayor John Tory and Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Morneau at the Québec City vigil were merely symbolic and hollow. Asgari argued that politicians are complicit in the lack of police accountability in the deaths of racialized folks in Toronto and contribute to a largely obscured but real structure of Islamophobia by crafting legislation like the Cultural Barbaric Practices Act and Bill C-51 — both of which, it has been argued, target Muslims. The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city. Hence, the veneer of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ at vigils and descriptions of attacks as ‘senseless’ do not mask the underlying structural cause of such violent attacks: the othering of visible faith minorities. Belief in the university space Finding spaces where solidarity between communities develops is wonderful in theory, but carving out spaces of mutual respect and tolerance remains challenging. The reality of existing as an other means looking for safe spaces where your values are not only shared, but considered. A central challenge for people of faith in Canada is the clash between their deeply rooted beliefs and a secular culture that demands assimilation. In the midst of this tension, people of faith are compelled to learn to mediate between worlds, reshape their identities, and form communities. The university space may be the first place that many students are challenged to actively practice their beliefs away from their families or communities. Joining a student association lent Gill a sense of community within Canada. Since Sikhism is often tied geographically to the state of Punjab in India, Gill says it is quite
The Belief Issue
common to see a person of Punjabi culture practicing Sikhism. This sentiment led her to the Sikh Students Association in hopes of meeting people with a similar background. “Being a part of this faith group has opened me up to a process in which I examine the intertwining of culture and faith specifically in looking at gendered practices in this Punjabi-Sikh community,” Gill says. “That being said, the Sikh Students Association goes out of our way to distinguish between practices of religion and practices of culture as we find it makes the space more inclusive by encouraging people of any race to join.” She adds that reaching out to her faith community and discussing how fellow second generation immigrants practice their faith has helped her navigate the Western and South Asian binary. “I’ve always needed support in coming to terms with my contemporary Toronto lifestyle while also balancing the way I practice Sikhism so this community that I’ve reached out to has really supported me in that,” Gill says. These spaces help students of faith feel supported and affirmed and provide them with a venue to have their concerns addressed. Andraws feels that having a faith group is important to her on both spiritual and social levels: “Being part of a faith group gives me more friends, more support, and more people who have my struggles. In general, it’s just really hard to meet people on campus.” “[The Egyptian Orthodox Student Group has] a lot of people downtown who help each other and pray for each other,” Andraws says. University is meant to be a space that encourages students to explore new ideas. For faith perspectives, this can mean an opportunity for philosophical exchange, dialogue, and inquiry. Alternative worldviews can initially create discomfort, alienation, and fragmentation. Where ideas and beliefs diverge, we can turn to Nussbaum’s ideas about dignity, which remind us that mutual respect and tolerance are possible. In some cases, the proliferation of new ideas and perspectives can be the very thing that fosters faith. Gill speaks on how the university environment helped her find faith. “Being in Equity Studies has really developed my self awareness (ideologically) alongside an understanding of how I situate myself in the world socially, economically, geographically,” she says. “I feel like the growth of my character coincided with
the growth of my faith because in addition to acknowledging my privilege and positionality, I explored my identity through analyzing my worldview and religious roots.” However, not all students find the freedom to express their beliefs. It can be hard to find like-minded people, and it can be exhausting to constantly defend one’s own beliefs. “This may also be due to the fact that I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Andraws says, “But I find that I’m continuously experiencing a culture shock with the things my peers do and say. I also find it difficult to stand up for things I believe in. I find myself being unable to confidently answer questions about my faith. Some people ask questions for really sinister reasons, or to find faults in you as a person, so they can push academic faults on you as well.” For some, the juxtaposition of faith and an academic university setting makes for opportunities as well as tensions. “If a prayer time comes about while I’m with friends at [university], I’ll excuse myself from the conversation and pray right there in my seat,” Irfan says. “People respect that I am in prayer and do not talk loudly or play music while I pray, and ask polite questions afterwards,” he explains. “Being a person of faith in a secular university space is a conversation starter.” Towards pluralism Earlier this year, grassroots organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East hosted Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan to speak to the University of Toronto community on “Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times.” The phrase “Troubling Times,” as it pertains to religious discrimination, does not refer exclusively to the state of affairs south of the border where President Donald Trump has assumed office. In 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government supported policies that marginalized womens’ choices to wear a niqab and defended the securitization of Syrian refugees as potential terrorist threats. It has been over 15 years since past American President George Bush declared a ‘War on Terror,’ which has emphasized radical Islamic terrorist groups. Since then, the West — including Canada — has continually deployed discourse about ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ that inadvertently or explicitly criminalizes Islam.
