UBC Chat & Chai asks its audience “What’s your cup of tea?”
By ROBIN HAVERSTOCK
The Muslim Students’ Association is the representative voice for Muslims on the University of British Columbia campus. Its constitution affirms a commitment to cater to the needs and wants of the UBC Muslim community. The MSA seeks to provide a center for these students to meet, mingle and support one another in the context of the striking diversity that marks the greater UBC campus. Moreover, it serves as a forum for personal exploration of and engagement with the Islamic faith. The MSA extends information regarding Islam to any who inquire, whether they be members of the community already or not. Students have the opportunity to involve themselves in a secure community of others who share the faith, yet recognize and reaffirm that identity within the framework of UBC life.
UBC Chat & Chai
UBC Chat & Chai is a casual discussion based series open to all members of the UBC community. This is a bi-weekly gathering hosted by the MSA. It addresses a variety of moral conundrums by way of open discussion, many of which surface in daily life. Prior to the event, attendees vote from a selection of topics ranging in nature from politics to culture to personal growth. On the day of, people of all backgrounds are invited to come together. They can then voice their opinions in a friendly and safe environment, meanwhile bonding over a soothing, warm cup of exotic tea— hence the series’ given title. Since its genesis roughly one year ago, UBC Chat & Chai has proven itself to be one of the MSA’s most successful social undertakings in terms of its popularity, endurance and momentum. The event continues to grow in attendance and scope. With each successive and successful episode, UBC Chat & Chai introduces innovative new elements to its concept.
Chat and Chai provides a space centered on openness, introspection, non-judgmentality, genuineness, non-censorship and fraternity. This is a space which brings together people of diverse perspectives and backgrounds to talk about issues relevant to them. While it draws largely on a crowd of existing MSA members, the event promotes participation on behalf of a wider audience. With that in mind, attendees’ input can draw on elements of Islam, but that is not inherently or necessarily so, and topics cover a wide range of subjects. Discussion swings from the abstract to the experiential, and it is often the case that attendees draw from their own cultural backgrounds to relate to the topic at hand. UBC Chat & Chai aims primarily to break down barriers to open discussion, and to confront taboo in an environment of free and candid dialogue. The prevalence of many of these themes and taboos all over the world means that conversation can challenge universal notions while simultaneously maintaining the personal aspect of individual perspective.
A New Blend
The most recent event put on by UBC Chat & Chai took place after the end of the winter session of the academic year. Since many students had left Vancouver for the summer, organizers sought to expand its audience to include both students and faculty. This diverged from the normal groove, but it was a transition that had been anticipated for some time and marks significant growth for the venture. Faculty took positions in the process of organization as well execution of the event. This provided the opportunity for students to engage in discussion with the added input of teachers and administration. These fresh minds possessed alternative perspectives and, most importantly, added expertise and experience.
Faculty, moreover, took the unique chance to interact with pupils on a more personal and subjective level. Some of the new attendees expressed gratitude for having been able to escape the objective instruction that belongs to the realm of the lecture hall. It can at times function as a distancing rift. This fresh approach to UBC Chat & Chai aimed to bridge the gap between students and educators by hosting a mutual conversation in which all could share experiences and learn from each other outside of the classroom.
Steeped in Controversy: Can We Afford to Joke?
On this occasion, UBC Chat & Chai explored the role of humour in the battle between freedom of speech and political correctness. In many cultures, the event page‘s description reads, humour plays a special role in creating human connection, raising difficult issues in a light way, and helping communities get through tough times. Yet in a diverse environment such as UBC campus, joking can get us into trouble: what is funny to some people is offensive and deeply hurtful to others, sometimes experienced as a violation of basic rights. UBC Chat & Chai inquired of its audience whether these people were being too sensitive or not being sensitive enough. Its mission was to find and navigate the line between laughable and inappropriate in our interactions with the UBC community.
Blowing Off Steam: What is the Role of Humour in Dialogue?
