On January 27th, the weekly SSMU listserv newsletter that goes out to 25,000 undergraduates had the ominous title of “Apology.” What was VP Internal for SSMU Brian Farnan apologizing for?
Using this .gif of Obama in a listserv from three months ago:
The context of the .gif was in relation to the common student frustration over midterms. Literally these three innocent lines:
An indeterminate time ago, an indeterminate complaint was lodged to SSMU’s Equity Committee about this .gif. I use “indeterminate” because we do not know anything about this complaint, or the subsequent investigation. All we know is that the Committee recommended that Farnan issue a public apology and attend sensitivity training. This recommendation was ratified and approved by the SSMU Legislative Council in a majority vote.
What’s wrong with this .gif of Obama? Nobody knows, because the Equity Committee isn’t saying.
Both the Equity Committee and the Legislative Council cite the “confidentiality” in their Equity Policy as barring any specific discussion. Absolutely nothing can be said about the complaint, investigation, or consequence.
It’s not that I don’t want to answer, it’s just that I’m kind of wary as to what I should and shouldn’t be saying.
Confidentiality is, of course, essential, but it should not infringe upon transparency. Confidentiality should limit or restrict access, as necessary, but to completely deny access is unacceptable. The identity of those involved should be protected, but the process should be transparent and open to the public. The actual references to confidentiality in the Equity Policy are vague, allowing “confidentiality” to be re-interpreted by the Equity Committee and the Legislative Council as a blanket and absolute secrecy.
We can only infer the Equity Committee’s position from Farnan’s “Apology” listserv: “The image in question was an extension of the cultural, historical and living legacy surrounding people of color—particularly young men—being portrayed as violent in contemporary culture and media. By using this particular image of President Obama, I unknowingly perpetuated this living legacy and subsequently allowed a medium of SSMU’s communication to become the site of a microaggression.”
I spoke to Brian Farnan, who was able to elaborate a little more on his offense: “The interpretation was that it perpetuated stereotypes of violence among people of color, but mainly young males. That was what was extrapolated.”
What’s wrong with this .gif of Obama from the Jay Leno show? Apparently it’s a perpetuation of media manipulation, violence, racism, and sexism.
When probed for more details, Farnan is instantly cagey, “It’s not that I don’t want to answer, it’s just that I’m kind of wary as to what I should and shouldn’t be saying.” And rightfully so. If a .gif from Jay Leno necessitates a public apology and sensitivity training, the consequences of breaking the Equity Policy’s “confidentiality” do not bear thinking about.
The question that should be asked here, then, is not, “What’s wrong with this .gif of Obama?” It’s “What’s wrong with McGill?” McGill has always had a significant and visible social justice movement (see: Controversial McGill and McGill Daily or Satire: The Game). But this new suppression of details and lack of transparency is troubling. It upsets the balance of power, leaving the Equity Committee and the Legislative Council unchecked and unaccountable in such matters.
“From the moment the complaint is filed to the resolution of the complaint, the entire process is confidential,” said Equity Commissioner Justin Koh, who refused to discuss Brian Farnan, or any other cases the Equity Committee has investigated. “The whole process is confidential to protect all parties in the investigation: both the person filing the complaint and the person responding to it.”
Except it doesn’t protect the person responding to it. Farnan has been publicly shamed, and cannot even discuss the matter for fear of breaking the “confidentiality” that allegedly protects him. There is no dialog or reasoning: there is only the guilty verdict.
I would say that it’s definitely a flawed policy.
Joey Shea, VP of University Affairs, stood by this interpretation of confidentiality, but acknowledged that the policy and process could be improved. “The question of Council was either to accept or reject the recommendation. There was no option to send it back to the Equity Committee to be revised and sent back to Council,” said Shea. “Not being able to hear the comments of Council and send it back-and-forth in an iterative process is something that should be changed. I would say that it’s definitely a flawed policy.”
“The policy focuses more on mediation and resolution between two parties to help understand the problem. It’s more educational than disciplinary,” said Shea. “It’s meant to bring people to a consensus and to educate.”
The paradox of this education is that neither the Committee nor the Council can discuss their decision because of “confidentiality.” Again, we haven’t even officially been told what the problem with the Obama .gif was. McGill students are expected to educate themselves in a vacuum.
“I do appreciate the irony,” says Shea, who has 3 researchers working to improve the Equity policy. “It’s not a perfect document and one of my projects this year was to make sure that the complaints process and the policy makes sense.”
In the end, both Farnan and Shea emphasized the necessary role of the students in the issue. “Actions are dictated by students. We look to students to see what they think and feel—writing something on Facebook doesn’t necessarily help us. E-mailing and submitting it through the appropriate channels will actually help it have much more of a direct effect,” says Brian Farnan.
Whether or not you think there is anything wrong with a .gif of Obama, this complete lack of transparency is unacceptable. There is something very wrong with McGill, and you can help.
You can e-mail the Speaker of Council to voice your thoughts on this matter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow me on twitter @christoper