Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Populism on Campus? Examining Self-Victimization in the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Movements (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Tarini Date and Annika Olsen

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

In our fieldwork among the pro-choice (Tarini) and pro-life (Annika) groups on campus, both of us have encountered extreme commitment to protecting the vulnerable in the name of the popular sovereignty. Looking at Samet’s definition (2013) of populism as the sentiment of a group with a “shared sense of victimhood” that represent the will of the people, Samet emphasizes that populist mobilization hinges on self-identification with perceived victims rather than a charismatic leader (Samet 2013, 526). This is certainly the case with supporters of the pro-choice and the pro-life movement. These victims are first and foremost the people who can get pregnant and whose personal autonomy pro-life supporters are trying to impinge or the fetuses whose personhood and human rights that are being neglected, according to the pro-choice and pro-life groups respectively. However, it is the casting of their own victimization that defines these strict formations.

Visual assault and the formation of the pro-choice group on campus

The posters of dismembered fetuses have become the main feature associated with the pro-life group on campus. As described by various pro-choice interlocutors, the people who pass by the graphic pro-life posters become victims of the visual assault, including themselves.

The posters have become symbols of collective suffering. All the interlocutors who were interviewed from the pro-choice group and most of those who were observed during Tarini’s fieldwork spoke in detail about their personal/familial experiences with abortion or miscarriage. Seeing the graphic pro-life posters causes them and could cause the members of their families’ intense emotional damage. The word “triggering” was used by a number of the pro-choice interlocutors.

As victims of visual assault, many joined the pro-choice group with the express desire to counter the pro-life presence and end the use of graphic images on campus. In fact, the pro-choice group was itself formed as a reaction to the pro-life presence on campus, particularly the presence of graphic imagery.

The group “set(s) out to right wrongs in the name of the oppressed” (Samet 2013, 527). The wrongs of the visual assault committed by the graphic images and the sexism and misogyny believed to be inherent in the pro-life movement and the oppressed being those who are forced to view the graphic images, women and others who can get pregnant (transgender men and non-binary people). The pro-life group has become the common enemy that needs to be stopped.

Censorship and the city-wide mobilization of the pro-life group
However, the intense mobilization of Toronto Against Abortion (pro-life students from campuses across the city) occurred because of the increase of censorship by the student unions: “We are all students and pay fees to the student union,but cannot get funding and recognition because of bias.” The pro-life group of U of T St. George has not received club status since 2015 after the introduction of the graphic posters.

As the refusal of acknowledgement spread across the different campuses, Students started to commute to each other’s training sessions, demonstrations, workshops and tabling events to show solidarity and strength in numbers. This targeting has unified pro-life campus groups that were previously divided by differences in space and methods. The reaction has been able to “bring together disparate constituencies with distinct, sometimes contradictory grievances.”. (Samet 2013, 527).

This solidarity as a response to opposition has extended to counter-protesters. The members of the pro-life group have given themselves the role of passive and rational educators of the truth who are targeted by those who want to hide it. Therefore, they embrace of the position of the reasonable and unjust target in order to strengthen the formation of relationships among members and pro-life groups across the GTA. They are also fighting a common enemy: irrational opposition. They have become victims of it.

Since both groups are using victimhood as a form of solidarity, are they not both populist? This is difficult to conclude without fully considering some notion of the will of the people. The pro-choice group does indeed assume the role of the protector of the public from visual assault by imagery that, it assumes, the public does not wish to see. For its part, the pro-life group argues for a need to educate the public in order to cultivate a will for policy change. In its view, the public has been subdued and must relearn how to exercise its will. Both groups are employing populist techniques, especially when it comes to mobilization. Interestingly, it is through the employment of victimhood by both groups that extreme polarization has taken place.

Samet, Robert. 2013. The Photographer’s body: Populism, polarization, and the uses of victimhood in Venezuela. American Ethnologist 40 (3): 525-539


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