Saturday, September 30, 2017

Professor's racist remarks not the fault of college or English language

An inexcusable faux pas by a retired emeritus history professor at a professional lunch engagement recently has Massey College and the University of Toronto (with which the college is loosely "affiliated") panicking and falling over themselves to make reparations, lest they be saddled with the current institutional bĂȘte noir, namely being labelled as racist.
Dr. Michael Marrus, a Senior Fellow at Massey College, had the poor taste to make what he probably thought of as a jolly witticism, when he made a play on the formal title of "Master" used by the college (and several other ancient institutions like Oxford and Cambridge) to refer to its head. Remarking to a black junior fellow of the college, Marrus quipped: "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?"
One can imagine the sharp intake of breath at the sheer tastelessness and tone-deafness of such a comment in this day and age. It was of course totally inappropriate and deeply offensive, and deserving of any and all of the lambasting it has since received from both the attending students and many other commentators. However, instead of just severing all ties with this dinosaur of a professor emeritus, the college has responded with a public apology on his behalf, and with a promise to look into anti-racist training for faculty members.
Fair enough as far as it goes, although a more proactive response would have been to fire the guy forthwith, which it is apparently not doing. What the college is also considering, though, is another of the students' demands: the replacement of the title of Master. This seems like a ridiculous misdirection of concern to me. The title of Master has been used to mean a master of one's craft or art or subject for many centuries. It clearly has no connection with the concept of a master of a slave unless specifically evoked, as Dr. Marrus did here, and there is normally no element of confusion in the use of the term.
So, yes, please do chastise the professor for being an ignorant SOB, but don't blame the college or the university with which it may be affiliated (no-one really believes that the comment in this context reflects the views and policies of these institutions of higher learning). And, in particular, don't blame the English language for its complexities and ambiguities.
Political correctness is all well and good, but not if it is misapplied, or used to tar the wider community with a brush that would be more correctly applied to one misguided individual, or to make a whipping boy of the wrong person or institution entirely. (Yes, go ahead, call me out on those phrases.)

Dr. Marrus tendered his resignation a few days later, although he still seemed somewhat bemused by all the attention and the negative reaction to his comments, which, if nothing else, demonstrates just how out of touch he really is.

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