The Women’s Caucus

The CPSA Women’s Caucus is talking about “the need for more avenues of discussion of difference in the Canadian Political Science Association.” I take this statement from a recent Women’s Caucus e-mail to Frances Widdowson.

(“More avenues of discussion.” Sounds fine to me. I’m up for a discussion of “difference” with anyone.)

The next step, it’s suggested, will be to figure out how “this will work vis-à-vis the CPSA Board and hopefully also as a dialogue between PSCI Depts and the Board.”

Got that?

There’s more. “Unfortunately, it is true that the Women’s Caucus appears to be the only one that has historically represented the views and lives of marginalized people within political science and CPSA. This would seem to be a structural flaw within the CPSA.” In other words the Caucus is overworked. It “is unfair to expect one caucus to carry all the ‘diversity’ work within an organization.” Touch of self-pity there?

And then, the punch line. The message concludes: “A far better resolution could be brought about by your talking directly with the people that can impact the issue,” that is, the CPSA Board. What the Women’s Caucus really wants is to avoid opening “a discussion of difference” with Frances Widdowson.

Uh huh. Talk to someone else, Frances. Anyone but us. I guess Widdowson represents the wrong kind of “difference.”

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5 Responses to “The Women’s Caucus”


  1. 1 Frances Widdowson July 4, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    I am very grateful to Janet Ajzenstat and her blog “The Idea File” for providing a public forum to discuss these developments. Unfortunately, the Women’s Caucus of the Canadian Political Science Association tends to operate in a secretive fashion, which does not facilitate a greater understanding of the trouble brewing within the discipline of political science. The Women’s Caucus Listserv, for example, notes the following in the message that it sends out to people just added to the list: “IMPORTANT: This list is confidential. You should not publicly mention its existence, or forward copies of information you have obtained from it to third parties” (!). Who decided upon this dictate, and why is it perceived to be necessary?

    I strongly oppose the secretive character of this body, and think that there are a number of aspects of the Women’s Caucus that all members of the Canadian Political Science Association should be aware of. The first is that it is not clear what type of entity the Women’s Caucus is. Is it an official arm of the CPSA, which would give it a certain amount of clout in putting forward its views, concerns, etc. about the CPSA and its members, or is it a clique of women within the Canadian Political Science Association that merely wants to offer “support” and vent about things that they find annoying? The fact that the Women’s Caucus is advertised on the CPSA’s website and the CPSA maintains the Women’s Caucus listserv is an indication that it is perceived as an official part of the CPSA. The Women’s Caucus also adopts official trappings such as taking minutes of its annual meeting, and distributing them on its listserv.

    The fact that the Women’s Caucus has some kind official standing within the CPSA makes the organization’s behaviour disturbing. Anonymous allegations were made about my conduct by “several members” in its minutes of 2008 and false information about my participation on a 2008 panel, based on hearsay, was distributed on its listserv. Then, in an attempt to encourage “due process” in my case, a letter was submitted by four members of the Women’s Caucus to the CPSA Board and distributed on the Women’s Caucus listserv. As a result of these events, a motion was eventually submitted to the CPSA Board urging the development of a policy concerning “speech that promotes hatred or creates a hostile environment”. The inference that can be made is that I was, in fact, guilty of promoting hatred and creating a hostile environment, and therefore policies are needed to ensure that such conduct does not occur in the future!

    Completely absent in any of this is an account of how my presentation promoted hatred (Whether or not I “creat[ed] a hostile environment is more difficult to determine – does Richard Dawkins, when he argues that belief in God constitutes a “delusion”, create a hostile environment? Do evolutionary biologists do this when they oppose the views of Creationists? Should these scientists be prevented from making such arguments on this basis?). Although I was hoping that the letter submitted by four members of the Women’s Caucus to the CPSA Board would be a start in moving the organization in a more principled and responsible direction, this was too optimistic. The letter makes some soothing noises about the need to get the “facts in order” and systematically document what happened at the 2008 session in question, but most of its contents are devoted to making unsubstantiated claims about the existence of racism and racist scholarship within Canadian political science. This is putting the cart before the horse. Don’t we need to determine if there is racism in our discipline first? While there is an appeal for “frank discussion about racism in the discipline and our association”, any attempt to do this is met with open hostility, and ironically, one is accused of creating a hostile environment!

