There’s yet another Spiderman movie coming out this summer, and with it, a fresh reminder that each day we stray further from God’s grace – God’s grace being 2004’s cinematic achievement, Spiderman 2. Not only does the film hold up astonishingly well, it – like a flower in perpetual bloom – reveals new truths with each viewing.
One particular revelation being that this film explores prominent anarchist themes: it challenges hierarchical power by making our “hero” dependent on others – exploring individual agency in the context of mutual aid and collective action, rather than self-serving individualism.
The film opens with Peter Parker racing against the clock to deliver pizzas on time – he’s been consistently late and this is his last chance before he loses his job. Will our hero deliver the pizzas on time? It’s an extremely working class dilemma; many of Peter’s greatest battles in the film are not against some larger-than-life villain, but against the minutiae of his own circumstances.
The entire first act of the film puts Peter in these varying scenarios – disappointing bosses, landlords, professors, friends, and family. He gets called lazy, unreliable, and irresponsible – common adjectives given to the working poor who are victim blamed for their own circumstances.
The audience, however, gets to see more than that. We know how much Peter has on his plate, how he can’t seem to catch a break, and especially how hard he works. We also know he’s Spiderman. We know he’s more powerful than anyone else realizes, and is trying to use his power for good, heeding Uncle Ben’s famous adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And while this is perhaps the most well known line in comic book history, director Sam Raimi adds complexity by pairing it with wisdom from Aunt May, who now takes centre stage as Peter’s mentor.
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us,” she says, “that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride – even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want most, even our dreams.”
Anarchy, roughly translated, means “without rule,” or more specifically, without rulers. While anarchists differ on what exactly this looks like, the general idea involves challenging unjustified power hierarchies. This would also involve refusing to hold up one person, or group of people as saviour figures.
Aunt May is totally an anarchist.
Raimi uses Aunt May’s sentiment to subvert the concept of the lonely vigilante, highlighting how dependent Peter is on the secondary characters. Their character arcs are so tightly woven that each choice and sacrifice has direct consequences for each other and the plot: Aunt May chooses to forgive Peter and encourages him to continue being Spiderman; Mary Jane must choose to give up class mobility for what she truly wants – despite putting herself at risk; Harry must let go of his desire for revenge to help save Mary Jane; and Otto Octavius – the main antagonist – must let go of his life’s work before it destroys the city.
This film also empowers the background characters, giving them the opportunity to save Spiderman in a display of mutual aid – another key anarchist concept. This is best illustrated by legit one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history, where Peter saves a subway train from crashing off an unfinished track. Once he slows the train to a halt, he collapses from exhaustion – only to be caught by the people he saved on the train. And, as Octavius shows up to collect Peter, they put their bodies on the line for him just like he did for them.
In action movies where extras are often portrayed as helpless bystanders, running away in fright while the hero and villain duke it out, Raimi actually treats them like people capable of making their own choices. This story belongs to them too, and they have power to shift its course.
And finally, Spiderman 2 explores abuse of power – portrayed in the film as individualism. (Basically, a middle finger to Ayn Rand.) And this doesn’t always look the way we think – power can be abused both actively and passively, by any character.
Perhaps the most memorable “villain” from this Spiderman era is not the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, but J. Jonah Jameson, one of Peter’s bosses, and editor of the Daily Bugle newspaper. He runs the office like a tyrant, belittling his employees, leaving those around him in a constant state of fear. And, rather than challenge and question institutional power, he literally cozies up to it in the gala scene where he and his wife rub shoulders with and flatter various VIPs. It’s not hard to see his active abuse of power, putting his own self-interest ahead of the social need for conflict-of-interest-free news.
It is no coincidence that Peter’s landlord shares similar characteristics to Jameson, chasing down – and shaking down – Peter for rent money. It calls to mind the famous Proudhon quote “Property is theft!” – a critique of private property when used to extort and extract profit from others.
In the second act, Peter’s had enough of falling behind in his personal life and gives up the Spiderman mantle. All the sudden, his personal life improves. He starts attending his classes, he does his homework, and he puts in a serious effort to pursue Mary Jane. Others start seeing him for the brilliant and kind person he is. All he had to do was give up his power, and look the other way.
