The Kafkaesque “Trial” Of Professor Frances Widdowson
From the surreal to the ridiculous
By James Pew
Kafka’s novel offers striking parallels to the case of former Mount Royal University professor Frances Widdowson, who was fired from her tenured position last December, and whose arbitration contesting the specious grounds for her firing will be heard in January.
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As was the case with Kafka’s Josef K, the sustained and coordinated attack against Professor Widdowson by a small group of activists at MRU involved layers of bureaucratic complexity. However its purpose was straightforward - to cancel her.
In Kafka’s works, characters are manipulated and put through senseless ordeals by incomprehensibly maniacal authorities. Similarly, in academic environments today, an individual can be rendered powerless to defend herself against an onslaught of institutional opprobrium occurring spontaneously in reaction to some “offense,” even though often the alleged offense has long been common practice, such as asking questions and challenging assertions in an academic setting.
That Professor Widdowson’s defiance of academic activism served to enrage her detractors is quite clear from the termination letter written by MRU President Tim Rahilly, which appears to offer no justification for even suspending her, let alone firing her. And even though Professor Widdowson promotes an inspiring conception of what an open academic environment should be, it is not what the social justice agitators at MRU prefer, so with true Kafkaesque absurdity they distorted her vision of heterodoxy and academic freedom into that of a toxic workspace.
What led to the targeting and ultimate termination of Professor Widdowson was her questioning of the claims of indigenous activists, trans activists, and Black Lives Matter activists, and her subsequent refusal to apologize for it, alongside her unfaltering assertion that challenging activists is not only normal at a university but necessary. This in essence, made her guilty of thought treason, and an irresistible target of the small Social Justice faction at MRU.
A sort of perpetual Kafka trap exists under the framework of activist oriented social justice at Canadian Universities, one that seems designed to ensnare academics like Professor Widdowson. Transphobia, racism, and in Canada, anti-indigenous bigotry constitute the most common basis for a Kafka trap: if you deny that society is rampant and riddled with expressions of hate against these groups, that is evidence of your own antipathy towards them. It was Professor Widdowson’s satirical tweets, related to these third rail issues, that the MRU activists complained about. However, a careful reading of Professor Widdowson’s social media posts establishes that she is not at all a bigot. An intolerant mob at MRU had been actively organizing to stir up trouble for her, so a satirical response over social media was as mild as one could expect considering the circumstances.
Professor Widdowson had been a target for several years when she made the choice to push back with satire, but in the end the rationale for terminating her employment was grounded in benign satirical posts published to her private social media accounts - satirical posts which were deceptively and disingenuously construed as harassment and in one case even discrimination against her colleagues.
In that case, journalist Jonathan Kay had tweeted sardonically about the facilitator for an upcoming white supremacy workshop at MRU, a self-proclaimed “they/them” who gave pronoun workshops. This prompted a satirical response, which included a cartoon on “misgendering fatigue”, from Professor Widdowson’s online alter ego, Frances McGrath:
“I don't know why @DrTony33280677's upset with @JonKay for INSISTING on the gender identity of an MRU colleague. This colleague has hinted that they are suffering from MISGENDERING FATIGUE. Kay's tweet is just amplifying a silenced TGBQ2SLMNOP voice! #LetTheSubalternSpeak” - Frances McGrath
Professor Widdowson’s tweet clearly does not constitute harassment or discrimination. However its use of satire does undermine the activists - who didn’t find anything funny about it. It is always a challenge to question the validity of Social Justice doctrine, and in this case it appears that the use of humor was not tolerated.
Another example of a tweet by Professor Widdowson’s alter ego, Frances McGrath, was deemed harassment and guilty of creating a toxic workplace environment:
[clap clap clap] @MRUantiracism Only by promoting scholarship that is NOT evidence-based can we be truly antiracist #MRU After all, as some of our selfless&brave faculty association representatives tell us, demanding evidence is evidence of WHITE SUPREMACY!
Should we not fear an authoritarian collectivism that is unable to find any reason for reflection or even humor in Professor Widdowson's tweets?
Yet another example:
[clap clap clap] @MRUantiracism! Canada is obvs even MORE of a genocidal state than Nazi Germany (the facists only systemically killed millions; they did not assimilate with literacy). Profs questioning this should be fired, as they are harassers & holocaust deniers! Viva Indigenization!
