Introduction: We were sent this short story by John Ginsburg, who is a Winnipeg writer. Given the constant stream of stories about students and professors being intimidated by forces championing political correctness, especially when it comes to anything having to do with Israel, we thought it timely to publish the story here.
June 2021 Mackenzie King College Walking east, past the Theatre building, the view was genuinely inspiring, especially in the bright morning sunshine.
To the right, the contemplative, Ivy-covered Arts Building and the century-old chapel. Straight ahead, the gleaming river and the lush green landscape beyond. To the south, the arching Unity Bridge. But the route to the classroom for Media Studies 32.455, Professor Latchman’s course, was somewhat less scenic. One had to walk around to the opposite side of the Theatre building, in through the small service entrance, and then down concrete stairs to the basement, arriving at a low-ceilinged, damp and windowless room. Such were the current circumstances of the Department of Media Studies, pursuing the noble heights of academic inquiry from the gloomy depths of a former workshop. Its old haunts, on the opposite side of the university, were being renovated from top to bottom.
The condensed, two-and-a-half-month course was entering its final few weeks. With the resumption of in-person lectures, the bright, doubly-vaccinated students had initially been swept in by a wave of camaraderie and intellectual enthusiasm. Reality, however, had soon intervened, an unrelenting schedule of jam-packed three-hour lectures, demanding term papers and nerve-wracking oral presentations. The dim subterranean venue only added to the hard-pressed feeling among the students.
Latchman’s course was entitled Political Correctness and Cancel Culture in the Media and the Arts. It was a senior-level honours course, requiring three term papers and two in-class presentations of each of its twenty-five earnest young scholars. They were a diverse lot, of all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds. There they sat, in their sculpted, multi-coloured hair, with their necks, arms and legs artistically muralled with tattoos; their noses, lips, eyebrows, ears and navels sporting gaudy piercings; their epigrammed apparel and trendy jewellery on full display. At the front of the class, standing at the lectern, their middle-aged, conservatively-dressed professor was unfazed. The individual expressions of diversity and identity neither made him feel old nor out of place. It was simply the times. One moment might call for ethnic, racial and sexual identities to be completely ignored, while the next moment called for them to be pushed loudly to the front, singled out and magnified. However, for Professor Howard Latchman, it wasn’t a particularly difficult academic world to navigate.
Latchman was a full professor at Mackenzie King College, accomplished in his field, enjoying his twenty-sixth year as a faculty member. He was of medium height and build, with thin, greying hair. He had a warm and friendly manner and had always been well-regarded by his students. His annual student evaluations highlighted his high academic standards, as well as his accessibility and fairness. On the negative side, students found him rather boring at times, and his methods somewhat plodding. His non-academic interests were completely unknown to his students and would have come as an amusing surprise. From his teenage years right up to the present, Latchman had been a drummer in a number of rock and roll bands, most recently with The Heads, playing sixties and seventies songs in nearby towns and bars. Not to mention his tennis playing; he was good enough to compete in senior-level tournaments, once reaching the provincial quarter-finals.
Latchman was Jewish, but entirely secular. This was a constant sore point with his two older siblings, alienating him from them more and more over the years. Brought up in the same conventional Jewish home, he’d been expected to tow the line. Fortunately they lived halfway across the country, so their meetings were infrequent.
He was divorced, with two children in their late twenties. His area of specialty was Journalism. From a doctoral thesis on corporate bias in the western news media, his work had naturally evolved. With social media now dominating the flow of information, his methods of study had radically changed. But the same issues remained at the core: misinformation and the control of information; by large corporations and by special interest groups.
For the June 14 class, student presentations were scheduled for the entire lecture time. Each student had twenty minutes to speak, on a recent case of cancel culture, followed by ten to fifteen minutes of questions and comments from the rest of the class.