But this is portrayed as a passive abuse of power, as he lets harm he could reduce continue and proliferate – and allows Octavius to wreak havoc upon the city. Once Peter becomes a “civilian”, he thinks that because he doesn’t have his “powers”, he doesn’t have any responsibility. But, like those who saved him on the train, Peter has to choose whether to ignore his power or act on it – not only as Spiderman, but as a citizen.
The “villain” in Spiderman 2 is not any one group or individual, but selfishness itself. While Octavius starts out pursuing science “for the good of mankind,” his work soon becomes a way to validate his ego, and it harms instead of benefiting others. But by recognizing his ability to make choices, he has the opportunity to become a hero at the climax, choosing to sacrifice himself and destroying his life’s work to save the city.
By the end of the film, each character is arguably worse off. But, by giving up the things they want the most, they have shown how powerful their choices can be, working in conjunction with each other to do something great – like save a city, and each other.
So it must be noted that while Spiderman 2 is a well-constructed movie exploring identifiable anarchist themes, it does so in an extremely limited context. This movie is super white! And there is a misconception out there that anarchism is a predominantly White Thing as well, so I want to address that for a second.
Anarchism challenges power hierarchies of gender, race, class, orientation, ability and so on. People of colour have developed their own networks of mutual aid and reciprocity to survive in the face of state and colonial power for centuries. Trans and queer individuals and communities have likewise been forced to live outside and in between structures built to eradicate them. Though the term “anarchist” is not always used for a variety of valid reasons, threads of anarchy run through many struggles for social justice.
This is why having a black hispanic Spiderman, like Miles Morales, makes a lot of sense for a working class superhero exploring themes of power and responsibility. While I am not familiar with the comic book storylines and can’t comment on their quality, this webcomic by Let’s Be Friends gives you the idea of its potential.
Not to mention, anarchism generally involves a pretty explicit critique of the state and its disciplinary arm – police and prisons. Peter Parker in Spiderman 2, despite being part of the working poor, never has to worry about negative interactions with the police or incarceration – even though he gets accused of robbing a bank. It would be interesting to see if/how the Miles Morales comics explores policing, incarceration, and Spiderman’s position as a vigilante-of-colour.
So there you have it! I hope this blog post inspires you to have a very fun time re-watching Spiderman 2 and perhaps read some more about anarchism. This blog post is obviously hella basic, so here are some articles to check out if you’re interested in exploring these ideas further!
The Anarchism of Blackness by William C. Anderson and Zoe Samudzi and corresponding podcast interview Everything We Need is Already Inside Us: On the anarchism of blackness.
Beyond Prisons podcast with Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein
Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in and What’s Wrong with Libertarians with Michael S. Wilson
Indigenous Intersectionality: De-colonizing an Indigenous Eco-Queer Feminism and Anarchism by Laura Hall (more academic than the other ones, but I don’t know another article that explores these ideas in more common language – suggestions welcome!)
I re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire recently, which is maybe one of my favourite books ever. I wanted to write down what I thought were the main tenets of the book because writing helps me clarify my own understanding. I also wanted to share my thoughts here because Freire has been probably my number one influence informing the way I approach activism or conversations about social and economic justice. I hope you find these reflections helpful in rethinking the ways we learn, transmit knowledge, and transform society.
“Pedagogy” refers to the “method and practice of teaching”, and the term itself implies this pursuit has been relegated to academia. But I think, and Freire would also argue, that pedagogy is important for everyone to think about. We all have to go through the process of teaching ourselves – our education does not lie solely in the hands of others, but is a synthesis of our experiences, where we take on roles of both teacher and student, often simultaneously, throughout our lifetimes.
So it follows, according to Freire, that to make any radical changes to society, you must address the present material conditions, and to understand them you have to be in dialogue with others. Academic knowledge and theory can be helpful, but can also run the risk of overlaying someone’s personal experience, or a group’s cultural history, with a wooden narrative – the goal is to enhance one’s understanding of their circumstances, not erase them. We must learn how be both teacher and student with each other, exchanging information and synthesizing new knowledge together. Only through this process can we come up with new ways of organizing ourselves in relationships and communities that affirm each other’s full humanity.
