There are times when it’s very difficult to be living “next door” to the United States. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to write a post that wouldn’t be connected in any way to the U.S. election results, but given the way the election has saturated my social media and news feeds for months, I think it would only end up as the elephant in the room.
Like so many others in the U.S. and around the world, I found the election outcome infuriating and disturbing (but not surprising), not just because I have so many friends in the U.S., or because it’s not even remotely acceptable that they now has a president-elect endorsed by the KKK.
It’s because I also worry, in spite of the critical discussions I see online, that many Canadians will be complacent. That the denial or dismissal of racism (for example) in Canada – it’s never “as bad as in the U.S.” – could become the means of mobilization for those here who would seek to take this moment and capitalize on it. Silence around these issues could too easily provide the screen behind which hateful organisations can bolster themselves by recruiting members and generating resources. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the next election sees a Trump-like candidate running. It shouldn’t be a surprise – no one knows this better than residents of Toronto who lived through Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor.
As in the U.S., Canadians have seen more brazen acts of hate in recent weeks – incidents involving racist graffiti on religious centres, and hostile and offensive comments made in public, among other examples. But these are only the most obvious indications. Bigotry is nothing new in Canada, and as a clear and ongoing example we can look to the ingrained attitudes towards Canada’s indigenous people, which were fully evident recently when we heard the results and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
You might be asking, how does any of this relate to higher education?
Part of it is of course that universities are places where we can educate about the present and the past. We need those frank discussions about racism and other forms of structural discrimination in Canada; we need students to understand what has happened before, so they know how it shapes (and is reflected by) what we’re seeing today. This is a golden opportunity to apply the critical thinking skills that universities claim to provide.
As one example that has been under discussion of late, I would point to the role of information literacy in the age of social media, virality, clickbait journalism and “fake news”. We have the opportunity to educate about these things – to encourage critical thinking, academically but also in an everyday practical sense where the “bullshit detector” is always on. The crucial role of the media in this election has not gone without critique and commentary; for example Sarah Kendzior’s work on this (and other issues) in the U.S. election is not to be missed, and check out this analysis of the New York Times from Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Canadian students don’t need to look to the U.S. media to practice these skills, because the Canadian media are already demonstrating the same problems. We can see it when the CBC treats Soldiers of Odin like a misunderstood neighbourhood watch group (they’re “controversial”); we can see it in a tweet like this one from Peter Mansbridge, wherein he describes Trump’s campaign style as “unconventional” and muses about whether it would “work in Canada”. And we can see it in the way the media have latched onto Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, paying attention to her essentially because she, too, is controversial. These are the kinds of examples we can bring to teaching.
Universities are also important in this context as places where new knowledge is explored. Academics and students can (and already do) take on the work of bringing that knowledge into dialogue with current events. As well as being places of discovery and understanding, universities are places of action: we take what we know, build on it, and communicate it to others who are doing the work in other areas, other communities, sharing it beyond the academic realm, and (ideally) learning from others in turn. Universities provide a unique space for people to meet and for work to be done, and for connections to be made.
All that being said, education alone is not automatically the answer to, or necessarily the primary determinant of, the problems we’re seeing. Some of the recent commentary shows us that there are still plenty of people who view the “unthinking” masses as the root of the problem. But the disdain for those who lack education is the flip-side of anti-intellectualism, and is not the answer to our questions about “how could this be happening?”
This line of argument connects directly to the assumption that intelligence is somehow the primary factor in whether or not someone voted for Donald Trump, or in whether or not they have the “right” politics. In the angry responses to the election results, I’ve noticed a lot of people invoking the “stupidity” or low IQ of voters, or lack of (the right kind of) literacy; I’ve seen this alongside the assumption that education is a cure-all, that it inoculates against hateful beliefs, and that “if only they were smart enough, could read, had a university degree they wouldn’t have voted that way. But not only is this incorrect – many of those who voted for Trump were in fact college-educated – an over-emphasis on education also elides complexity and diminishes other important factors such as race, gender, class and geography.
The “stupidity” argument is also ableist, as is the ongoing commentary framing Trump as having a personality disorder and/or mental illness. Consider how stereotypes are reinforced and stigma is strengthened when we attribute hateful politics to mental illness. It’s so easy to call others “crazy and stupid”; but attacking someone in these ways means invoking things like class and ability and mental health when you’re arguing about bigotry, hate, and wilful ignorance.
It’s already been said (e.g. by Kelly Baker), but it’s pretty clear that plenty of smart and well-educated people have been and are bigoted, intolerant, and cruel, and/or enamoured of repugnant intellectual and political ideas and goals. Look at the history of science itself if you want to find a few (or a lot of) relevant examples. And look at faculty today – for example Mark Bauerlein wrote, “If they are serious and brave, our more intellectual academics must be naturally attracted to Donald Trump.”
Education is hugely important, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much focus on the political predilections of profs, why students protest and what they protest, and what can and can’t happen in postsecondary classrooms. Education has significant effects. But we can’t take for granted that it offers prevention or even a cure for the kind of politics we are seeing now. Just as intelligence doesn’t make people virtuous, education in itself is no panacea for regressive, destructive political views. We can’t assume that informing people is the means to changing how they think and act.
And this is a nightmare scenario for academics in particular – one where our analytical arguments against dangerous politics simply hold no ground. How do we act when our training tells us one thing, but the response in context demands of us something more, something completely different? That’s only one of the specific challenges confronting us, but I think it will affect how each of us decides “what do I do now?”, how we think of ways of moving forward, and how we each contribute the work that needs to be done.