That this parody of the activist position which points out that Canada’s alleged genocide was to assimilate indigenous people by educating them does not induce revision, reconsideration or reassessment of the activist position is an indication that perhaps surreal Kafkaesque confusion is in fact the goal.
At one point in the ordeal, an indigenous studies professor was trying to mobilize an anonymous student-led initiative to have Professor Widdowson fired. Professor Widdowson responded with a satirical tweet and tagged the indigenous studies professor. In another instance of pushback, where pointing out the hypocrisy within the internal politics at MRU appears to have been the intention, Professor Widdowson posted satirically to Facebook a proposed “oppression point system” to evaluate MRU faculty members:
“As I now know that ‘merit’ is a tool of the oppressor, intent on maintaining systemic racism (not to mention transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny), I will be proposing an ‘Oppression Point System’ that we can use to evaluate all faculty in the future. Those with the most ‘Oppression Points’, will, once they have realized their tyrannical position of privilege in hyper-capitalism, obviously want to create space for those at the bottom of the manure pile of hate that is MRU.”
For these digressions, MRU’s crack investigator concluded that Frances’ social media witticisms were “creating a toxic workplace environment and damaging the university's reputation,” and that she had violated harassment policy in doing this. According to MRU, it is not harassment to agitate for a student-led mobbing, but if you are the target, it is harassment to joke about it while tagging the agitator.
In an email exchange, Professor Widdowson explained that the upcoming arbitration of her case is really only about these social media posts, since “All other allegations were made up after the fact to buttress flimsy allegations. These other examples cannot be the subject of the arbitration because they were not investigated by MRU (a requirement of the Collective Agreement).”
In a Star Chamber inquisitions at MRU - typical of professor Widdowson’s ordeal - procedural minutiae was parlayed into the broader allegation that Professor Widdowson’s colleagues were refusing to work with her. After running through various concerns related to the investigation that had found Professor Widdowson’s private tweets to be workplace harassment and/or discrimination, the MRU Provost stated that she was “mindful that as we’ve gone through this it is increasingly surfacing that colleagues are now starting to refuse to work with you Frances because of all the interactions that have taken place.” The Provost then asked Professor Widdowson whether she had any additional information to share before the meeting began.
By this point in her Kafkaesque ordeal Professor Widdowson had written letters to the university administration for four years warning them that her work environment was being poisoned. MRU had done nothing to address her concerns, and she had learned that one of her complaints had shockingly been deemed frivolous, vexatious and not in good faith. She thus asked for clarification of the Provost’s request that she share additional information. Here are key aspects of the dialogue which ensued:
Professor Widdowson: Well I have tons of information but I have been subjected to allegations of frivolousness and vexatiousness now so you can imagine that I’m somewhat cautious as to what it is that Mount Royal would like from me… As well…You mentioned …that colleagues are refusing to work with me. Could you please substantiate that claim.
Provost: Well I have it on authority from your Dean that there have been requests not to participate in committee meetings. I don’t have the specific details of that in front of me but I do know that those requests have been made.
Professor Widdowson: Because no one has alerted me to any of these circumstances and I’m not on any committees right now so I don’t know what, how could that possibly could be that people are not working with me, or refuse to work with me.
Provost: So as I’ve said, I don’t have any of those details in front of me but it has been shared with me that that has come forward in potentially in consideration that you may be on some of the committees. I don’t know, as I’ve said I don’t have the details with me.
Professor Widdowson: But I want to put it forward right now that that is an unsubstantiated allegation and it appears that it cannot be true.
Provost: I can’t speak to that. That’s obviously your perception of the situation.
Subjective perception, lived experience; not hard facts or objective truth. MRU determined that six out of seventeen of Professor Widdowson’s colleagues had engaged in harassment against her - an indication of academic mobbing. Despite not finding anything substantive in eleven of the complaints, the fact that MRU did substantiate six of them (35%) should never have led MRU to the conclusion that Professor Widdowson had complained vexatiously or frivolously. She had six colleagues actively harassing her, including agitating the student body against her. Can the reader empathize with what that does to a person? Can we not relate to the fact that a person in the throes of harassment by six colleagues might feel that others were also out to get her? Most normal human beings would experience some measure of psychological trauma from being simultaneously harassed by six co-workers. But ungenerously, no olive branch was extended to Professor Widdowson by MRU.
