Call for Volunteers, Raise the Bar Executive Committee

As many of you may know, I am helping put together a group called “Raise the Bar.”  We are having an executive committee call for volunteers soon.  If you are interested, please contact me at andrew(at)raisethebarguelph(dot)ca.  
For further information, please read on!

Raise the Bar
Executive Committee Call for Volunteers
Raise the Bar began in the summer of 2012 as an attempt to raise awareness of bystander intervention techniques to help end sexual harassment and sexual violence in downtown Guelph clubs and bars.
Raise the Bar is working on a program to ask downtown bars and nightclubs to take an education session that will teach owners and staff how to recognize behavior that’s sexually coercive, how to intervene when they see it, how to support people who experience it and, hopefully, how they can deter incidents of sexual violence. In order to change cultural norms, there has to be incentive for change, and as such, we propose to “reward” bars and clubs that complete training sessions and with a symbol to put in their windows (the Raise the Bar logo) that will identify their business as one in a network that has made a commitment to creating violence-free, sex-positive space.
We’ve been partnering with/supported by some amazing community and campus groups such as the Guelph Wellington Women in Crisis Centre, the Guelph-Wellington Care and Treatment Centre for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, the Crown Attorney’s Office, the Canadian Federation of University Women, OPIRG, and University of Guelph support groups such as the Health and Wellness Centre and our first takers on the education sessions – the Albion. 
We need your help.
Many of our original executive are graduating and/or leaving town this year.  This is why we are reaching out to the community to ask for volunteers to serve on the executive committee. We are looking for people who are passionately committed to ending sexual harassment and violence in Guelph. Our projected launch date is the fall of 2013. If you are interested, please join us for our introductory meeting on May 6, 2013 in an accessible space on the University of Guelph campus.


May 6, 2013

5:00-6:30 PM

MacKinnon 227

University of Guelph

(Wheelchair Accessible Space)


Raise the Bar – Coming Out

Last night was Guelph’s Take Back the Night march, which I was happily involved in.  It was a wonderful experience.  The energy of the crowd, the positive vibes all around, the support from the streets – it was all a delight!  What I want to really mention though is that Raise the Bar was officially announced last night.  Hooray!

Before that – a side note.  The performance poet Truth Is spoke and delivered some of the most compelling, brilliant poetry I have heard in a long time.  I first heard Truth Is at the Angela Davis talk at the University of Guelph last year and my goodness, she was phenomenal!  I occasionally teach poetry and one thing that I have found very useful in terms of teaching poetry is showing how it is a living tradition.  People get bogged down in Donne, Whitman, Shakespeare.  When I brought to them living performance poets who speak to the experience of today – Katie Makkai, dbi young, and others – suddenly the students saw that they could be a part of this world of words.  I really have to learn more about Truth Is.

Anyhow, right, back to the Raise the Bar campaign!

Last night, Cindy McMann spoke and officially outed our little group.  We are working to end the culture of sexual predation, harassment, and violence around us by starting in our back yards – downtown Guelph.  The key to this is bystander intervention.  We have to make sure that everyone recognizes that sexual violence of any sort is unacceptable.

So we are launching a two part campaign – education in downtown establishments and a public education blitz.  Working with our community partners, we are putting together both wings of the campaign and we hope that we will have your support.

We haven’t quite started the website up yet and we are still building content for the public education blitz, but we are now official.  We’re out there.  We’re Raise the Bar… and you can help.

If you are interested in getting involved with Raise the Bar or you want to learn more about our initiative, please let me know.  andrew.bretz AT gmail DOT com

The Limits of Humour

I’m teaching a course on Comic Drama in the Winter Semester at WLU and so I’ve been thinking in the past few days about the nature of humour/comedy/genre/farce/absurdity, etc.  Heck, I still don’t even have a reading list together, so if anyone has any suggestions, I would be more than happy to entertain them.  Just drop me a line.

Begging for help with my course is not why I am writing this, however.  