“Dehumanization” is a big academic word I first learned in an English class, but the concept is fairly simple, and a central theme in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It essentially is the process of treating individuals as subhuman, or incapable of making their own decisions, who therefore must be dominated and guided by more liberated or enlightened individuals. This shows up frequently in various forms of media, where stereotypes flatten out human experiences. We participate in dehumanizing others by internalizing these stereotypes and ascribing trite narratives to someone based on a few facts (ie. someone who is poor or disabled or Indigenous etc – our minds can easily flood with these incomplete narratives that reduce the individual to a trope). Once someone is dehumanized in this way, it can be easy to then prescribe particular solutions for their ailments, or force upon them particular social order that is meant to be ‘for their own good.’ This can be seen in the way an author treats a particular character, the way those in authority treat individuals in real life, and, unfortunately, often the way teachers treat students.
Humanization is the process of acknowledging the full humanity of individuals – and that is trusting them to know and identify their situation and their needs, and recognizing that no one else can do the work of liberation for them but themselves. It is through this process of liberating themselves that they then liberate others. Again, to come back to media, this is why the ‘oppressed’ must be able to create and tell their own stories – it is the work of humanization and liberation. To deny someone the opportunity to tell their own stories is to deny them the process of humanization.
Through the process of self-liberation we also liberate others, for we allow them to see the full complexity of the human experience and use it to further their own knowledge about themselves and their situation. This is why consciousness-raising is a common form of learning in radical circles – sharing personal experiences to form a common and more complex understanding of ourselves and each other.
The common model of learning we have – what Freire calls the ‘banking model’ – does not affirm each other’s humanity and overlays stiff ideologies and dogmas overtop of people’s lived experiences – the ideologies and dogmas that best suit those in power, or the ‘oppressors.’ This banking model also sees knowledge as a commodity, meaning one can use knowledge for profit and domination, instead of a means for transformation.
The banking model imparts narratives that humans must then try to squeeze themselves into to be recognized as human – think of white supremacist standards of beauty or capitalist narratives of a “hard worker” or “contributor,” or patriarchal notions of acceptable femininity, and so on. If you cannot adequately fit your existence into these boxes, you become dehumanized, and your ongoing subjugation is justified.
And, finally, according to Freire, the ‘oppressors’ dehumanize themselves by asserting dominance, or supremacy, over other individuals. This, too, is a false narrative. Think models of masculinity, where ‘real men’ only partner with cis women, where authority warrants inflicting violence as ‘discipline’ over others, or that in order to be successful in your career you must achieve domination over others. Freire refers to an educational process that frees both the oppressed and the oppressor. Through recognizing the full humanity of oneself and of others, one can give up their need for domination and take up the mantle of the oppressed to continue the work of liberation. Who can see others as fully human and also see the need to subjugate them?
I have found this book particularly helpful to return to periodically as I think about what organizing should look like, and what conversations within activist spaces should look like as well.
In online spaces, for example, we are constantly sharing personal experiences and knowledge. How can we utilize this sharing in a transformative way, that allows us to break down the alienating status quo, and discover new ways of being, interacting and organizing?
We can find new ways of being, new ways of organizing ourselves outside of colonial capitalism, but only when we rethink our relationship to knowledge and learning. We must do this work for ourselves and for each other.
I slip my feet into the slowly rising bathwater and it feels like they’re burning. They’re always the coldest part of my body and unable to gauge the water’s true temperature. It’s hot, but never quite as hot as they tell me it is.
My body has been setting up other alarms lately, warning me of imminent danger when there is none, making me feel like I’m on fire when I am definitely not on fire.
Panic attacks have been wreaking havoc on my nervous system, leaving me very little time to recover from one to the next. My back floods with heat from the base of my spine up into the back of my head; my fingers go numb, I feel overwhelmingly fearful. I cry. I try to remember coping mechanisms I read on the internet, slowing my breathing, talking myself down – but I have yet to master these strategies.
