Infecting Impressionable Minds: from Cholera Flags to Red Lines

January 2021

The year 2020 has been different in many ways. But, when it comes to the free speech wars on university campuses and beyond (Dabhoiwala, 2020), there are only minor differences from previous years. Defenders of Freedom of Speech for everyone faced the same type of opposition they did previously.

For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has been used in support of the argument that “academic freedom simply isn’t the most important principle to defend right now” (Dea, 2020a). In order to justify her opinion, Dr. Dea compares Covid-19 to Cholera. With a sleight of hand, she changes from “Academic freedom in the time of coronavirus” in the title of her article to “academic freedom in the time of cholera” in the text.

Dr. Dea argues that the circumstances (in March 2020) justified actions equivalent to flying the cholera flag in the 19th century. Any potential concerns are swiftly dismissed: “it’s right to be cautious any time the cholera flag leads to the suspension of social norms. But … [w]e are dealing with a literal life-or-death matter and need to deal with it quickly. Now is the time for an extraordinary exception” (Dea, 2020a). Dr. Dea fails to consider the non-trivial differences between the lethality of cholera and Covid-19. “Without [treatment] severe cholera kills about half of affected individuals” (Sack et al. 2004). Recent statistics suggest that in Canada the Covid-19 death rate is 2.86% (deBest, 2020). The actual death rate is likely much lower because reported Covid-19 cases are only a fraction of the actual cases. Hence, it is questionable whether the kinds of measures implemented because of cholera are justified in the fight against Covid-19.

In another recent article Dr. Dea contemplates “May a professor say the N-word in class?” (Dea, 2020b). After quoting three recent cases she focuses “on the St. Jerome’s/U of Waterloo case because there the matter of academic freedom rose to particular prominence” (Dea, 2020b). Dr. Dea’s main focus is on the academic freedom of “Black and other scholars who study and teach about anti-Black racism.” While Dr. Dea wants to be supportive of Black faculty she worries about white faculty abusing their academic freedom. In another sleight of hand, she alleges that “The same academic freedom protections that permit Black scholars like Professor Young to research and teach about ‘the six or seven insightful ways the word functions in Black culture’ protected Philippe Rushton’s ability to engage in racist pseudoscience” (Dea, 2020b).

This equation is fallacious. Academic freedom protects Professor Young’s right to teach about the use of the N-word in Black culture. But academic freedom does not protect indoctrinating students with pseudoscience. Rather, in the case of Philippe Rushton, academic freedom would have protected his students’ rights to challenge the validity of his claims. Academic freedom allows academics to assert X; it does not imply, far less guarantee, that X is true.

The sloppy equations are not the biggest problem with Dr. Dea’s arguments. Instead of allowing Black scholars or students to speak for themselves, she cherry picks a few quotes (that make Professor Young sound as if he contradicts himself; he doesn’t in the article from which she quotes) and ads her narration. That is, she engages in a practice Professor Young explicitly objects to: “… true allies treat Blacks as partners, not patrons. … Allies consult! They don’t just take over” (Young, 2020).

Dr. Dea does not consult. When referring to Black students and scholars, she uses the terms “minoritized students” and “minoritized scholars”. This maternalistic talk removes any agency from individuals and suggests being a member of a minority is something done to them. No doubt, some members of minorities feel that way. But implying their experience represents that of every member of a minority group is as cavalier as Joe Biden’s infamous “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”. Dr. Dea’s article ends in a grandiose finale: “It is time – long past time – to stop redlining the professoriate”. Again, presumably privileged white academics like Dr. Dea have “to stop the redlining” while Blacks like Professor Young are passively watching.

Someone who equates cholera and Covid-19 is not advocating responsible health and safety measures; she is fear mongering. Someone who equates underrepresentation of Black academics with redlining that excluded families from homeownership is not advocating an inclusive campus climate; she is fear mongering. Unfortunately, such fear mongering and the resulting helicopter-educating has serious effects on minority students. Several students described how they felt about hearing the N-word in the classroom: “I felt embarrassed … I stopped showing up to that class after that happened” (Tamia Chicas quoted in Butler, 2020). “I felt devalued. I felt deeply humiliated and angered…” (Chizoba Oriuwa, quoted in Rodriguez, 2020).

It should worry every educator that students are willing to give up their education upon being exposed to a mention of the N-word. Of course, the students have the right to be outraged. No one denies that. But the question is whether they also have an obligation to react in that way. Since it is not the place of a white immigrant to speculate, I’ll give the last words to Professor John McWhorter. In an article discussing the use of the N-word he writes: “The air of grim aggrievement exhibits a certain superficial brand of gravity. Ultimately, however, it proposes a cry of weakness as strength: The properly black position is supposed to be, ‘If you even utter this word to refer to it, even in doing so to criticize it, you have gravely injured me.’ And white allies look on and commit themselves to decrying the supposedly wounding act. But I wonder how many black people, if given a bit of pause to examine that proposition, can truly say that they see this as a sign of a healthy racial self-image. Why not strength in achievements? After all, we have quite a few to point to” (McWhorter, 2019).