    Even more unsettling is the fact that the Women’s Caucus is a symptom of much larger problem – the intrusion of advocacy into the social sciences. “Native Studies”, “Women’s Studies”, “Queer Studies”, etc. are all examples of this. They stress the need for “authenticity” in scholarship (that research should only be undertaken by a member of the identity group) and argue for the development and use of theories and methodologies that are only applicable to the study of particular (oppressed)groups. The oppression that these groups have endured historically is then used as a club to prevent people from questioning the desirability of such claims to scholarly exclusivity. If one does not accept that there are different “ways of knowing”, one is immediately labelled colonialist, patriarchal and homophobic. Although this is all proposed under the guise of moral superiority, it is actually driven by opportunism and careerism. By saying that one has to be a member of an identity group in order to “speak for the Other”, job opportunities are created for the people who are making these postmodern arguments.

  2. 3 janetajzenstat July 6, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Good fun.

  3. 4 Frances Widdowson July 8, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    In the interests of transparency, the comments concerning Rita Dhamoon were made in my submission to the CPSA ethics committee (see below). This submission was emailed to Dhamoon and all others mentioned by name – Miriam Smith, Andreas Krebs, Daniel Salee, and Sandra Tomsons – and no responses have been received.

    Sincerely,

    Frances Widdowson

    ***

    Frances Widdowson, Ph.D.
    Department of Policy Studies
    Mount Royal College
    4825 Mount Royal Gate SW
    Calgary, Alberta T3E 6K6
    Email: fwiddowson@mtroyal.ca
    Telephone: 403-440-6884
    June 23, 2009

    Sally Rutherford
    Executive Director, CPSA
    #204, 260 rue Dalhousie Street
    Ottawa, ON K1N 7E4
    Telephone: (613) 562-1202
    Fax: (613) 241-0019
    E-mail: sally_rutherford@cpsa-acsp.ca

    Dear Ms. Rutherford:

    Below is my submission to the CPSA’s committee to review professional ethics for political scientists. This committee was formed because of a motion that directed it

    to explore the possibility of establishing a CPSA policy on professional ethics, which would consider ethics in research, teaching and administration as well as in the activities of the Association. The committee should pay particular attention to the following questions and issues: 1) should the CPSA develop a complaints procedure for CPSA members with regard to CPSA activities?; 2) should the CPSA develop guidelines on ethical professional conduct for Canadian political scientists?; 3) should the CPSA amend its by-laws to include an explicit policy or statement on inclusivity and professional ethics?; 4) should the CPSA establish a standing committee or committees on professional ethics?”.

    Although I am not against the development of complaints procedures or guidelines on ethical professional conduct for political scientists per se, the committee should consider how this motion came about in its deliberations. Because of the history of this motion, it is highly likely that such procedures/guidelines could be used, not to bolster ethical conduct within the CPSA, but to constrain academic freedom within the organization. Therefore, the committee should be very cautious about institutionalizing any such procedures or guidelines. As far as I know, besides the case that prompted the motion (which, as will be shown below, did not constitute a breach of ethics), there are no problems of ethical behaviour within the organization. As a result, putting procedures/guidelines in place to address issues that have yet to arise could create more problems than they would solve.

    It should be recognized that the motion that directed the formation of the committee to review professional ethics for political scientists was in response to another motion submitted to the CPSA Board on July 8, 2008 by the Women’s Caucus, which read as follows:

    We [the Women’s Caucus] request that the CPSA Board create policy concerning (1) speech that promotes hatred or creates a hostile environment; and (2) the consequences of such speech. In particular, we would like guidelines concerning professional conduct during the Annual Meeting (for panels and all other formal and informal sessions). These guidelines should include instructions for session chairs, participants, and discussants. We also request the establishment of protocols for registering complaints and a process for their resolution (personal communication with Miriam Smith, November 5, 2008 and January 7, 2009).

    This motion from the Women’s Caucus was initiated as the result of the concerns of several members about my presentation of a paper on June 4, 2008, entitled “Native Studies and Canadian Political Science: The Implications of ‘Decolonizing the Discipline’”. According to the 2008 minutes of the Women’s Caucus meeting, it was argued that this presentation expressed “overt and blatant racism” (http://www.cpsawomen.ca/lucheon/index.htm). These members maintained that in this presentation “some aboriginal members were called ‘squaws’ and similar offensive language was used”. They also asserted that “similarly offensive behaviours [had occurred] at previous CPSA meetings”. There was even “discussion of whether [the presentation] was ‘hate speech’ under the criminal code’”.

    Although there is no recording of the proceedings that took place on June 4, 2008, there has been no specification of what this “offensive language” was, except for the reference to the word “squaw”, which was never uttered at this presentation. In addition, neither the PowerPoint slides that formed the basis of the presentation that I gave on June 4, 2008 (see Attachment #1) or the paper itself (http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2008/widdowson.pdf) can be shown to express “overt and blatant racism” or constitute “hate speech”. Finally, it is somewhat odd that the behaviour of one political scientist in the audience, who berated me for supposedly “hating aboriginal people” (again, without stipulating how this was the case) was totally ignored by these members of the Women’s Caucus. As one observer of the session, Andreas Krebs, pointed out, “although I could not disagree more with the paper presented by Frances Widdowson at the conference, and in fact found her delivery to be aggressive and even slightly offensive, she was the victim in this particular affair” (https://janetajzenstat.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/harvey-mansfield-on-canada/).