Ramadan challenges Muslims and non-Muslims alike to reclaim the discourse of jihad in terms of its original meaning: a dual struggle to resist bad and promote good in every dimension. Doing this, Ramadan argues, would help to illuminate the fact that Islam’s values are part of universal values that can help us offer solidarity and humanize one another. In a deep condemnation of the global rise of nationalism and discourses surrounding ‘my people first,’ Ramadan insists that a pluralistic society with multiple narratives should and can prosper when we fight for each other’s communities. He calls us all to wage a jihad in struggles like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and climate justice, because ultimately, they are all rooted in philosophical and faith communities that converge toward a defense of human dignity. Ramadan’s call for pluralism is, importantly, centred in the recognition that having or practicing faith does not preclude holding other identities. Embracing the plurality of society means embracing the plurality of our own identities. Hence, to be Muslim does not mean to either not belong in Canada or to practice Islam with a monolithic standard. With nuance and a will to reject popular generalizations, we can better understand ourselves and others and define our own identities. “New Solidarities” Fostering mutual respect first means respecting the original faith communities of Canada, as well as the land upon which such respect can develop. Namely, we must defer to Indigenous worldviews. At this year’s Hart House Hancock Lecture, Anishinaabe artist Susan Blight spoke on “Land and Life in Tkaronto: New Solidarities Toward a Decolonial Future.” Blight, who works to rename roads and landmarks as a means to visibilize the Indigenous history of Toronto, emphasized that Indigenous worldviews are centred around land. It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together. In Toronto, cultural diversity and Indigenous resurgence make for a fertile moment in which vibrant relationships are being formed. For example, in 2016, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous communities in
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“People of faith do not exist in a bubble. They learn quickly that disagreeing with a point of view does not disqualify them from creating communities of respect.”
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The Belief Issue
Toronto formed conspicuous solidarities against anti-Black police brutality and the Attawapiskat suicide crisis. It is faith within and between these communities that reminds us that “Black Lives Matter on Indigenous land.” Whether in the form of street signs or protests, increased Indigenous visibility compels settler Canadians to acknowledge the worldviews of those who have ancestral connections to the land. These encounters can prove fruitful in the quest to form strong interpersonal relationships and communities. As Blight urges, such relationships can reaffirm the “Dish with One Spoon” treaty: that we must share, protect, and preserve the land together, peacefully. Given that settler colonialism is a living history that concerns all of us, it must be dismantled by all of us if we are to create a more sustainable, inclusive future. At the University of Toronto, the Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee has just released its report of 32 recommendations on how the university can respond to the legacies of residential schools and ongoing systemic racism against Indigenous peoples. President Meric Gertler stated that the university “acknowledges its responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples, and we embrace the opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and, together, lead the process of reconciliation.” The report advises Gertler to create visible Indigenous spaces on campus, hire more Indigenous faculty and staff members, and integrate Indigenous curricula into university education. Moving past stereotypes, misconceptions, and isolation, it is important to recognize that the Indigenous population of Canada is comprised of plural communities, whose worldviews about interconnectedness and land protection can inform a more harmonious future for the University of Toronto and Canada more broadly. It is not Indigenous beliefs that require scrutiny and dismissal, but rather our disbelief in them. One can consider the case of Professor Brenda Wastasecoot, a member of the York Factory Cree Nation. In teaching the course “Indigenous Worldviews, Spiritual and Healing Traditions,” she implements Indigenous pedagogy in the most uplifting forms. Wastasecoot uses circle teaching by which method all students are given a chance to speak. She emphasizes that everyone’s voice, presence, and story must be valued. She is also
very candid about her own personal experiences with trauma and abuse and their connections to settler colonialism. Her openness is a radical call to believe in the lived experiences, worldviews, and right to human dignity of marginalized communities of faith. Wastasecoot also compares the Western mental health system, which bases itself on individual treatment and pharmaceutical drugs, to the Indigenous sweat lodge, which focuses on natural medicine and community healing. Last year, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto opened a sweat lodge — the first of its kind in Ontario. At the university and in Toronto generally, reclamation of Indigenous spaces and traditions is important for decolonization and how we conceive Indigeneity. When othered people of faith build solidarities with one another under an Indigenous framework of interconnectedness, community, and respect for the land, we can begin constructing a more inclusive future for all.
ered communities flourishes, in defense of the right to faith, self-determination, and dignity. By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across. At university and in Canada, making sustainable learning spaces does not mean that we only believe in the validity of our own communities, but that if we believe that we are valid, others can be as well. Only then, perhaps, can ‘they’ become ‘us.’
