When Questions Become Harassment

One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is asking questions to clarify an argument, so as to uncover its underlying assumptions. This is the foundation of the Socratic method. “What is justice?” in Plato’s The Republic comes to mind as one of the most important examples of how continual questioning increases understanding.

Although asking questions is foundational to the university, it is increasingly fraught in today’s woke  environment. Wokeism, or what has been referred to academically as “reified postmodernism,” is an anti-Enlightenment position that rejects objectivity and the search for universal truth. It argues that the subjective identities of oppressed groups must be “made real” so that they can empower themselves and fight for social justice. This means that a question is unwelcome if it challenges an oppressed group’s perception of itself. For example, if a trans activist born with XY chromosomes believes that he is a woman, or if an indigenous person claims to be a “survivor” of genocide because his ancestors were educated by colonizers, then these positions must not be questioned.

I found this out at Mount Royal University (MRU) when I was terminated as a tenured professor in 2021. My position became particularly tenuous after I asked questions about the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, whose dictate that indigenous “ways of knowing” be “respected” and “valued” was imposed upon professors in 2016. Because “indigenization” and “decolonization” were now the official MRU position, a number of faculty members and students became increasingly angry about my “relentless” questions that they labeled “anti-indigenous.” Finally, in December 2021, a question that I asked about “indigenous science” was one of the reasons for my firing.

This particular episode began in September 2019, when I attended a talk by Dr. Gregory Cajete, a professor of Native American studies and education at the University of New Mexico. In this talk, Cajete was discussing indigenous “star knowledge” and its importance for educational institutions. In the presentation, it was not clear whether Cajete was referring to how examining indigenous “star knowledge” would help us to understand an indigenous group’s cosmology, or if he was arguing that this would enhance the astronomy curriculum. A transcription from a recording of the event provides my unedited question:

Thank you very much for your talk. My name’s Frances. We are, at Mount Royal University, currently trying to indigenize the science curriculum. I am just wondering about your thoughts on how this material with respect to astronomy could be incorporated into, for example, astronomy classes or other science classes. I am not quite sure whether this presentation is looking at how indigenous people understood the stars and so on historically, or whether you   think that this can actually contribute to existing science courses, especially things like astronomy courses. Because you are a science teacher yourself, you are probably aware that the discovery of the telescope, especially beginning in the times of Galileo, and the astronomy that occurred there, astronomy has advanced tremendously in the last couple of hundred years, and if you didn’t have a telescope, if these cultures didn’t have a telescope, I am not sure how these stories would be able to contribute to the courses in the actual sciences at Mount Royal. Thank you.

In December 2020, this question became the subject of a harassment complaint against me. An indigenous studies professor who attended the talk alleged that I had “asked Dr. Cajete what Indigenous science was and stated that Indigenous science was not science.” The indigenous studies professor believed that these remarks were “racist and discriminatory” and that my interaction with Dr. Cajete was “very disrespectful.”

When the indigenous studies professor received a transcription of the recording of my question, she asserted that she could not remember “word for word” what I had said. However, she still claimed that the part of my question asking whether indigenous “star knowledge” could help us to improve astronomy courses acted to “[invalidate] the technologies of Indigenous peoples and [denigrate] the work of Dr. Cajete.” She considered this to be “part of a pattern of questioning that [Widdowson] employs in order to invalidate Indigenous knowledge, sciences and technologies.”

