Some life lessons for foolish students

Apparently the Carleton University Students Association won't refuse to raise money for cystic fibrosis after all. Remarkable what they sometimes end up teaching in schools, isn't it?

Not including the "fact" that cystic fibrosis (CF) primarily affects white men. Although it was the basis of the CUSA's quickly-reversed decision to cancel the annual fall Shinerama CF fundraiser, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CCFF) swiftly explained that this disease afflicts men and women equally and strikes non-whites significantly, though at a lower rate than whites. The lesson: Politics and science are not natural allies.

Campus political correctness is in the news lately; you probably read about Queen's University hiring six student "dialogue facilitators" to eavesdrop on discussions in quest of intolerant remarks. But supposedly it's not meant to intimidate or punish; rather, said an assistant dean at Queen's, "If there's a teachable moment, we'll take it." So in the spirit of inclusiveness, let me do just that.

I have no doubt the CCFF spokeswoman had her facts straight. But her response offers a splendid opportunity to discuss whether it would be wrong to raise money for CF if in fact it did mostly affect white men. For bonus points, would it be OK to object to raising money for diseases that mostly affect women or non-whites? The lesson: It's still bigotry if you hate men, white people or both.

The original motion justified itself in part because "all orientees and volunteers should feel like their fundraising efforts will serve the their (sic) diverse communities." But surely a genuine commitment to diversity and openness would encourage non-white non-men to raise money for diseases that affect mostly pale males, and vice versa. Whereas the ultimate logic of the CUSA motion would be to assign every fund-raising student a disease that predominately affects people of the same sex, race, sexual orientation, age, ethnic group, religion, height, weight and eye colour, or even a disease they personally have, and we'd all wind up in separate, hostile enclaves, bitterly refusing to help one another in the name of community. The lesson: Calling something tolerant and inclusive is no guarantee of its being so.

This last lesson is especially important because the original CUSA motion would have had some merit if medical fundraising were primarily done for, and by, straight white men with nicknames like Biff and Chet. But it's not.

Consider the fundraising clout of AIDS. Could it be connected with the fact that more celebrities and affluent North American progressives know people with AIDS than with malaria, a very treatable scourge of Third World children? And then there's breast cancer. This disease seems to have no difficulty arranging high-profile fund-raising campaigns -- on campuses and involving men -- and I'm not being snide when I point out that the gender impact of breast cancer is far from neutral. (It does occur in men, but as you guessed it is very rare.) Where is the massive prostate cancer effort with its own coloured ribbons and high sociological status?

It is also remarkable that those who passed the original CUSA motion did not realise it would be controversial, let alone that it ought to be. The lesson: Student politics is frequently dominated by childish, hothouse radicalism.

It's not confined to campus. The authors of a $2-million report on youth violence for the Ontario government, a former Liberal speaker of the Ontario legislature and a former Conservative attorney general of Ontario no less, just concluded that "Racism is worse than it was a generation ago, while there are fewer resources and structures to counter this great evil than existed in years past." After all that has been accomplished, often at great personal risk, against bigotry in the last 40 years such a conclusion is not merely absurd but irresponsible. The lesson: Not all student politicians grow up.

To close on a more positive note, author and former Chrétien aide Warren Kinsella discusses this issue on his blog and describes a serious mistake by CUSA executive when he was its president in 1983-84, concluding "it is my hope that the ill-informed kids at CUSA also learn from their experience -- because that is what your university days are supposed to be all about. In politics, as in life, it is not making a mistake that matters so much. It is what you make of that mistake. That is what makes us better people, and the world around us better, too."

Not everyone will learn them, of course. But it seems they do offer life lessons at university. Wow.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]