One of the ideas that I had regarding course delivery was to start off each class with a relevant joke or reading or something.  Whether it be a knock knock joke when we are talking about structure, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” when we are talking about dated humour, or describing a situation like what I will get into below… I want to start off each class with an example, then move into the theory and the plays.

Yesterday, as I was basking in the post defense hangover, I watched as twitter blew up with discussion of a few interrelated stories.

  1. Daniel Tosh, comedian, told a crowd of people in regards to a female heckler: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”  The defense offered for publicly suborning assault?  There are “awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”
  2. Anita Sarkeesian, feminist writer and cultural critic who started a kickstarter campaign to get funding to study gender in video game culture had a video game made about her where the whole point is to beat her to a bloody pulp.  The defense offered for the hate-speech game?  It’s just a game…

There’s no real point in my going on at length about how and why these particular cases are seriously problematic.  Indeed, Tosh looks like he is liable to lose support from his network and the twitter account of the man who created the Sarkeesian game has been mysteriously suspended.  I join the condemnation of these acts, of course, but I’m wondering how I am going to insert them into my class on comic drama.

Tosh’s stance on “awful things in the world” is a position that I have heard time and again in recent months, especially following the whole debacle a few months back.  Individuals claim that they can make jokes about anything they want, without consequences, because they have the seemingly God-given right to make those jokes.  The smarter ones cite George Carlin for some kind of evidence that white, privileged men can make jokes about violence, race, money and it can be funny.

Thing is, they are stepping on a few questions of privilege and comedy without thinking about what they are doing.  Are there jokes that are funny?  Certainly.  Humour seems to be largely a social construct, but it does seem to be the case that there is some kind of a concept of humour across cultures.  This seems to be a part of the general human condition.  There are also jokes that are simply not funny.  Either they are not told well, they are offensive, or they lack structure (or something else), but there are certainly jokes that are not funny.  Are there jokes that are so offensive that they are inherently unfunny?  Here we step away from a philosophy of aesthetics and into ethics.

  1. A joke can be immoral itself, or 
  2. It can be told for immoral reasons.  

That is, a joke suborning rape (an immoral joke) can be told by someone as an illustration of rape culture without the expectation that anyone will find it funny (say, in a classroom), or that same joke can be told for immoral reasons (for example, to actually dehumanize and degrade another person).  There are very few jokes that are structurally immoral, I think.  Think, for instance, of what the philosopher Noel Carroll calls “moron jokes,” which are jokes that defame or degrade a social out-group.  In Canada, Newfie jokes are the prime example of these.  I’m not sure if these are structurally immoral in the sense that you can swap out the “moron” group of the joke.  They are unpleasant, they are derisive, but they rely on an interchangability and basic humanity of the other in order for the joke to make any sense.

This is the basis of Plautine humour.  Plautus, the Roman playwright, knew that though we claim we want to see edifying and cultural drama, we really go in large numbers to see people falling on their arse.  More people would come to see Homer Simpson give a public talk than Professor Frink, both in the fictional Springfield and in the real world.  Making fun of other people is not structurally immoral in the sense that, if done right, you recognize that you are liable to be the person who is the butt of the joke next.  It puts all humanity in the same place: a buffoon incapable of doing the simplest of tasks.

There are jokes that are structurally  immoral, however, and the distinction is when there is no possibility of switching out the roles.  That is, as I just spent the past five years of my life talking about, one of the primary discoveries of feminism of the past 50 years was that the way that we gender in society is through certain narratives where men take on certain roles and women take on other roles.  Men are the active agents of narrative, women are the passive acted upon objects.  One of the logical conclusions of this narrative structuring of gender is that rape in particular works to gender us.  Men rape.  Women are raped.

Now we have recognized that this is how gender works, we can undermine the binary and men who have been raped by their partners or by strangers can come forward and give a name to their experience.  The work can happen now, but it was only possible through the recognition that the structure of rape is such that it feminizes the person who is being raped.  It forces that person into a certain gender position of victimhood and dehumanization.

So to come back to the joke.  If the narrative rape is structurally about the gendering of bodies, such that femininity is in part defined by the ability to be raped,then rape jokes can’t swap out individual groups and thereby make a claim to general human fallibility.  It merely reinscribes privilege.