[Related: “The Perils of Challenging Trans Activism at Mount Royal University”]

Fortunately, the recording meant that I was not found to have engaged in “harassment” or “discrimination” with respect to this particular allegation. The matter, however, did not end there. At an Arts Faculty Council meeting in March 2021, a colleague asserted that a number of indigenous scholars had left MRU, and he wondered how faculty members could make the university a “safe place” for them. Because one of the indigenous scholars who had left MRU was the person who made the harassment allegation about my indigenous “star knowledge” question, I directed a question to the Dean of Arts as to whether saying that indigenous science was not science made the university “unsafe”:

I’m very concerned about the references to safety and making indigenous, the cluster hire, making indigenous scholars feel “safe” at Mount Royal. As people are aware, I recently had an edited volume that came out on Indigenizing the University: Diverse Perspectives, and in that volume there is a chapter by Massimo Pigliucci who argues that indigenous science, there is no such thing as indigenous science. He puts forth that perspective and I just want to have reassurance that those kinds of arguments, which many find are controversial and so on, that those, that we still can have space at Mount Royal University to have those kinds of discussions without it being perceived as being unsafe. So I was just wondering if you could say some words about that situation.

As a result of these comments, another indigenous studies professor said that he felt “insulted” by them and that they were “laughable.” The following is a transcription of his response:

As a Mayan I felt a little bit insulted by previous speaker who said indigenous people have no science. [Laughing] I am a Mayan for God sakes, a Mayan, and I cannot speak for all of my indigenous colleagues, but I have been teaching indigenous contributions to the world including science, politics, social organizations, medicine, and so it’s quite laughable but that’s what it is. I think that’s what makes our work worthwhile and whoever quote the author that says that there is no such thing as indigenous science – I am sorry for laughing but I’m thinking that I’m a Mayan and I have been teaching this for 25 years and I will continue teaching that. My students just love that when I teach them this stuff so thank you.

As the meeting was held virtually and not in person, these comments led me to post the following two words in the chat: “Insulted? Laughable?” As a result of these two words, six faculty members jumped into the chat, said “yes you insulted,” and enthusiastically thanked the indigenous studies professor for his comments. Then, a faculty member from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology stated that he thought it was “a little bit nonsensical” for me to talk “about some guy’s view on Mayan science or lack thereof” and said that this “nonsense” should not be allowed at the Arts Faculty Council. Due to what I considered to be a number of uncivil and unprofessional outbursts, as well as to my vilification in the chat, I raised a Point of Privilege and declared that “there is a terrible double standard in the Faculty of Arts.” I went on to argue that “I was using an example of something which is completely on point, which is we are not allowed to question whether indigenous science exists or not. That is an academic point and I am tired of people smearing me as a racist and a hatemonger for making academic arguments.”

My involvement in this Arts Faculty Council discussion—asking about the kinds of arguments that made indigenous scholars feel “unsafe”—then formed one of the allegations of another harassment complaint against me. This complaint was made by the indigenous studies professor Renae Watchman (I can mention her name because she spoke publicly about my case and is no longer employed at MRU). Watchman alleged that, in the Arts Faculty Council meeting, I “publicly announced that there is no such thing as Indigenous Science and used the chat to ridicule an Indigenous faculty member.”

During a six-hour inquisition on the basis of a number of Watchman’s allegations, including that I had engaged in harassment at the Arts Faculty Council meeting, I read out the transcription to the investigator, and he found that I was not at fault. According to the investigator, my comments or behavior at the Arts Faculty Council were not inappropriate, and I did not violate any workplace standards. In fact, the investigator pointed out that it was actually other faculty members at the meeting who “seem[ed] to illustrate some unduly disrespectful and dismissive behaviour of others.”

[Related: “When Satire Becomes ‘Harassment’ at Mount Royal University”]

Even though it was obvious that I, not the indigenous studies professor, was the target of academic bullying at this meeting—which an investigator hired by MRU confirmed in his report—MRU listed the incident as one of the “examples” for why I should be fired: “Your conduct at a meeting in the spring of 2021 was so disruptive that it was a significant contributing factor to the development of new procedures at Arts Faculty Council meetings as well as the disabling of the chat function during these meetings.”

