THE DEAN’S LETTER

On Monday, May 31, 2021, Matt Letts, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, sent the following missive to all members of the Faculty.

Statement on Residential School News – *trigger warning*

Dear colleagues,

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops residential school in the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in BC has horrified and saddened us all.  As faculty, staff, students and administrators, guests living in Blackfoot Confederacy territory, this atrocity alerts us to our responsibility and commitment to seek an end to all forms of settler colonial violence and ongoing racism and to deliver on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Some of our colleagues and students may need extra support at this difficult time.  I, thus, remind you of our Counselling Services, the Employee and Family Assistance Program and other community resources.  Many of our students and their families have been impacted by the residential school system and continue to be impacted by inequities and injustices.  As always, please also provide accommodation and support to students in need.

On behalf of the Faculty of Arts & Science, I thank you for your efforts toward our commitments and to our students at this time of grieving and reflection.  #indigenouslivesmatter #MMIWG #TRC

Yours truly,

Matt

Matthew G. Letts, Ph.D.

Dean, Faculty of Arts & Science

University of Lethbridge – Iniskim

* * *

I’ve given Dean Letts the opportunity to retract. Silence has been the stern reply. But to be fair, he can’t very well retract, without giving grievous offence to those he wrote this letter to placate in the first place. So he’s put himself in a difficult position, a position he could have avoided by doing a little editing before pressing send. Still, his having declined to reply gives me constructive leave to comment as follows:

Letts might be forgiven for presuming to speak on behalf of “us all”, notwithstanding how implausible it is that anyone with enough education to be teaching at a Canadian university could have been either “horrified” or “saddened” by this particular news. Of the billions of people who’ve walked this Earth, I’d venture to guess the vast majority lie in unmarked graves. Were one to be horrified and saddened every time one of these graves was unearthed, I can’t imagine how she could enjoy a meal or a swim or a joke. Surely a life of such unremitting horror and sadness could not be a life worth living. 

But to be fair, talk of being horrified and saddened is patter, and patter is social lubricant. Not unlike when a priest tells a grieving parishioner that “Your child is now in the loving arms of Mary, mother of God!”, it has no cognitive content, nor is it intended to. As I say, it’s patter. So to call Letts out on his assurance that we’re all “horrified and saddened” would just be churlish. And as my readers know, I am anything but churlish.

No such pass, however, can be afforded the brain-numbing stupidity of referring to us as “guests” on Blackfoot Confederacy territory. A guest is someone who leaves when asked. If he doesn’t – and we won’t –  he’s something else. Imagine telling the relatives of the 253 Palestinians killed during those eleven days – 66 of them children – that we Jews are just occasionally misbehaving “guests”. 

“Uh, yeah, uh, sorry about that. We’re just packing up, but we’ll be gone in the morning.” 

Calling us “guests” is just adding insult to injury. And by presuming to speak for “us all”, Letts is implicating all of us in this stupidity.

But it gets worse. Apparently there’s no need to wait until we find out how these children died, over how many decades, under what circumstances they were buried, how the death rate among the 30% of indigenous children consigned to these schools compared to that of the 70% who remained in their communities, or to the death rate of similarly disadvantaged non-indigenous children at the time. Letts seems to know a priori that the death and burial of these 215 children was an “atrocity”.

Atrocity is a word we reserve for 215 children – or, in the case of Babi Yar, 215 thousand children – being lined up and shot. So to pronounce this as an atrocity is to have laid a charge, held a trial, and issued a verdict with some decanal “special way of knowing”. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. And even better work if, in the wake of such a gnostic pronouncement, you can keep it, as I’m sure Letts will.

Letts’ letter is offensive. But what renders it as risible as it is offensive, is the “trigger warning”. Apparently Letts had no idea the story was covered by pretty much every major news network the world over. Does he really think some of his colleagues are learning of it for the first time from him? 

And of what exactly are we being warned? That there’s something coming that might upset us, such that if we don’t want to be upset, we should stop reading? That if we are going to read on, perhaps we should sit down lest we faint? 

Unlike Letts, I give my students one and only one trigger warning. “A university,” I tell them, “is a place where one is exposed to ideas that might be upsetting. Trigger warning: this is a university.”

This letter serves no purpose whatsoever other than to virtue signal. Everyone who reads it knows this. Some people find it heartwarming, others find it risible, and still others find it cringeworthy. But nobody needs to be told she’ll be too horrified and sad to attend that dinner party tonight. Save Matt Letts, of course, who’ll be asking his hosts whether they’d mind if he stays another century or two.

Each of us, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of himself. But no one, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of “us all”. As my readers know, I’m perfectly capable of making an ass of myself all on my own. I neither need nor appreciate any help from Dean Letts!



Categories: Editorials, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Re: Dean Letts says the remains of residential school children “discovered” (more aptly, uncovered since it was known there were burials somewhere on the grounds) “has horrified and saddened us all”.

    I just read a Macleans article from yesterday, June 3, 2021.

    Tenille Campbell, “What I told my child about the Kamloops graves—to honour the 215
    An Indigenous mother describes the exhaustion of hearing about residential school trauma, and her determination to share those stories with the next generation”‘, June 3, 2021.

    https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-i-told-my-child-about-the-kamloops-graves-to-honour-the-215/

    Campbell, an indigenous mother whose father is a residential school survivor, talks to her daughter about residential schools and the Kamloops burials.

