Why the PQ and its Charter of Values is racist

On a couple occasions, I have been challenged by people who are upset when I say that the Parti Québecois and its Charter of Values are racist. While I disagree, I can understand their objection. On the surface, the Charter of Values makes no reference to race, and there are even non-white members of the PQ, so it might be hard to see how I make the case for racism.

Before I directly address the problem of racism in the PQ and the Charter of Values, there are two fairly non-controversial general propositions about oppressive systems like racism that I will briefly outline. Understanding these positions will clarify why I say that the PQ and the Charter are racist.

1. You don’t need to have a negative disposition toward a group to be party to that group’s oppression

One of the most self-centred conceits of us white people regarding racism is the idea that it primarily exists as a state of mind for the white person—as if the biggest problem about racism is that it’s a character flaw for white people. (Mutatis mutandis for men and sexism, straights and homophobia, cis people and transphobia, etc.)

I see a parallel to this all the time when I implicitly or explicitly call out a straight person for something homophobic, and suddenly the biggest problem is that the straight person is offended at being thought a homophobe, not that something genuinely hurtful and oppressive happened to a queer person.

A society can be substantially sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. in which its citizens have a generally positive attitude toward women, people of colour, gays, and trans people.

This is because racism, etc. are systemic and institutional ways in which a society is structured to make life worse for the oppressed group, while maintaining privilege for that group’s complement. Racism, etc. are not primarily a matter of personal dislike between two individuals, although that is unfortunately also part of it.

For emphasis, even if every single person in Canada had a personal epiphany, repented and swore to never have a negative thought about any other person on the basis of her race, that would not affect the problem of racism in Canada in the slightest until we dealt with the laws, power structures, social norms, institutions, and systems set in place to privilege us white people and make life harder for everyone else. Same thing goes for any other system of oppression (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

Thus, appealing to the character or the intentions of a person or group (E.g. “They’re not racist! They don’t hate brown people because …”) is not a good argument against someone being racist, since racism is not primarily a matter of the state of mind of the group that is doing the oppression.

2. Even if a proposed piece of legislation doesn’t mention an oppressed group at all, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t oppressive to that group

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine there’s a group of legislators who propose a law, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. Here is the proposed law in our thought experiment:

Everyone who wants to vote in Canada must bring a current government-issued photo ID and their birth certificate, and the names on the two documents must match each other exactly.

It is not hard to see why a law like this is sexist. (“But how can it be sexist? It doesn’t even mention women!”) It’s sexist because (except in Québec) it is common for women to change their names when they get married. Hence, such a law would systematically disenfranchise women more than men.

The important thing about this argument is that the oppressiveness of the law doesn’t turn on whether women are explicitly mentioned or whether the legislators had any hateful emotions toward women. The oppressiveness of the law toward women isn’t a function of the state of mind of the legislators at all. The only question that is relevant with regard to whether the law is sexist is whether or not it systematically makes life worse for women and not for men.

If you concede that a law like the one above is fairly clearly sexist, then it’s not a big cognitive jump to see why “Stand Your Ground” laws in the United States, for example, or even the Charter of Values here in Québec are racist. These are laws that systematically single out particular racial groups and not others, to make life worse for them. “Stand Your Ground” is racist because white people in the United States are overwhelmingly using it to murder people of colour. The Charter of Values is racist because we are using it to make life worse for people of colour.

It’s true that race is not mentioned in the Charter, but it is conspicuously silent on the subject, just like how there was no mention of women in the law in our thought experiment that if enacted, would disenfranchise most women. Even the prohibition on wearing very large and ostentatious crucifixes comes across as a transparent attempt to preempt accusations of racism. I grew up among very conservative Christians, and never once met a person who wore a large cross. Ever. I’ve never even heard of that happening among the most devout. I’m sure that the only reason that large Christian symbols were even mentioned is so that the PQ can say, “See? We’re not racist. The law will even apply to whites!” It certainly wasn’t included because there’s a problem with Christians wearing too many big crosses, threatening the neutrality of the state.

The Charter would not change life at all for white religious people. They already wear clothing that conforms to the Charter’s requirements. On the other hand, the Charter will cause crises of faith for many non-white religious people, make them feel unwelcome in Québec, and remove any representation they would have otherwise had in positions of authority in the province. The fact that this prohibition is invoked under the banner of “neutrality” is laughable.

So even though there is no mention of race, the Charter is racist because it systematically targets POC to take away their freedom and make their lives worse.

A response to the hatred from the TDSB: Pride should be offensive

Pride is a political protest, not just a big party

Whatever else Pride is, it’s a political protest highlighting the ongoing plight of sexual and gender minorities. Sure, it’s also a parade, a big party, a chance for gay guys to put on their most revealing clothes and hook up with other gay guys, but at its core, Pride is about the dignity and rights of sexual and gender minorities, which are still a hated and vulnerable group in Canada.