I had recently come across old photos of myself from a past relationship. And by past relationship, I mean marriage. I feel one hundred years old to refer to a marriage in the past tense. I’m 27. Most people around me are just starting to get married, while I’ve already come out the other side.
I was glowing. I felt a twinge of jealousy because today I’m a wreck. I feel like walking cautionary tale, an omen of bad luck for young star-crossed lovers en route to the altar. Someone too fucked up to get into a conversation with because you’ll just come out depressed. I avoid talking to people for this reason.
It’s resulted in a lot of loneliness as I keep one of the most disruptive and traumatic experiences of my life to myself.
I let my feet adjust to the heat, the skin slowly turning redder and redder up until the water line, and soon it looks like I’m wearing wearing rosy-coloured socks. Sitting on the edge of the tub, the skin on my un-submerged calves and thighs tries to figure out what’s going on with the feet and arranges itself into goosebumps in response.
Am I allowed to be this fucking happy? a Snapchat caption on an old photo reads.
My hair, my makeup, my outfit was flawless. I jadedly attribute my aesthetic to the $40 foundation and $70 haircuts. The glow was constructed! I say to myself – there was no way I was actually happy. It’s pretty hard not to feel happiness and confidence when you successfully emulate conventional beauty standards, right?
But in the caption, I acknowledge both my happiness and question its validity.
When I think of my marriage, I don’t attribute its breakdown to any one person or thing. Instead, I look to the culture in which my relationship existed and the cultures it was born out of.
I grew up a Christian fundamentalist in a poor white household – highly patriarchal, abusive and controlling. So to go from that to marrying into the upper-middle class with mostly liberal tendencies was a perceived step up on the whole freedom and autonomy scale.
But much of that freedom I now realize was my own projection of what liberal culture offered, not the freedom it actually granted. All the perks of being young, educated, attractive, and in a financially stable marriage overwrought the true precariousness of my wellbeing.
So of course, I was happy. I lived in a fantasy world that existed inside my head.
Middle class comfort is a fog of complacency. Warm and safe at first, and then slowly dulls and deadens your senses. You learn to see things not as they are, but in ways that will perpetuate your own sense of comfort and safety.
Ie. I feel comfortable, therefore I am safe.
But believing gender equality can be attained in a capitalist society – fundamentally built on hierarchies – is misguided. Freedom from the chains of gender cannot be erased while hungry crevasses of poverty lie waiting below, waiting for us to make one wrong move, and swallow us, body and soul.
It might sound cold and impersonal to use words like “liberal” and “capitalist” to describe a relationship, but I do not believe relationships exist in a vacuum and that they are not shaped by their surrounding culture. Much talk about “healthy relationships” completely disregards cultural contexts and focuses only on individual behaviours and actions. But to challenge gendered power dynamics, one must question the system that organizes individuals into gender-based hierarchies in the first place.
The concept that you can have a successful relationship just by being the right kind of person is the same kind of “bootstraps” fallacy that says you can have a successful career if you are simply a hard worker. Structural sexism, racism and classism factor into every kind of relationship, alienating individuals from each other, setting us apart. No human in this system exempt from it. To then form a truly healthy relationship in this environment requires overcoming not only the internalized oppression, but the structural barriers that organize people into hierarchies with varying socio-economic advantages and disadvantages.
This is not to dismiss the power of individual actions and agency, but to acknowledge that external factors influence our relationships, romantic or otherwise.
There is no love to be found in a system that pits us against each other in hierarchies based on gender, race, class, ability and so on, breeding alienation. There is no love in a system where transgression of assigned gender roles is met with violence. There is no love in allowing this system to persist.
To love is to struggle against it, finding new ways of being.
Consider that it’s not uncommon for women to stay in relationships with men that are either abusive or simply not right for them because the costs of leaving are perceived as greater than the costs of staying. Is this love?
Relationships should be built on ongoing consent to being in the relationship, not contracts or physical or financial coercion. But this is absolutely not the reality for many.
The concept of marriage slowly became unappealing to me. After trying out a series of reforms to make the concept more palatable, I eventually left. I no longer wanted to be married.