The counter argument that I find particularly fascinating about the Tosh case is, IF he really wanted to make a joke about rape in order to test the boundaries of what can and cannot be joked about – then why didn’t he talk about being raped himself?

Why didn’t he say: “Wouldn’t it be funny if [I] got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped [me]…”?
There’s another possible counter to what I have just said and that is encapsulated in the video by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay “Thank You Hater!”
There, the tone is everything.  There we have moved into sarcasm, which upsets the structure of the rape joke altogether.  Part of what it is to be rape (an essential quality of it) is that it is an enforced dehumanization and an enforced feminization.  You can’t want it.  You can’t desire it.  Once you do, it ceases to be rape.  Indeed, to seek out objectification is a very complex position vis-a-vis one’s sexual identity (think BDSM).  In Fay’s song, she expresses regret that she won’t be raped in the eyes by the internet troll, and she plays with the gendering that comes with rape by presenting herself in a mid-1950s costume and song.  This is… to put it mildly, a bit more “meta” than what Tosh did.  Further, though it is related to Plautine humour where the interchangability of the object of derision is the point, this complicates that position by insisting on the humanity of the people who are putting themselves out there online.  The humour offered by the trolls is dehumanizing, while this song insists of feminine agency through irony.  (Can you tell I like this video?)

Structurally, rape jokes told by privileged white men against women… not funny.  Immoral.  Predicated on dehumanization and violence.

What about the other point noted above?  A joke can be told for an immoral reason?  In the case of Tosh, I wasn’t there and I don’t really want to get into specifics of supposed “context.”  Similarly, in the case of the Sarkeesian video game, I haven’t played it and I don’t want to.  So, does that undercut my position?  Not at all.

Even if we grant that the video game and what Tosh said are jokes or analogous to jokes, then you merely have to look to the larger cultural position to recognize that the work the jokes are doing is to dehumanize and assault a particular group.  If we would be (rightfully) upset at a joke that posited that it was funny to lynch a black man, why would we possibly accept that an analogous joke about a woman was somehow ok?

The cultural argument is, in some ways, the more obvious one to me, though undoubtedly there will be people out there who don’t see it.  North American culture is a culture/is a network of cultures that is/are biased against women acting as fully independent human beings.

So, I doubt anyone has read this far, but at least I got some of my thoughts down on “paper.”  Now, if anyone has any comments, please let me know.  Also, if you have any suggestions for my Comic Drama course, please drop me a line.

The links below are just a smattering of what I have found in the past few moments.  There’s a lot out there for you to learn more about this, if you are so inclined.
Tosh Links

Sarkeesian Links

Raise the Bar: Bars Should Be Fun

I’m going to take this opportunity to finally talk about an initiative that I have become a part of that is setting out to create spaces in the bars of downtown Guelph where sexual harassment and assault will hopefully become a thing of the past.  We are setting out to Raise the Bar, because Bars Should Be Fun (hence the catchy name).

A number of things have conspired in the past few months to encourage me to move into the field of activism.  For any of you who read this blog, you will know about the rape chants on Guelph transit that were repeated (and added to) in Facebook.  There have been other incidents as well.  The more I have publicly spoken out about the issue, the more people have come forward to talk to me about what has happened to them and the people that they love.

We are still in the formative phases right now of the project, but already we have begun partnering with a number of local groups and organizations.  We have had unprecedented support from all sides.  We are talking with the local hospital, the Women in Crisis Centre, the University of Guelph, the Central Student’s Association, The Crown Attorney’s Office and many others to make this happen.

I’m not going to go too far into the project details at the moment, as those are going to be worked out in the next little bit.  The goal, however, is to reduce the incidence of sexual violence and harassment in the downtown of Guelph.  If you support this goal, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me – we can certainly use all the help we can get.

As a part of the campaign, we have created an initial Facebook page.  You might want to check it out.  Share your stories and let’s help make Guelph a place where everyone can have fun!