Today's Lesson: Context matters (Canadian edition)

Those of you living in the Toronto area might have come across this story in your local papers, or on your local news today. It’s getting quite a bit of play in the academic community, where it serves as Example #25,739 of the dumb shit that students sometimes pull.

Cameron Johnston, a social sciences professor at York University was giving the first lecture to his large freshman survey course, which is called “Self, Culture and Society.” As part of his lecture, he told the students that the purpose of the course was to focus on texts, and not simply on opinions. In the process, he made some effort to push back against the fairly common idea among college freshmen that all opinions are valid and acceptable.

In order to illustrate what he meant here, he told the class that:

Well, this little observation created something of a shitstorm, all brought about when one of his students left the class and contacted a Jewish advocacy group on campus complaining that Johnston’s remark was anti-Semitic. The group spread the word, and a bunch of them called for Johnston to be fired.

Of course, it soon become clear to just about everyone that Johnston, far from saying that Jews should be sterilized, was using this particular sentence as an example of a problematic and dangerous opinion. He said that his selection of this particular example to illustrate his argument was probably influenced by the fact that he himself is Jewish, and is very conscious of the history of anti-Semitism.

I say “just about everyone” because the student who got the whole brouhaha started is having none of it, nosiree. Sarah Grunfeld, a senior (!!!) at York, maintains that, even if she completely missed the context of his comment, it was still wrong:

And, to add to her idiocy, she also thought it appropriate to call Johnston’s own identity into account:

There aren’t enough :rolleyes: in the world for someone this fucking stupid. Good to know that she’ll soon be on the job market, degree in hand. i just hope that any prospective employers put her name into a search engine before they decide to hire her.
[Mods, if this is too MPSIMSy for the Pit, feel free to move it. Really stupid people just annoy the fuck out of me, though.]
ETA: I assumed, given that it was a 500-person lecture course, and that its course number was 1140, that this was a freshman course. But Grunfeld is a senior. So either i was wrong about the course type, or she’s a senior filling in some required units in her degree. She’s still an ass, though.

Lesson 1: When you’re wrong and you’ve been publicly proven wrong, shut up immediately. Then admit it and go away. This will cause people to: 1. Think you made a mistake, not that you’re stupid and 2. Forget what an idiot you did look like, briefly.

If you have to look like an idiot, the shorter the duration, the better.

Oh, dear God, is that ever stupid. How this became any kind of story AT ALL is also a special kind of stupid. I hope someone kicks Grunfeld in the gunt.

Well, there are always groups willing to jump on any perceived slight in order to cause a fuss. And that applies at just about all points on the political spectrum.

According to this National Post writer, even after the whole thing had been cleared up, some groups were still siding with Grunfeld.

Most Jewish groups were perfectly understanding. For example, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs called the incident an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and “an appropriate reminder that great caution must be exercised before concluding a statement or action is anti-Semitic.” That’s a pretty accurate description of the whole thing, i think.

But apparently:

Now, the only source i can find for this is the NP blog linked above; i couldn’t find any other articles in which Dimant had made a statement. Maybe the author got it from a local news interview, or maybe talked to Dimant directly. But if Dimant said what the author claims he said, it’s pretty dumb.

What raises my eyebrows is that there’s no indication in the article that the advocacy group in question has apologized to Johnston for their role in this misunderstanding:

In fact, according to this other article, they are sticking to their guns on their original reaction:

Er, no. Quoting a reprehensible slur in order to repudiate it is not the same thing as stating a reprehensible slur, even though both would share “common ground” in the sense that both would contain the actual words of the slur.

Frantic attempts at ass-covering don’t make idiots look any smarter.

It’s a York University student. :rolleyes:

As a lawyer who practices human rights law (in addition to a few other areas), I am occasionally asked to be a guest lecturer on these topics. Among other places I’ve spoken are at a community college and a university. These speaking engagements at educational institutions present challenges for precisely this reason.

While I can describe actual human rights decisions and court decisions using their original facts–let’s face it, these decisions are public–hypotheticals, such as the professor in the OP tried, present the same problem he encountered. My solution to this problem is to simply use “Martians” as the target group: “All Martians should be sterilized,” to apply my solution to the professor’s statement. So far, no Martians have complained. :slight_smile:

Wasn’t there a sketch about this on the old Bob Newhart show, or something similar?