Kafka, for very different reasons, felt himself under constant attack. His father was a cruel and abusive authoritarian who would not permit Kafka to be his own man, including not allowing him to pursue writing. Instead, his short life was spent languishing as a functionary in a bureaucratic setting, with his writing done in spare time, most of it unfinished and unpublished at the time of his death.
In a letter to his father (never delivered), Kafka explains how he was unable to confront his fathers authority because of his fear of it. Instead he chose to write of his fathers cruel demoralizing treatment:
“At a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, not a word of contradiction. And the raised hand that accompanied it has been with me ever since.”
Kafka’s fictional characters often include the letter “K” in some way. His characters are him, and the authorities they are up against, while often expressed as bloated bureaucracy, have their sinister origins in the domineering control his father exercised over his life. In Kafka’s reality, the freedom to be true to himself was prevented by the authority of his father. In the Trial, K. is prevented from knowing the truth of his circumstances by the authority of the court. And in Professor Widdowson’s case the objective truth prioritized by many heterodox academics who advocate for academic freedom, is being prevented by an authority established by a small faction of activist-academics and administrators at MRU. In all cases the legitimacy of these authorities is questionable, while the power they exercise over their opponents, and the damage they inflict, is devastating.
The truth is that no matter what Professor Widdowson did to defend herself - or even if she had done nothing, but merely suffered in silence - her action or inaction would have been twisted and used against her. There is no requirement that a Kafkaesque inquisition make sense; on the contrary, confusion resulting from the absurdity and twisting of events, facts and intentions is exactly what makes it effective. The fact that inquisitions of this type are not actually expected to make sense perhaps explains why MRU’s over-confident justifications for Professor Widdowson’s firing were so disingenuously concocted from innocuous satirical tweets and Facebook posts, and then conflated into harassment and the toxifying of workspaces.
In The Trial, K. is arrested for reasons no one can explain. He is up against a soulless totalitarian regime. Everything is disorganized, and reeks of bureaucratic incompetence. There is a surrealness that bombards and penetrates his psyche, gaslighting him to doubt the very fabric of reality. Professors at Canadian universities are being pushed into similar situations, causing them to second-guess what they have always known to be true.
In chapter two “First Cross-Examination,” K., not yet realizing the procedural labyrinth he is being pushed into says - “But because I'm told that I have been arrested - and I am under arrest - it forces me to take some action, and to do so for my own sake.” On the stand at a bizarre make-shift court K. directs his frustrations at the judge. He describes the danger of a situation where those in power are free to persecute others, without the requirement of logical justifications, or even coherent explanations as to why. Proceedings are pushed forward according to unseen forces, fairness is subordinated by the complexity of the procedure, and justice reduced to a shallow buzzword used to hide the emergence of mob rule - evoking images of the illiberal machinations of activists at MRU (a university presently taken with the subjectivism found in the activists preferred postmodern methods of knowledge production). K., addressing the judge and the crowded court, proclaims:
“...And what is the purpose of this enormous organization? Its purpose is to arrest innocent people and wage pointless prosecutions against them which, as in my case, lead to no result. How are we to avoid those in office becoming deeply corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning? That is impossible, not even the highest judge would be able to achieve that for himself. That is why policemen try to steal the clothes off the back of those they arrest, that is why supervisors break into the homes of people they do not know, that is why innocent people are humiliated in front of crowds rather than being given a proper trial.”
Kafka portrayed K. as stubborn in his defiant refusal to accept the injustice of his circumstances. Professor Widdowson similarly defies the onslaught and the odds against her, refusing to be confounded into submission or manipulated into second-guessing her values, beliefs, and the academic processes of heterodox inquiry. And so she shouldn’t.
Let’s hope that things turn out more favorably for Professor Widdowson, a warrior who refuses to be fooled or bullied, than they did for K., a fighter who was unable to understand the bureaucratic processes used against him that ultimately destroyed him.
Please consider supporting Frances Widdowson’s crowd funding campaign to help raise money for her defense.
Thanks for reading. For more information about Frances Widdowson and her case, checkout Reaping Postmodernism’s Violent Whirlwind . And if you haven’t already, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to support independent Canadian truth-seeking.
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