Interesting times, once again. Maybe too interesting. If you’re plugging into university politics these days you know there is a series of controversies percolating around a few issues. These themes tend to cluster around expressions of identity politics. Following the tumult at some Canadian campuses is at once frustrating and chilling.
Consider what just happened at Ryerson. For reasons not (yet) disclosed, the director of the School of Social Work walked out during a black instructor’s anti-racism presentation. As the poet said, chaos ensued. The student-based Black Liberation Collective posted a public letter demanding his resignation. He promptly resigned from his administrative role. That’s pretty much all anyone looking in on this from the outside knows. Did the director have to take a call or was he demonstrating opposition to the presentation? Was his leaving the room a benign if awkwardly timed action or did he intend to register open disapproval? It’s puzzling that we don’t know the answer to these questions, but if he really did leave in some sort of huff it might explain the haste with which he stepped down. The letter notes that the director does not “value anti-black racism scholarship, black women, black educators or education, black experiences, black life and ultimately black students.” Perhaps he had enough of being the lightening rod for so much rage on campus. But I just don’t know.
Consider what’s been unfolding at UBC. Acclaimed author and head of the creative writing program at UBC, Steve Galloway, was fired last fall in a fog of secrecy. First he had been suspended while an investigation was underway. A BC Supreme Court justice was contracted to do the investigating. She concluded that all but one of the claims against Galloway, including the “serious” one, could not be substantiated. The university fired him anyway. Why? We don’t know, and, of course, privacy is being invoked, as the answer to why her report has never been made public. That’s pretty much all we know, and it doesn’t make UBC look very good. I am sure they are lawyered up the yin yang about this matter—and the faculty association is now grieving the case—and so I appreciate the constraints about disclosing more information. But what we know of the initial process looks kind of messy and I would be surprised if Galloway weren’t reinstated at some point. But what do I know? I don’t have the facts.
But back to identity politics. In a now widely known gesture, writer Joseph Boyden initiated a petition letter signed by 87 authors, slamming UBC for the way it has generated a “toxic mess” and calling for “fair treatment” of the accused. One of the famous signatories, Margaret Atwood, warrior feminist and fearless rights advocate, has been notably present on Twitter, defending the letter and insisting on fair process. She has, in turn, suffered a backlash of protest from those who claim the petition, in appealing to fair process for Galloway, is disrespectful of the women who came forward with their allegations, re-victimizes them, and therefore implicitly endorses “rape culture.” Yes, we are living in the upside down world (see Stranger Things) where the author of The Edible Woman, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Handmaid’s Tale is being accused of anti-feminist acts against female complainants. All she is doing, really, is asking for the facts.
The third recent example is all about a protest against Jian Gomeshi’s Lawyer, Marie Henein, being invited to speak at Bishop’s University. Here I do know the facts—finally. In a clever branding move, four Canadian liberal arts colleges got together to share public lectures by notable people, staging the event at one site and streaming the lecture to the other three partners. To date, these guest spots have been occupied by notables such as Joseph Boyden (he of the aforementioned petition against UBC), Murray Sinclair, and, now you know, Marie Henein. A column in the student paper at St. Francis Xavier, a participating university, argues against Henein speaking on campus for reasons you can imagine: to some women advocates she is the very symbol of what is wrong with the justice system, a system it has been alleged, that vilifies female accusers.
They have a point, but I do not agree with any cry to silence anyone, especially on university campuses where healthy debate, if sometimes heated, is what we should be all about. Marie Henein is an outspoken feminist lawyer who, I am sure, has more than a few stories to tell about her own struggle to rise in the public sphere. If she were speaking on this campus I’d be happy to turn out to hear her. I have watched enough episodes of The Good Wife to know that a sound justice system means even good people defend questionably not-so-good people.
I never—and I mean never—agree with anything Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente writes in her weekly screeds, but last weekend she hit a few nails on the head of the politics of campus culture, the culture of name-calling, shaming and blaming. It’s easy to do these days because of the rise of such cases. We are not really doing ourselves a favour these days by censoring or silencing other voices. And it certainly makes us look self-absorbed and self-interested, rather than a site of open, fair, honest and respectful exchange of ideas.
What the frig is going on? Oh, there are theories out there (see Generation Snowflake)… and I won’t fan those flames by rehearsing them here. Words could be misunderstood. But when a Margaret Atwood or a Marie Heinen are demonized for no credible reason…; when a director of a school of Social Work becomes persona non grata because he went through a door…; when too many among us turn their backs on the facts of argument, of law, of reason, I question where we’re all going. University of Kent scholar Joanna William’s Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge discusses the trumping (sorry) of feelings over facts in our age. The personal is political, we feminists used to say in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Little did we know where that phrase would lead.