Common sense isn’t homogeneous

The media mislabelled the York student’s case out of fear of the unknown


When I was interviewing candidates for the position of online editor, one of them, a hijab-wearing woman, declined my handshake and explained that she couldn’t because of her religious restrictions. This happened again when I was going around from table to table during Clubs Week, asking people to notify us of their events so we could cover them: one of the executives, also wearing a hijab, declined to shake my hand. (This time I didn’t have a look of confusion, so no explanation came.)

Now, for me, there was no offence whatsoever. To clarify two things: One, I’m not of the same religious persuasion; I’m an Anabaptist Christian, and nothing I believe coincides exactly with this kind of restriction. But I do understand the shared and widespread concept of limited intimacy between genders except in appropriate relationships. Two, I grant that mainline Islam may not include a justification for a restriction of this degree, as some columnists have argued is relevant. Despite these two facts, I don’t question the sincerity or the legitimacy of these women’s religious convictions.

But let’s compare this case to what happened at York recently.  To summarize: a male student was taking an online course there, and the students had to work in in-person groups for an assignment. He asked to be excused from working with a group of females, citing his religion, which a column in the Star last week implied was either Islam or Judaism. The student’s professor denied his request at first, but then the York administration overturned his decision and allowed the accommodation. Now the media is up in arms over it, as are Facebook comments and even an article in the Varsity last week.

The main complaint raised against this case is that equality has been breached by allowing the accommodation. The critics argue that the male student’s refusal to work with female students constitutes discrimination, a treatment of women as unequal with men.

But this assessment reflects only a jumpiness that balks at anything that seems like gender-based treatment. In fact, I think it’s a red herring. Avoiding intimacy—even to a considered extreme in our Western culture—is not the same as discriminating; it’s likely just an extension of the principle of restricted intimacy. That is, to give the student the benefit of the doubt, his request wasn’t necessarily because they’re women; if it was in line with the handshake refusals, it would be because they were of opposite genders. According to the tenet in question, they should have had the same qualms about working closely with him. Neither gender would receive special treatment. To take it so is willful naivety. In my mind, sexism is no more in question here than it was when these women declined to shake my hand because I was a man. (Some readers will conclude that I’m just anti-feminist; they would be wrong.)

The other factor in question is the limits to accommodation. As a columnist for the Star wrote, there are good reasons for religious accommodation, within reasonable limits. Agreed. So what’s beyond the pale here? Where’s the necessity of forcing this particular student to mix genders? (Was it somehow essential to the assignment?) Is it a fear of the slippery slope that motivates the suggestion that the male student should be forced to act against his conscience? What was at stake? Only the discomfort of those who misread the situation.

You’ll also find a features article a few pages further along in this issue on the subject of religion on campus (a coincidence, actually—it was pitched months ago). We seem to be pretty inclusive at UTM. We have several faith-based clubs, we have facilities for religious observances, and now and then we have faith awareness events in public spaces. None of means opposing viewpoints can’t also exist on the same campus. And thank goodness. That’s one reason why I disagree with the columnist quoted in the features article; the fundamental role of a university is not to squash ideas that a few deem useless, but to furnish us with tools for discussion. As long as we propose to limit the freedoms—the reasonable freedoms, anyway—of a person, we act against that mandate.

I want to reiterate that I’m not defending the York accommodation because I agree with the student’s religious convictions. My personal opinion is there’s no risk of overstepping the borders of intimacy in a classroom collaboration, or even in a handshake. But I can respect the other view, especially when the only infringement is on my convenience and comfort zone. To refuse to do that is simply xenophobic.

The columnist for the Star accused York of failing the test of “common sense” in accommodating the student; this could only refer to the sense considered common in Western culture.