Few could fathom why. A lot of people called me crazy. Irresponsible. I asked: Could I be seen as an individual human being, not as a wife?
This proved more difficult to understand than I anticipated.
The fog vanished, the crevasses opened up. I could not negotiate the conditions of my fall. I found myself isolated, abused, gaslighted, financially vulnerable, unable to access mental health supports or any other resources that might have helped me transition out of my marriage in a safe and healthy way.
The fact that you can fall so far, so easily, is evidence enough of the phantom life that liberal comforts offer you. Your comfort is transparent, you are easily sacrificed upon transgression. You will fall in plain sight and it will be acceptable.
It will be acceptable because you are no longer human, but have been relegated to the land of myths, both capitalist and patriarchal. You become an immoral madwoman, living under shadow of poverty, a cautionary tale for others to not stray too far from their assigned positions.
Your range of motion is limited, but you don’t notice it until you try to move.
Labour laws are gendered – women were never meant to earn a living wage working in femme-dominated fields like retail and the service industry, your earnings were intended to be “pin money” to supplement a male income.
These conditions remain unchanged. Today, this concept of supplemental income is used outright as a justification for not raising the minimum wage – dependency on a sole wage earner in a household is perfectly acceptable state of being. Apparently, women, teenagers and young adults have no need for financial autonomy or independence.
Marriage is still considered the most moral and responsible relationship choice. Disrupting this dynamic establishes oneself as both immoral and irresponsible – especially if you’re a woman. Once you’ve been labelled as such, any violence or struggles you might face after the fact become your own doing.
Victim blaming is central to capitalist ideology and thus victim blaming can never be truly eradicated as long as capitalism thrives. We equate poverty as a just consequence for “irresponsible” choices the same way we justify sexual violence against women and femmes who should have “known better,” shouldn’t have been doing the “wrong” thing at the “wrong” time.
Women’s actions are policed by violence and the threat of violence. That violence takes many forms. It could be verbal harassment for coming out as queer, gaslighting for standing up to abuse, physical violence for presenting as trans, sexual violence for refusing advances, employment discrimination for challenging white supremacist standards of femininity, and denial of a living wage for those in femme-dominated fields, and subsequent lack of access to education, health care, mental health resources, and legal support to protect yourself from exploitation.
All this violence reinforces the notion that you do not know what is good for you, and you must be crazy to want something other than what capitalist colonial gender roles have assigned. It’s infantilizing and paternalistic. This violence is built into the fabric of our social system and infects our relationships, binding us into hierarchies against our will, poisoning our understanding of what it means to love.
In a book called All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes that “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” So long as we allow this colonial capitalist system of abuse to perpetuate, we must question what we mean when say to others, “I love you.”
I developed a stutter over the past year; the silences hold the words I want to say but cannot. The silences hold uncertainties as I question my reality over and over again. My body throws itself into fight, flight or freeze mode, now unsure about my safety in the most banal of circumstances. I sleep as often as possible to keep my mind from tipping over, exhausted from the constant fight to find solid ground.
I turn off the taps, slip in, and the water greets me like a womb. My body ceases to argue with itself over whether it’s hot or cold, on fire or not, and recognizes that, for now, it is safe. I compulsively close my eyes and exhale. The water reacts to my movements, both holding me close and releasing me, neither of us reduced by the movement of the other.
I wrote about moving to Winnipeg from Calgary for the Uniter. You can check it out here!
Let’s get right to it – the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary is in trouble and has been for awhile. An overall lack of student mobilization over the proposed market modifier tuition increases in 2014 and the recent Mac Hall ownership dispute are all symptoms of an SU that has lost its ability to connect with students on issues that matter.
I write this as a former SU Elected Official (Arts Rep) myself, and as a student who has interacted with the SU in various capacities over the past six years. This article is based on my personal experiences, observations and conversations with other students.
The leadership model at the University of Calgary is a highly individualistic and competitive, focused on promoting individual careers than capacity building for student organizing. This is most evident in the SU election process, which is centred around effective marketing and branding, where candidates in various eye-catching onesies strive to set themselves apart as cures for student body ailments.