Events like Pride are important because Canada is a country where people who live outside the sexual / gender mainstream are regularly the object of abuse ranging from actual physical life-threatening violence to institutional and systemic discrimination and all the way down to daily micro-aggressions. Straight people often don’t realise that this still happens (“But we have gay marriage in Canada!”), or even worse, they sometimes try to paint themselves as the ones being oppressed. Being able to deny that this hatred exists is just one more privilege of being straight. Don’t forget: less than a month ago, the mayor of Toronto himself was doing his darnedest to keep the rainbow flag off city hall while the Olympics were being held in a country where non-straights are persecuted openly and explicitly.

This is why Pride is not just an exercise in frivolity and licentiousness. It is an important political movement. We haven’t “made it” yet.

The true meaning of Christmas Pride

Pride, figure 1
Pride, figure 1

The point of Pride is emphatically not that non-straight people are just like straight people, and therefore they deserve to have equal rights and be treated with equal dignity. That is the opposite of what Pride is for. If that were the goal, it would be called the “Gay Integration Festival” or something like that. Instead, it is called “Pride,” as in “I’m proud of the fact that I’m different from the sexual / gender mainstream, and I don’t need to deny who I am or assimilate to the mainstream in order to be valuable.”

The point of Pride is to emphasize the fact that there are sexual and gender minorities that are different in a lot of ways, and even though you may be offended by the fact that there are people who are different from you, non-straight people are still human beings with rights and you still have to treat them like human beings—with a certain amount of respect and dignity.

Thus, prominently featuring drag queens, sexual fetishes, strippers, and people in various states of undress is a political statement. The fact that it is offensive to the mainstream is a part of that statement.

This means that the (semi) nudity at Pride is not gratuitous in the slightest. If you want gratuitous (semi) nudity, watch the newest Star Trek film. (That’s right. I said it. The varying degrees of undress in most mainstream films is less defensible than the varying degrees of undress at Pride. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, conservatives.)

“The gays would get their message across better if they cleaned themselves up a bit”

CBC comments
CBC comments

You hear this from ostensibly well-meaning “allies” or even from gay people themselves—the argument that straight people would be more likely to accept non-straight people if they were less flamboyant, or if they were less in-your-face about it.

What’s scary about hearing this sort of thing from straight people is that they don’t even see how utterly dehumanising it is to make their acceptance of us as humans conditional on us “cleaning ourselves up.” As if our benevolent straight overlords get to choose who is treated with dignity and endowed with human rights and who isn’t on the basis of how they perceive us. And of course, if we don’t act the part, they get to revoke those privileges. That is exactly the opposite of what Pride is about, and suggesting that Pride be “cleaned up” and made “family friendly” totally misses the point of the whole political movement.

To ask for a Pride that’s had all the offensive, lewd and sexual parts removed would be like asking a labour union that’s on strike not to mention the terrible wages or the unsafe working conditions.

To ask for a Pride parade that’s just a bunch of cute monogamous gay and lesbians couples holding their adopted children is to even further marginalise all the other sexual and gender minorities. What could be more cruel than telling someone who’s a minority within a minority that the festival that’s supposed to be celebrating his/her differences is embarrassed by him/her?

It’s even more disheartening to hear the “Pride should be cleaned up” line from gay people.

Maybe you would be okay if it were a “gay integration festival” rather than Pride. Maybe you want to find your masc-for-masc gay guy (no fems!), get married, buy a house in the suburbs, wear sweater-vests, adopt a kid and enjoy all the straight privilege that you can. (“You’re gay, but you’re just like one of the guys, you know?”) If you want that, go and do that. I sincerely hope the life you choose is fulfilling and happy.

But don’t you dare try to co-opt a political movement for your own narrow ends when its goals are broader than just extending straight privilege to those who “clean up well.”

“Won’t someone please think of the children”

The bigots on the TDSB have framed their objection to Pride in terms of upholding the laws regarding nudity and protecting children. How pious of them. (Have you ever noticed that in debates touching on sexual morality, there’s always someone who cries out, “Won’t someone please think of the children!” By the way, the answer to that style of argument is almost always: “We are thinking of the children, and some of those children happen to grow up to be the people that you’re demonizing.”)

Their argument is that if a person were to be naked in public in any other context, she would be breaking the law regarding public nudity. This may of course be true, but the fact remains, we’re not talking about any other context. We’re talking about Pride. I would presume there’s also a law against driving a truck down the middle of a street at 5 km/h carrying an extra-wide load with dancers on it, but we make an exception in the case of the Pride parade, because we all agree that allowing this kind of political expression is more important than always slavishly enforcing this (otherwise valid) traffic law.

