LONDON, ONTARIO – Hermaneutics has officially gone fishing this week and instead of the usual up-to-the-minute commentary which so distinguishes this blog, we present your host’s interview with Canada’s bravest academic, Janice Fiamengo. Though originally published in the September 24, 2015 edition of The London Yodeller, there is very little in this conversation that has lost its relevance over the last five years.
AS THE COMMITMENT to freedom of speech on our university campuses grows ever more flaccid and proscribed, Janice Fiamengo, a soft-spoken Professor of English at the University of Ottawa has been appearing more and more fearless in her willingness to court controversy and outrage in her public pronouncements against second-wave feminism and the one-sided mischief that flawed ideology has inflicted on the world of academe and society at large. Type her name into any search engine and you will be presented with an array of videos of her talks to various university groups. These make for compelling, though depressing, viewing. Invariably her audiences are riddled with hecklers and grandstanders; students and fellow professors who look nervously to their peers for courage as they lob inane questions and absurd accusations her way – all of which she addresses with admirable patience and wisdom. For one such lecture at Queens University last year, the camera keeps rolling as most of the audience files out and then – one-on-one and out of the public eye (they think) – her supporters come forward to whisper their thanks.
This August (2015) Fiamengo began releasing short video talks every Thursday called The Fiamengo File. (The seventh installment will be released today.) After seeing the third File, entitled Votes for Women, in which Fiamengo handily deconstructs the cherished myth that only women weren’t allowed to vote until 1918, I thought, what better way to kick off a new academic year than to see if she’d agree to a Yodeller Interview?
It would be good to start with a little background. Born where and when, educational background, abiding interests, your current position at the University of Ottawa and how long you've been there, and any other tidbits – a passion for ping pong or Gregorian chant, a collection of Harley-Davidsons or Faberge eggs – that strike you as noteworthy or germane?
I was born in Vancouver in 1964 and grew up, perhaps not coincidentally, at the height of the Second Wave feminist movement. In Grade Two (’71–’72), I was taught by a feminist teacher who had her students colour pictures of women with hardhats and riding in firetrucks to make the point that girls could grow up to be anything we wanted. Even at the time, it seemed like overkill; nobody had ever told me I couldn’t. I don’t think I am an exception in having received nothing but respectful treatment and encouragement where it was appropriate from every man I encountered throughout school and in the workforce.
I took all my training at the University of British Columbia, finishing with a PhD in English literature in 1996. After two years as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, I got my first ‘real’ (tenure-track) position at the University of Saskatchewan, where I taught for four years. I came to the University of Ottawa in 2003. When I interviewed at both Saskatchewan and Ottawa, in 1999 and 2003, there was not a single man on either shortlist. I have a deep passion for Karaoke. Also, my husband and I play music together – David on guitar, me on keyboard.
Given the unpopularity of a lot of the positions you espouse (as shown in the video of the talk you gave about men's rights at the University of Ottawa last year) would it be correct to assume you must have tenure? And if not, how do you explain their toleration of your meddlesome presence?
I have tenure, and therefore I am in a privileged position to say my piece about what I see happening to young men at university.
Do you have any philosophical compatriots – declared or secret – on staff there or in the larger academic community?
I have some good friends in my department, and a couple who are quietly in enthusiastic agreement with my positions.
Could you give a short reiteration of your Fiamengo File on the much ballyhooed granting of the vote to women and the utterly ignored simultaneous extending of the franchise to a large section of the adult male populace as well?
The precise picture is complicated (the Canadian situation varied from province to province, and shifted according to whether a Conservative or Liberal regime was in power), but the simple fact is that property and income qualifications prevented significant segments of the Canadian (and British) population of males from voting until 1918, when all such restrictions were lifted, following the bloody sacrifice of male life in World War One. One might say that it took massive male casualties and suffering to extend the franchise to all men and women; that women owe the right to vote partly to men’s self-sacrifice.
In that particular video you mention that you used to subscribe to (and propagate) such a limited understanding of that milestone as well. And I must admit that what you had to say was news to me. How can you account for such a widespread instance of selective historical amnesia?
It was in an interview with Paul Elam of A Voice for Men that it was first suggested to me, very gently by Paul, that there was more to the suffrage issue than I believed. When I began researching the question, I could find only a few articles; even the Government of Canada website is vague about the halting progress towards universal male suffrage. I can only explain that fact by saying that feminists and their allies have been spectacularly successful in inculcating the story of women’s struggle for their basic rights at the hands of ‘the patriarchy’ throughout history. It is a simple and powerful story that is emotionally compelling and politically useful for a lot of people; it just doesn’t happen to be true.