But, in the face of an increasingly precarious job market – where employers across industries find ways to exploit workers by suppressing wages and benefits – students can do more by learning to band together rather than striving to set themselves apart. There’s no better training ground for this than the campus environment, and the SU is doing students a disservice by not recognizing this. The SU needs to provide students with the full spectrum of tools they need to organize themselves – including direct action in the form of strikes and protests.
Instead, most of an Elected Official’s capacity is directed towards learning and navigating the SU bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is not a problem in an of itself. The SU provides a lot of student services such as the Campus Food Bank and the Q Centre and it’s important for students to play a role in the delivery and implementation of these services. It’s also helpful for students to gain experience working in such an environment, as the world is sadly made up of many large slow, moving bureaucracies.
But a key problem is that the SU centralizes outreach and communication to such a degree that it limits the capacity of individual EOs to connect with students and create a sense of solidarity. Candidates who run on platforms that emphasize community building or organizing can easily get frustrated with the lack of institutional support for such initiatives. When students never see or hear from candidates once elected, it’s because they’ve been absorbed into a bureaucratic machine.
Take for example the concept of “office hours,” which is not actually included in an EOs job description, and thus no formal structure exists to facilitate or promote them. EOs have to essentially improvise. Without an established structure to maximize their effectiveness, “office hours” can feel like an exhausting and demoralizing waste of time and are quite often abandoned.
Compare this to SU organized activities centred around Orientation Week, Bermuda Shorts Day, Sex Week, Stress Less Week, Dinos games etc. These kinds of events all have SU bureaucratic support in the form of organizing committees, staff positions, volunteer coordination, and financial resources to facilitate effective planning, promotion and execution.
These events are all well and good for providing a fun, recreational campus experience, but they do not serve to build a sense of solidarity among students as Union members (and all students are Union members!). Students come to these events, enjoy themselves (hopefully), pick up some SU sunglasses or whatever the swag-item-of-the-year happens to be, and leave without knowing why the SU matters, why unions matter in general, or why student solidarity is important.
Particularly telling that this year’s SU presidential candidates all stated that they would use SU resources to break a strike on campus. It’s easy to see SU as filled with self-centred careerists with this kind of talk from its aspiring leaders. Grassroots and labour organizing is simply not a cultural value at the U of C.
Occasionally, activist-oriented candidates will come into their roles hoping to shake things up and mobilize students. But effective protests and campaigns don’t just materialize out of nowhere, or because particularly charismatic students can rally people around them. There has to be a general understanding about why direct action has value, and the SU has failed to communicate this effectively.
Take the market modifier protests in 2014, which I participated in – the Students’ Union couldn’t even fill a single bus to send up to the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. Those who did attend were students either already in the SU or students gunning for SU positions in the upcoming election. It was a very insular crowd.
Or the Mental Health Funding campaign, which showcased the SU’s super lackluster black curtain + tiny whiteboard photo campaign strategy. The SU could totally afford a better setup, but no one thought to invest in these kind of campaign-oriented resources. As a result, these campaigns usually look very thrown-together and not all that inspiring.
And, finally, the loss of student ownership over Mac Hall. The overall absence of mobilization around what should have been a massive student concern is evidence of the general lack of student identification with the SU and sense of student ownership of the building.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying on behalf of the executive and elected officials of that year., who were generally fed up and ready to take the fight to the streets. That year’s council was simply late to the game in recognizing that direct action might have been a useful strategy in the Mac Hall struggle.
Educating the student body around this issue should have happened years before. You simply cannot get a large amount of students effectively educated and organized over such a complex issue in the span of a couple months. It’s easy to blame student apathy, as many of us did initially, rather than recognize the lack of groundwork the SU laid to make effective direct action a real possibility.
Now, the Mac Hall dispute was largely a legal battle, and understandably, most of the effort was concentrated into legal channels. Similarly, the SU invests a lot of time into lobbying government officials on behalf of students against things like market modifiers or for increased mental health funding. These are obviously important channels to work through that most students don’t see.
But these methods centralize power into the hands of a select few students & SU bureaucracy. It’s a “Don’t worry, we got this” approach. While these “respectable” tactics are important tools for student advocacy, they have been prioritized at the expense of empowering and engaging the broader student body. What happens when you send a select number of suited students into meetings with government officials and university administration and come back with nothing?