The reason for a law against public nudity is presumably to protect vulnerable people from aggressors who might use nudity to threaten them. Nobody wants to live in a place where some creeper can make you feel unsafe by following you around and then flashing you from underneath his trench-coat on the métro. I’m not suggesting that the public nudity law needs changing.

That said, we should realise that the reason for the law against public nudity is not to stifle valid political expression. (Sorry, TDSB!) The lewd and offensive nature of Pride is not gratuitous and incidental. It is an essential part of the core message, and frankly, anyone who comes to Pride should know beforehand to expect to see some skin.

The right of non-straights to protest ongoing hatred, discrimination, intimidation, bullying and violence against sexual and gender minorities is more important than the right of a few prudes not to get offended by seeing the human anatomy while attending the Pride parade.

And if by chance there’s a certain someone from the TDSB reading this, say a homophobic trustee who thinks that he can hide his hatred and bigotry under the holier-than-thou camouflage of respect for the law, I want you to know—from the bottom of my heart—that you can go suck a bag of dicks.

Don’t make life harder for sex workers—make it illegal to discriminate against them for employment and education

The Supreme Court of Canada has recently struck down the laws regarding prostitution, saying that they were putting sex workers in danger. The reasoning behind the court’s judgement was to make life easier and safer for a group that is often hated and is definitely vulnerable. Rather than heeding the clear spirit of the decision, some have taken this as an opportunity to find other ways to be cruel, judgemental and to try to bring about harm or make sex workers unwelcome in their communities.

The most repugnant part of all this is that many of those who most vehemently argue for tougher restrictions—laws to make life even harder for sex workers—these people do it out of a misguided sense of moral superiority. As if it weren’t hard enough to do sex work. As if there were something admirable about stacking the deck against them.

Due to the judgement, the government has one year to pass new legislation on the subject. In an uncharacteristically democratic move on the part of the Harper government, Ottawa has asked for public input on the subject.

Some (terrible) options that have been proposed

The Ministry of Justice website lists a few options for new legislation (see Table 1), one of which is prohibition. The government may decide to pass a law banning sex work in Canada. This will make it illegal to buy sex and to sell it. Under such a law, sex workers would become criminals.

I would like to point out the obvious. A law like this cannot make prostitution go away. This will only push sex workers further out to the margins of our society and reinforce a cycle of violence and exploitation against them. If you advocate for a position like this, you are not advocating for the non-existence of prostitution. You are just advocating for the destruction of the lives of a hated and vulnerable group of people. If you care about the well-being of others at all, you can’t endorse such a position.

Another option is “abolition,” or the so-called “Nordic model.” This would make the purchasing of sex illegal, but keep the selling of sex legal. Under this kind of a law, anyone who buys sex would be a criminal, but it would be perfectly legal for the sex workers to provide it.

Again, let’s not kid ourselves. A law cannot make prostitution go away. While this option will mercifully keep sex workers out of jail, it’s not exactly a huge step toward making life easier and safer for them, and it will keep them and their work at the margins of our society, away from the benefits and privileges of the mainstream, which the rest of us enjoy. If you can’t see how this kind of law can only continue to marginalise and generally perpetuate violence against sex workers, I don’t think I can explain it to you.

Here’s a better idea

Let’s imagine for a moment that we, as a society, were actually serious about helping sex workers. This is clearly the spirit of the Supreme Court decision, at least. If we wanted to help sex workers, and not just in the paternalistic “I’m helping them by giving them a good incentive to stop being a whore” sense of the word, we could use this opportunity to refine the law in such a way that it gives them some options. For example, we could make it really easy for people to get out of sex work.

Here’s my idea: Pass a law making it illegal in the context of education or employment to discriminate against a person on the basis of a past work history that includes sex work, stripping, porn acting, etc.

I’m not so naïve to think that this will suddenly end all the subtle ways in which a history of sex work can make it difficult for someone to get or keep a job, or to enrol in school or stay in school. But at the very least, we can eliminate the obvious ones. It’s kind of like how we have laws to say that you can’t reject job applications from gays, women or people of colour because they are gay, women or people of colour. It doesn’t eliminate homophobia, sexism, or racism, but I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t have such laws.

Most of the people reading my blog are pretty privileged, so you may not understand this, but not everyone can afford not to be a sex worker (or a stripper or a porn actor). Why on earth should anyone have to worry about being expelled from her school or not being able to get a job later in life for doing what she has to do to make ends meet?

