When Satire Becomes “Harassment” at Mount Royal University

In my recent discussion with Michael Rectenwald—a former New York University professor and author of Springtime for Snowflakes: “Social Justice” and Its Postmodern Parentage—we discussed how satire was one of the most effective ways to deal with “woke-ism.” (“Woke-ism” is the colloquial expression for the anti-Enlightenment agenda of identity politics becoming totalitarian). This is because the “woke” do not accept rational arguments. They know the “correct” answers to questions in advance, and maintain that any examination of critical positions is “epistemic violence.”

As it does not rely on reason, evidence, and logic to make its point, satire is a good way to combat this dogmatism; it allows “woke” arguments to be met on their own terms and subverted. This has been the approach of Andrew Doyle, with his creation of the popular “woke” Twitter character Titania McGrath (@TitaniaMcGrath). Doyle points out that it is particularly difficult to combat “woke-ism” because it “believes itself to be virtuous when it is actually very damaging.” Doyle notes that the “woke” are extremely powerful, especially in universities, but they portray themselves as the underdog. This makes many people nervous about opposing their bullying, but mockery can challenge the control “woke-ism” has over discourse by showing that opposition is permissible in an indirect and humorous way.

It was Doyle’s success at using his character Titania McGrath, in fact, that led me to try to use satire as a method to combat the accelerating “woke-ism” at my academic institution, Mount Royal University (MRU). My decision was solidified after my MRU colleague Sinclair MacRae wrote an eight-page letter to MRU and the Mount Royal Faculty Association criticizing their contentious official statements promoting “anti-racism” after the killing of George Floyd. In this letter, MacRae pointed out that such official political pronouncements had the effect of “contributing to an environment in which free and open enquiry and the search for truth at Mount Royal is threatened.” This was because, according to MacRae, the official posts “seem[ed] to regard these questions [about racism] as settled, and so I am concerned that they will, ironically, promote a culture at our institution that inhibits learning because they will have the effect of foreclosing avenues of thinking and lines of enquiry that are becoming stigmatized as themselves evidence of ‘systemic racism.’ This would be a terrible failing on our part and an Orwellian state of affairs.”

In spite of its comprehensive and persuasive arguments, the letter was ignored. Even worse, a few weeks after the letter was written, 62 faculty members signed “An Open Letter to Mount Royal University” that flowed from the questionable assumptions of the official pronouncements. This letter stated the following: “Recent events on and/or involving our campus have created a chilly climate for BIPOC students, faculty, and staff, including (but certainly not limited to): anti-Muslim vandalism, an anti-immigration op-ed, anti-Indigenous rhetoric, and a general lack of respect for oppressed groups on campus – including faculty during lectures.” (Although I was not mentioned by name, the “anti-Indigenous rhetoric” could only have been referring to me.) This “chilly climate” made it necessary, the Open Letter argued, to implement mandatory anti-racism training for all faculty, to institute a process to “safely report racism on campus,” and to divert significant resources to initiatives perceived to be “anti-racist.”

[Related: “Indigenization Has Poisoned Mount Royal University’s Academic Environment”]

Astounded that 62 faculty members would sign a document that brazenly targeted dissenting professors in the face of MacRae’s warning, I realized that a rational approach was not prompting people to think critically about these issues. This led me to craft a satirical reply and post it on my private Facebook account on July 1, 2020. I began this reply by recounting that “Last night, George Orwell came to me in a dream” and told me: “Frances, while I know that you are a fan of mine, you need to understand that I was mistaken in my analysis of totalitarianism. I have now learned that postmodern intersectional theory is the Right Way. You must admit your thoughtcrimes and repent!” I then provided the following information: “After praying to the Creator and reciting a territorial land acknowledgement, adding a condemnation of racism to my syllabi, and posting my pronouns on twitter, I have decided on a course of action that I believe is needed to make Mount Royal University (MRU) a more socially just place.”

After this, my satirical reply stated that I could not sign the “Open Letter to Mount Royal University” because “open letters themselves are part of the white supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchal system.” The first such letter, I pointed out, “J’Accuse,” had been written by a “white-cis-het man” in defense of “Eurocentric justice.” Instead, I told people that I had decided to develop an “Oppression Point System” to evaluate all faculty members. We would be awarded one point each for being “white/white passing,” male, “cisgender,” or a full professor, as I now knew that merit was a “tool of the oppressor.” I went on to assert that “those with the most ‘Oppression Points,’ will, once they have realized their tyrannical position of privilege in hyper-capitalism, obviously want to create space for those at the bottom of the manure pile of hate that is MRU.” Those serious about their activism, I noted, would obviously want to resign so that their vacated positions could be filled by BIPOC “voices and perspectives.”

This satirical reply was designed to use humour to expose the hypocrisy of those who had signed the “Open Letter to Mount Royal University.” Most of the public pronouncements being made seemed to be intent on virtue signalling, rather than actually trying to address what was claimed to be the problem—that there weren’t many BIPOC scholars at MRU. As MRU had been plagued by budgetary problems for many years, and few tenure-track positions would be opening up, the “woke” aspirations for increasing BIPOC representation would likely remain unfulfilled. That is, unless the cisgender white males, who had supposedly been hired on the basis of the “oppressive” merit principle, gave up their ill-gotten positions to “make space” for those who were less privileged.