    Campbell’s reaction when she first heard news of the Kamloops graves (by reading an article)? She certainly wasn’t horrified.

    “Last week, when I first heard about the mass burial where 215 children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., I skimmed the article, taking note of who and where, how and when. I sighed deeply, shaking my head, and then read the next story.

    That sounds callous and I hesitate to even mention it, but trauma is not new to Indigenous people, and sometimes it’s hard to endure yet another story. This is our reality.”

    I suspect a lot of people, indigenous or not, reacted, or not, the way Campbell did. Many, as Campbell, who have their own children.

    Campbell neither had nor needed a trigger warning. And, although she was saddened and tired, particularly when she had to talk to her daughter about the multiple graves, she wasn’t “horrified”. Which brings me to,

    … the Dean’s *trigger warning*

    As Campbell notes, “the news was picked up, appearing in hundreds and thousands of social feeds”.

    I suppose the internet should just be bracketed with one big *trigger warning*, as should the news, and hey, when you start your day, bracket it with a *trigger warning*. I give myself a *trigger warning* just before I look in the mirror each morning because I am without fail horrified and saddened by what I see. However, unless one completely unplugs from the world and, cf Voltaire, just tends her little garden, she is going to be exposed to a whole lot of horrible stuff. This is because there is a whole lot of horrible stuff in the world. And this horrible stuff is right there alongside the mostly mundane stuff and the bits of wonderful stuff. And on this note I turn back to Campbell who says,

    “If you are unable[sic] to do so, please educate yourself by reading books by Indigenous authors both about residential school, but also, about Indigenous joy. Understand that yes, residential school happened, and we are still processing the effects of that today, and that we are more than just resilient, we are more that just survivors.

    We are complex, diverse, creative and strong.”

    Indigenous people are not bracketed by a *trigger warning*. Holy shit.

    Now I do take a little exception with Campbell on the following, although I suspect she wouldn’t disagree.

    Being people, indigenous people are as “complex” and “diverse”, as, well, people. Which means “creativity and strength”, in whatever aspect these descriptors are meant, are indexed to the myriad individuals who identify as indigenous in myriad ways. Some will be a little more or less resilient or creative than others in certain ways about certain things. Because indigenous people are people. Human beings. Peers. Adults. Not humans in their nonage who can’t handle adult discussions. (And, if you read the article, even kids can handle adult discussions. Sometimes better than adults can!)

    Okay. I suppose there are some indigenous SJW “snowflakes” who would like to see the words *trigger warning*. But come on.

    A *trigger warning* to lay people, indigenous and non-, and to academics, indigenous and non-, is jejune and condescending.

    Like

  2. Anyone reading this post should also read “Why Jagmeet Singh Will Never Be Prime Minister”,

    https://paulosophicalvimplications.org/2021/06/05/why-jagmeet-signgh-will-never-be-prime-minister/

    Like

  3. Another comment on the Dean’s use of *trigger warning* and trigger warnings in general.

    1) The title “Statement on Residential School News” just is a *trigger warning*. If one is feeling too vulnerable to read such a statement, she has the option and intellect to just not read the statement.

    But if the very mention of the subject is triggering, then where is the *trigger warning* that an upsetting title is about to be displayed? Let’s play this notion out because this move does happen and can be a first step in a bonafide slippery slope.

    Ought one speak in euphemisms about Residential Schools to avoid triggering anyone, or in asterisks, or something to that effect? As in the case of the N-word. Would “those schools” we cannot mention lest we upset someone further discussion on a very topic indigenous and their non-indigenous counterpart advocates work to save from erasure? Isn’t the aim TO *trigger* people?

    How would this kind of treading-lightly help surviving students, particularly in light of the discussions concerning TRC? Does the TRC report have a *trigger warning*? How about the site dedicated to documenting stories from residential school survivors, Legacy of Hope? *trigger warning* just in case the word “survivors” doesn’t give away these stories are not sanguine nostalgic remembrances. So, if you’re a delicate sort or want to avoid more negativity in your life, turn away. Turning away is counter to the project. One way to turn people away is to issue a *trigger warning*.

    And how does one ever go to counselling or attend a support group? *trigger warning* Something said here might upset you, and something you say might upset me. Can you imagine a counsellor walking out of a session? You didn’t warn me THAT was coming! Or requiring that her patient issue a *trigger warning* each time he is about to reveal something painful? Granted, caregiver burnout is an occupational hazard. But so are muggings, accidents, traffic stress, and difficult clients when driving a cab — another public facing job with a high burnout rate.

    A charitable use of a ‘kind of’ trigger warning would be to indicate a change in topic. You’ve been sharing a laugh with a friend and you indicate that the next thing you say is of a serious nature. Else in a fit of laughter you remember to mention a mutual friend is on life support. Or, you’re delivering bad news to a friend and you say, solemnly, Are you sitting down? Or, we have to have a talk. You don’t say *trigger warning* I want to talk to you about your husband’s infidelity.

    Do you see here how *trigger warning* makes a mockery of the topic and also makes the topic a “you problem”?

    2)President Mike Mahon did not bracket his statement with a *trigger warning*. And a public notice about the associated vigil was not bracketed by a *trigger warning*.

    3) Constructive advice for the Dean? “My condolences to those affected” is a nice gesture.

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