Canada watched, torn between the comedy and the horror of good intentions turned to viciousness at Wilfrid Laurier University last month.
Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old M.A. student was at teaching assistant for an undergraduate Communications class. She prepared a seminar on the politics of gendered language/pronoun usage/binary concepts. In what appears to be an act of unexceptional diligence, she showed 3 minutes of a “debate” that had recently aired on public television (TVO). I’m not sure which 3 minutes Shepherd showed, but the full 9-minute clip looks like this.
In the clip we see (in)famous psychology professor Jordan Peterson squeeze in a few words about his views on gendered pronouns. Taking the offensive is Nicholas Matte, from the University of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity studies. There isn’t much of a debate here. But perhaps there is enough material to stimulate some interesting discussion. What are the issues? Where are the divisions?
Apparently, a student in the class took exception to the clip, complaining that giving Peterson air time is tantamount to giving legitimacy to his position.
So far, so what? Another boring day of right vs left, conservative vs reformer, freedom of speech vs security of psyche. But of course, things are never so simple. Shepherd was called into a meeting with her supervisor, the program chair, the manager of the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Office. Not a very psychologically safe place, if you ask me. The power is entirely on the side of the university, and it’s 3-against-1. Further, the three have tenure, and Shepherd is a 22-year-old graduate student with very little infrastructure to support her.
Predictably, Shepherd was told that she should not have shown the clip and—believe it or not—was told that playing Peterson’s views was little different from giving a platform to Nazism.
Fortunately, Shepherd was wise enough to audiotape the entire ordeal. To her credit, she went to the press with her story, but said that she did not wish to release the recording unless it became absolutely necessary. Of course it became necessary.
So what is all this doing on a blog about publicly-funded K-12 education? First, any high school teacher could play that panel discussion with impunity, at least in my jurisdiction. Nobody has any doubt that 15-18 year olds can separate the signal from the noise, sort through the issues and makes some sense of what’s going on. It is patently absurd for a university to assume that undergraduates cannot do the same. And if they can’t, shame on the university and the high schools that feed it.
Second, it’s crucial that we remember why the post-Enlightenment world values freedom of speech so highly. There are many well-known arguments, but let me just focus on two ideas.
- Human beings are fallible. We struggle with the contingencies of our experiences, with the historical realities of ourselves, our cultures and our institutions. There are damned few things about which we are so certain that there is no point in hearing alternatives. This is not to say that a reasonable person should treat all alternatives as equally worthy of our time. But it is to say that we should be humble and recognize that the potentates of old were simply wrong to silence the other.
- People need to have the right to learn. I do not have all the same values, beliefs and knowledge that I had 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. I have changed. And I have changed for many reasons. I understand some things more deeply now than in the past. I have new information, new theories, new means of analysis. I have new experiences. The world has changed around me, and I have had to negotiate my way through this change. And this is true of everyone. The deep questions is: how can I learn if I am held to pre-ordained “truths” that I cannot question? Whatever I believe about gender expression today, it certainly is not what I believed in 1980, and it is highly unlikely to be what I believe in 2030. Why should a single point along this journey—say, 2017—be privileged above every other point of change? Why would we say, “this year, we have the TRUTH so you can stop thinking now”? To even suggest such a thing is to deny a person the right to learn.
As a teacher I must protect each student’s right to learn. Whatever they believe today, it must be open to reflection, to challenge, to reform. As a teacher, it is my obligation to question, to encourage the student to recognize both the justifications but also the implications of each belief. And perhaps most important of all, to recognize that intelligent, sincere people can disagree with us. The only way forward is through openness, not through bludgeoning our beliefs into others.
Wilfrid Laurier University’s motto is Veritas Omnia Vincit: Truth Conquers All. The irony is still hot.
Dr. Nathan Rambukkana, the supervisor who initiated the meeting (and who made the absolutely absurd comparison to Nazism) has issued a lukewarm apology in the form of an open letter. He does himself no credit.
The President of Wilfrid Laurier has also apologized.
The university has shamed itself. A young woman’s career has been put in jeopardy. It’s a truly pathetic tale.
If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.–Noam Chomsky
Let’s give Lindsay Shepherd the final word.