Triggered.

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Ladies and gentlemen (if that’s not too harsh and repressive an address for you), we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Open Debate at Wilfred Laurier University. Mr. Debate … Ms.? Zr.? I must make a note to ask how dear old Open would like to be addressed. Moving on … Mr. Debate was an essential part of learning about our complicated world, and furnishing the empty rooms of our minds with all sorts of interesting ideas. One might say that he … Sorry. Zie? They? Oh, sod it. Let’s not talk about Open Debate at all, as we really have no idea how to do it without upsetting people anyway. Perhaps there’s nothing to mourn, as it appears more important to coddle people’s highly tuned sensibilities than to introduce them to any opinion other than the one they already espouse.

Lindsay Shepherd knows all about it. She’s a 22-year-old grad student and teaching assistant. In one of her classes, “Canadian Communication in Context”, she showed an excerpt from a video debate featuring a University of Toronto psychology prof named Jordan Peterson. Peterson inspired controversy last fall when he criticized Bill C-15, which added gender expression and gender identity to the federal human rights act and the Criminal Code. He refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they”, “zie” and “zher”, which – as one might imagine – further annoys quite a few people. One or more students complained that, by showing the video clip, Shepherd created a “toxic environment”. Not by endorsing Peterson’s views – but by not condemning them. In other words, for neutrally presenting the video – for not taking a position herself in front of the class – Shepherd was labelled “transphobic”, and accused of “cultivating a space” where opinions such as Peterson’s can be “nurtured”. She is now required to submit all lesson plans to her supervisor (Nathan Rambukkana) in advance. He will sit in on her next few classes. She must not submit any more controversial videos of this kind. Rambukkana, told Shepherd that showing the video was akin to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler“.

I wish I wasn’t regularly required to say things like this, but here goes … Peterson, though boorish, is no Hitler. In comparing Jordan Peterson with Adolph Hitler, Rambukkana makes a stunning leap across the brutal occupation of eleven sovereign nations, the savagely creative murders of six million people, and the ignominy of their desecrated bodies and mass graves. Yes, indeed, openly criticising an Act of Parliament and refusing to use preferred pronouns is exactly the same as the Holocaust. I personally challenge Rambukkana to say this in front of Holocaust survivors and their families. I have a feeling the ensuing debate would be lively – but, in light of what has happened to Shepherd, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to listen to it.

This is, sadly, one of many recent examples of the strangling of free speech and open debate in our universities. Even when freedom of expression and disagreement are   allowed to exist, they come with so-called trigger warnings because they might – gasp – bother someone. Universities, once the cradle of objective thought and exchange of ideas, are becoming simply cradles. Sprawling, expensively equipped, beautifully manicured “safe spaces”, where what was once considered challenging is now termed triggering. Where emotionally insulated and stunted people hide behind anonymous complaints to the administration rather than listening to, and learning to intelligently confront, opposing views.

My university days are rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, but two academic experiences come back to me when I think of what happened to Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfred Laurier. One is a debate about GMOs in which I took the part of the widely disliked Monsanto and Frankenfoods – not because I was a fan of the company, but because I was assigned that side of the debate – and we all thought it was important to present all perspectives. Aside from the odd jokey “boo”, people listened to what I had to say – because respect is an important ingredient in the success of a debate. The second is a David Suzuki documentary about the suffering of animals on their way to becoming food in Asia. Scenes ranged from chickens plucked while still alive to live dogs displayed in cages for purchase and consumption to – most disturbing of all – skinned cats held by a metal ring around their necks being boiled alive. Watching those pink, bony bodies floundering weakly, imagining the pain they were undoubtedly feeling, I felt nauseous. I’ve never forgotten the sight. Our ethics prof had made this required viewing. Though he warned us that it was graphic, nobody asked to be excused – again, because we all thought it was important to present all perspectives. The documentary sparked hours of conversation about the experience of animals from farm to table, and what we owe them as keepers and consumers, and how to implement policy changes where needed. What was triggered? Interest. Learning. Debate. Understanding. Personal growth. I believe that I, and my fellow students, emerged from these experiences (and many others) challenged and changed.

This is what university – and learning in general – is for. What will we accomplish if we surround ourselves only with people who agree with us? If we shout down, silence or run from anyone who says things we don’t like, how will we learn enough about them to engage them in meaningful discussion and introduce them to our own perspective? In taking this approach, Wilfred Laurier University is actually harming the community it wishes to protect. If trans people are to be accepted (in more than just law) as ordinary members of society, with all the rights and privileges this entails, we have to dissect and disarm negative perceptions of them. We can’t accomplish that by simply telling naysayers to shut up and go away – and we certainly won’t get there by forcibly suppressing anyone who dares to raise the issue.