As it stands, the SU is structurally deficient in facilitating any truly effective direct action, and that’s a problem.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, directing some SU infrastructure and resources towards grassroots and labour organizing would be a start, ideally in the form of an organizing committee. (Edit: Or perhaps a Public Interest Research Group*.) This committee’s mandate would have to be, in order of importance, something like this: a) build solidarity among students through community building initiatives b) educate students about grassroots, student, and labour organizing history and tactics, and c) determine how and when direct action should be employed by the SU and d) organize direct action when deemed appropriate.
It would also have to support students organizing independently of the SU, much like their Lobby Training Program does by trying to make lobbying tactics more accessible to students outside the SU. This would shift the notion that “leaders” are ones who can market themselves successfully in elections, to students who can foster those around them to recognize their own power.
But let’s face it, this is absolutely not the SU’s style and would take a miracle to actually happen.
The alternative to the SU failing to take on such an initiative would be the formation of an independent student organization that would operate under a similar solidarity-building mandate. This might even be preferable, as this group could, in theory, circumvent the SU personality-centred leadership model, be decidedly more political, and less weighed down by a bureaucracy. This is not to say that the group wouldn’t work alongside the SU in many cases – I think it would be advantageous to do so, while simultaneously retaining independence to critique the SU when needed.
The way such a group is formed and functions internally would matter just as much as the actions it carries out. It would have to be inclusive of all genders, sexual orientations, cultural and religious backgrounds. It would have to be accessible to students in poverty and students with disabilities. It would have to prioritize the wellbeing of students involved, rather than sacrificing their minds and bodies to a greater cause. It would affirm that students are people first and not working machines.
Students would have to do their homework, researching other grassroots organizational models, trying to learn from others’ mistakes and finding what works best for the unique campus environment that is the U of C – they should probably try to bring in student organizers from across Canada in for some workshops. There are a lot of ways an endeavour like this could go wrong, but getting it right would be game changing for student advocacy in Alberta.
Again, I’m not going to pretend that any of this would be easy, or that it wouldn’t be a huge headache in many ways.
But you know what’s also a huge headache? An administration that just screwed students out of their own building. Precarious work, wage suppression, and exploitative working conditions. Entitled politicians who forget or disregard the needs of their communities once elected. Students feeling anxious, depressed and powerless because they are overwhelmed by academic and career pressures. Students feeling isolated and lonely because they feel their peers are their competition, not their community.
Students deserve access full spectrum of tools needed to advocate for themselves – including knowledge about organizing effective strikes and protests.
Who at the U of C will step up?
*Update (3/24/17): A friend of mine has since referred me to the existence of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). I had never heard of them, but apparently they can facilitate the kind of grassroots organizing mandate I suggested in the piece, among other things.
There is an Alberta Public Interest Research Group based out of Edmonton. It looks quite active and like it’s doing some really neat stuff. It’s been in existence since 2001! Wow!
And apparently one did exist at the U of C like over 10 years ago. This looks like a really promising first step for the U of C to take, getting something like this started up again. Check it out.
My uterus has turned into a meat grinder, wanting to churn my insides out of me, and I’m dry heaving over the tub mumbling “no no no no” as the churn slowly makes another rotation.
My partner walks in with a package of Tylenol – I had sent him out earlier for Ibuprofen, but they had none at the store. That was then. I’m on the floor of the bathroom now, paralyzed by the jaws of this monster that is my body.
“What…what should I do,” he asks.
“I don’t know, um, call a pharmacist,” I say, trying to think of anything else other than calling the ambulance.
“What will that do?”
“Um, they can like tell me if this is normal?”
My period started today. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I’ve also never experienced this level of pain before. It feels abnormal, and I know that downplaying its severity could be life threatening. What the hell is going on? The monster keeps chewing me and I clench my teeth.
“Do you want me to call the ambulance?”
I pause for a second and then answer yes.
He makes the call.