Not only that, but some people choose to do sex work, and not out of dire financial need, and it’s not the place of the government of Canada to enforce Christian sexual values on everyone who lives here. So if your major hang-up regarding the endorsement of something that isn’t a total ban on prostitution is religiously motivated, that is not a reason to make it into a law for everyone else. It may be a fine motivation for your own decisions and actions, but the enforcement of your private religious beliefs would be an abuse of the power of the state.

In the end, it comes down to what we think this law is supposed to do. Is our highest priority that we use the machinery of the state to punish those who deviate from Christian sexual norms, or is our highest priority that every single person in Canada (whether they share the same sexual morality or not) is safe, and has a fair shot at a good life?

The obvious objection—”won’t somebody please think of the children”

I can hear the obvious objection coming from the conservatives out there—why should we want to make like easier for prostitutes? If being a prostitute or a stripper or a porn actor isn’t something that will follow my daughter around for the rest of her life, what can I tell her to dissuade her from becoming a sex worker?

I have two answers to that.

First, that line isn’t what’s keeping people from going into sex work.

Second, if it is your daughter who ends up in sex work, you will want the government to help her get out of it, and a law against discriminating against her on the basis of her sex work history will help.

If you want us to “think about the children,” then let’s also spare some time to think about the children who end up as prostitutes too.

Table 1: The options for new prostitution legislation, according to the Ministry of Justice

Selling sex legal Selling sex illegal
Buying sex legal What we had in Canada up until the Supreme Court decision* Even the Tories knew better than to suggest this
Buying sex illegal The “Nordic model” or “abolition” “Prohibition” or the “American model”

* With some restrictions. E.g. “living off the avails” of prostitution was illegal.

Lessons for Québec from British pop singers and Japanese Anime: “secular” is not “neutral”

The Québec charter of values

Over the last few months, much debate has occurred over the proposed Québec Charter of Values, which was ostensibly introduced in order to guarantee the “neutrality of the state.” The real reason, of course, is that the PQ wants to gain political points with its separatist base, and has no qualms about riding roughshod over the rights of minorities to do so.

That said, I still want to address the “neutrality” thing, because it bothers me so much when I see people making the claim that the Charter will make the machinery of the state more “neutral.” But first, let’s consider a couple related questions.

Why do British people lose their accents while singing?

Have you ever heard a person ask, “Why do British people sound American when they sing?”

The reason for this phenomenon is not that British people actually sound American when they sing. For that matter, if you think about it, American people don’t sound particularly American when they sing either. Because of the mechanics of singing, everyone has to pronounce their words in more-or-less the same way, regardless of their speaking accent.

While speaking, one’s accent might influence what syllables to stress and whether to use a short or a long vowel sound for particular words. When singing on the other hand, pretty much all of that is dictated by the music itself. There is really only one way to sing “Ave Maria,” for example, no matter what your accent is. And so, everyone sings the same way, and it’s not the same as anyone’s speaking accent.

Don’t believe me? Read the words, “Ave Maria” in your own head in different kinds of accents—standard BBC, Zoidberg, Morgan Freeman, etc., and then imagine those same people singing it. Unless you’re imagining them really exaggerating their accent, they all have to sing it in pretty much the same way, just due to the nature of what singing is.

Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

Curiously, this is the same thing that happens when a person asks, “Why are Japanese Anime characters drawn as white people?

They’re not. Read the linked article. Japanese Anime characters are drawn as cartoon characters. They are not photo-realistic representations, and it is only the assumption of American viewers that fills in the gaps in favour of these characters being white. It’s the same reason that when you draw a stick figure, you assume it’s a white male, unless it has a dress or a something to mark the “other.”

What’s going on in these cases?

The underlying assumption in both of these questions is the same fallacy. The assumption is that the majority (in these cases, white and American) is “neutral,” “default,” “normal.” In the absence of all markers to the otherwise in one’s singing voice or in cartoon characters, many people will fill in those gaps with what they take to be “neutral,” and come to the conclusion that British singers all sing with an American accent, or that Japanese Anime characters are drawn as white people.

A similar fallacy is being made by supporters of the proposed Québec Charter of Values. Like the cases above, they assume that what they are (i.e. non-religious, or maybe non-visibly Christian) is the “default,” but in this case, instead of inadvertently filling in something that’s neutral with details from what they take to be the default, they are explicitly trying to make an ideal “neutral” person, based on their own assumption of what the “default” is, or should be.

Challenging the assumption—”secular” is not “neutral”

I have heard so many politicians indicate their support for the Charter because it’s supposed to make the state more “neutral.” There is no reason why not-wearing-a-head-covering is “neutral.” In fact, I’m here to tell you that there is no a “neutral” to be found.

