Saturday, January 11, 2014

How Does The Progressive World Respond To This?

I sometimes wonder about whether the term progressive calls up some kind of a stereotype. When people think of progressives, do they have a picture which I would consider reasonably accurate - people who believe in the ardent pursuit of justice, fairness and equity in society, and the breaking down of barriers to those goals? Or do they think of progressives as those who have an automatic, almost Pavlovian reaction against anything that hints even remotely at judgement or the imposition of limitations?

While I regard myself as a progressive in the first sense, the second one leaves me absolutely cold, hinting, as it does, at a kind of uncritical group-think whose tyranny means disagreements from within render one ineligible for membership.

Years ago during my teaching career, I had in one of my classes a lad from the Middle East. While he was generally a congenial enough boy, his cultural conditioning made him think of girls as inferior. This was made clear to me one day when I had a group of students, mainly girls, milling around my desk waiting to ask me questions; the lad interposed himself in front of them, fully expecting that his need for an answer would take precedence over the young ladies. I had to explain to him that in Canada, we wait in line if others are before us, a lesson that I think he found difficult to assimilate when those ahead of him were of the feminine gender.

Which brings me to my case in point. By now you likely will have heard about the situation at York University in Toronto, where an online student asked to be excused from group work with women for religious reasons:

Sociology professor Paul Grayson wanted to deny the student’s request for the online course, but first asked the faculty dean and university’s human rights centre, who said he should grant the request.

In the end — after fellow professors in the department agreed such a move would marginalize females — Grayson denied the request. The student relented and completed the required work with the women in his group.

Even though the situation resolved itself, despite the fecklessness of the institution's 'leaders', the fact that it caused such contention and controversy forces me to ask the question of what constitutes reasonable accommodation in our multi-cultural society. Indeed, should a situation as described above even be an issue in a secular institution such as a university, where openness and inquiry and exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking are its raison d'être?

To explore this further, I would encourage you to read Rosie DiManno's piece in today's Star. Entitled York University cowardly, compliant and blind to common sense, here is but a brief excerpt:

The Star headline got it wrong: “York University student’s request not to work with women poses dilemma.”

There is no dilemma here and only one proper response: No.
No to segregating males and females.

No to religious accommodation of any type at Canadian campuses.

No to the absurdity of human rights departments that turn themselves into black holes of ethical relativism.

No to academic officials who twist themselves into pretzels of gutlessness, rather than take an honorable scholastic and moral stance.

Let me know what you think.


  1. Lorne, we live in a very hypocritical world.

    Americans claim that they're spreading democracy and in the name of democracy they killed over 1 million civilians in Iraq and over 100 thousand in Afghanistan. We know how democratic these countries are now. There is America's progressiveness.

    On the other hand, Sheiks of Saudi Arabia believe that women should not be seen in public and must not drive. However, they themselves go to Britain or U.S to use the services of call-girls extensively. And there is their behaviour regarding women and rights of women.

    I don't know which one is more hideous.

  2. .. why not ask the online sociology class, female and male.. to provide their opinion. Process the issue within the group, so to speak. The male student was making it 'all about him' yet clearly throwing his personal issues or religious concerns as a shadow across the female students as well as the entire class. It would be enlightening and well deserved for Student - X to be confronted not just with the teacher's perspective or decision, but that of his student peers ..

    Bottom line though .. if you can't manage or execute the class requirements, why take the course in the first place? Further, why expect to be awarded special treatment.. when you have no realistic handicap or physical challenges? Seems to me that Student X must fail the sociology course by being unable to complete the required studies.. how ironic that he chose a sociology course !

    1. What you suggest here, Salamander, would likely be a good learning opportunity for all involved. I have to admit I am of the same view as you here; there may, indeed, be some sacrifices one has to be prepared to make as an adherent of a religion or culture whose mores preclude certain activities. This strikes me as a far more mature and realistic approach than to expect the world to defer to those mores.

  3. Had the kid used any other excuse--lack of public transport, agoraphobia, etc.--we wouldn't even have heard of this controversy. Another student had already been granted an exemption for another reason.

    But the student forced the issue, and somebody panicked. It became about rights rather than a class exemption.

    Recall that he had signed up for an online course, then discovered it had a face-to-face component. He could argue false advertising. But once the difficulty arose, he complied. Problem solved, one might think.

    But no. It's now become a flashpoint, and just about everyone has misconstrued the incident to parade their respective ideological preconceptions. It's a cautionary tale, but not in the sense that most people now think.

    1. Good to hear from you, Dr. Dawg. As always, you make a very good point. While I realize the issue and reactions to it are fraught with all kinds of overtones (some of which, no doubt, the rabid right would undoubtedly relish), the fact that it has entered the public arena makes it fair game for commentary. Perhaps Paul Grayson could have handled it differently, but given the principles he felt were involved, he really can't be faulted, in my view. Much more indictable is the reaction of his 'bosses' who seem to have ordered the path of least resistance out of mere expediency. That kind of cowardice was something I became far too acquainted with in my career, and I'm sure you were witness to such in yours. It offended me then, and it still does today.

  4. I see education as a stepping stone for the working world. If he expects to work in Canada, he has to get used to working with women, so it's in the male student's best interest to find a way to cope with this expectation within a Canadian institution.

    1. A point very well-taken, Marie. In all truth, part of the function of education is to foster a degree of acculturation, whether it is into the larger world around us, the world of work, etc.

  5. This is about public education, after all. As I interpret the word, it means everybody.

  6. I agree with Dr Dawg. If the circumstances were indeed that the student specifically took the course in a format to avoid group work, and then the format turned out to be not what he was led to believe, then he should be accommodated, and it shouldn't matter what his reasons are.

    I don't think all of our irrational fears and biases should be accommodated everywhere in society and all the time. But neither do I think that institutions should be taking it upon themselves to force us to confront our fears and biases at every turn.

    1. Hi Karen. You and Dr. Dawg have certainly given us something to think about. One of the things I prize most about the progressive blogosphere is that we can have an exchange of views in a civil manner, and, unlike some on the extreme right-wing, we do not, as a rule, resort to invective when disagreements occur. Quite honestly, Dr. Dawg and you are raising points that had not really occurred to me. Thank you.