I very vaguely remember a comedian starting to tell a joke about two Italians going into a bar or something, and having an Italian in the audience object. He then switches to another group (Jews?), at which point another person pipes up in anger. It happens a couple more times no matter what group he tries. Then, frustrated, he begins the joke again by saying, “OK. Two MARTIANS…” And then he stops and looks around the room suspiciously, waiting for an interruption.

Did I dream this, or can anyone verify it and tell me what TV show it was on?

Yeah, Hasbara’s attitude seem pretty fucked-up to me. Thanks for the link, too; that story didn’t come up in my earlier searches.

Interestingly, by Grunfeld’s own standards she should also be disciplined.

After all, in criticizing Johnston, she said:

But, as this very sentence demonstrates, the words “Jews should be sterilized” also came out of Grunfeld’s mouth. If we fail, as she did, to apply context, then her statement should also be considered offensive.

I understand why you do it, but i refuse to cave in to this shit.

I teach US history to college students, and in some of my classes we read texts—both fiction and non-fiction—that use epithets of varying intensity, from “papist” to “wetback” to “nigger.” We also read works that describe Africans and Chinese and Japanese as subhuman, uncivilized, backwards, and brutish. I think that talking about these things in their historical context is essential, and i refuse to say things like “the ‘n’ word” instead of “nigger” in class just because some people can’t handle an intellectual discussion in an academic environment.

Now, i don’t go out of my way to use these epithets gratuitously, and i don’t say them just to make people uncomfortable. But if they are in the text, and talking about the way they are used is relevant to the discussion, then i’m not going to shy away from saying them out loud.

Also, it seems to me that your own construction, “All martians should be sterilized,” is less useful precisely because it deals with a non-existent group. The professor in question used Jews as an example because bringing up actual historic prejudices against Jews can serve as a reminder that these sorts of attitudes are not hypothetical, but are very real things that have affected, and continue to affect, real people.

So if you’re a potential employer and you research this student’s name and it leads you to this article about how she tried to get someone fired because she misunderstood what he said… would you hire her?

Not only that, I bet she’s going to get a very chilly reception from the rest of her profs. Silly bitch sleeps through class and then tries to get her professor fired when she overhears something she interprets as recreational outrage. Every professor’s favorite student right there. I hope the university boots her right out for being a disruptive liar and for going to an advocacy group on a matter that could have and should have been handled internally. I hope the class is pulled from the schedule (but the professor is paid in full) and all the other students get a penalty-free withdrawal while she gets an F and the university keeps her money for crapping on their name. And I hope the professor sues her into destitution.

Just say that you want to sterilize her, you fucking Hitler!

Oy. Sometimes college profs deserve hazard pay.

I like that. Linking to Hitler just in case we didn’t know who he was. Ha! (/Joe)*

To reiterate previous posters: Who in their right would ever hire her? She’d have to find a way to get her degree moved to another university and change her name in the process. It just proves you don’t have to be smart to go to university.
*I almost type jew instead of joe:rolleyes:

ha! Had exactly the same reaction.

AND she gets sterilized!

Ooops, too far.

And she has to be the professor’s butler if she can’t pay!

Remember, though, that I also use actual cases that have been decided by Human Rights tribunals and the courts, which contain plenty of nasty epithets and other unpleasantries in their recitations of the facts. After discussing these decisions, and seeing some students’ jaws drop at my descriptions of the facts in the cases, it just seems best to give the students a break by using “Martians” in a hypothetical. Besides, I don’t want them so shocked and uncomfortable that they cannot concentrate on the question posed in the hypothetical, and thus, cannot subsequently discuss it.

Aside to Muffin: What is it we used to say? “A thousand bucks and a heartbeat”?

Some people WILL NOT ADMIT when they’re wrong, even if they’ve been caught dead to rights. It’s hard to tell if she still doesn’t see how wrong she is, or just won’t admit it, period.

Either way, there should be some penalty for her, ideally one that is harsh enough to get everyone’s attention and be talked about.

There is a penalty. She’s an idiot and everyone knows it.

Has someone talked to this senior about her anti-semetic remarks? I would complain to the Jewish Center on campus about her.