NEVER SAY “NO”

THEY SAY HISTORY is written by the winners—but if it’s improv you’re talking about, history isn’t even written at all.

True to its form, the King’s College improvisational theatre scene seems to be made up as it goes along. Though we have an impressive team—“KICASS”, which supposedly stands for something like the “King’s Improv Collective, Association, Society and Syndicate”, though nobody knows for sure—even the most veteran players have a foggy recollection of how things started.

And then there’s this weekend’s Atlantic University Improv Championship (AUIC), hosted by King’s: nobody on the team knows how it began; it’s no one’s job to organize it; and one of this year’s official judges is best known as the seven-foot-tall immortal giant in the 2006 Spartan blockbuster, 300.

“You can try to be clever, but comedy is basically jingling keys in front of a baby.”

But despite campus-wide notoriety and a zest for weird poster design, KICASS audiences waver each week. One week’s performance will get a 40-person showing, while the next will be down to five.

“It’s hard to convince people [to come out],” says Josh Tibbetts, fifth-year KICASS member and former society president. “It was hard to maintain a group of people who’d… remember it. People would just sort of forget.”

He thinks the team is not getting the recognition it has recently begun deserving. KICASS has struggled at the AUIC every year until recently—especially in 2006, when King’s hosted and “came in dead last,” Tibbetts recalls with a grin.

“We used to be better at weird ideas than actually selling ourselves to the audience,” Tibbetts says. “You can try to be clever, but comedy is basically jingling keys in front of a baby.”

Last year, however, the team placed first. You can find their plastic wrestling belt sitting in the campus bar’s trophy cabinet, with masking tape over it, reading, “Awesome at Improv”.

Tibbetts, along with several others, transformed what used to be simply “The King’s Improv Society” from a small campus workshop experience to the AUIC-winning performance troupe it is today.

It started seven years ago. After the stone-faced, tie-wearing KSU executive of 2002 rejected then first-year, now recruitment officer Terra Duncan’s proposal for an improv team at King’s, she finagled the King’s Theatrical Society to allow her to pilot an improv workshop one night. It was a success, but that was as far as things went.

“[The KSU and KTS] didn’t think that was something that anybody at King’s would be interested in,” Duncan recalls.

“Even if it was just a group of us in a room in the basement, just doing it for no real reason, and just making ourselves laugh… That was enough for me.”

The pivotal moment came in her second year: during a KTS showcase of their upcoming season (a lost tradition, it seems), Duncan performed a “desperate monologue” wherein she stripped off her clothes to reveal a superhero costume and fell to her knees, banging a shoe against the floor, begging the audience to “just give improv a chance, just once.”

“That intrigued people,” she says with a smile.

In the coming years, the team would grow in popularity and size, eventually becoming the weekly performance troupe it is today.

“It’s become more close-knit than it used to be,” Tibbetts says, “which is something I really like.”

The team’s skills will be put to the test this weekend, when the AUIC games return to King’s on March 14 and 15, in Alumni Hall at 8 p.m.

While Tibbetts hopes for a large turnout, he’s grown tired of postering the school with ads and creating Facebook events. More than anything, he’s just happy to perform.

“Even if it was just a group of us in a room in the basement, just doing it for no real reason, and just making ourselves laugh… That was enough for me.”

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Originally published in The Watch, the King’s College monthly magazine, in December 2008.

“THAT’S SO BEEP”: CENSORSHIP AND DISCRIMINATION ON QUEEN’S CAMPUS

AS OF NOVEMBER, calling your best friend retarded on Queen’s campus could be as drastic a making a bomb joke in an airport.

Queen’s University has developed an Intergroup Dialogue Program, designed to reduce racial, religious and gender-based discrimination on campus. The most contested part of the program has been the Intergroup Facilitators, six undergraduate and Masters students hired specifically to patrol the campus, residences and meal halls in search of student discrimination.

The program is modeled after similar ones in the United States, though it is so far unique within Canada.

“We’re told to do this and expected to do the right thing, but it’s more complicated than that… It gives people a false impression of how to deal with these situations. You’re not a professional, you don’t know how words offend somebody.”

The Facilitators are required to undergo an 11-day preparation session, designed to help them “foster constructive dialogue between students on difficult issues such as race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity,” Academic Vice-Principal Patrick Deane wrote in a statement published on their website on November 25.

