I attended the the joint summit of the Board of Governors, the Senate, and the General Faculties Council on January 26 that was entitled “Difficult Conversations”. The Summit incorporated experiential learning into an afternoon of reflection on what to do when equity, human rights, academic freedom and legal responsibilities collide. As we worked through the scenario, I was struck by what an important exercise this was, because these sorts of scenarios are being played out at universities in North America, and will potentially be played out at our own as we adjust to the clear definition between employer and employee provided by improvement of the Post-Secondary Learning Act with the Labour Relations Code. I was buoyed by most of the participants in the Summit being aware of the absolute necessity of protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression, but what became apparent as our involvement in the exercise deepened was that there was a gray zone between freedom of expression, freedom of speech and the right of each person to dignity, respect and personal and emotional safety. We were working in groups, and our group as well as the group that spoke to this particular scenario (we all took turns speaking at different scenario points in the exercise) recognized that some actions taken as freedom of expression were innocuous individually but cumulatively resulted in vilification of a person or persons. Think what occurs when there is insidious persecution of persons defined by a particular religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender; slow, steady negative messaging accompanied by marginalization escalating into all out persecution. What makes this sort of behavior so insidious is that the aggressors often paint themselves as the victims or paint the victim as incompetent so that the victim is compelled to become quiet, small, compliant and less of a target, which encourages bolder, more blatant persecution that ultimately becomes systemic, systematic, and disturbingly acceptable. Resistance by the victim is characterized by the aggressor as the victim “being difficult” or as the victim “bullying” the aggressor, further removing any option of relief for the victim other than to escape by leaving a position, a place, a relationship, or all three. For me as a member of the LGBTQ2 community, I think of the gay men and lesbians in New York being persecuted by the police, the very persons that were hired to protect and serve, with the frustration in the gay community building to the point where there was a cry of “No more” (it would have been a hashtag in these times) leading to the riots at Stonewall, a gay bar that was repeatedly raided by police. This revolt led to the Pride movement, which has swept the world.
Also what came out of the Summit was the importance of having work place or organizational policies on code of conduct, conflict of interest, harassment, and work place violence to ensure that all employees or members of organizations understand not only what is acceptable behavior but are also protected from unacceptable behavior. What was evident during the Summit was that these policies can co-exist with academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech, and in fact strengthen these freedoms by providing a safe place for all to have a voice without fear of humiliation, reprisal or worse. This past week, Wednesday, February 28, was Pink Shirt Day, which brought home to me how important it is to recognize the impact of bullying regardless of where it happens. At the AASUA, we are looking into whether we need these policies as a statutory body under the Post-Secondary Learning Act, and I believe that we should have these sorts of policies in place. These sorts of policies will strengthen us by providing all of our members the opportunity to be heard, and provide us with the credibility we need to advocate these rights effectively for our members.