You know how sometimes you’re not really paying attention when people are talking, and you wind up misunderstanding them? For example, there was the time I was at lunch with my mom, and I thought she told me I was born by cesarean, when what she actually said was that she was going to have a Caesar salad, and she wished she’d had an abortion. Totally different.
That type of miscommunication can lead to awkwardness, but it’s usually easy to resolve simply by asking for clarification. Unless you’re the type of person who refuses to admit being wrong, that is! Then it can lead to outrageous situations like almost getting a Jewish professor fired for being anti-Semitic.
This happened last week at York University in Toronto, in a class called Social Sciences 1140: “Self, Culture and Society.” The professor, Cameron Johnston, who’s taught at York for more than 30 years, was explaining to the students that the course would focus on facts rather than opinions. Not all opinions are equally valid, he said. Some opinions are foolish and dangerous. For example, he said, it would be unacceptable to hold the opinion that “all Jews should be sterilized.”
Among the 450 students in Johnston’s class was Sarah Grunfeld, a 22-year-old senior. For whatever reason, she didn’t hear the context of Johnston’s statement. The only part she caught was “all Jews should be sterilized.” She thought Johnston, who is Jewish, was giving his own opinion. According to the Toronto Star, she stormed out of the room — in a huff, one assumes, though the article doesn’t specify — and went straight to a campus Jewish advocacy group, which then sent press releases to the news media calling for Johnston to be fired.
Fortunately, once Johnston explained that Grunfeld had misunderstood him, everyone said, “Ahhh, OK, gotcha. That makes sense. Sorry about that!” Everyone except Grunfeld, I mean. Rather than acknowledge her mistake, Grunfeld took a page from Michele Bachmann’s playbook and doubled down on it. She said:
“The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”
Well, guess what, stupid? The words “Jews should be sterilized” just came out of your mouth, too. If context doesn’t matter, then you’re as guilty as he is. And whoops! Now I’ve said it as well! It’s OK for me to say it, though, because I actually believe it. I hate the Jews so much!
Just kidding. I do hate the Jews, but I don’t think they should be sterilized. Then I wouldn’t have anyone left to hate!
Just kidding. There would still be the blacks.
Please note that no one blames Sarah Grunfeld for not paying attention to her college professor. Have you been to college? It is boring. This class, in particular, sounds deadly: “Social Sciences 1140: ‘Self, Culture and Society.'” It sounds like one of those bogus university courses that you take because it fills a general ed requirement and everyone says it’s an easy A, where all you do is watch clips from movies and write a couple papers about how “The Wire” reflects society’s changing views about the war on drugs, or whatever.
But the difference between Grunfeld and a normal person who isn’t paying attention is that if a normal person thought she heard a professor say that all Jews should be sterilized, she would pause to consider whether she had misunderstood, not run immediately to the news media. Here is the thought process a normal person would have.
– Did he really say the words “all Jews should be sterilized”? Could I have misheard? Maybe he said, “All juice should be pasteurized” or “All shoes could be weaponized.” Or maybe he was stressing the importance of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes: “Ah-choos should be recognized.”
– OK, so I’m positive he said “all Jews should be sterilized.” College professors have been known to say some crazy things — I once heard one say that William Faulkner can be read for entertainment — but this is uncommonly crazy. Was he quoting someone else? Was he giving an example of something you shouldn’t say? Is he having a stroke?
– There are 450 other students in this lecture hall. Do any of them appear to be bothered by what was just said? Is anyone else preparing to storm out of the room? Is there a general outcry against our professor’s flagrant anti-Semitism? No? I’m the only one? Hmm. I must have misunderstood somehow. I will investigate this after class.
Like I said, though, that’s a normal person. Sarah Grunfeld got to that last part and concluded that not only was her professor calling for the enforced sterilization of all Jews, but that she was the ONLY student among 450 — at a university with a large Jewish population, mind you — who was offended by it. She alone would have to stand against the tyranny of the professor she wasn’t listening to!
After the Internet learned of the story and made fun of Sarah Grunfeld for being an idiot, she got B’nai Brith Canada to release a statement reasserting her position. Quote:
“I stand by my initial concern brought to the University’s attention immediately after the incident that when Professor Cameron Johnston made the abhorrent statement in his class that all Jews should be sterilized, he failed to qualify the statement clearly as an unacceptable opinion held by others. His delivery of this statement, made in a class of 450 impressionable students, was offensive to me and to others in the room.”
It is interesting that none of these “others” who were offended said anything about it. You’d think Grunfeld would have asked some of them to back her up after her account was called into question, or that they’d have come forth on their own when they saw that their evil anti-Semitic Jewish teacher was getting away with being an evil anti-Semitic Jew. But no, they have remained silent, and nonexistent.
Sarah Grunfeld’s statement also makes it clear who the real victim is here: Sarah Grunfeld. She’s hurt by the fact that the university, after initially being on her side, has reneged on its promise to make Professor Johnston apologize. Sure, it’s because they learned the truth and realized no apology was necessary. But why should that matter? If there’s one thing Grunfeld is sure of, it’s that learning the facts is no reason to change your mind about something.
“It has been a very painful experience for me to see how the university has closed ranks and reneged on its assurances to me,” she said. “I understand that there may have been a miscommunication, but any miscommunication was on the part of the professor, not me.”
Grunfeld is a martyr for her cause. The fact that no one will defend her is chilling. We all remember this sobering statement:
First they came for the dumb students who fall asleep in class and make hilariously false accusations against professors, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a dumb student who falls asleep in class and makes hilariously false accusations against professors. Then they came for the students who think that being in favor of marijuana legalization is the same thing as being politically active, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a student who thinks that being in favor of marijuana legalization is the same thing as being politically active. Then they came for the students who consider themselves experts on economics and public policy because they have read “Atlas Shrugged,” and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a student who considers himself an expert on economics and public policy because he has read “Atlas Shrugged.” Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me, because everyone had been sterilized, by the Jews.