With only a few weeks remaining in the spring-session course, Latchman knew most of the twenty-five students by name and by appearance. The first speaker of the day was a Black woman named Letanya Wynn. She was a prominent figure in the class, very bright and always highly engaged, taking every opportunity to aggressively speak out, offering her own point of view on whatever was being discussed. She was very slight in stature, with closely-cropped orange and yellow hair, wearing massive hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. Latchman took a quick glance at the text message she had sent him, containing the title and summary of her talk. ‘Good morning everyone’ he said. ‘Our first speaker is Letanya Wynn. She is going to be telling us about a cartoon that was recently published, in a Seattle online magazine. A textbook case of cancel culture. We will follow the same format as previous presentations. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will entertain comments and questions. Ms. Wynn!’
Letanya Wynn made her way, a little awkwardly, from the back of the class up to the sixty-inch monitor at the front, where she inserted the small USB drive she’d been carrying. She selected the only file on the drive, a jpg file. It was a copy of a cartoon, recently published in The North West Record, a Seattle-based publication. The cartoon shows two men having sex, one Black and the other white, with their naughty parts concealed behind a chair in the centre foreground. The Black man is positioned behind the white man, who is bent over. A shirt is draped over the chair, displaying a large BLM logo. In the background, a grim-faced, white uniformed cop has entered the room, standing in a doorway. He is pointing a gun at the two men, with a talking bubble that says ”You’re supposed to be two metres apart, not two feet.” The caption underneath the cartoon says ”Basic Length Measurements”. This satirical take on the coronavirus pandemic and the BlackLivesMatter movement had been greeted with an immediate social outcry online. Its creator, a Black male cartoonist, was fired as a result, by his publisher, who was also a Black male.
Letanya Wynn’s presentation was focused and articulate, extremely well done. Latchman wasn’t surprised that she strongly supported the cartoonist’s firing, arguing that the themes represented in the cartoon were demeaning to Black people and personally offensive to her. But he was surprised by the subdued class response. Maybe it was because it was so early in the morning, he thought. Maybe non-Black students felt they didn’t belong in the conversation. Whatever the reason, only two students commented on the presentation, both Black men. They both disagreed with Letanya Wynn, instead finding the cartoon to be a clever work of satire, and seeing the cartoonist’s firing as an extreme overreaction.
Thinking further about the minimal class reaction, Latchman wondered if, compared to other recent topics, the class didn’t find the cartoon to be especially shocking or controversial. In any case, he was very impressed by the presentation. Twenty out of twenty, he thought. A great presentation.
Latchman glanced at his phone and quickly re-read the details for the second talk of the morning. It would probably be less engaging than the first talk, he thought. Less contentious.
‘Class, I would next like to introduce Mark Mazur. He is going to talk about the recent Facebook controversy. I’m sure we’ve all heard about it. Certain posts were not published at first, but then appeared later, after a reaction against the company. Mr. Mazur!’
The second speaker was evidently Jewish, and religious, wearing a kipa. He was tall and very thin, with a neatly trimmed beard and a friendly face. After being introduced, he stood up from his chair near the front of the room and walked over to the lectern, where he placed his notes. He was soft-spoken, with an easy and confident manner. ‘Good morning’ he said to the class, with a smile. ‘When I read about this recent Facebook controversy, I naturally read some of the posts that had not appeared for so-called ”technical reasons”. They were published a few days later, after people had complained that Facebook had shown an anti-Palestinian bias, by deliberately blocking the posts. Of course, this is not the first time that Facebook has faced these kinds of accusations, sometimes because they do allow certain posts. For example, when they published all the lies and distortions from Trump’s supporters, during the election campaign and after.’
‘There are three main questions here. First of all, is it just a coincidence that many of those posts – I didn’t try to read more than ten or so – promoted a completely one-sided picture of the recent war between Israel and Hamas? Secondly, does Facebook have the legal right, and perhaps the moral responsibility, to not publish whatever it deems to be inappropriate? Are Palestinian-run websites held to the same moral standards? Do we insist they publish pro-Israeli posts, balancing these with opposite points of view? Or do we think they should be free to decide which posts to publish and in what numbers? Thirdly, and what is most relevant to this course, is why did Facebook backtrack? Why did the policy change, with the posts being published after all? Was it political correctness, catering to an offended group, rather than just sticking to an otherwise reasonable and clearly defensible editorial stance?’
