If Not Now, When?

January 2022

Is there, or ought there be, an appropriate time for faculty to criticize virtue-signaling statements made by deans or presidents on behalf of their respective communities?

Here are some stories that made headlines: Ground penetrating radar signals the location of 215 possible burials on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Fifty-one people are killed, forty injured when a lone gunman opens fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death of George Floyd is the catalyst for massive anti-police-brutality and BLM protests in the United States and beyond.

In each case, some Canadian university presidents swiftly issued statements on behalf of their respective communities, and Deans on behalf of their faculties.

Bill Flanagan of the University of Alberta begins, “With profound sadness, we learned of the unearthing of the remains of 215 children buried at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” Robert Gordon announces that the “University of Windsor has lowered its flags to half-mast … to honour the lives of the 215 Indigenous children found in a mass grave at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site.” In another statement, Gordon, with Kaye Johnson, writes, “On behalf of the University of Windsor community we want to express our shock and overwhelming concern following the heartbreaking events that led to the tragic death of George Floyd….” (Some campus groups complained that Gordon and Johnson didn’t say enough.) Meric S. Gertler states, “The University of Toronto community has reacted with horror and sorrow on hearing of the terrorist atrocities committed against Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand yesterday. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of these innocent people who were so cruelly murdered while at worship.” (Gertler’s use of “terrorist” occurred on March 15, 2019, six days prior to the official addition of that charge by the New Zealand police. Gertler’s use of “terrorist” was rhetorical, not factual, at the time he made his statement.)

Criticisms of these statements that might emerge from faculty members include:

  1. The ontological status of a community: Is it possible to ascribe a mental state, such as sorrow, to a community? Some note that even if each member of a certain community feels sorrow about some event, it’s a fallacy of composition to claim the community thereby feels sorrow. Others note that it’s possible for a community to feel sorrow about some event even if none of its individual members feel sorrow about that event. Still others worry members of the public don’t think about these ontological distinctions and will likely assume that the president means to speak for its individual members.

  2. Adjectival and adverbial: terrorist atrocities, cruelly murdered, and innocent people. Some worry that the rhetorical use of such hyperbolic modifiers contributes more to partisan rancour than to consoling affected people.

  3. Meaning and definitions. The word terrorist has a particular definition indexed to some circumscribed domain of discourse. It seems unlikely that President Gertler has a clue what is meant by “terrorist.” And it’s even clearer that President Gordon hasn’t a clue what’s meant by mass grave.

  4. Factual. The verb “unearth” has two meanings, one literal: to exhume; the other metaphorical: to be made public or brought to light. When Bill Flanigan writes in his “Statement on the Kamloops Residential School burial site” that, “we learned of the unearthing of the remains…,” he gives no indication that he means to use “unearthing” metaphorically. Rather the unearthing of remains at a burial site best indicates the literal meaning of “unearthing”, which in this case is false. (The site has yet to be excavated.) Whether Flanigan intended to be misleading, by creating some political spin, is another matter.

  5. Partisanship. How is it that a president’s heart, cf. Gertler, goes out to some causes but not others? Why not to the 743 Canadian victims of gang-related homicide in 2020? Or to the 1,470 Christians massacred by Nigerian Islamic Jihadists in the first four months of 2021? There’s no shortage of events for which a university president might issue a statement of condolence/solidarity. So it would be interesting to hear from a university president the criteria used to decide which of these are statement-worthy and which are not.

  6. Others might suggest the President avail himself of a proofreader before issuing a public statement.

Any of these criticisms can be judged as callous disregard for the suffering of others. But this disregard can cut more than one way, including to the callous disregard for the widow’s mite that’s paid the scholar for sound advice. Or for the individual scholar exercising moral and intellectual integrity, to the best of her judgement, by asking hard and sometimes unpopular questions.

But maybe unseemliness doesn’t so much reside in the questions as in when they’re being asked. So let’s consider whether scholars should honour a moment of silence before criticizing these statements. And, if so, how long that moment should be.

Mom sends a condolence card on behalf of the family to my aunt whose abusive husband has just died. It would be unseemly for me to contact my aunt to retract my endorsement of the card, or to congratulate her on his demise instead. It’s more likely that I’ll privately chastise my mother for speaking on my behalf.