Soon five or six large men have entered my apartment asking me questions and hooking me up to wires. I can’t recall the last time I’ve received this much attention. It feels excessive. But perhaps this is only because I’ve had a lifetime of learning to dismiss, downplay, or ignore pain. Vocalizing pain, asking for help, and letting others take care of me feels downright indulgent.
I worry the paramedics will be condescending or dismissive because this particular pain coincides with menstruation. Years of jokes from men in my life have taught me my period is more or less something I just gotta shut up and deal with. I can’t use my period as an “excuse” for anything. Under no circumstances should I draw men’s attention to the fact I have a body – at this time, especially. I’ve been taught the comfort of others around me is always more important than my own.
But, to my surprise, the paramedics are exceedingly gentle and compassionate. I suppose it’s just their job, but they’re doing it well.
“On a scale of one to 10, what is your level of pain right now?”
Despite the emergency situation, the paramedics never take away my agency. They check in consistently with my pain levels, communicate clearly with me, and put decisions in my hands. I feel like they are here to listen and support me in acquiring the kind of care I need.
I end up trying to walk, with one paramedic on each side for support. I feel like a child – not in an infantilized manner, but in the sense that I haven’t experienced this overwhelming amount of tenderness since I was very young. The ambulance ride is one of the most caring experiences in my entire life.
I don’t want it to end, but it does.
Once I’m at the hospital, I wait for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room, hooked up to an IV. The pain has subsided, and I feel stressed and frustrated. The ambulance trip has costing me $800 – higher than usual because my health care card is from another province. I’ve also had to call in sick to work. I want to go home, but know I should wait to make it all somewhat worth it.
Finally, the doctor arrives and prescribes me some painkillers. He says if this has happened to me once, it’s likely to happen again. Bad menstrual pain. Not much else you can do about it.
I take the prescription, relieved he’s told me it’s nothing more serious, but also frustrated that apparently this is just a “new normal” for me. No ultrasound, at least? Nobody wants a closer look?
Despite my frustrations, I am incredibly grateful for our healthcare system in Canada. Eight hundred dollars is not exactly something I can afford, but I know it could be a lot worse. Waiting for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room with constant beeping noises from various medical devices is frustrating, but is less of a barrier to me seeking medical attention than adding more zeroes to my bill.
That said, I do question why the experience of tenderness from the paramedics stood out to me as so abnormal, why I expected to be treated differently, with less care or gentleness.
I relayed my experience to my co-workers the next day. Some told me they’ve experienced that level of menstrual pain their entire lives. Another told me they had been diagnosed with endometriosis, after initially having the pain dismissed by doctors.
Today, I read about a Calgary woman who spent six years fighting to find answers about her own menstrual pain, which had interrupted her life so much that she had to drop out of classes for a semester.
She, too, was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis, which “occurs when tissues that usually line the uterine wall are found outside the uterus, where they attach to other organs, such as the fallopian tubes, colon or bladder.”
Since her condition took so long to diagnose, however, it has since resulted in a myriad of further complicated issues.
What is your level of pain, on a scale from one to ten?
What do you need?
What would you like to do?
What do you need me to do?
These questions are transformative because they put power into the hands of the person experiencing pain, and allows their experience be centred. For individuals with marginalized identities, the act of being centred – being heard, being actively listened to, is radical. The person asking these questions puts themselves in a position of service. In moments like these, pathways to healing are created.
Tenderness is revolutionary. Entire systems built to exploit, isolate and alienate individuals are disrupted when we practice tenderness with each other, when we seek to know and understand another’s pain rather than hide from it, and when we offer our assistance in service of another’s healing.
Canadian universal healthcare, for all its faults and flawed execution, is ultimately a gift and should be preserved and fought for. It embodies the notion that care is collective, that individuals are not simply left to the luck of their circumstances when it comes to medical care. In order to preserve this system and fight for it’s improvement and expansion (such as pharma care and dental), we must practice and value radical tenderness ourselves.
This is a value and character quality often overlooked, no doubt due to its feminine and maternal connotations. We do not learn in school, the job market, or in “leadership” programs about how to be tender with one another. Consider it then a revolutionary concept to bring tenderness to the forefront of our personal and political lives.