‘I’m Jewish, so some people might try to diminish what I have to say because of a perceived bias. Of course, such an ad hominem assumption of bias could be made against detractors as well. In any event, let me first summarize what I consider to be a truthful, balanced view of the war. To begin, the loss of life and the destruction of property, the traumatization of people, especially children, on both sides, is absolutely horrible. These are the terrible costs and results of war. However we measure the consequences, it is obvious there cannot only be a picture from one side. Hamas sent literally thousands of missiles into Israel, killing people and destroying property. The effects were greatly reduced because the Israelis were able to shoot down most of those bombs before they landed. Hamas fired those missiles with the intention of killing whomever they happened to kill, destroying whatever property they happened to strike. They were aimed more or less randomly. Consequences in return, to the population of Gaza, were horrendous. There were – ‘
At that moment, one of the other students interrupted, a woman wearing a hijab, sitting near the front of the class. She stood up, looking directly at the speaker. Speaking with an Arabic accent, her tone was fierce and accusatory. She was essentially shouting. ‘You are killing children’ she said to the speaker. ‘You are destroying hospitals. You are killing innocent people.’
Professor Latchman was somewhat caught off guard, but he quickly moved to stop the woman’s outburst. Having spoken to the woman on a few previous occasions, he knew her name was Jamila Fayad, and that she was an immigrant from Syria, having settled in the area a few years before, with her parents and siblings. She was one of four religious Muslims in the class, three female and one male. The others were seated side-by-side in the row behind her. In a class that consisted mostly of people of color, they hadn’t particularly stood out during the previous weeks of the course. As occurred to Latchman in this moment, this was likely because the course topics had centred almost completely around anti-Black racism and issues involving sexual identity.
Latchman, seated at the front of the room right beside the speaker, stood up and made a restraining gesture to the woman with his right hand. It was abundantly clear to him that the situation could easily escalate if he didn’t quickly take control. ‘Please. I must ask you to stop, Ms. Fayad. Please sit down’ he said, in a firm, resolute tone, addressing the woman as he did all of his students, using her last name. ‘You will have an opportunity to comment once the speaker has finished. Please allow the speaker to make his presentation. We have all agreed that there will be no comments until these presentations have been completed. And please, remember not to attack people personally. We can strongly disagree with what someone says, but let us challenge what has been said. No personal attacks or insinuations. That is very important. Okay. Mr. Mazur, please continue.’
‘Thank you, Professor Latchman’ said the young speaker, apparently unrattled by the outburst. ‘Justifying war and conflict and killing might be called a fool’s job’ he continued. ‘Yet, if people are not provided with an accurate historical picture of conflict, it can make the situation worse and lead to further violence and injustice. Hamas is a terrorist organization. Our country and other western countries have declared this to be the case. Their only goal in relation to Israel is quote, to drive the Jews into the sea. The idea of a peace treaty or peaceful co-existence is not even a possibility. The claims made about land can – ‘
Again Jamila Fayad stood up, confronting the speaker in the same defiant, angry way. ‘You must end the occupation’ she said. ‘You must give back our land. You are killing our people. We have the right to fight for the liberation.
Anticipating this second outburst, Latchman had already decided on his response, and he acted swiftly. He stood up and again addressed the woman. ‘That is enough’ he said, speaking somewhat forcefully while trying to retain his composure. ‘This presentation is over for now. Thank you, Mr. Mazur. I am sorry for the interruption. Class, we are going to take a fifteen minute break now, before the next talk. Would everyone please leave the room, except for Ms. Fayad. If you wouldn’t mind, Ms. Fayad, I would like to have a word with you before we continue.’
