First published at Global News on November 21, 2017.
It’s the video clip seen ’round the world.
University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s tens of millions of YouTube views were no match for the social justice police at Wilfrid Laurier University, who censured graduate student Lindsay Shepherd for daring to share a few minutes of public television content with her students. In particular, a TVO debate in which Peterson argues against forced usage of gender neutral pronouns.
Shepherd’s conduct, according to two professors and the school’s acting manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support, created a “toxic climate” and even qualified as an act of gender violence against transgender students.
I always thought “the pen is mightier than the sword” was just an expression, but it turns out at Laurier, words are violence.
We should all be grateful that Shepherd had the forethought to record her kangaroo court tribunal. As a result, gone is the ‘he said/she said’ (or, in keeping with Laurier’s policies, perhaps ‘they said/they said’) phenomenon so common in these cases.
On Tuesday, the school apologized in open letters from Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy and professor Nathan Rambukkana for the content of the “informal” hearing. Rambukkana is Shepherd’s academic advisor, and was in the meeting that Shepherd recorded. He apologized for comparing Peterson to Adolf Hitler, and also committed to supporting a campus review of free speech and discourse.
“Maybe we ought to strive to reach across all of our multiple divisions to find points where we can discuss such issues, air multiple perspectives, and embrace the diversity of thought,” he said. “And maybe I have to get out of an ‘us versus them’ habit of thought to do this myself, and to think of the goal as more than simply advancing social justice, but social betterment and progress as a whole.”
In MacLatchy’s apology, she admitted the recorded conversation “does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires.” Though she also decided to take aim at “the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol.”
She promised a review of what went wrong, but absent from her letter was a specific commitment to ensuring free speech is protected moving forward; she just restated the school’s purported support of free speech — “while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion.” She also didn’t apologize for the assertion that Shepherd had committed gender violence.
I would also have liked an explanation for the claim by Prof. Herbert Pimlott in the meeting that “free speech” is a Nazi idea.
“The Nazis actually used…issues around the free speech idea in the 1920s in Weimar Germany as an issue around which, which is what they’re using now,” he said in the recording. “We know that someone like Richard Spencer is using theories and ideas that don’t have any academic credibility. He’s a public figure. But in terms of, if we introduce someone, we give them greater credibility in a certain condition.”
Nazis like free speech, ergo people who like free speech are Nazis, or something like that. I recall learning about such logical fallacies in high school philosophy, though Pimlott might have missed that day.
Despite Laurier’s place as the subject of national mockery and condemnation, such campus censorship and resistance to free speech aren’t new challenges. In fact, just a few months ago I wrote about the 30th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book that singled out this trend back in the 1980s.
In many respects, I thought the battle for free speech and open debate on campuses had already been lost, but this case at Laurier has ignited a national dialogue that I hope can be a constructive one. Both liberals and conservatives seem to recognize the school’s conduct was indefensible.
So often, free speech advocates — a category in which I include myself — are forced to walk a tightrope by defending an objectionable person’s right to speech while condemning the views expressed. This nuance is lost on many people, who tend to view support of one’s right to speak as an endorsement of controversial and inflammatory words and ideas.
In a way, Shepherd is the perfect victim for this cause. She isn’t even a believer in the allegedly transphobic ideas she was blamed for sharing. Moreover, her supposed crime involved a clip from public television. No offense to Steve Paikin, but his show is hardly the stuff of revolutions.
Shepherd was accused during her hearing of being some secret agent of Peterson’s ideas, but her motivation was simply to lay out both sides of a contentious debate in Canada on free speech, gender fluidity, and the intersection of grammar and social causes.
We’re not talking about a few Marxists in a school’s sociology department or a student council’s bizarre proclamation on some social issue — these professors have power and the backing of an administration.
This is how echo chambers are created. The reason we have such a polarized culture today is because of how many individuals and institutions have placed themselves in ideological vacuums. The only way to break this is through discourse.
True debate isn’t about legitimizing dangerous ideas, but challenging all ideas to expose which ones are flawed and which ones hold up.
Debate shows the blind spots and high points of ideas, which compels people to reassess or reinforce their own beliefs.
By the time a student graduates, they will have only been exposed to the views deemed correct by those setting these rules. That isn’t education — it’s indoctrination.
Is open debate important for education, or is it not? If these institutions choose to embrace the latter, it’s time to hang up the mortarboards for good.