This past week, a student attending a Sociology class at York University in Toronto requested to be exempt from working with women on a group project. The basis for his request: his religious preferences (which were not made public). At first, the chivalrous man’s plea was rejected, and he worked on the project without further complaint. However, not too long after, the professor of the class was contacted by the school’s administration. They told him that the student should have been granted his request, on the grounds that it “did not have a substantial impact on the rights of other students.”
At this point in the show, I’d like to bring in a great friend of mine. Ladies and gentlemen, the “Dude” himself.
“The request did not have a substantial effect on the rights of other students.” Essentially, York’s Dean of Liberal Arts believes that sexism is totally acceptable, so long as it does not affect the “rights” of anyone other than the prejudiced student. This seems like quite a ridiculous prospect for a University residing in a country which claims to be near the top of the charts in civil rights. But at what point do we draw the line between what affects others and what only affects us?
Not to beat a dead horse here, but this topic seems to correlate directly with the controversial laws being proffered in Quebec today, The Proposed Charter of Values. In case you don’t already know, the Charter seeks to ban the wearing of any religiously symbolic pieces of clothing or jewellery for people who work in the public sector, among other notably constrictive and blatantly racist suggestions. Outside of the Bloc Quebecois (mostly), every federal party has shown disdain for this proposal on the basis of its infringement on religious freedoms.
When we compare the situation at York University to the Charter of Values, it does seem pretty clear which one affects the rights of citizens and which one merely toes the line between offensive and outright illegal. What is most concerning is that people all over the country are so often willing to test these boundaries. The professor of the sociology class, Paul Grayson, rejected the student’s request because he believes it is on par with a student asking to be exempt from working with people of other races, sexual orientations, or religions. Had this student requested, for instance, to be excused from working with people of Asian origin, his request would have been considered completely ridiculous, and likely would have been dismissed, if not outright punished. What exactly makes this circumstance different from the one that occurred? The simple fact is that there truly is no difference; neither request would affect the party in question.
By making its opinion heard, York has simply made it acceptable for such requests to be granted. The situation seemed to have been properly handled by the professor, and only gained fire once the administration claimed that the insistence by the student was perfectly okay.
Ultimately, these circumstances highlight a most important flaw in Human Rights and its many blank areas. At a certain point, people just need to be smarter, and need to hold themselves accountable for their own actions. By granting the student’s requests, we are condoning sexism. By denying his request, we are going against his religion. There are simply no laws which can be written that will satisfy both these needs. But in a University which claims to be secular, it seems as if the class professor’s first decision was the correct one.