What then of the university president who issues a similar statement on my behalf? I can ignore it, as many do. Or I can outline my concerns in an email, “Dear Bill Flanigan, no remains have been ‘unearthed’ at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site. Here are some credible references. Please revise your statement accordingly.” And if he doesn’t, which he can’t without replacing his virtue-signaling with vice-signaling?

I might decide not to follow up. But I might write him repeatedly. Perhaps he’ll answer with a non-answer, “I’ve received your letter, thank you.” Perhaps he’ll dig in, “I stand in solidarity with our Indigenous community.” And I wonder whether by merely asking him to stick to the facts I’m revealing that I don’t stand in solidarity with our Indigenous community. At this point I might worry that this way be dragons. I look around at the climate in my community. I might take a little pride in being labelled a dogged pedant, but not at the cost of being judged a racist. Should I go public? Is it worth the risk to my reputation to pull the pin on one seemingly insignificant factoid?

I’m at this uncle’s funeral. My aunt is sitting in the front row, sobbing. Several people deliver a eulogy. The good times had with my uncle. His boyish grin. The time he covered a mortgage payment for a friend. Then I stand up. I look each eulogizer in the eye, and I announce that the only reason I’m here is to make sure the bastard is dead — the bastard who kicked my aunt’s teeth out when she was seven months pregnant, who threw her down the stairs and left her for dead. She deserves better, I say, from all of you.

In fact I probably won’t attend my uncle’s funeral. If I do, I won’t say what I’ve just said. Giving a reality check at this time and place might not merely be unseemly, it might be gratuitously cruel. I suspect it’s this sentiment that dissuades many academics from making criticisms that involve “vulnerable” people. But some are also dissuaded by the fear others moved by the same sentiment will rain disapprobation on their heads. So much for Silence is Violence!

So maybe I wait a while. A year. And then I visit my aunt. I take her hand and tell her I know how hard life was with my uncle, how she deserved better. We hug. Yet all along, friends and family talk. Each agree my uncle was a son-of-a-bitch. But no one said so in time to save my aunt’s teeth.

But what if, for the sake of seemliness, I wait a year to address the misinformation in Flanigan’s statement? His statement will likely be forgotten, even by him, piled under a landslide of other considerata. Cutbacks. The pandemic. He might even agree with me, but point at all his other burdens and shrug, “It’s a little thing, a statement made in a hurry. Information tends to correct itself as more data is [sic] revealed, and it has.” And maybe this is so. Maybe since there’s no harm, there’s no foul.

But what if for every gaffe, intentional or not, in each of these otherwise innocent statements that goes uncorrected or unchallenged, there is a little erosion of standards for truthfulness and clarity of meaning? And who should be responsible for ensuring that this erosion doesn’t occur, that university presidents (and deans) are kept to higher standards? I say, individual members of the university community: i.e., faculty.

In grading his first-year paper, I would instruct Bill Flanigan to cite his source(s) for the “unearthing” of remains at the Kamloops burial site. And if he told me he was speaking metaphorically, I would insist he disambiguate his meaning. By his fourth year, I would show Flanigan no mercy for such sloppiness. Why make an exception for someone acting in the capacity of a university president? Why not demand the same standards enforced by peer review?

Maybe I’m acting in an unseemly fashion, being uncharitable to both presidents and faculties. It would be unseemly for a president to wait to issue a statement of condolences or solidarity. As in the case of my aunt, the sentiment and not its perfection is what’s required here. And it would be as unseemly for me to send a letter of correction to these condolences as it would to correct a sympathy card to my aunt.

I don’t buy this argument. A presidential statement might seem innocuous, but it’s a thermometer for the university climate, from the issues being endorsed and those being ignored, to the standards of academic rigour being demanded. A temperature is a register of feedback from the environment. But from whence does this feedback come?

I didn’t sign up to be a member of my family. I did to be an academic. But consider this. Some blame my aunt for her permissiveness, that she chose her own abuse. Others point out the situation was “complicated”, that they would have helped if only they knew how. And others claim they tried, to no avail. At the end of her marriage, when my uncle died, my aunt opened and closed condolence cards. Condolences for what? Is it the condolences themselves that are unseemly?

The onus was on my uncle not to beat my aunt, but beat her he did. The onus is on me to speak before any more of us lose our teeth.