Saturday, January 18, 2014

Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?

There has been a furor over York University's decision to grant a male student an exemption from an assignment that would have required him to work with female students. When the news broke, public reaction was swift and negative.  The incident points out the intense emotion that we bring to discussions when fundamental rights (in this case, the religious rights and the rights of women) come into conflict. Below is my recent newspaper column, also published online at Troy Media, on the topic.

Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?
Has York University turned back the clock on gender equality?  Is the university’s decision to grant a male student an exemption from a group assignment that required him to work with female students a threat to the rights of women?   While I personally consider the student’s request offensive, I am not convinced that the level of criticism aimed at York University is entirely fair.

The background
Sometime in September, a male student who was enrolled in an on-line class requested an exemption from an on-campus group assignment on the basis that his religious beliefs prevented him from intermingling with women. The course professor, Paul Grayson, denied the request and forwarded it to the Dean and the university’s Center for Human Rights, expecting to receive a “principled statement” in support of his decision. Instead, the university instructed him to accommodate the student.  Grayson stuck to his guns, refused the exemption, and the student completed the assignment without any further fuss or bother. When the student’s request to the public’s attention in January, public opinion quickly came down against the university; there is a consensus that with this exemption the university is condoning sexism.

York's explanation
The university argues that it approved the request for an exemption not for religious reasons, but rather on the nature of an on-line course. In an interview with CBC radio’s Metro Morning, Rhonda Lenton, Provost at York University, explained the determining factor in making the decision: the course was advertised as an on-line course, and there was not an expectation that students would attend on-campus sessions. Had the course been an on-campus course, Lenton believes the university would have denied the student’s request.

A customer service problem
It seems to me that the university was trying to correct a customer service problem: the course was not delivered in the manner in which it was marketed, and the university wanted to remedy the problem.  One wonders, though, why the university did not make a straightforward refusal of the request for religious accommodation, and then deal with the requirements for an on-line course as a separate matter. Combining the two things has only confounded the issue.

The university’s explanation of its decision has had little effect, if any, on the debate which has pitted religious accommodation against women’s rights. How far should a public institution go to accommodate an individual’s religious beliefs when those beliefs conflict with a societal value?  There is no easy answer, although it seems reasonable to me that a public institution would opt to resolve this type of conflict between rights on the side of inclusivity. 

Emotions influence our reaction and opinion
The public reaction to the university’s handling of the student’s request for religious accommodation illustrates the tension that arises when fundamental rights are in competition.  It is not surprising that the university finds itself at the center of an emotionally charged controversy given the high degree of importance that Canadian society places on gender equality and that individuals place on religion. Surely, the university foresaw the public reaction, and could have handled the request differently.

While I think that the university made a misstep and ‘got it wrong’, I also think that some of the criticism leveled at York has been overblown.  Emotional rhetoric, such as evidenced in Federal Justice Minister Peter Mackay’s comment, “…we did not send soldiers to Afghanistan to protect the rights of women to only see those same rights eroded here at home”, serves no useful purpose in helping Canadian society sort out the thorny issue of religious accommodation; an issue that we can expect to encounter more frequently as Canadian society becomes more diverse.

I was initially appalled that a public university would countenance this student’s request to be excused from working with women.  And while I have modified my reaction somewhat based on the university’s explanation, I still find the request unpalatable. I shudder when anyone uses religion to marginalize women, or any group of people, for that matter, and I feel very strongly about gender equality. But, I disagree that given the reasons for this exemption, York University is eroding women’s rights in Canada and promoting sexism.

Monday, January 6, 2014

We are our brother's keeper: message for the World Day of Peace

In his message for the 47th World Day of Peace, Pope Francis calls every man and woman to the universal vocation of fraternity.  

In Fraternity as the foundation of peace and as the pathway to peace, the pope speaks about the harmful effects of poverty, war, corruption, organized crime and environmental degradation on our ability to live peacefully with one another.  While the obstacles to world peace are communal in nature and difficult to overcome, the message is personal and social, realistic and hopeful.

The biblical foundations of fraternity

Francis refers to the biblical story of two brothers, Cain and Abel, to explain the concept of fraternity. In the story, Cain murders Abel, and God holds Cain accountable for his failure to care for and protect his brother.  The pope writes that the story of Cain and Abel illustrates our “profound identity and vocation” to live as brothers and sisters, even as it demonstrates our “tragic capacity to betray that calling.” Despite this capacity to ignore our identity and to deny our vocation, we have an “irrepressible longing for fraternity” which forms us into communities and peoples, and enables us to overcome differences and embrace one another.

Francis explains that the fraternal imperative to live in peace with one another resides in the transcendent fatherhood of God and in the cross of Christ.  God’s “extraordinarily concrete and personal love” for every man and woman is a powerful transformative force that leads to conversion and makes fraternity possible. 

Fraternity is difficult
Still, fraternity as the pathway to peace is difficult. As Francis realistically notes, fraternity requires “a perennial exercise of empathy, of listening to the hopes and sufferings of others, even those furthest away from me, and walking the demanding path of that love which knows how to give and spend itself freely for the good of all our brothers and sisters.”

While the basic idea of fraternity (do good to everyone) is pretty simple, I consider its implementation rather challenging. In a similar way as God called to Cain, “Where is your brother?”, fraternity calls us to take responsibility for the well being of others whether we know them, or not; like them, or not; agree with them, or not.  Fraternity makes us answerable for our brothers and sisters around the world.  To Cain’s retort to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”,  our answer must be “yes” if we are serious about building peace.

Our vocation to live in harmony makes demands of us that we would perhaps prefer to ignore. It requires that we step out of our comfortable lives, reassess our attitudes, and then actually do something to help overcome obstacles to peace.  We may find it difficult to relate to the realities that threaten the lives of so many people around the world, or we may become indifferent to the plight of those whom we do not know. Alternatively, if we want to help, the sheer magnitude of the problems may overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and prevent us from taking action that will help build those pathways to peace.

Pope Francis’s message for the 47th World Day of Peace reminds us that without a “lively awareness of relatedness” (and I believe relatedness implies action), peace will remain an unattainable dream. We begin to build pathways to peace, in our hearts, in our homes and in the world, when we act upon our vocation to cherish one another as brothers and sisters of the same human family.