The recent wave of media coverage of the cancellation of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa is a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with mainstream media.
Some context: sometime last week, the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD), a service of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), put its free yoga class on hold. The teacher of the class and media reports are saying that it was because of concerns about cultural appropriation. A statement from the SFUO says it’s because the CSD is reviewing it’s programming, while a staff person from the CSD elaborated on Facebook that nobody has been showing up to the classes.
An initial news report in right-wing tabloid Sun News reported on it over the weekend, almost entirely from the point of view of the “shocked” teacher of the class (obviously probably upset because she was laid off). Today, the one article turned into a media storm as all the big news Canadian outlets, and even a few international ones, jumped on the bandwagon.
To say that the incident has been blown out of proportion is only the beginning. All the headlines say things like “University Of Ottawa’s Free Yoga Class Scrapped“, which is completely factually incorrect. The action was taken by a service of the student union, which is a separate organization from the university (actually, the university still has its own free yoga class, which it was happy to point out on twitter today). Some of the headlines say that yoga has been banned, which is also wrong. Staff of the CSD have also stressed that they have only cancelled the class for this semester (which is only about two or three more weeks), and they’re reviewing it for next semester – so “scrapped” is also quite a stretch.
Then there is the problem of how the media has treated the question of cultural appropriation. South Asian activists have been saying for years that western yoga is based in cultural appropriation (and if you’re interested on learning why, you should just google it, there is plenty out there written by actual south Asian people and I won’t try to speak for them) . Almost none of the news outlets covered this aspect of the issue. The one that I could find that did, barely mentions the existence of south Asians who are against the commercialization of yoga, and gives fully two paragraphs of attention to one south Asian person who disagreed — which is biased reporting at best.
The mainstream media loves to talk about “political correctness”. When you accuse a left wing organization of stepping on “freedom of speech”, and advocating “political correctness”, it basically guarantees that you will go viral. (In case you need a quick political science lesson: the CSD is not a government and they are not stopping anyone from expressing themselves, so it’s not a freedom of speech issue. Political correctness is a concept invented as backlash against feminists who wanted to talk about the importance of language. It’s actually designed to silence the left.) Regardless of whether they are correct, the accusations are excellent click bait, so of course every news outlet is only too happy to report on them. The full story gets completely lost in the process in a world where online media is all about getting the story out as quickly as possible.
I was a disabled student at the University of Ottawa who used the CSD – it was a safe place for me to talk about my disabilities and how it affected my studies. I used their resource collection and sought advice from the staff there at the time. I also served as Vice President, University Affairs for the SFUO, and I collaborated with the CSD on several projects, including advocating for better learning conditions for disabled students.
What seems to be missing from this whole conversation is, how is the CSD benefiting it’s service users? The Centre is not like a lot of services for people with disabilities. It is not a charity. It is run with dedicated student union funding, and it is intended to be a service for disabled students, by disabled students. If students with disabilities aren’t attending the yoga classes, it doesn’t seem like a good use of the Centre’s budget to be paying for these classes. Moreover, since the SFUO does (or did when I was involved there) strive to work from an anti-oppressive view point, they should absolutely be engaging on issues of cultural appropriation and acting accordingly. That’s what student union solidarity looks like.
If you’re not a disabled student, you don’t get to decide whether the CSD is using it’s funding appropriately. And if you’re not a south asian person, you don’t get to decide whether yoga is offensive or not. We need to be willing to be engaged about this. I’m actually appalled at how often this has to be said — not just to the right wing folks who are right now harassing the CSD’s staff, but to left wing activists I know who still read Sun News. We need to see past the media’s sensationalism and have an actual calm and nuanced conversation.