There is no normal, neutral, or “default” type of person when you’re thinking along categories like gender, sex, race, religion, orientation, etc. And as far as religions go, an atheist person is not a person who has no religious beliefs. It’s that her belief is that there’s no God. To repeat: there is no “default.”

What would neutrality actually look like?

Imagine a little boy in Québec who grows up in a family where head coverings are the norm. He looks at his doctors and teachers, and none of them looks like him. He has a minor run-in with the police in his teens, who call him “towel-head,” and slowly, over time, he realises that there is no one—not a single person—in a position of power in his province who looks like him. His Christians friends, on the other hand, have all kinds of role models—teachers, doctors, judges, lawyers—all employees of the state who look just like them.

How is that neutral?

If something is supposed to be neutral, it has to be neutral for everyone, not just for the majority.

By saying that a public worker has to remove her head-coverings in order to be “neutral,” we are saying that a certain group of people, namely the non-religious and the Christians, are more “neutral” than the rest.

The test that the PQ seems to be applying for whether a government employee appears to be neutral is this: If a white, Christian person looked at a government employee, would that person worry that she was going to be treated by the government employee differently because the employee is religious?

If your major concern is protecting white Christians and non-religious people from anyone who wears a head-covering, of course the answer is to say that a “neutral” state is one where everyone conforms to the standards of dress for Christians and the non-religious. But really, we should stop calling it “neutrality” in favour of a more honest term like “state enforced atheism or Christianity.”

I suggest another test for the neutrality of government employees. Something like this: If a non-white, non-Christian, non-secular, totally marginalised minority person looked at our government employees, would that person worry that she was going to be treated like an “other”?

If a child growing up in Québec sees a number of people wearing head coverings in government jobs that is proportional to the number of people wearing head coverings in the general population, that would be true neutrality.

Why I dumped Gmail

Reason one: I need my email to work, whether I follow the rules on Google Plus or not

Google has linked so many different products with so many different sets of rules to the same account that I feel like I can’t possibly know when I am breaking some of its terms of use. And I’m not even talking about specifically malicious activity, like using software to scrape information from a Google app or a DDoS attack. I mean something as basic as using a pseudonym on Google Plus, or a teenager revealing that she lied about her age when signing-up for her Gmail account. (These are both things that have brought about the deletion of a Google account, including Gmail.)

For starters, I think it is a dangerous and insensitive policy to require all users to use their real names on the Internet, but putting that aside, I don’t want to risk having all my emails deleted and being unable to contact anyone because of some Murph / Benjamin confusion on Google Plus.

Reason two: it’s actually not okay for Google to read my email

Google never made it a secret that they read everyone’s email. Do you remember when you first started seeing the targeted ads in your Gmail? I bet you called a friend over to look. “Look at this,” you said, “we were just talking about getting sushi tonight, and now there’s an ad for Montréal Sushi in my mailbox! That’s so creepy,” you said.

And then you both laughed. Maybe you made a joke about 1984. Over time, you got comfortable with the fact that Google wasn’t even hiding the fact that they read your mail. Or maybe you never really made the connexion between the ads and the content of your email. Maybe you thought, “I have nothing to hide,” and shrugged it off, or did some mental calculation that the convenience of your Gmail was worth the invasion of privacy.

I guess over time I changed my mind about being okay with it.

And no, this isn’t because I have some huge terrible secret, or because I’m a criminal or anything like that. I just don’t want to send the message that I’m okay with this sort of invasion of privacy anymore. Google’s unspoken challenge to anyone who questions their targeted ads scheme has always been, This the price you pay for a free service like Gmail. If you don’t like it, you can leave.

This is me saying, I don’t like it. I’m leaving.

Reason three: Gmail isn’t even that good anymore

When I signed up for Gmail, there were three things that set it apart:

  1. Tag and archive emails—forget folders!
  2. 10 gigabytes of space—never delete an email again!
  3. Web-based interface—access it from anywhere!

I’ll deal with each of these in turn.

1. Tagging was fun, but it only really works in the Gmail web interface, or in an app specifically designed for use with Gmail. Unfortunately, Gmail just doesn’t play nicely with other email apps, like the one in Mac OS X, or Mail on the iPhone or the BlackBerry. You could make it work through IMAP, having it tell your mail client that each tag was a folder, but it was always a bit screwy, and I never figured out how to put something in two tags through a 3rd-party app or mobile device.

The value of being able to organise emails by simultaneously having them in two categories is outweighed by the fact that I couldn’t access this functionality except through the browser.

2. The amount of space that Gmail provides for emails is not very much these days. I have a website (you may have guessed) and it comes with unlimited disc space for web hosting and emails. 10 gigabytes is just not that big a deal anymore.

