I meet Michelle at the King’s Head on an afternoon tucked in the strange lull between Christmas and New Years. Cloud-numbed light filters through the windows. The space is littered with sparse groups sharing a few beers and relaxed conversation. Attentive waitstaff ask for my order twice before I choose my seat.
The last time I saw Michelle, our environment was quite different. A few weeks back we each read our pieces as part of the DearJournal launch party at The Tallest Poppy. On that night, the room was crowded, dark, and pumping with music and animated voices. As we shook hands for the first time, we were jangled with nervous anticipation. There was a quick moment of confusion because it was loud and we share a first name: “How do you pronounce your name?” “Michelle.” “No, I mean your name.”
But now, at the King’s Head, we can enjoy each other’s company. Our conversation flows well beyond the confines of the interview, as we touch on feminism, the holiday season and the nature of our work. I come away with the tingling sensation of a conversation with a new acquaintance gone well, and a mid-afternoon pint on an empty stomach.
FULL: What are the major objectives of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties and how do you go about meeting those objectives?
Michelle Falk: We’re a human rights organization, and we focus on local issues. We started out in the 70’s doing more advocacy, but now we believe that youth education is a really great way to address human rights issues in a supportive environment. You see vicious debates going on in online communities, and a lot of ignorance is displayed there. We’re trying to get to the root of that problem and address it through education.
Human rights are supported by documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter, and it seems very black and white and straight forward, but there are so many ways you can interpret any piece of legislation. If one person’s rights are being helped, it can take away from someone else’s rights, and so we want to explore how to address that in a critical way. We’re also interested in making people aware of the value systems that are in place when we make decisions about human rights.
One way we differentiate ourselves from other human rights organizations in the city is working on substantive solutions to systemic oppression. We work through education at all stages of life – young people who are still in school, as well as those who have moved on from the university environment. When you’re young, you have your education, but there’s rarely a deeper focus on local issues. Then, when you’re older and not in school anymore, there are fewer avenues to get together with people and talk about issues that are important.
Having that conversation about human rights at a deeper level is something we want to focus on, so that’s why we do the ethics slams and put on the human rights film festival in March. These are all ways to get people talking about human rights. A lot of what we do is only possible because of volunteer work. There are many dedicated people in the community who come together for this cause, which is great to see.
FULL: Describe for me what happens at the ethics slams.
MF: It’s done in a debate style, but instead of being adversarial, it’s collaborative. It’s a lot of fun and great way for people to get excited about ideas. There are many university students, and we encourage anyone from the community to put a team together. We’ll send them the questions in advance, and as a group they’ll get together and work toward a two or three minute answer. At the slam, they’ll go up on stage and say their piece. Our questions are based off of hot button issues, yet the questions are framed hypothetically. We also have a bonus round. This year it’s going to be the spoiler alert round – the questions are based on plot lines from movies people have seen.
FULL: So it’s not formatted like a traditional debate where two sides present their arguments and then proceed to refute each other’s statements and find illogical points in them. Do the groups only state what they’ve prepared in advance or do they have another chance to speak again after hearing other groups present?
MF: They speak what they’ve prepared, and then we have judges to critique them. The judges - a professor of ethics University of Manitoba, another from the Université de Saint-Boniface, and a lawyer - go through and examine the ethics behind the question and the argument each group prepared and how logical it was.
FULL: Can you give me some examples of questions?
MF: Is it ethical for cat owner who’s a vegan for moral reasons to feed their cat meat?
We also had one based off Drag the Red. People are going out there, using their own time, and they’re not trained as police officers, but the police aren’t necessarily using their resources to find the bodies that people believe to be in the Red River. So is it ethical to let volunteers search the Red River for bodies?
FULL: And in the bonus round, where the questions are based off of movie plot lines, how do those work?
MF: We look at different plots and examine the ethical conundrums behind them. For example, The Truman Show. You’re given an idyllic life which is all an elaborate reality T.V. scene. Would you leave the reality T.V. set and go out into the real world, even though you have no idea what’s going on out there, or would you stick to the safe, idyllic life even though it’s not real?
We like to explore those kinds of thought experiments that are a bit more fun, and we have teams that are made up of philosophy students and people with debate experience, a group of lawyers: it’s a chance for different kinds of people to get together to talk about these issues.
FULL: What criteria do the judges base their decisions on?
MF: They mostly base their judgements on the logic used. With these thought experiments there’s never one right answer, so you can take any perspective, but it’s a matter of exploring every avenue and being logical.
The event also ends up being a lot of fun, because there’s beer and the audience pipes in, and we allow them to rate the teams. We try to get away from rating teams highly because you agree with them, but giving credit to a team who argued their point really well whether that audience member agrees or not.
We found through hosting the event that a lot of audience members, who weren’t part of a team and hadn’t prepared a response, wanted to have their say too. That’s led to the ethics cafes. Our first one was last September at The Tallest Poppy. We’re hoping to get back to that again in March. Each one will have a different theme. The one in September was about sex and the way bodies and sexuality are politicized, and the next one will be about technology.
FULL: And that’s more of a free-flowing discussion where anyone can participate?
MF: We have the same style of questions, but we bring it out to the audience. So people can be at their tables, sitting and discussing there, and then we’ll have a bigger discussion as a group. We weren’t sure how the first one would turn out, but it went really well. It was interesting, because we tried to come up with controversial questions, but we found that almost immediately everyone would come to a consensus.
FULL: I imagine the sort of people who would attend these events would be at least somewhat like-minded in their opinions. Is that one of the challenges you face? How do you work to try to bring in people with more diverse perspectives or opinions?
MF: At the ethics of sex, we found that most people were on the same side of most issues, but there was one table of older people who were saying things like, “Well, when you’ve been married forty years, sometimes you start to see it this way!” Nearly everyone else was dealing with dating and being in the new stages of a relationship, so that created some diversity of opinion.
We also had an Ethics of Medicine at the U of M Bannatyne Campus with a lot of medical professionals. We got deep into issues like assisted suicide. That got heated because people had strong personal opinions.
FULL: So you find perhaps that people have similar opinions, but they come at those opinions from different perspectives - age, profession, et cetera?
MF: Absolutely. What we’re really trying to achieve with these events is getting people to think about something they already have an opinion or assumption about, but to think about it in a way that they hadn’t considered before. We’re not even looking to change minds, but just to get people to challenge their assumptions and think about things in complex and new ways.
You can participate in or spectate the MARL Ethics Slam at the King's Head this Thursday, January 14th. To keep informed on MARL's work and upcoming events, check out their Facebook page.