The words still came out of his mouth

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Professor Cameron Johnston was giving the introductory lecture in a social science course at York University, Toronto, and talking about the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable opinions. You can't say something like "All Jews should be sterilized" and represent that as acceptable just because it's your opinion, he explained. And at that, a 22-year-old senior named Sarah Grunfeld got up and walked straight out of the class to report him to Hasbara, a pro-Israel advocacy group on campus, which rapidly put out a statement calling for the professor to be fired for anti-Semitism. It's a dangerous path one treads when one tries to give examples of obnoxious propositions in a classroom where not all the students have a firm grasp of the fundamental distinction between the use and the mention of a linguistic expression.

It was pointed out to Grunfeld later that the context surely made some kind of difference: Professor Johnston was specifically explaining that "All Jews should be sterilized" was an unacceptable opinion for anyone to express, and he could hardly give that example (or any example) without mentioning and thereby uttering it in some form. But she said that didn't matter: "The words, 'Jews should be sterilized' still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that's pretty serious", she told the Toronto Star.

The class was Social Sciences 1140: "Self, Culture and Society". Johnston is a 30-year veteran at teaching such material. He was lecturing to 500 students on the first day of class, and stressing that the class would focus on texts, not on opinions. Some undergraduates today seem to think that when something is their opinion, that automatically gives them a right to say it and have it accepted respectfully. (Arnold Zwicky told me he once had a student who made a completely untenable claim about the morphological analysis of some linguistic data, and when Zwicky pointed out that the evidence clearly showed the analysis was wrong, the student was absolutely furious, and told him angrily: "But it's my opinion!".) Johnston was explaining the familiar point that opinions are not automatically privileged in an academic context, and there is such a thing as a totally unacceptable opinion that the class does not have to receive with respect, or treat as worthy of discussion.

Johnston happens to be Jewish, which isn't particularly relevant, except that it might be thought to enhance the irony, and he has remarked that it was perhaps precisely because of his Jewishness that he chose this example, with its echoes of Nazi atrocities from 70 years ago. (The student doesn't care: she has suggested that Johnston might be lying about whether he is really Jewish.)

A meeting with a dean and a vice provost failed to mollify the student; she has had a statement put out on her behalf by B'nai Brith, and it is aggressively unrepentant: she blames the professor, and the university, for everything. She is furious that she has "been grossly misquoted and ridiculed by the media".

And she certainly is being ridiculed: has picked up the story, and the comments area contains just the sort of chaotic mess of rudeness, silliness, obtuseness, and indignance that you might expect.

Language Log will merely shed a quiet tear over the inability of people who have taken no linguistics or philosophy to grasp the distinction between use and mention, and that someone in her final year should enrol in what appears to be an introductory social science course (whatever happened to the prerequisite structure here?) without being ready for the kind of discussion that social science requires. And also over campus groups that are willing to libel a professor, and call for his firing, without doing any investigation. This is not a funny story, and not a serious story about free speech or anti-Semitism either. This is a sad little anecdote about kneejerk hypersensitivity, intellectual immaturity, and gross irresponsibility.

[Sarah Grunfeld will probably get ridiculed a lot more on Gawker, but not here on Language Log, because comments on this post are closed.]

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