The Facilitators, whose meal plans and residence are paid for by the university, are also in charge of holding related movie screenings and book readings, and are expected to step in to solve conflicts wherever possible on campus.

The program received a major media backlash upon its introduction, sparking critical newspaper columns, blog posts, and Facebook groups such as “Queen’s University Students and Alumni for Free Speech”, with nearly 1,000 members to date.

The group, in its description, states that “it is not, in a free society, the place of any authority to monitor the thoughts of its citizens, nor to infringe the right to free discussion and debate.”

Nobody from Queen’s was available for comment.

Numerous blogs and columns have referred to the Facilitators as “thought-police”, and to the situation as “Orwellian”—references to George Orwell’s novel 1984, a dystopian thriller about the struggle between free speech and censorship.

The Queen’s administration, not actually a totalitarian regime, has stated in public letters and announcements that there was no intent to stifle free speech. Academic Vice-Principle Dean, in his reactionary statement, continued to write: “We regret that the program has been inaccurately characterized as intrusive and in conflict with the right of freedom of expression. It was not intended to be so.”

The University has no intention to remove the program as of yet.

A CULTURE OF WHITNESS

The introduction of the Intergroup Facilitators is believed by students to be a very timely action.

Last October, Jacob Mantle—the president of the Queen’s Arts and Sciences Undergraduates Society, one of the largest societies at Queen’s—became a figure of national criticism after a friend posted a picture of two women wearing headscarves on Facebook and, in response, he posted, “I like your Taliban picture.”

The campus reaction was significant, leading to protests for Mantle’s impeachment or resignation.

His Facebook post was made days after the Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association prayer space was the subject of an attempted break-in for the second time that year—the first one having occurred in September, leaving their space vandalized and robbed.

“People, through their own ignorance, should be able to say ‘That’s retarded’ through the hallways of their own university… People say stupid shit; it’s a reality people have to deal with.”

Ben McNelly, a fourth-year politics student at Queen’s, describes racial tensions as something lingering in the atmosphere a lot this year.

“There’s sort of a mini-culture war on campus,” he says. “We have what some people call a ‘culture of whiteness’.”

In light of these recent events, the administration began to focus on the Intergroup Dialogue Program, and revisited the Henry Report, a study from 2006 on minorities and Anglocentricity at Queen’s.

The report recommends the creation of scholarships as incentives for minorities, a diversification of the curriculum, and attention by the deans to the progress of multicultural acceptance on campus.

Queen’s has recently made visible attempts to embrace diversity, including adding prayer spaces for Muslim students, creating gender-neutral washrooms and adding halal and kosher foods to residence meal plans.

“YOU DON’T LEGISLATE BASED ON THE POSSIBILITY OF OFFENDING SOMEBODY”

McNelly considers the efforts taken by the administration to be lacklustre on a practical level.

He brings up a program Queen’s introduced years ago, originally called “sensitivity training”, changed last year to “inclusivity training”, which this year became “anti-oppression training”.

The training session is mandatory for every student who is chosen for a position in student government or campus life—McNelly had to pass it twice, once for volunteering for student government in 2006, and once again this year to become a bartender at the Queen’s Pub.

The session involves several activities aimed to raise awareness and political correctness; one example, McNelly recalls, is a hypothetical situation he and his group had to solve through non-aggressive speech and reason.

But McNelly finds fault with this type of training—that making the issues seem clear-cut is flawed because taking the “moral high ground” is harder than it seems.

“We’re told to do this and expected to do the right thing, but it’s more complicated than that,” he says. “We need to address the root cause of why people say things, and they don’t do it… It gives people a false impression of how to deal with these situations; you’re not a professional, you don’t know how words offend somebody.”

The Facilitators, however, have exactly this as their goal—to get at the root cause of why we use derogatory words as slang. A problem, McNelly points out, is that issues such as closet homophobia or social insecurities are personal issues that the individual might not want to disclose to “some stranger hired by the university.”

Another problem, raised by McNelly and various members of the Facebook protest group, is that there’s no realistic end to the stream of political correctness. If by “retarded”, people really mean “stupid”, then stupid people have a political right to be offended.

“You don’t legislate based on the possibility of offending somebody,” he says. “People, through their own ignorance, should be able to say ‘That’s retarded’ through the hallways of their own university. Ideally, people would want to live in a world where people are more intelligent than that, but… People say stupid shit; it’s a reality people have to deal with.”

“THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE ON THE KING’S COLLEGE CAMPUS, TAKE A LOOK AROUND”

Over at Dalhousie University, there’s a similar society on campus called the Dal Allies. Patrick Daigle, the Allies’ Peer Advisor, explains that the Allies’ goal is “to be present on campus in case issues arise.”

The Allies have been supporting members of the rainbow community—gay, bisexual, transgendered, etc.—since their inception in 2001. The society, open to everyone on campus, holds movie screenings and classroom talks on campus awareness.

“It’s about getting the word across that there is support on campus,” Daigle says.

“Nothing is going to sensitize people to people’s differences as much as being around people who aren’t like you.”

He acknowledges the similarity between the Allies and the Intergroup Facilitators, insofar as both aim to “challenge, wherever possible, incidents of homophobia and heterosexism,” to quote the Allies’ website.

However, he points out key differences—primarily that the Facilitators take a “more radical approach to it.” While Allies are allowed to engage students in conversation, it is not written into their mission statement; they encourage the students to approach them, not the other way around.

Dr. Anthony Stewart, a professor of English at Dalhousie with a PhD from Queen’s, criticizes the Facilitators for what he sees as a futile attempt at racial acceptance.

“The concern [with the Facilitators] is that it lets everybody else off the hook,” he says, referring to the futility of six Facilitators in a sea of approximately 20,000 students.

Stewart advises that universities ought to aim for greater diversity within their student and faculty bodies, and that equality will arise from that.

“Nothing is going to sensitize people to people’s differences as much as being around people who aren’t like you,” he says. “If there are more kids who might be offended by some of the language that they’re trying to police, then there are consequences.”

He speaks from experience as an African-Canadian who has spent over half his life on university campuses, completing his education at Queen’s and teaching at Dalhousie—neither known for racial diversity. He recalls instances of racial discrimination at Queen’s, and even currently at Dalhousie.

“I am all too aware of the ways in which, from time to time, the university environment feels exclusionary and hostile to me. I feel that way from time to time, on this campus… If I feel that way, you can only imagine how difficult it is to be an 18-year-old black kid on this campus.”

However, neither Daigle nor Stewart feels that Dalhousie could benefit from the Intergroup Facilitators program.

“It’s not everyone’s comfort level,” Daigle says, referring to how the Facilitators’ aim seems to be to create an immediate lack of comfort—ironically, for the goal of an eventual atmosphere of comfort.

“We believe that meaning is derived from language… That as long as we can censor [our language], that will make the problem go away.”

Stewart agrees that such a tension is required in order to achieve a comfortable atmosphere, but insists that Queen’s is going about it the wrong way—that administrations ought to focus on colouring in the culture of whiteness plaguing most Canadian campuses.

“The next time you’re on the King’s College campus, take a look around. Not to mention the school I teach at.”

He says that conflicts will inevitably rise out of the medley of races, but “that kind of conflict is a sign of progress. It’s just uncomfortable.”

 

“THE KIND OF INJUSTICE YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT, JUST BY MAKING A FUSS”

Queen’s has made no official statements since November, leaving the success of the Facilitators uncertain for now.

“In the constructive and self-critical spirit of the program, and in light of the importance of the concerns that have been raised, the University has decided to conduct an early assessment of the program,” Academic Vice-Principle Deane wrote in his online statement.

With political correctness on the rise, both on a national and campus-wide scale, tensions are escalating, though results have yet to be seen.

“I don’t think there’s any turning back now,” McNelly says of campus political correctness. “We believe that meaning is derived from language… That as long as we can censor [our language], that will make the problem go away.”

He believes that the Facilitators only enforce an “antagonistic, negative attitude,” comparing them to Orwell’s “thought police” from 1984.

Dr. Stewart, however, having written his dissertation on Orwell, claims that the Facilitators do not signify a turn towards an Orwellian society: “The reason we are able to talk about what is and is not Orwellian is because we live in—for the most part—a pretty safe society.”

During World War II, he explains, Orwell wrote short essays about white American soldiers banning black soldiers from pubs in Britain. The black soldiers made a fuss, and the ban was abolished.

In that sense, Stewart interprets, the situation is still Orwellian after all—that racial discrimination is “the kind of injustice you can do something about” by simply coexisting with different types of people.

The Facilitators, he says, make the students’ activism seem less consequential.

“Orwell saw that regular people, not deputized by the university, just regular people, can stop something just by making a fuss.”

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Originally published in The Watch, the King’s College monthly magazine, in January 2009.