3. I can do this with my self-hosted email as well, and I don’t have to suffer through an interface change (“upgrade”) just because Google says so.

So what’s the alternative?

Full disclosure: I haven’t shut down my Google account. I’m forwarding my Gmail to my self-hosted email account, so people who had my old Gmail account can still contact me there for the foreseeable future. I am also still using a number of other Google products, like the Calendar and Google Plus, but my life would not go down in flames quite so quickly if those stopped working as compared to a loss of email access.

Basically, I am moving as many “mission critical” aspects of my life away from Google as I can, to keep my technological eggs in a few more baskets. Email, for example, will be handled by my web host, of which I make backups on a regular basis.

I’m not trying to go cold-turkey on Google. I’m just not going to pretend to be as comfortable as I used to be as a guest on Google’s servers.

Update (2013 Nov 18)

I switched back to the Thunderbird email client a couple weeks ago. It supports tagging and archiving, just like Gmail.

Update (2018)

I switched to Protonmail!

Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets

In the past few weeks, there have been high-profile legal cases on both sides of the border involving unpaid interns taking legal action against their former venue of unpaid work. (I hesitate to call them “employers.”) Recently, a US judge ruled that the interns working on Fox’s Black Swan should have been paid for their labour. Bell Canada has recently been accused of breaking labour laws with regard to its unpaid interns. This has sparked a great deal of debate, and in what follows, I will respond to the most common defence of unpaid internships: That the intern consented to it. I will not be making a legal argument, even though I will be talking about laws. I am not a lawyer. I am a philosopher by training. I will be making a moral / political / economic argument.

What is the point of a minimum wage law?

The point of a minimum wage law is that we have decided as a society that even if the job market were to deteriorate to the point where a prospective employee was willing to agree to be employed for wages lower than the minimum wage, such an agreement would not be legal. That is the point of a minimum wage law. That is what it means. It is a law. It is not a suggestion or a guideline that can be ignored if both parties agree.

The consent of both parties does not make it okay, and as I will argue below, if a person could just consent to waive her right to a minimum wage, making it optional, that would undermine minimum wage law entirely. Defenders of unpaid internships routinely point to the fact that such programmes are “voluntary,” and that the intern went into the arrangement with her eyes open, knowing that she wouldn’t get paid, and that the interns agreed to work without compensation. They argue that the consent of the unpaid internship voids her right to claim a minimum wage.

While it is true that these programmes are voluntary, consent doesn’t get Bell out of its moral obligations to its employees. The fact that the interns weren’t slaves—kidnapped and locked in an office building to work for Bell against their will—doesn’t mean that what Bell did wasn’t exploitative.

The argument boils down to the proposition that if a person decides to work for $0 per hour (or “for job experience” or “for the networking opportunities”), she has every right to do so. After all, what business is it of ours to say that she can’t spend her time the way she likes?

The economics of hockey helmets

Economists and game theorists call these sorts of things “coordination problems.” A famous example identified by Thomas Schelling is the Hockey Helmet Problem which goes as follows: In the 1970’s, NHL hockey players were allowed, but not required to wear helmets, and most did not wear them. A secret ballot of these hockey players confirmed that they would prefer to wear them, but did not because they worried about losing the competitive advantage of peripheral vision as well as a certain “tough guy” image. As Teddy Green of the Bruins said in 1969, “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t—because the other guys don’t. I know that’s silly, but most of the players feel the same way. If the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” (Schelling, “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17(3):381–428, 1973.)

By making helmets mandatory, NHL players no longer had to choose between their personal safety and their hockey performance. By making the helmet rule, the NHL was saying that players shouldn’t even have to make that choice and that it was wrong to even ask them to do so.

Let me emphasise—now that the rule about hockey helmets is in place, NHL players can’t just choose to play without helmets, even if they want to. If that were allowed, it would make helmet-wearing optional again, and it would undermine the point of having the rule in the first place. This is a good analogy for minimum wage.

Analogy to minimum wage

In most cases, we rightly take what a person would consent to as a pretty good proxy for that person’s own idiosyncratic values. That is to say, in most cases where a person is willing to consent to something, she has made a subjective appraisal in favour of it, according to her own values. This is why we think it’s paternalistic to impose many restrictions on what a person can consent to do with her time / money / body / etc. This intuition is what gives the “it was voluntary” argument its moral force. A person’s self-interested behaviour is usually well-aligned with her own values.

In the Helmet Problem, the self-interest of NHL players was actually working against their own values, and so, a restriction that could have been framed in terms of a loss of freedom on the part of the players (“Who are you to tell me that I have to wear a helmet?”) was actually necessary to enable the players to coordinate and allow them all to do what they wanted to do. Put in moral terms, it was wrong to even make the NHL players choose between them in the first place.

