Archive for the ‘political space’ Category

Genocide as Metaphor, and the University as Political Space

October 17, 2010

The most recent Canadian episode in the ongoing debate over the right of anti-abortion groups to display graphic images on university campuses has been unfolding in Ottawa at Carlton University where five anti-abortion activists were arrested on Monday, Oct. 4th for refusing to remove signage that compares abortion with acts of genocide. Banning the images, claims the protesters, is a violation of their freedom of expression. They go further to argue that the images are not being banned because they are offensive, but because of the anti-abortion cause that they represent. A similar claim was made by the Youth Protecting Youth student organization at University of Victoria, B.C., who were denied club status by the student union, and had to fight a legal battle to have their status and funding reinstated (the university and club reached a settlement in July 2010).

This controversy raises interesting questions about the university as a politicized space. University students across Ontario will be familiar with the poster vendor Imanginus that sets up displays in student centres several times a year. The incursion of these images, which run the gambit from high art, to popular film, to commodified images of women and cars, have yet to produce an outcry from students that such imagery infringes on their right to enjoy the common spaces of the universtiy. The poster sales are largely accepted as part of the on-going commercialization of common space on university campuses, as is the selling of advertising spots in campus washrooms, where cell phone companies pitch a better deal on text messages while male students return the liquid deposit on the last two pints of beer they just drank.

I agree with the anti-abortionists that the reason they are discriminated against is that a large number of people disagree with the political position they are attempting to represent with their imagery. Abortion is an issue that triggers strong political divisions and emotional responses (the psychology of which has not, to my knowledge, been adequately investigated). Groups like the protesters at Carlton are no doubt aware of this, and they have chosen to display imagery designed to provoke a strong response. While one of the protesters claimed (on CBC radio) to be showing the “reality” of abortion, what they have in fact produced with the 8’ by 4’ images is a visual metaphor to express the strong feelings they have against the practice of abortion. These images are metaphoric rather than an “accurate” representation, because abortion is not genocide; the protesters use of this term can only be a polemic and non-literal application.

Genocide is the attempt to systematically kill an entire population due to their perceived ethnic, racial or national affiliation, and is motivated by complicated social, political and psychological factors which a number of modern thinkers, like Hannah Arendt and Arjun Appaduri, have struggled to articulate. While such campaigns do, by definition, include the youth and even the unborn in their targets, age alone is not a determining factor in genocide. Depicting abortion practices in this way thus grossly misrepresents and distorts actual, historical instance of genocide. The protesters need to recognize this, and to adjust how they represent their actions to the media.

A less generous interpretation of the protester’s choice of imagery would read the posters as symptomatic, as indicative of an unresolved contradiction within the psyche of the protesters themselves. Why, despite clear historical evidence to the contrary, do these individuals choose to understand abortion as genocide? Perhaps their setting upon this term reflects an apprehension of the dehumanizing aspects of modern medical systems of power and knowledge, which, in their most destructive aspects, can reduce human beings to mere mechanical placeholders in an impersonal, technical formula. Modern biopolitical models of power, as Hardt and Negri argue, infiltrate individuals to the level of drives and biological processes, and tend to discount the actual subjective experience and agency of its subjects. Perhaps an intuition of this lack of recognition of sentience on the part of biopolitical society is being projected onto a suitable (because mute) subject by anit-abortionists. The unborn human fetus becomes a receptacle for the anxiety people feel over the incursion of biopolitical power into their own lives and subjectivity. Put simply, the modern state, in its most oppressive aspects, refuses to recognize the agency of its subjects in a manner akin to the way anti-abortionists claim society refuses to recognize the sentience and agency of the unborn child. What needs to be investigated is the nature of the cathexis between abortion activists and the potential, unformed human life with which they identify. What projections, identifications and possible disavowals are being hoisted upon the fetus in this discourse?

One response to the anti-abortionist’s use of metaphoric imagery would be to allow them to present these images, but to set up, alongside them, auxiliary displays that educate the public as to the actual, historical instances of genocide, thus providing a historical context to balance the protesters’ distortion of the term. The misrepresentation of history would then become an opportunity for introducing actual politics into the public space of university campuses.

For more arguments about how the Genocide Awareness Project distorts the issues surrounding a woman’s right to control her own body, please follow this link.