Oy vey!

Has anyone else heard the recent story about a Jewish professor at York University who, while giving examples of reprehensible ideas in class, such as “Jews should be sterilized,” had a student walk out and tattle to an Israel advocacy group on campus, who then tattled to the media?  Here’s the story.

I don’t think the tattling culture among students is anything new, nor is miscommunication anything new whenever one deals with people.  But what really bothers me about the story is that an organization on campus did not hesitate to tattle a tattled story to the media, without checking any information about the context of the story or the individuals involved in the story.

25 thoughts on “Oy vey!

  1. From the article:

    Grunfeld [the complaining student] said Tuesday she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that fact is insignificant.

    “The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”

    Grunfeld also expressed skepticism that Johnston was in fact Jewish.

  2. Yes, we could all share horror stores of colleagues acting in this way, either as bystander or caught in-between folks, or even perhaps as unwilling participants. And it puts me in a situation, as an adjunct, that even talking to anyone about it–whether publicly or privately, the latter not safe in a tattle culture–that my job or reputation is on the line. I know for a fact one time a tenure-track colleague and a supervising administrator tried to triangulate me into a debate, and I am certain that my job security would have then become the red herring of the issue they were fighting about. So I ignored it and they focused their attention on another adjunct, who mysteriously disappeared the following semester. I like to think that the adjunct found better work elsewhere, but I think I am just wishing this.

  3. @Alex: Ernie Lepore has an article arguing that this is in fact how it goes, so you can’t even say “‘Nigger’ is something to not even use in examples of horrible words” without being offensive. (Philosophy of language is a cesspool.)

  4. Butler talks about this problem in the book Excitable Speech. It does seem somewhat plausible to me that some words simply should not be said, even if it’s only a citation. I can’t imagine a situation in which it would be appropriate for me to use the n-word for example (as a white man).

  5. Responding the to post and some comments, I understand the concern completely. Since I do not have tenure and hope to be promoted to a permanent position, I am paranoid about saying something that someone will misconstrue. Those among us who are philosophers know that we must say stuff that is controversial all the time.

  6. Well, the n-word has a really clear negative history, while the professor’s statement was more hypothetical — while there is a long history of anti-Semitism, I don’t recall sterilization in specific being a big part of that discourse. It would’ve been more questionable had he “cited” an actual-existing anti-Semitic slur rather than making one up on the spot.

    I sympathize with this professor because I once tried to make up a completely nonsensical stereotype and my students thought it was a real one — specifically, “black people love Shamrock Shakes.” Ultimately, the only ones that I could get them to recognize as totally ridiculous were ones about groups that don’t generally have stereotypes about them. My most successful was “Germans are scared to death of ceiling fans.” So I can see that his misstep was to select a generally maligned group for his illustration, such that it would seem to be part of the broader discourse of anti-Semitism even if it hadn’t been a major feature of such discourse historically.

    So yeah, I think the example in the story is very different from the n-word.

  7. IIRC, Lepore’s argument would go for words other than the one presently under discussion, being completely general, and is not good. I can’t, however, recall what it is!

  8. I told this story in class today, students found it a bit ridiculous that anyone would freak out over this. Even if one used a racial slur in class as an example, if there was a reason for it, one should be allowed to do it without being afraid that one will be crucified for it. This is a fail both for the student and the organizations that pick up such stories without checking their sources. I hope they issue an apology to the professor.

  9. I’m (ostensibly) doing my PhD at York. While the student is clearly an idiot and the sort of person we all dread having in our classrooms, the professor shouldn’t have used that example at that institution: it would have been politically safer for him to have used the “n word.” Multiple times with clear racist intent. Short of it: everything at York is parsed in terms of your stance in relation to Palestine and Israel. Everything.

  10. York is physically proximate to the major Jewish enclave in Toronto. As a result–and quite reasonably and legitimately–it has cultivated a close relationship with that community. (It hasn’t, however, attempted to cultivate a relationship with the equally close immigrant–African and South East Asian–communities at Jane and Finch, which is regrettable.) The Jewish students have also been good at self-organizing, they are well-funded, and through their parents and community, they have close connections with, especially, the print media in Toronto (especially the National Post and Globe & Mail). To his credit, Jonathan Kay gave a good account of how this fiasco came about in a column earlier this week (and condemned the process): the student’s father, who was well-connected, emailed all the journalists and editors he knew. You’ll note in the story that the student immediately ran out of class and straight to the Jewish student groups on campus who immediately made a press release. Given the liberality of Canadian hate speech law, if she felt “threatened” she could have gone to the police or, alternatively, somewhere to seek solace. Instead, she went to the start-up the publicity machine. (Unlike most Canadian universities, York [used to?] close on Jewish high holy days; this lead to legal battles to either end the practice or to also close during non-Jewish and non-Christian holy days–it was suggested, for instance, that the school should be closed during Ramadan.)