Learning to listen People of faith do not exist in a bubble. They learn quickly that disagreeing with a point of view does not disqualify them from creating communities of respect. Not only do students of faith learn from others, but others can learn from them. “I think I’ve become more open,” Andraws says in reference to her faith practice. “I have a lot of friends that have converted, and I think understanding all faiths is incredibly important. Not only to ‘defend’ your own, but to [understand] what is out there. It makes you appreciate other people, and it gives you an opportunity to solidify your own beliefs.” So, perhaps there is hope for Ramadan’s call for an intersectional jihad. At the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto for example, the Sikh community demonstrated solidarity by serving samosas, tea, and hot chocolate to protesters in cold February weather. The Sikh community is frequently confused for and attacked as Muslims, and it remains a leading ally in the anti-Islamophobia struggle. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Toronto led the rally itself, given the existence of Black Muslims and more importantly, their commitment to anti-racism in general. University of Toronto student groups led several contingents to the rally, including the ASSU and PoC@Trin. Hope is highest where solidarity between oth-
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Growing up and getting out Reflecting on Bueller, bullies, and believing in yourself Words | Aidan Currie Illustration | Mia Carnevale
was 12 the first time I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sitting in my grandparents’ living room, my Grampy asked if I had seen the film. I answered with a disinterested “No” and turned back to my daydreaming. Before I could protest, my grandparents had put the DVD in and pressed play. I was stuck — an afternoon with an old movie and older people. I’m happy to say that at the end of the 103 minutes, I had fallen in love with the movie. Ferris Bueller was simply fantastic, an unabashedly confident and brazenly carefree person who acted first and thought second. He was everything I wanted to be. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” is a well-known and wellloved quote from the movie. My favourite, though, comes from the beginning of the film: “A person should not believe in an -ism. He should believe in himself.” For some reason, that offhand comment made by a charming, cocky, fictional kid resonated with me. I had a difficult time believing in myself up until that point in my life. As hard as I tried to be like Bueller, I still
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found it difficult to muster the courage to believe in myself, which, in turn, had a detrimental effect on my wellbeing. For as long as I can remember, I had a problem with loneliness. Up to and including twelfth grade, I would usually eat alone at school, preferring the company of my thoughts to my peers. When I did venture out to try and make friends, I was met with skepticism and faced almost unbearable teasing. At an early age, I had been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, which basically means that if I see a group of people whispering, I immediately jump to the conclusion that they are talking about me. This was pure torture for a kid who didn’t really have any friends as it was. There was one incident that happened during a lunch break in fourth grade. I was sitting alone near the baseball diamond, which was used for kickball mostly, when I looked up to see a group of maybe 10 of my classmates watching me from the opposite side of the field. I paid them no mind. I got up from my spot and walked around for a while, kicking whatever pine cones I could find and minding my own business. I remember turning around to see an even larger group of students following me, which seemed suspicious and, quite frankly, scared me to death.
The Belief Issue
My pace quickened, as did my classmates’, until I found myself trapped between two portables with no exit. As my peers closed in, I frantically searched for an escape, then sat down and began to cry, accepting the fact that I was about to get my ass kicked — I was trapped. I kept telling myself all those years that I would get out someday, but time and time again, every minor success was followed by an epic letdown. It seemed that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, it was never enough and I would always be the lonely, weird kid that couldn’t talk to anybody, nicknamed ‘spaz’ for good measure. I couldn’t believe in anything, let alone myself. That dream of being charming and too cocky for my own good, like Bueller, faded and died. It took a few more years for things to start getting better. Thanks to puberty and a mother who pushed me to play sports and grow big, I wasn’t bullied as often, but I still felt alone. I felt like I still wasn’t good enough to have friends and maybe it wasn’t worth the effort to try to be happy or successful, because it was all going to fall apart anyway. I felt like Cameron Frye, Bueller’s best friend, who just needed a push from his best friend to get him out of his own head. Only, I didn’t have a best friend.
At my lowest points, I was crushed and broken — a shell of the person I wished I could be. With no friends, no motivation, and an ego in constant flux, I pondered my existence, waiting for something to change. Spending the time and making the effort to understand my mental health helped me overcome my fear of being alone. I decided to improve myself and not let my anxiety get the best of me anymore. Nobody needed to help me — I could be my own Bueller. It has taken some time, but I can safely say that I’ve Bueller-ified myself to the point where I’m proud of who I am. I’m an unabashedly confident, brazenly carefree person. I pursue my dreams with unbridled positivity and determination. I accept myself, as well as others, with open arms. I am no longer afraid to let people in, and I know now that I am worthy of having friends. I believe in myself. Sure, there are definitely days where I feel alone. There are times when I revert back to the kid I once was, scared of what people may think of me — but that can be a good reminder. Without that kid, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Without those experiences, I don’t think I could have made it to the point where I believe in myself wholeheartedly. I am comfortable with feeling alone at times, but I truly know that I’m not.
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