While my satirical reply amused many, it made me a target and initiated a process that eventually resulted in my termination from MRU. In addition to priming a mob that circulated a petition to get me fired, it was also one of the counts in a harassment complaint against me. This was made by Renae Watchman, an indigenous studies professor at MRU, who resented me for critically analyzing the university’s indigenization policy. Watchman’s complaint contained numerous allegations, including the fact that I did not capitalize “I” when using the word indigenous and referred to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity policies as “DIE.” It also was in retaliation for the complaint that I filed against Watchman, who was found to have engaged in “ostracism” by “amplifying calls for the silencing of the Complainant [Widdowson] by threatening her publishers.” The satirical reply was the fourth attachment of the “evidence” of “harassment” in Watchman’s 25-page complaint.

The satirical reply, as well as the rest of the complaint, was investigated by a lawyer from Field Law retained by MRU, and I was subjected to a six hour inquisition on this basis. When the investigator submitted his report, I was found to have harassed Watchman, as well as “contribut[ed] to a toxic workplace environment” at MRU. This was in spite of the fact that I posted the satirical reply on my private Facebook account and did not mention any faculty member by name.

[Related: “Why Mount Royal University Authoritarians Focus on the ‘Impact’ of Speech”]

The investigator’s reasoning was that my satirical response had “degenerat[ed] into ridicule and demeaning of others.” He claimed that I was “effectively ridiculing and demeaning” colleagues who might engage in praying to the Creator, reciting a territorial land acknowledgement, or posting their pronouns on Twitter. He implied that this was particularly disrespectful when it involved “an Indigenous person like Dr. Watchman or other marginalized individual.” These individuals, he claimed,

would take this overall as demeaning and ridiculing them, and not in a jesting fashion but rather in a way that suggests that Dr. Widdowson is hostile to their approach. It is effectively saying ‘Look, I am an ‘ultra-woke’ individual who thinks these things are valuable and good, I am ridiculous and this view/approach does not belong here.’

The investigator opined that I would have known that many of my colleagues “believed in those things and would not want or appreciate such a message with that particular approach.” He went on to say that, while it was fine for me to show how the open letter was a “bad idea,” I should not have

chose[n] to ignore the actual merits and to sarcastically undermine and mock the proponents of a viewpoint. The Policy emphasizes that Dr. Widdowson is required to ‘maintain an environment in which the dignity and worth of all members of the Mount Royal community are respected.’ The noted language would objectively have the opposite effect. It is “intimidating, demeaning … and known to be unwelcome” and designed to publicly and sarcastically “ridicule or humiliate” those who take the opposite viewpoint. Again, I find that all constitutes Personal Harassment under the Policy. It is also generally conduct that is inherently inappropriate for an employee to exhibit toward their work colleagues or others in the university community. It is objectively likely that all of this would lead to impacted coworkers feeling tension and toxicity in the workplace, which Dr. Watchman herself confirmed.

In this analysis, the investigator conflated the directive to respect the “dignity and worth of all members of the Mount Royal community” [emphasis added] with their viewpoints. This is what happens when the corrosive arguments of “woke-ism” permeate all aspects of our society. In “woke-ism”—or what Michael Rectenwald, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay call “reified postmodernism”—identities must be “made real.” If praying to the Creator and reciting territorial land acknowledgements at official university events is perceived to be essential for affirming identities perceived to be oppressed, these ideas cannot be criticized.

It is no accident, therefore, that the investigator directly mentioned Watchman’s indigenous identity and that of any “other marginalized individual” in relationship to the harassment finding. This is how “woke-ism” works. Depending upon where one sits on the intersectional hierarchy of oppression, you have greater or lesser responsibilities in what you say and the tone that is used. As I mentioned in my last article for Minding the Campus, I had notified MRU that I had been “demeaned” and “humiliated” continuously by my work colleagues for several years, but this was never thought to be an issue. My “white privilege” meant that I was not perceived to have ideas whose expression needed to be protected.

My case indicates how sophisticated forms of communication like satire cannot exist in a climate of “woke-ism.” “Woke-ism” demands deference to the dogma of intersectional identity politics, and satire acts to subvert such an authoritarian form of thought control. As ideas that are linked to oppressed identities must be imposed on others so as to “empower” the marginalized by giving them “a voice,” those who question these viewpoints will be pushed out of the academy. The “weapons of woke-ness”—harassment, human rights, and code of conduct policies—will be deployed selectively by university administrators to ensure that only predetermined “correct” positions can be expressed.


Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Frances Widdowson

Frances Widdowson is a former professor of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. She was fired by the university in December 2021 and is a vocal advocate for academic freedom and free speech. You may find more information about her case at www.wokeacademy.info, which is going to arbitration January 16-27, 2023. She is a co-author of "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry" with Albert Howard, editor of "Indigenizing the University" and author of "Separate but Unequal."

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