When did you start to throw off the widely accepted feminist version of social history and reality and what precipitated that revolution?
When I came out of graduate school and started teaching, I was a feminist, but within a year or so, I began to draw back sharply. Witnessing the experience of young men in university classes led me to the sobering realization that what passed for knowledge was too often a bitter and biased form of man-blaming. I heard often about the need to protect girls, empower girls, bolster girls’ self-esteem, encourage them to follow their dreams – while all the while young men were being given the clear message that their sex was responsible for all the problems in our world and that if they would stop being so nasty and masculine, we could end war and address all inequalities and injustices. The message was that men had had it too good for too long, that their concerns were trivial or non-existent, that they needed to apologize for their so-called ‘privilege’ and step back to let their sisters lead society.
Nothing was ever said about all the good that men had done and continue to do, how men built our society both materially and conceptually; the implication was that wherever men flourished, whatever magnificent achievements men had made in science, medicine, technology, and art, it was because of an unfair advantage – that women could probably have done better if they hadn’t been held back. And even though women now have a demonstrably unfair advantage (in so-called ‘equity hiring,’ for example, and in the fact that women’s numbers at university far outpace men’s), it never seemed enough. Feminists always found ways to claim that more needed to be done for women; that men were still oppressive and dominating; that there is a vicious “rape culture” on university campuses for which drastic measures both proactive and punitive are necessary; that we need to do more to celebrate women and shame men. The rhetoric seemed to have no connection to reality. Rather than fading away, though, as women came more and more to the fore and men learned to apologize and kowtow, it seemed to grow stronger.
In that University of Ottawa video, the rage and condescension of so many of your teaching peers and students is palpable. How do you bear it? From what well do you draw strength for the fight?
I sometimes feel angry and nearly hopeless. The malign effects of feminism in the fields of journalism, the judiciary, law enforcement, and social work, all drawing their source from the academy, seem near-total. It is dispiriting to encounter the righteous conviction of feminists and their near-total disregard for the suffering of men.
I am worried that our culture has been hit by a perfect storm from which there can be no recovery. Is it an accident that many of the young men who go to fight for ISIS come from western cultures that have been significantly reshaped by feminism? I think feminists have succeeded, perhaps even beyond what they imagined or intended, in creating a culture that has little place for men except as the source of alimony and child support (for the wives who kicked them out and the children they’re no longer allowed to see), as the butt of jokes in television commercials and sit-coms, and as the recipients of seemingly endless public campaigns to shame and blame them for everything from complimenting women in the ‘wrong way’ to taking up too much space on the subway. The suicide rate among young men is on the rise, male depression and ‘dropping out’ are rampant, and many men have decided that it is better to have as little to do with women as possible, certainly never to marry or to father children. I worry that we are ruining our society for future generations.
As for the negative feedback I sometimes receive (which is not very much – I wish it were more because then I would feel I was having an impact) and the contempt expressed at my talks, that doesn’t bother me in the least. I inherited from my parents a very strong belief in doing the right thing regardless of the consequences. And from my father a certain bull-headedness. I love that a Philosophy professor at Queen’s University was so irritated by my talk that she made a fool of herself on camera for all to see, showing what passes for informed public utterances by university professors in our tax-payer-funded institutions.
What is the motivation behind The Fiamengo File? How often are they posted and who picks up on them? What are you trying to do here? Change people's thinking?
The Fiamengo File is a weekly video series (the videos come out every Thursday at noon) on aspects of feminism and men’s issues that will potentially speak to an audience of the uncommitted to convince them that the objectives and impacts of feminism are far less benign than is conventionally believed, and also to reach out to young men at university, in particular, who may be overwhelmed by the negative messages they receive there.
Have you got a book in you?
I have long dreamt of writing a book about the corruption of academia by cultural Marxist ideology, organized around specific anecdotes. But since my target audience is young people, I suspect that video presentations may be a more effective forum for my message right now.
Would you agree that Christina Hoff Sommers' 'Who Stole Feminism?' is the foundational text for anyone wanting to break out of the intellectual ghetto of stilted feminist thinking? If not, what is? And are there other important books you'd recommend as well?
