Attention is being paid to a story out of Toronto on Wednesday involving a York University professor who's having to fend off accusations of anti-Semitism after an introductory lecture on critical thinking in the social sciences intersected rather awkwardly with a student whose intellectual development seems not ready for prime time.
It all went down on the first day of professor Cameron Johnston's "Self, Culture and Society" class. As the Toronto Star reports, Johnston led off the semester by discussing the fact that "the course was going to focus on texts, not opinions, and despite what they may have heard elsewhere, everyone is not entitled to their opinion." As a generic example of an opinion that lacked worthiness, Johnston offered "all Jews should be sterilized."
Sitting in the lecture was a student named Sarah Grunfeld, who apparently heard Johnston's lecture like this: "Meow meow meow meow blah-de maaa maaa blah, all Jews should be sterilized." With the obvious misunderstanding deeply rooted in her mind, she immediately left the class and began alerting every school official, media organ and social networking platform she could lay hands on that Johnston was a dangerous anti-Semite.
Consequently, the professor had to explain to reporters that when he mentioned a reprehensible idea in class, it was to offer an example of a reprehensible idea in order to make the point that some ideas are reprehensible:
Johnston, who is Jewish, said his religion likely influenced his choice of words, why he used "this example of a completely reprehensible opinion" with historical precedent.
"I think it's a very good thing that people are sensitive to this kind of remark, and I think it's a very good thing that someone would respond immediately and deal with it if they thought that they heard an anti-Semitic comment," Johnston said. "But in this case, it's a misreading."
This seems, to adults who have reached the formal operational stage of cognitive development, to be a cut-and-dried case of an understanding that could have been very easily resolved if all were in their right minds. Unfortunately, Grunfeld seems to be out of hers and resolutely dedicated to staying that way. Credit Gawker's Hamilton Nolan for highlighting "the quote from Grunfeld that should have everyone's irony alarms tripping":
Grunfeld 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."
By that standard, as the words "Jews should be sterilized" came out of Grunfeld's mouth for the purpose of responding to reporters, she should be ostracized as an anti-Semite. Context be damned, after all.
Professor Johnston puts the appropriate coda on this, in a response to separate inquiries: "A good starting point for you in a course based on what we call 'critical skills' is to begin by listening carefully to what is said and by responding accurately to this content."
The Toronto Star reports that Grunfeld is "a 22-year-old in her final year at York [University]." That really is a pity.
Jewish prof forced to defend himself against anti-Semitism claims [Toronto Star]
Jewish Professor Accused of Anti-Semitism by Student Who Doesn't Listen [Gawker]