First up on the agenda, attendees gathered their teas and pie and assembled in small discussion groups. Conversation in focused groups allowed for a back and forth quality that stimulated greater momentum. A survey of their exchanges revealed a number of key core conclusions regarding the functions of humour.
The first of these functions was the airing of social taboos. Humour provides a safety valve for the expression of typically blacklisted thought. Society tends to suppress certain impulses for the sake of its own preservation. Humour could set the stage for the controlled release of those impulses. Champions of the practice of humour argued that traditional norms should receive skepticism and trial. Nevertheless, many taboos are put in place for the purpose of protection, and without them prejudices run rampant.
Thus the second function which groups identified was social criticism. Satire especially is a common form of addressing dissatisfaction with social and political institutions. Groups recognized power dynamics as a significant element of effective humour. Abasing those in power humanizes them. We can thereby derive an indirect satisfaction which alleviates social frustration without employing outright aggression. In this sense, humour promotes peaceful dialogue. On the other hand, this passive solution to our discontent has the potential to delay real action. Moreover, it’s liable to lead to stagnation. The movement for political correctness receives criticism in turn for elevating certain minority groups to sacrosanct status. In the process of protecting those who lack power by humanizing those who do not, disadvantaged groups run the risk of becoming dehumanized themselves. Instead of integrating, they drift further from the accepted standard.
The third core function, then, was the capacity of humour for consolidation of social in-groups. Humour demands am awareness of power roles and the privilege to construct or deconstruct the norms which shape discussion. Because of this, it forces its audience to confront social status. The joker must have an understanding of these dynamics in order to effectively deliver a witty quip. Meanwhile, by partaking in the laughter, his audience reaffirms its shared values and attitudes towards its circumstances. Validation in the public sphere is a major source of gratification. Still, like the other functions of humour, this one too is a double edged sword. While humour can expose values, it can also expose prejudices, and where group membership is concerned it risks bolstering hostility. Partisanship is always a latent peril.
Boiling it Down: How Can We Bring This Insight to the Realm of International Trade?
UBC and Vancouver are often taken to be liberal or at least leftist havens. These communities regularly face criticism that the political correctness associated with liberalism is an overly insulating influence. It has the potential to silence alternative or minority perspectives and thereby create barriers to dialogue. In short, political correctness is accused of inhibiting free speech, which is also a liberal value. The struggle between attempts to prevent hate speech but also promote tolerance of idiosyncrasies is a pertinent.
The political arena has gone through a great deal of tumult in this past year. We saw the expansion of liberal Canadian government policy and America’s controversial election of president Trump. Within Canada, tensions are magnified by the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and divisive bills dealing with such subjects as same-sex marriage, abortion and the permission of religious apparel in official positions and ceremony. As a hub of international trade, Vancouver attracts people on all sides of these conflicts. The tension of taboo is very alive here.
While the topic of humour as an approach to controversy was not intended to be inherently political, discussion among Chat & Chai goers organically tended towards that facet of the subject. It could be that attendees naturally honed in on the political side of humour in free speech and controversy because of its pervasiveness in the community. From this font sprung a discussion of the nuances of the use of humour as an instrument. Many people arrived at the conclusion that humour plays a role in the disclosure of truth. iJust as UBC Chat & Chai serves to give voice to those without the means to do so when it comes to cultural taboos, so too could humour be of use for the deconstruction of norms.
UBC Chat & Chai selects topics that impact the daily lives of its attendees, but which also have resounding moral and social implications on a global scale; this was no different. The appeal of UBC Chat & Chai is its relatability, and this goes for individuals as well as conceptual frameworks. Indeed, the insights garnered from any open dialogue are of value to the VITI community, and in turn to the realm of International Trade. In an increasingly globalized world, business is butting up with innumerable varying points of view. The principles on which any venture is founded constitute these perspectives. Trade must learn to navigate the tensions between free speech and political correctness in order to achieve success on the international arena and to understand its environment. Nevertheless, there is no reason that they should not do so with a light heart!