    Obviously an outcome such as this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a reason why Jewish student groups are media-trigger-finger happy. The reason is the rest of the student body: roughly half of non-Jewish student body are local area kids of fairly affluent backgrounds (the sort who drive quarter million dollar cars to school–I was shocked the first time I was on campus) and the other half of the non-Jewish student body has rather radical tendencies, in part attracted by the reputation of the faculty members especially in the social sciences and humanities. Graduate students are even more radicalized. (I remember the first meeting of the sociology graduate student meeting when I got there. A student was requesting a few hundred dollars so he could have a banner designed and printed that would proudly declare something like “York Sociology Graduate Students Association” and this was something desperately needed because we would be protesting a whole lot, on and off campus, and people needed to know that sociology was on the side of the oppressed.) The graduate student T.A. union is especially strong on campus having had an three or four month long strike in 2001 and another two or three month long strike in 2008, which resulted in back to work legislation being passed by the Ontario legislature. In 1997 there was a two month long faculty strike. Point being, sentiment among faculty and graduate students goes “far” to the left and they are willing to stake their livelihood on their political beliefs, which is admirable.

    Naturally, the radical sentiment in the post-2001 environment fell in favour of the non-American and the non-Jewish (or non-Israeli? it is often hard to tell) and, thus, in favour of, especially, the Palestinians–there was also a sizeable Muslim, Arabic and Palestinian population on campus. Ultimately, this lead to occasionally physical clashes between the groups and, more often, somewhat nasty, rhetorically heated arguments fought with bullhorns and the such. Administration being administration increasingly turned to police to handle the problems: that is, armed police actively suppressing speech on campus. It was alleged that police and administrative officials were routinely showing up at non-Jewish student group meetings to gather intelligence–I have no idea if this is true, but it is at least believable–and then arbitrarily detaining, sanctioning, suspending, and banning certain students.

    In the late fall of my coursework year (2004), the American ambassador spoke at the law school. Entrance to the school was limited to law students and those “on the list.” All entrances and exits were locked and the only unlocked door highly policed. Outside the building were multiple mounted cops–the sort who trample you with horses while beating you with sticks. Helicopters hovered above. (In comparison, the American ambassador speaks at universities in Ottawa all the time and security is rather minimal–just a couple guys in suits with those earpieces; no police, no horses, no batons.)

    Shortly after that, there was a near indoor riot where (1) police allegedly drew their guns and (2) students allegedly attempted to disarm the police of their guns. There were a bunch of arrests and charges, but I don’t think anyone was ever convicted of anything. After this, administration increasingly clamped down on public speech on university property requiring student groups to fill out elaborate forms and pay for security, even if it was just a bake-sale to collect money for the annual Tamil Students’ Association Formal. The Jewish students groups were much better at navigating this mess–filling out the forms and producing the money–and, so, their events were allowed to happen; the other groups were not so good at filling out the forms and producing the money, so their events were not allowed to happen. Obviously, those groups felt discriminated against.

    That’s when I left Toronto and moved back to Ottawa. Since then, Jewish student and community groups have attempted to block a law school conference on the two state solution–the efforts making it all the way to the federal House of Commons in an attempt to block federal money, through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, from being used to pay for the conference. (It remains the view of the Canadian Jewish community and the Canadian government that the one state solution is the only solution.) Now I understand that campus security will carry weapons on patrol. This has been justified on account of a number of rapes happening in the adjacent student ghetto, but, given that campus security doesn’t patrol off-campus (for obvious reasons), I find this justification dubious.

    Anyway, as a result, you can map nearly any campus controversy or decision along the lines of where you stand on the Israel/Palestine issue.

  11. Wow. Thanks for sharing.

    I decided to bring this to my students this week and one of the conclusions was that, just based on the article, is that the Jewish religious response to the situation seems level-headed and reasonable, whereas the political response was more reactionary and unreasonable. But clearly, the context is–despite what the student in the article says–more important to understand what is happening.

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