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On Donald Trump, and war as a means to an end ….

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If this blog was about book reviews, or cooking, or home decor, I’d probably never have moments when I think “some people are going to hate this post”. But this blog is BethBlog, a place for me to say everything I feel like saying whenever I feel like saying it, so I’ve had many of those moments. Because I can be quite a bitch, I kind of like the feeling of stirring the pot – of making people cringe. Some situations call for a bitch – beg for one – and I happily oblige. Other times, I just don’t feel like beating around the bush, so I go in for the kill. In any case, here I go again …. Some people are going to hate this post, for two reasons: 1) I’m saying that President Donald Trump has done something good and 2) I’m saying that violence is sometimes justified.

The civil war in Syria has taken a vast and terrible toll on Syrians. Nearly 500,000 Syrians have died as a result of the conflict over the past six years. Half of a million people – to put that in Canadian terms, Hamilton or Quebec City – and over 50,000 of these were children. President Bashar Al-Assad is raining hell on his country in the form of torture, starvation, bombs and chemicals. A steady tide of refugees has been washing up on the shores of many countries, everything they own on their backs and clutched in their arms, pleading for asylum – for protection, rest and hope. It’s a long, dangerous, crowded-yet-somehow-lonely path, with no guarantee of a happy ending. I’ve met some of them. I don’t even want to imagine the miseries they have endured. Their eyes haunt me.

What have we done about it? Well, so far, we’ve absorbed some of their stories, patched up some of their wounded, resettled some of their fallout. These are all good things, and we should keep doing them. But have we tried to stop the destruction? No – unless you call clucking and finger-wagging action. Every time this madman commits another horrific crime against humanity, we all line up to condemn it – and then we move on. As if Al-Assad gives a rat’s ass what we think of his murderous regime. As if, one fine day, he might stop what he’s doing and say “oh, gosh, I had no idea that what I am doing is so bad – I’m sorry, you guys”. Like a shitty parent giving unlimited chances and countdowns while their child wreaks havoc, the world wearily says “no, no, Bashar, that’s wrong – please stop, or we’re going to get really upset”. Then he keeps doing what he’s doing while we gamely ignore him. A shitty parent threat was levelled against Al-Assad in 2012 regarding the use of chemical weapons – then-President Barack Obama said that this was a “red line” that Al-Assad had better not cross. Up until then, America had stayed out of the Syrian conflict – but if chemical weapons came into play, Obama said, the game would change. In 2013, chemical weapons became a confirmed factor – and the Obama administration looked the other way. This past week, chemical weapons were used again. At least 86 people died in agony. Our darling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a war crime, and condemned it “in the strongest of terms”. Whoa, there, big fella!

Imagine if the world had reacted the same way when Adolph Hitler and his army started bombing, torturing, slashing, and gassing their way across Europe.  “Now, now, Hitler – this is not nice, and none of us like it. Stop it, or we’re going to get really upset. Oh! Look what you’ve done! Poland …. We just said stop – now we’re mad. Ugh. He’s done it again. There goes Holland. Would you look at that? That’s alot of Jews, gypsies and gays. Seriously, we can’t do a thing with this guy. He just keeps going. Ah, well. What can you do? Hitler! We’re so mad at you right now. #PrayforEurope #JewsArePeopleToo #HitlerBlows #WorldSoMad #NotMyGermany”  I have a feeling that things would have gone very differently than they did – and we certainly would not be celebrating the contribution of heroes to the security and freedom of our world every November 11.

Enter Donald Trump. Two days ago, America fired Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was launched. Citing the painful deaths of innocents, the continued destabilization of the region and the affect of that on Syria and the rest of the world – as well as our collective failure throughout six years of civil war to change the situation with words and sulking – Trump called on all of us to join America in forcing an end to the suffering. And he is right. Yes, the massively mocked, deeply hated, orange-haired buffoon that seems to have turned the highest office in the free world into a bad joke …. is right.

Violence is a dreadful thing. It’s evil. I hate it. But, sometimes, it is necessary. People – millions of them – desperately need our help against a force that is far more powerful than them and seeks to destroy them in every way. How can we continue to look away as the atrocity unfolds – and worsens – mumbling platitudes about peace and goodwill and brotherhood while Syria and its people burn? Al-Assad has not responded to criticism, argument, disapproval, condemnation or threat. It’s time to tighten the screws. If America’s strategic attacks can bring Al-Assad to his knees and save the Syrian people from hell on earth, I say fire away.

“I have never advocated war except as a means of peace.”  –  Ulysses S. Grant