Yes, Who Stole Feminism? remains the uber-text, the definitive statement on what went wrong with feminism, particularly in its academic form. Although it was published in 1994, it remains relevant and extremely informative (especially for its dismantling of the Koss rape survey that became the basis for the one-in-four statistic so often cited today). Sommers’ more recent The War Against Boys is also extensively researched and helpful. You’ll never look at another ‘Let’s Help our Girls’ advertisement or lecture in the same way after reading it. Another wonderful book is by Daphne Patai, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism (1998). It is perhaps the most disturbing and brilliant book I have read about the consequences of making policy to ‘protect’ women in the workplace out of the feminist theory of male evil.
How would you explain the alarming fact that the university campus – traditionally celebrated as an oasis of free thinking and unfettered intellectual inquiry – has become so stifling an environment? How did we let this happen? Who benefits by the current tyranny?
Most commentators analyze the current state of affairs in academia as a result of what they call ‘The Long March Through the Institutions,’ the gradual and deliberate takeover of higher education by cultural Marxists and others dedicated to a fundamental transformation of western culture. In the case of the university, the plan has been to teach students to feel contempt for western history, to see it as a record of intolerable injustice and oppression, and to imagine that it needs to be not merely reformed but completely overthrown.
Who benefits? Certainly not the students, who come out with a very weak understanding of history and a drastically distorted lens on our current culture. But quite a few professors have made nice careers out of social justice advocacy. I suspect that it’s a lot more exciting to imagine yourself transforming the consciousness of young people to aid the revolution than to teach something as “dull” (I don’t believe it is) as eighteenth-century satire.
Do you think a more fair-minded and latitudinarian atmosphere could ever be restored on campuses? And what would be required for that to happen? Do you see any signs that give you hope today?
I can’t imagine the universities changing any time soon. The social justice activists are in charge of hiring, and they’re determined to keep on hiring their allies. Only a total collapse of the universities could save us now. We need to find a way to start up private institutions.
Speaking as a high school dropout for whom university had no appeal 40 years ago, I am even more mystified what draws anybody there now. What's in it for the students today? Why do they put up with it?
One good thing about the situation at university today is that so many students are so uninterested in what they’re studying that the indoctrination doesn’t affect them. In a time of an uncertain economy, the four years spent at university are a way, for some, of delaying many of the burdens of adulthood. That’s a very cynical way of putting it, of course, and it is emphatically not true for the entirety of the university experience. Despite everything that has happened to education in our country, there are still brilliant professors teaching well, and brilliant students engaged in learning. Even a very watered-down and grade-inflated English program can offer students something wonderful: it’s just not nearly as wonderful as it could be.
Today's crop of students are often characterized as unnaturally passive and incurious; does that jibe at all with what you see?
Yes, that is my impression. I suspect that what passes for knowledge in many disciplines, the current mantras about gender, race, and class, hardly encourage curiosity. Students are not taught/forced to think, to exercise their memories, to develop interest in or at least respect for subjects that are not immediately attractive to them; and therefore they develop the habit of disengagement. It also may have something to do with the fact that more students than ever before are now attending university. It stands to reason that many of them are simply not intellectually equipped for the demands of high-level thinking. The idea that a majority of youth are inclined that way is a fantasy of university administrators to boost their numbers.
What would you say are the main ways in which men are sold short today?
I saw an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago in which the big thesis of Masculinity Studies professor Michael Kimmel was that men are “confused” about what it means to be a man. I couldn’t believe a so-called expert in men’s issues could say such an asinine thing. Men experience systematic inequality before the law and in society generally: higher prison terms than women for the same crimes, a raw deal in divorce and child custody arrangements, no reproductive rights, and a shocking lack of due process when charged with sexual harassment or assault on university campuses and elsewhere.
Clearly the current arrangement doesn't do men any favours. But what about the women? Does anyone really win at this game as it's being played today?
Well, a fair number of women have received government and university positions with great salaries, and very nice promotions, that they might not have earned otherwise, simply because their hiring served their employers’ equity provisions. I suppose that’s a kind of win. (Some live with the guilt of that for life; others justify it with reference to women’s historical oppression.) Some women do very well for themselves financially by divorcing rich husbands. Are these goods? The empowerment of one class of people should never be bought at the expense of injustice for another. Women’s well-being cannot ultimately rest on lies.
At the bottom of every letter Janice Fiamengo sends out, she includes this quote from American critic, essayist, translator and individualist, John Jay Chapman (1862–1933): "Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose . . . Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don't be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time."
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