    It also should be recognized that, in a healthy society, ideas cannot be censored simply because a person or group chooses to feel “offended” by what is said. After all, offense is subjective and thus people can be offended by almost anything. As Oliver Kamm has pointed out “free speech does cause hurt, and – other than in cases of incitement to crime – we should accept that there is nothing wrong in this” He goes on to state that the offended “may be offered sympathy on a personal level… [but] they are entitled to no restitution whatsoever in public policy. The state of their sensibilities must be a matter of indifference to a free society. If they find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out” (http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2006/02/the_cartoons_an.html). This sentiment is especially pertinent in an academic environment since professing offence is often a tactic used to stop inconvenient truths from being revealed. How would the theory of evolution have fared if the hurt feelings of Christian creationists were taken into consideration at scientific meetings?

    The committee should also be aware that the motion put forward by the Women’s Caucus came out of a process that was itself unethical. Evidently, many members of the Women’s Caucus were uncomfortable with the discussions that took place on June 6, 2008, but were pressured into supporting their colleagues out of the misguided sense of loyalty that postmodern identity politics encourages. This problem was compounded by the fact that, in the minutes of the Women’s Caucus meeting, no accuser was personally identified. In this cowardly way, serious accusations could be made without any individual having to stand behind them. As a result, anonymous accusations about “overt and blatant racism” and the promotion of hatred could be substantiated by fabricated evidence and innuendo.

    Although standing up to these attempts at intimidation have been emotionally exhausting, great progress was made at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the CPSA, where Albert Howard and I presented an ethical and scientific defense of our book, Disrobing The Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2009/widdowson-howard.pdf). At this session, most agreed that, while our opinions were controversial, they should be discussed by academics and the general public. At the same time, however, some disturbing comments came to the surface. Sandra Tomsons also presented a paper where she noted that “arguably the world would have been a better place” if our book had not been written – an astonishing position in an academic environment. As a result of this sentiment, according to Tomsons, some political scientists take the position that it is best to deliberately omit the book from course outlines and seminar discussions since they believe it would give legitimacy to arguments that are harmful to the aboriginal population (http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2009/tomsons.pdf). Even more shocking was a statement made from the floor by Rita Dhamoon, a member of the Women’s Caucus who was present at both my ill-fated 2008 presentation and at the Women’s Caucus meeting where the motion responding to it was drafted. Dhamoon admonished Daniel Salée, the discussant of the session, for bringing his class to hear the presentation of our views. According to Dhamoon, freedom of speech has limits, implying that preventing academic discussion of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry was justifiable on this basis.

    Because of these opinions, I am very hesitant to endorse any development of complaints procedures or guidelines on ethical professional conduct for political scientists in this organization. This is not to deny that such procedures/guidelines could be beneficial at some point in the future; it is only to recognize that, because of the unscholarly attitudes and behaviour of some members of the Canadian Political Science Association, these processes could be too easily used to smother academic freedom under the guise of assuring “professional ethical conduct”. The Canadian Political Science Association needs to ensure that feigned opposition to “offensive speech” cannot be used to silence those who are exploring legitimate ideas that are politically unpopular.

    Sincerely,

    Frances Widdowson

    Attachment #1

    “Native Studies and Canadian Political Science: The Implications of
    ‘Decolonizing the Discipline’”, PowerPoint presentation prepared for the
    Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, June 4, 2008.

    Presentation Overview
    – “Indigenous Theories and Methods”
    – Indigenization and Decolonization
    – The Justification of Segregation

    “Indigenous Theories and Methods”
    – Subjectivity
    – Orality
    – Spirituality
    – Opposition to evolution and progress

    Indigenization and Decolonization
    – Cultural pride and empowerment
    – Linking aboriginal knowledge to ancestry
    – Liberation through different “world views”

    The Justification of Segregation
    – The isolation of the aboriginal intelligentsia
    – Disguising the cause of aboriginal marginalization
    – Who benefits?

  4. 5 oonae July 13, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    “The Women’s Caucus Listserv, for example, notes the following in the message that it sends out to people just added to the list: “IMPORTANT: This list is confidential. You should not publicly mention its existence, or forward copies of information you have obtained from it to third parties.”

    This is absolutely bizarre. It reads like parody. Whatever happened to “own your words” and “speak truth to power”? Actually, I’m still laughing. They’re making asses of themselves.


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