This sequence of events shows two things about wokeism in universities. First, differential treatment on the basis of one’s identity is becoming the norm. As wokeism believes that individuals should be placed on an intersectional hierarchy of oppression and that standards should be applied differently depending on whether one is considered to be oppressed or an oppressor, indigenous academics do not have to take any responsibility for their behavior. If one is non-indigenous, on the other hand, and fights back against being attacked, this is just more evidence of “racism” or even “white supremacy.” In my case, questioning an indigenous professor’s comments that my arguments were “insulting” and “laughable” was seen by another indigenous academic as “us[ing] the chat to ridicule an Indigenous faculty member.” This was then backed up by MRU administrators as evidence of my “disruptive” conduct at meetings.

The role played by administrators in supporting bullying by indigenous academics and their “allies” illustrates the second problem: arbitrariness. As I have elaborated upon elsewhere, this feeds into the corporatization of universities. Administrators who use “diversity, inclusion, and equity” policies to manage their employees—“diversity managerialists”—welcome arbitrariness because it enables them to coerce faculty loyalty to their brand. In the case of MRU, the university has spent a number of years promoting its “You Belong Here” slogan. And as members of oppressed groups claim to feel “unsafe” when their identities are challenged, dissidents must be purged to ensure that they find the university environment “welcoming.”

In this environment of differential treatment and arbitrariness, one’s only hope is the court system, which has not yet been completely undermined by intersectional identity politics. Even here, however, one sees problems on the horizon. In Canada, this was evident in the Ward v. Quebec decision, where a “woke dissent” was put forward by four of the nine Supreme Court Justices. This minority position stressed “power imbalances” and failed to distinguish between words and actions when it was argued that a comedian’s tasteless joke amounted to “discrimination” against a disabled person. Although the majority decision did uphold freedom of expression in this case, the appointment of one more woke Supreme Court Justice will ensure that the protection of this fundamental value will not last long.

People who do not think that there is a “free speech crisis” in today’s universities are either not paying attention or are opportunistically benefiting from the status quo. Universities need to value the intellectual autonomy of their faculty and students so that they can learn how to think, and this must be protected by fair and transparent university policies. As is seen in my case, however, wokeism coerces conformity to its own view of “social justice,” which asserts that ideas such as “indigenous science” must not be questioned. Arbitrariness then enables the weapons of wokeness—harassment, human rights, and codes of conduct—to be deployed against those whose questions allegedly “harm” the oppressed.

Image: Adobe Stock

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."

8 thoughts on “When Questions Become Harassment

  1. I want to correct an error in my previous submission: I attributed the comments, of the indigenous studies professor, to Dr Cajete to whom he was referring. In any case Mayans have been extinct since around 900ad.

  2. These comments are not germane to Widdowson’s explanation of the threat of the postmodern woke infection in the contemporary university. Science is the the pursuit of truth, and the method is the evaluation of evidence in support of a hypothesis. There are branches of science, but not “kinds” of science. What is claimed to be indigenous science is actually a collection of myths and superstition – the sort of thing that The Enlightenment overcame, releasing humanity from the backwardness of the Middle Ages. By patronizing aboriginal people through accommodating the reactionary support of tribal culture, native people remain in the dependency of their supporters. The inane presentation of Cajete is an example of the negative effect of this condescending policy toward native people. He clearly has no understanding of science when he claims validity for his premises on the basis of him being Mayan. Let’s welcome aboriginal people into the modern world!

    1. It’s important to remember that Galileo invented the telescope in 1609 — not 2009 — and that he lived in what was still a Midevil society.

      Remember that witchcraft was prosecuted in Danvers (not Salem) Massachusetts in 1692, some 83 years later.

      There was no concept of academic freedom in 1609. There is today…

  3. The same kind of racist identitipolirik was to be found in German universities well before the Nazis accession to power. It didn’t do to be an Aryanphobic Jewlover….

    1. While I am not a student of antisemitism, and while I understand that National Socialism evolved over time, I find it hard to believe the accuracy of your statement.

      There were far to many Jewish scholars for it to be true.

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