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York student stirs controversy after misunderstanding prof’s remarks

By in News

Excalibur (York University)

A York University professor has become a target of criticism for a remark he made Sept. 12 during his introductory lecture for a first-year class.

According to fourth-year Sarah Grunfeld, who attended the class but had not yet enrolled in it, about five minutes into his introductory Monday lecture for the first-year course “Self, Culture and Society,” Professor Cameron Johnston of the social sciences department at York University said to the class of 475 students, “In my opinion, Jews need to be sterilized.”

She explains that the comment was made during a discussion of opinions and the limits of freedom of speech.

Johnston maintains he was using the phrase to exemplify an opinion that is offensive and should not be held by individuals.

“I was pointing out […] that the course focuses on text and not opinions,” he wrote in an email to students. “I stated that for this course opinions are not relevant and I questioned the common idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion. I pointed out that everyone is not entitled to their opinion by giving the example of someone having an anti-Semitic opinion which is clearly not acceptable. This was an example of the fact that opinions can be dangerous and that none of us really do believe that all opinions are acceptable.”

Nevertheless, Grunfeld is adamant that Johnston failed to clarify that he was speaking theoretically and that he did not hold that opinion himself.

“Even if it wasn’t intentional, it was still a disgusting example to me,” said Grunfeld, adding professors need to take extreme caution when using words that are hurtful to any religious or cultural group, even if it is used as an example.

When asked why he believes students are offended by the claim, Johnston says it is simply a matter of some students failing to pay attention.

“I think […] they didn’t listen carefully to the context,” said Johnston. “They heard just the part that was offensive and they reacted without seeing what I saying.

“I was certainly not saying it’s my opinion and […] for the record, I am Jewish and I think this really influenced choosing this example of a reprehensible opinion.”

President of Hasbara at York, a pro-Israel student group, Oriyah Barzilay says that Johnston’s claim that students were not paying attention doesn’t hold weight.

“Basically their stories are complete polar opposites,” said Barzilay. “But at the end of the day, the common ground to both stories is that he said it […] and it shouldn’t have been said.”

Johnston also says that while he has received numerous complaints from students via email, none of the students contacting him directly are from his class.

“There are 475 students in that class and no one has emailed me saying they have had a problem with anything said in lecture,” said Johnston. “I’ve received responses from people who were not there [who] heard about this and attacked me.”

Johnston met with the dean of the Department of Social Sciences and was cleared of wrongdoing.

This article is republished from Excalibur, the York University student newspaper.

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