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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“Someone was mean to me years ago, so I’m going to punish someone completely unconnected now.” Sounds about right ….

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I was going to write about our trip to Idaho, I really was. But, as often happens when it comes to BethBlog, I got distracted and now I want to talk about something else. Pride parade inclusivity, to be exact. Right about now you’re probably wondering what even I, one of the seasoned Oscar-the-Grouches of the figurative trash can known as the world wide web, could possibly have to bitch about when it comes to the inclusiveness of Pride parades. Isn’t everyone invited to participate in Pride by definition? Isn’t it all about everyone being different, and being different being ok? Sure – unless you’re a police officer.

Those who know me well know I love reading – particularly newspapers. There’s just something about the dry, clean, faintly chemical aroma of broadsheet, the delicate grey crinkle, the inky smudges that linger on your fingers …. I also find many blog post topics while perusing newspapers. Our world is an odd one, with plenty to talk about. This time, what caught my eye was an article about police officers being allowed to take part in Calgary’s Pride celebration – but not in uniform. This is because the LGBTQ+ community has not always been treated kindly by the law. They faced discrimination for many years. This discrimination was upheld and – at times – made worse by the police. Anti-sodomy laws made the very existence of gay people illegal, and therefore dangerous. Their romantic relationships were considered a crime against nature. Police officers raided gay bars to destroy the spaces where LGBTQ+ people felt safe. Gay people avoided involving the police even when they were the victims of crime, because they knew they wouldn’t be treated fairly – and a police presence might even make things worse. Gay-bashing was about more than cruel words.

Other cities have faced similar controversy in planning their Pride celebrations, including Vancouver and Toronto. Here in Ottawa, police officers were asked by Pride organizers to refrain from wearing their uniform if they chose to join the parade. Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau denied the request, stating that officers could wear whatever they like while participating in the Pride parade, and that he, himself, would be attending in uniform. The uniform, he explained, is part of police officers’ identity – it represents how they serve their community. Indeed. Freedom of expression ought to be one of the core values of a Pride celebration. We live in a society where we can be, and express, anything we want – including a gay cop who is proud of both aspects of their life and experience, or a straight cop who wants to represent the respect and support modern police officers offer the LGBTQ+ community.

It is understandable, given the history of the LGBTQ+ community’s interactions with law enforcement professionals, that the relationship between the two is sometimes fragile. Very important – and very delicate – dialogues have happened, and must continue to take place, to foster trust and understanding. Police officers have, in recent years, been enthusiastic participants in Pride celebrations across the country. Hands have been extended and clasped in friendship across decades of marginalization, abuse, fear and mistrust. This is as it should be. We cannot move forward without leaving the past in the past. Real progress has been made. However, Pride organizers risk damaging – or even losing – that progress if they allow the parade to become less inclusive to punish today’s police officers for the mistakes of past ones. Like the rainbow symbol it has adopted, Pride should be a coming-together of all sorts of people – not a tool for revenge.

* It should be noted that not all Pride celebrants want to exclude law enforcement officers, or their uniforms. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have stated that their Pride parade includes the police. Kudos to them! They are the way forward.

I’m a Christian who believes that members of the LGBTQ+ community should have the same rights, freedoms and security as the rest of us. Because Jesus said so.

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I have to start this post by admitting that the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community have never been a high priority of mine. I don’t have many gay friends, and the ones I’ve got seem to be living happy lives. Here in Ottawa, openly gay people go around being openly gay – and, as far as I can tell, no one gives them a second glance. People in Canada can marry anyone they want, as long as the person is neither related to them nor married already – and they can start a family, too. My home town in rural Newfoundland was pretty redneck, and I know a handful of people who hid their sexual orientation until leaving there for fear of being rejected by their family and bullied by their peers. But I’ve reached the point where I’ve been away from Robert’s Arm for as long as I lived there – the social mores of that town don’t cast as long a shadow over my thoughts as they used to.

Then came the terrible incident at Pulse in Orlando. 49 people dead, over fifty injured, after a gunman sprayed the crowd with two guns. He claimed allegiance to ISIL, the troublesome terrorists responsible for a number of awful deeds around the world. He did it because the club is known to be a queer favourite, and he hated gay people. For millions of people, myself included, this was unfathomable. He disagreed so strongly with LGBTQ+ lifestyles that he hated anyone involved. He hated them so much that he took their lives. Unimaginable. Optimistically, I thought this guy had to be rare – maybe even a one-off. Then I watched this video of people reading aloud some of the hate mail received by Pride Toronto. It’s filled with disturbing statements and nasty language. Apparently, Omar Mateen wasn’t alone in thinking that gay people are dirty animals who should make the world a better place by dying. Some people are blaming the massacre at Pulse on the people who were targeted, saying that they brought the violence on themselves by associating with the LGBTQ+ community. Sadly, many of these people who claim to despise gay people also try to lay claim to something else: that they are Christians.

I am a Christian – that is to say, a Christ-follower. The knowledge that fellow Christians are so hateful toward a group of people simply based on who they love is painful. In the Christian community, we are living by faith in the grace of God. The whole premise of Christianity is the notion that we are members of a fallen race who needed the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ as our salvation and example and daily strength. “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)  We celebrate this at Christmas and Easter – and every time we pray. Unless, apparently, we’re talking about gay people. Then, we take the Old Testament law that we are supposedly no longer subject to, and use it to beat down those who identify as something other than straight. The New Testament (the new code of living that the advent of Jesus Christ introduced) says very little about homosexuality. Depending on your translation or interpretation, it says nothing at all. The real umbrage against homosexuality in the Bible is actually in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is also home to a number of other rules and prejudices we no longer bother with. Perhaps we should bring them all back, for consistency’s sake. Know anyone who’s cheated on their spouse? Get out the rocks and start lobbing! Get rid of your blended clothing (which, these days, is – oh, everything we wear). When your slave gets all clingy and refuses to leave you, you have a choice – you can pierce his ear with a modern tool like the guns they use at Claire’s, or you can stick with tradition and use an awl. The menstrual tent on the outskirts of town needs better signage – none of us ladies want to pollute the community with our blood! The smoke from the sacrificial fire is breaking air pollution by-laws, and I’m running out of goats to burn.

Someone once asked Jesus the following question: out of all the laws in the Torah, which is the most important? (Matthew 22:36). Jesus quoted two laws from the Old Testament: “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love God. Love each other. Just love.

A few facts from around the world ….

Being gay will lead to the death penalty in Sudan, Mauritania and much of the Middle East. Gay people can spend anywhere from 14 years to life in prison in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, India and Guyana. In wide swaths of Africa, as well as pockets of the Middle East, Asia and South America, it’s a slightly kinder penalty. Just 14 years! In the rest of Africa (with a nod to South Africa which seems to grant full rights), Asia and Russia, Eastern Europe and parts of South America, they’ll put up with you being gay as long as you keep it on the down-low.

And in Orlando, one year ago today, being gay – or even just being friends with gay people – meant being executed in cold blood by a madman who hated people because they didn’t live exactly as he did. Many are remembering the horrifying events, and mourning the beautiful souls taken too soon. As Christians, we should be standing side-by-side with the grieving and the defenders of human rights. We should be welcoming and celebrating love wherever we find it. We should not downgrade the tragedy of human lives destroyed because of some Old Testament drivel from which we have been freed by our saviour.

We have enough clanging symbols and noisy gongs in this world. Anyone can be that. If we want to be salt and light, we have to rise above that – to be more than that. Real love, now, for everyone – with no strings or judgements attached. Because Jesus said so.