Why we need to discuss the politics of engineering
An OPSEU member questions the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad about their disruption of a picket demo
Photo Credit/Zach Morgenstern
Anyone who follows student politics closely will know that the University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) faces particularly vitriolic opposition from two campus groups—Trinity and Engineering students. Two years ago, I was surprised to learn about the engineering opposition. Trinity has a reputation for poshness, college-nationalism and maintaining sometimes reactionary traditions, but I’d never considered that a seemingly non-political program of study like engineering would be a bastion for political dissent.
But while non-humanities programs may seem apolitical—as they do not involve debates about morality and policy—a number of them may in fact protect or even encourage conservative viewpoints, precisely because they are not based around questioning the political status quo.
The more I paid attention to student politics, the greater range of problematic posts I saw from key figures in the U of T engineering community, in some cases dismissing union and even equity politics outside and inside the UTSU context. As an outsider, I see these statements only when they emerge in my online sphere, but an engineer at a rally this week told me “things are way worse on the inside.” There is indeed a political quality to being in engineering: engineers, rightly or wrongly, are told by society that their strengths will help them succeed economically, and as such have a perceived material interest in dismissing the politics of change.
In the last few weeks at U of T, the reactionary side of engineering culture has reared its head in practice. An event on Facebook recently emerged advertising an “Africa” pub night at Suds, the engineering pub. A student quickly took to the page expressing concern that the event could easily become an offensive, cultural-appropriation party. This reaction was perfectly reasonable, especially considering that EngSoc had got in trouble earlier this school year for hosting a “fiesta” pub night, complete with a Mexican-caricature mascot. Rather than understanding this concern, a number of high profile engineers jumped to defend the Africa event and dismissed the criticism of it as anti-engineer bias.
Around the 20th of February, EngSoc drew controversy for refusing to endorse a vigil for the Muslim victims of the Chapel Hill shootings, with their president citing the principle that EngSoc avoided taking political stands so as not to misrepresent their politically diverse membership.
Finally, on Friday, March 6th, the day of a student-TA solidarity demonstration, the Lady Godiva Bnad (the engineering marching band) created a Facebook event using internet-style poor spelling that called (roughly) for a parody strike protest and contained links to a number of Marxist groups including the Young Communist League. I later found the band playing loudly right next to a TA picket and holding up sarcastic protest signs, including one that seemed to make references to the TA’s (misleading) hourly wage. While the band refused to proclaim their political intentions to a questioning union supporter, their action showed little respect for the union chants their noise was drowning.
Because they study a discipline that seems likely to land them a job, U of T’s engineers have a structural reason to be reactionary, and in practice display of range of reactionary tendencies including making fun of equity concerns. This is not to say that the majority of engineers are consciously conservative (though they may be), but many vocal engineers display a set of individualistic values that in practice are very much in line with libertarian-conservatism.
Of course it would be a mistake to paint engineers with a broad brush. There are a range of political views in U of T Engineering’s UTSU opposition camp, and there are quieter engineers that don’t belong to that camp at all. In the lead up to the CUPE3902 strike, I was told a more nuanced story about how one union organizer had difficult time reaching out to some engineering graduate students. After the union began to make gains for engineers at the bargaining table, he explained, he was able to win over these graduate students. That all said, the fact that not all engineers are conservative, does not mean that conservatism in engineering should not be called out. Rather, students should talk lucidly about the political forces in their communities so they can be best mobilized, or in this case, mobilized against.comments powered by Disqus