In his head, Latchman was rapidly composing a short speech he would deliver to Jamila Fayad, some careful form of admonishment. How she had attacked the speaker personally. How she hadn’t let him speak. How she had been rude and disrespectful. How she had denied him the same basic freedom of speech she would want for herself. But he never had the opportunity, as Jamila Fayad filed out of the room along with everyone else. For fifteen minutes, Latchman stood waiting for her to return, but she never did. When the students returned fifteen minutes later, she was not among them.
This was certainly not the first time a student had filed a formal complaint about some aspect of Media Studies 32.455. One of Latchman’s colleagues had faced a similar situation a few years before, when a Black student had objected to a class discussion on rap music. The professor had played a selection of songs in class, all laced with profanity and the N-word, which the student had found humiliating and demeaning. The professor had to appear before the Academic Standards Committee to answer for the material. He volunteered to meet with the student-complainant, and successfully diffused the matter. Most student-complaints never reached that stage. Though they were always taken seriously, such complaints were usually answered by no more than a polite note from the Dean’s office, thanking the student for the submission and emphasizing that it had been taken very seriously. The university was always striving to improve in its awareness of and sensitivity to student concerns, et cetera. It was virtually unheard of for any remedial or punitive action to result from such a complaint. So, when Howard Latchman was asked to meet with the Dean of Arts the following week, after a formal complaint had been filed by Jamila Fayad, he wasn’t particularly troubled by the matter.
On the day of his meeting with the Dean of Arts, Latchman came prepared, bearing a printed copy of the course outline for 32.455, as well as a detailed summary of the incident surrounding Mark Mazur’s presentation the previous week.
Like many faculty members at Mackenzie King College, Howard Latchman was mostly oblivious to administrative matters. He tried to have as little to do with meetings and committees and procedures as he could possibly get away with. For most of his years on the faculty, he would not even have been able to name the President of the university, or any of its senior administration. His focus was his teaching and his other academic work. As a full professor in his late fifties, he’d paid his dues, and he now purposefully managed his time with a minimum of aggravation and a minimum of futility. When he was escorted into his meeting with the Dean of Arts, by the administrative assistant, he was meeting the Dean for the first time.
Walking into the Dean’s inner office, carrying his documents, he was greeted by an exuberant, friendly-looking woman. ‘Hello, Professor Latchman’ she said. ‘I’m Amira Zuhar.’
Latchman only vaguely remembered the Dean’s recent hiring. People who had paid more attention would have remembered that she’d been highly touted at the time. She was a devout Muslim and well-known social activist. She’d been hired directly from the faculty ranks at the University of Toronto, with an impressive publication record in Political Studies, and with absolutely no prior administrative experience. Forty years of age, she was a shining example of Mackenzie King College’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness at every level.
Dean Zuhar was wearing a beige hijab. She had a dazzling smile, immediately disarming Latchman. She motioned for him to sit down on one of the black leather chairs beside her oak desk, offering him water or coffee or tea, all of which he politely refused.
All of a sudden, Latchman’s situation seemed much more perilous. A hijab-wearing Dean was to pronounce on the complaint; on the confrontation between a hijab-wearing student and a male, Jewish student; a confrontation in which he, Latchman, himself Jewish, was deemed by the female student to be at fault. This might not go so well, Latchman thought to himself, nervously glancing around the spacious, well-appointed office. He decided he would wait for a moment before offering his documents to the Dean.
‘Professor Latchman’ the Dean began, flashing a quick smile, a smile Latchman was suddenly rather wary of. ‘Thank you for dropping by today. Jamila Fayad’s complaint… I’ve sent you a copy of what she’s written. I have spoken at some length with her.’ The Dean spoke evenly and quietly, maintaining direct eye-contact with Latchman. ‘Jamila says you silenced her. You stopped her from talking, from countering the pro-Israeli statements. She says you took the side of the Jewish student. Because you are Jewish. She says she can’t return to your class anymore, because you don’t give the same freedoms to all of your students.’