Similarly, the self-interest of unpaid interns has been used against them in a morally problematic way and coordination through regulation will best respect their values and best interests. If a company is allowed to get away with offering an unpaid internship, a prospective intern has to choose between getting job experience / networking on the one hand and supporting herself financially on the other. If anyone is allowed to get away with working for less than the minimum wage (like at an unpaid internship), the minimum wage becomes optional for everyone. This defeats the purpose of having a minimum wage law in the first place, which is to ensure no one has to compete in a job market with free labour.

By having a minimum wage law, what we are saying is that in the same way that a hockey player shouldn’t be made to choose between his personal safety and his performance, an intern shouldn’t be made to choose between getting job experience and getting paid. Further, by having a minimum wage law, we are saying that an intern doesn’t get to make that choice, even if she wants to. That’s the whole point of the law.

I still disagree with you

If you don’t want to live in a society where there is a minimum wage, that’s fine. We have a democratic process for passing legislation that allows us to change laws as we see fit, but at least in 2013, in Canada and the US, the law is that work must be compensated with a minimum amount of money per hour, whether you’d be willing to work for less or not.

Carrying suspicious-looking quidditch equipment on the metro


This morning, I brought two brand new Mark 3 quidditch hoop bases to campus via the métro. The McGill Quidditch Team now has a full set of 6 freestanding quidditch hoops! They are reasonably easy to carry and just the right weight to prevent tipping. They are also made of ABS pipes, joints and couplings, and so they look awfully suspicious.

I’m still working on updating the construction manual so that it reflects the most up-to-date version of the base.

I got off the métro at station Peel and crossed the path of two uniformed police officers. They looked at me, they looked at the mess of ABS pipes in my hands, and they looked up at me again. Although they didn’t say anything, I could tell from their expression that they were thinking something like, “If this guy wasn’t blond with blue eyes, we would totally preemptively arrest him under the brave new anti-terrorism legislation that just passed.”

I just tried to look casual.

Internet vigilante justice against the police in Montréal through social media

I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous
I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous

It’s hard to trust the police in Montréal these days. “Officer 728” is a household name, known for her abuse of power, which was caught on video. There was also a famous CCTV video of a prostrate man being brutally kicked repeatedly by the Montréal police. This problem isn’t restricted to Montréal either. Recently a police officer in Vancouver was caught on video punching a cyclist in the face while putting him in handcuffs.

Technology and the abuse of police power

I used to largely dismiss reports of police abuses of power. When I saw graffiti saying, “eff the police” or something to that effect, I used to chalk it up to conspiracy theorists and delinquent youths. Now that it’s all on Youtube, it’s harder to ignore the problem.

(I also used to dismiss those who spray-painted “burn the banks” in a number of parts of Montréal as conspiracy theorists, but since 2008, I can kind of see where they’re coming from.)

We’re entering into an age when abuses of power by police are being caught on tape more and more often. I don’t think that police abusing their power is a new thing, or even that the rates have changed recently. I’m of the position that it might just be more visible because of the recent development that nearly everyone is carrying around a camera in their pocket that can instantly upload video of police brutality to Youtube. The Google Glass project (and the clones that are sure to follow) may make this even more common.

This is unsettling to me, partly because it might mean that a lot of the times I dismissed claims of police abuse, I was in the wrong.

We should all be legitimately outraged by this

More importantly though, this should make us all angry because this is not how justice works in Canada. Even if the robbery suspect was completely guilty of every crime the police suspected, we don’t allow individual police officers to dole out their own personal vengeance in the form of physical beatings. We certainly don’t allow groups of police officers to do so against suspected criminals as they lie helpless in the snow, and most emphatically, there is no place in Canadian justice for criminals to be punished in this way (or any other) without due process or without even having been formally charged with a crime.

A police officer punching a restrained person is much worse than a regular citizen punching another citizen. This is because the police are, so to speak, the final guarantee that the government has power over its citizens and that there is the rule of law in a country. The most basic reason for others not to steal your stuff is that if they do, there’s a good chance that the police will come and take away their freedom in such a way that it’s not worth it for most people to engage in that behaviour. All laws largely work on the same principle. Sure, there’s other sanctions that a government can use, like taxation, but even that is underwritten by the threat of police coming and putting you in prison if you break the tax laws.

So, when a police officer physically abuses a citizen, he shakes our faith in the proper functioning of the machinery of government. This makes the issue not just one of bad PR for a particular police department, but one of general faith in our country to work in a just and equitable way. Further, if the police are vigilantes and there is no recourse, it legitimizes vigilante justice by the people against the police.

