Commentary  Hyde Park: Dismantling the Ivory Tower goes beyond identity politics

Earlier this semester, two fellow activists writing on behalf of the McGill Anti-Racist Coalition sought to challenge academic content that creates oppressive learning environments or which fails to address broader systems of oppression. While I fully support their goals, I felt their analysis of prospects for change in how universities function was a good start, although lacking on many fronts. My intention is to provide further ideas for anti-oppression organizing and perhaps to spark some debate.

While many student groups at McGill have done a very good job at raising awareness about multiple oppressions and how they intersect, they often fail to go beyond identity politics in doing so. Pushing for a better dialogue between course curricula and work that seeks to end oppression based on identity categories falls short of a complete attempt at dismantling ideologies of oppression within the university.

The work that goes towards imagining anti-capitalist alternatives to an education system which has fallen prey to neoliberal thought is, I believe, at least as important as challenging oppressive classroom environments or lacunae in course curricula. As activists we must challenge the prevalence of neoliberal thinking in many departments and faculties, which would see social justice and workers’ rights curtailed in favour the “demands of the marketplace” (read: the interests of the capitalist class). One idea which was formulated by radicals studying at McGill in the sixties would be to change the Faculty of Management to a Faculty of Labour. In this way, education funded in part by workers through the public purse would provide students with the skills and knowledge to enact syndicalist work organizations in their communities, instead of providing training to the future administrators of corporate capitalism.

The deleterious effects of neoliberalism, through sustained cuts in social spending, are felt hardest by the most disadvantaged groups of people in society. For example, trans people may have trouble funding operations because of increasingly privatized health care systems. This ideology has permeated so much of our course content that it is legitimate classroom debate to weigh the pros and cons of democratic institutions versus the “demands of the market.” This would have been deemed absurd by most students and professors a few decades ago, but this type of discussion takes place without an outcry.

I contend that identity politics is part and parcel of the neoliberal moment in that both ideologies place individual identities over collective solidarities; this deviates our energies away from working toward a concrete understanding of systems of oppression. Although the concept of classism is often used to describe the unjust outcomes of the capitalist system, it is a half-baked attempt at demanding social change. Identity politics and its “isms” and “phobias” fail to provide an accurate description of economic and social realities which we may draw upon to have a better idea of what we’re up against as we seek to change the material conditions which give rise to gendered, racialized and class inequalities. The result is that we end up supporting the structures that create oppression in the first place, either by misconstruing them or by ignoring their existence altogether.

Furthermore, activists are not sufficiently addressing the lack of Quebec content or content written in French in McGill courses. Social science profs teaching courses not specifically addressing with Québecois content are perfectly inclined to draw examples from English-Canadian, U.S. or international data, yet they only occasionally mention material that might be relevant to those of us who wish to contribute to public life in Quebec. The lack of Quebec and francophone content in many courses contributes to the alienation of many McGill students from the world outside the Roddick Gates. It is one more obstacle to overcome before McGill students can understand the Quebec political system enough to challenge such oppressive realities as increases in tuition and ancillary fees, which worsen already crushing class inequality.

Joël Pedneault is a U1 Sociology and Anthropology student and can be reached at