Latchman shuffled in his seat uneasily before offering a response. ‘Ms. Fayad stood up and interrupted the class presentation’ he said to the Dean. ‘She accused the speaker of killing children, of destroying homes. Accused him. He was not involved in the war. He’s not an Israeli; he’s a Canadian. She kept accusing him. It was horrible. She said things like ”You are killing children”; targeting her accusations directly at him. I politely asked her to stop, but she wouldn’t. She continued her personal attack. I had to stop the presentation entirely. It was embarrassing to expose my entire class to that kind of thing. I’ve prepared a detailed summary of the – ‘
The Dean cut Latchman off in mid-sentence. ‘As to the interruption and as to her point of view, she is obviously a passionate defender of the Palestinian cause. And she felt it was necessary to counter a one-sided justification of the actions of the Israelis. Her use of the personal pronoun ”you” probably has as much to do with second-language issues as anything else.’
Latchman was incensed at the Dean’s complete misreading of the incident. He struggled to remain composed. ‘No’ he said, his voice rising. ‘Her usage of ”you” cannot in any way be attributed to second-language issues. She very deliberately pointed to him, and targeted the accusations at him. There was no doubt about it at all. She is a bright student. She obviously knows the difference between ”you” and ”the Israeli army”. There were twenty-four witnesses to the incident, other than me. How many of them have you bothered to interview?’ His tone had quickly progressed to one of anger and impatience. ‘I’m guessing very few, if any. I guess I should have expected you to take her side, but what you are saying is patently ridiculous and simply wrong. All of those statements about the way things proceeded, and the accusations made about my reaction, they are all false. In fact, they’re libelous. She should examine her own behaviour. The ”Jewish student”, as she calls him, did everything he could to be even-handed, respectful and non-accusatory. The whole point was to address the political correctness involved in the matter. In Facebook’s reversing its decision to not allow certain posts that were clearly pro-Palestinian. Was it political correctness that pressured the company to reverse its position? The presenting student was admirably respectful and sensitive to the Gaza side of the conflict. He didn’t even get to fully express his thoughts on the matter. She jumped on him and fired off some very hostile, personal accusations at him.’
Dean Zuhar responded in a much sterner tone than before. ‘Professor Latchman’ she said, ‘I am very much disturbed by your implying my taking sides here. That is certainly not the case. I understand and I very much appreciate the sensitive nature of this classroom topic. Especially for both Jewish and Muslim students. But Professor Latchman, we can’t have students accusing our faculty of silencing their views. We can’t have our students saying it is impossible for them to continue their attendance in class; impossible because of their humiliation and their perceived mistreatment at the hands of their professors. This goes well beyond reasonable classroom behaviour and course management. I’m afraid I’m going to have to suspend you from any further involvement in this course. Your department chair, Professor Guilfoyle, will appoint a replacement to finish the remaining few weeks of lectures. I have spoken to him this morning. For the present, there are no further consequences to you with respect to this incident. However, there will be a full internal inquiry into the matter. I have asked Professor Nkosa, the chair of the Academic Standards Committee, to conduct a thorough review of the matter, including your role. Thank you for coming in this morning.’ Saying this, Dean Zuhar stood up to see Latchman out.
Latchman was stunned. It took him a moment to begin breathing evenly again. Getting to his feet, he was fuming mad. ‘Are you serious?’ he said to the Dean. ‘This is a travesty. There were twenty-four witnesses to the event. Did you talk to them? Does the truth matter? Do you -‘
Dean Zuhar cut him short. ‘Professor Latchman’ she said, firmly. ‘I’m very sorry. I have to interrupt you. I know you must find this very upsetting. I’m going to wish you a good day. This is a most unfortunate incident. Again, thanks for coming in.’
It was all Latchman could do, to simply walk out of the room, without lashing out at the Dean of Arts. He stormed out of the office, out of the building and onto the nearly empty quad outside, shaking his head in disbelief.