This means that when a police officer abuses his power, there must be some recourse that is transparent, timely and just. There can’t even be the appearance that the police are above the law, otherwise what you will see is ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice, which is a very scary prospect.

Ordinary citizens are taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice

In response to the issues I have described above, as well as a number of much less famous examples of abuse of police power during the protests in Montréal, there has been a movement toward the use of social media to identify the police who are abusing their power. This is being done by citizens who believe that there has been abuse of power by police in Montréal, and that the normal channels of addressing these abuses have been of no avail.

They are collecting photos, videos, identification numbers, names and addresses of police officers, cataloguing their transgressions and calling for retribution.

The police are calling this “intimidation.” They are calling for it to be taken down. They’re (rightly) complaining that there is no way for a police officer who is wrongly accused in this way to clear his name, and that the police, and even some non-police are being put in danger because of this.

What needs to happen

I have not been involved in the student protests in Montréal. I have never been beaten by the police. I generally believe that if I call 911, thanks to my skin colour, it will be the “good guys” who show up at my door. That said, I can understand why someone who was abused by a police officer might be tempted to post this information out of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the official recourse against such abuse.

In some ways, the police have been implicitly training us to use these methods if we want anything to get done: Likely the police officer from Vancouver would have gotten away with punching the cyclist in the face if the cyclist’s friend hadn’t caught it on video and posted it to Youtube.

If the police want us to use official channels to address police abuses, they have to give us reason to think that it’s better to do that than to just appeal to the Internet for justice. Politically-motivated arrests of people for posting “intimidating” things online won’t cut it.

I think we will only see a real change in public attitudes toward police brutality given the following three conditions.

  1. The official channels must be transparent. It must be clear to everyone that something is being done, and we have to see that officers who abuse their power are appropriately punished. Confidence in the relationship between the state and its citizens is what’s at stake, and so the solution must be one that publicly restores confidence.
  2. Official channels must be timely. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied” applies here. If citizens get impatient waiting for justice to be applied, they may be tempted to take it into their own hands.
  3. Finally, official recourse against police abuse must be just. This is where an official means of recourse against police brutality could actually outdo Internet vigilantes. Internet vigilante justice will always be faster and more transparent than anything official could ever be, but an official channel can enforce punishments fitting to the crime, and can claim legitimacy in a way that vigilantes never can.

If a police officer publicly faced criminal charges, rather than just a “paid leave of absence” followed by “counselling” and this happened in short order after an accusation of abuse, this would do a lot to restore faith in official channels. The people of Montréal might even learn that the legitimate checks and balances are preferable to pursuing vigilante justice through social media.

Cheating on the MCAT

Recently, two men in BC were caught cheating on the MCAT.

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, who was mainly shocked because “they could’ve got away with it if they only added maybe two more levels of sophistication: Not letting the tutors work together, and doing OCR on the text in the image.”

I have a pet conspiracy theory that for the most part, it is the best cheaters who get into medical school. Maybe that’s just me being jaded, and maybe it’s stories like this, combined with personally knowing some people who not only cheated in their undergrad, but bragged about it and were admitted to medical school.

My friend’s response was that my suspicion sounded plausible, but that “not everyone can get in [to medical school] … and cheating may not be the cause, but there is certainly something wrong with the system.”

Of course not everyone can get in. The sizes of medical school cohorts have been artificially suppressed. The doctor shortage is not an accident. We’re short of doctors in Canada as a matter of public policy, not because factors outside of our control have made it so.

In many ways, our current medical system has been engineered to contain the optimal conditions for encouraging cheating.

First off, the stakes for getting into medical school are very high. Doctors are paid extremely well, and within the medical community (and among people generally) they are revered as nearly godlike.

Not only that, but the consequences for failure to get into medical school can be devastating. Entire university programmes are geared toward prep for med school—there is a huge investment that someone has to make even before a student can even be considered for admission.

By the time someone has got to the point of writing the MCAT, she has invested an amount of money in the five-figure range. All her friends and family know that this is where she’s headed. If she doesn’t make it, she loses all her sunk costs, she loses face and she might also have to deal with the pressure of parents’ expectations, either because they themselves are in medicine or because they helped to finance her education.

The slightest error or even a doubt in the mind of a student, a bad mark or a comment from a well-meaning parent might be enough, in the face of all these pressures to make an otherwise good student cheat.

And as much as professors like to say that universities are tough on cheaters, they’re not. I know from a few personal experiences as a TA that even in schools like McGill, nothing at all is done about academic offenses, even when students are caught cheating red-handed.

So, we have a huge potential payoff, limited numbers of people who can cash in, terrible consequences for failure and we train students not to fear the consequences of cheating.

I don’t know why we’re all acting surprised at this.