Wilfred Laurier University is a public university in Waterloo, Ontario, and has just become the target of international opprobrium after its persecution of a graduate teaching assistant became public this week. The teaching assistant, 22 year old Lindsay Shepherd, is now one of my heroes for standing up for the principles of free speech and pushing back against the bullying of her professors and the University who want Suppressed Speech. Here she is:
What happened? Well, as reported by several sources, including the Globe and Mail, Shepherd, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in cultural analysis and social theory, was teaching a tutorial on language to first year students when the subject of personal pronouns arose. As you may have heard, this year Canada passed a federal law that added “gender identity and gender expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act (“Bill C-16″). It’s not completely clear whether this law criminalizes those who refuse to use a person’s chosen pronoun—”him”, “her”, “zir”, “it”, “they”, and so on—but the paper reports that this seems likely, at least in one province:
The Ontario Human Rights Commission states clearly on its website that refusing to refer to a person by their preferred name and pronoun “will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social area covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services like education.”
I think it’s a matter of civility to use whatever pronoun a student wants. But should one be forced to do that? Isn’t that a violation of freedom of speech? Well, repeated refusal to use a preferred pronoun seems to me to be harassment, and that shouldn’t be tolerated. Others may differ, and at any rate this matter is not an open and shut case.
The most famous opponent of the forced use of preferred pronouns is Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. As I’ve said before, he’s all over the Internet, but I haven’t had time to examine his views carefully; and what I have seen suggests that he’s both very smart and somewhat unhinged. Be that as it may, he engaged in a debate about pronoun usage and transgender people on Steve Paikin’s “The Agenda” show last October. Here’s the 54-minute video in which Peterson debates other people, including another professor from UT, Nicholas Matte from the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. You needn’t watch the whole show (I did soon after it aired), but if you have time I’d recommend it:
Shepherd apparently showed her students a three-minute clip from this show, featuring Peterson vs. Matte, to demonstrate the controversy about pronoun use. She herself claims that she’s on Matte’s side, but wanted to inspire discussion in her class. That seems fair enough.
But several students (who, of course, remained anonymous) complained to the University, and Shepherd was called in for a private shaming and criticism session by faculty and University officials. Fortunately, she was savvy enough to record the whole 43-minute interrogation on her computer rather than taking notes. You can find the full recording and some of the transcript at The National Post, but below is a 10-minute excerpt that gives an idea of what was going on. Shepherd’s interrogators/shamers were her own supervisor, professor Nathan Rambukkana; another professor, Herbert Pimlott; and Adria Joel, Laurer University’s manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support. Do listen to this ten minutes. Here’s a brief summary from the G&M:
During the interrogation, Ms. Shepherd is told repeatedly that she is guilty of spreading transphobia – in violation of the university’s policy and also, most likely, of Ontario’s human-rights code. At one point her supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, compares her actions to endorsing white supremacy. “This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler,” he tells her.
What did Ms. Shepherd do? She played a three-minute video clip from a TV program that had been broadcast on TVO. It featured a debate over transgender pronouns. The role of Hitler was played by Jordan Peterson, the notorious University of Toronto professor who has thrown the entire academic world into conniption fits with his alleged hate thoughts. Among other things, Prof. Peterson argues that Ontario’s human-rights code could compel people to use non-gendered artificial pronouns – a position that Ms. Shepherd’s superiors at WLU evidently share. [JAC: Shepherd apparently agrees with them, too!]
Ms. Shepherd attempted to explain that she doesn’t even agree with Prof. Peterson. She simply used the clip to help frame a class discussion – an explanation that her interrogators ignored. When she asked which students had complained and how many, she was told that information was confidential. When she pointed out that the pronoun controversy has already been widely aired in public, she was told that some ideas are too “problematic” to be introduced into the classroom. When she voiced her opinion that universities should be places for debate, she was told that she’s created a toxic environment for students. When she said she had remained neutral and not tried to impose her own views, her supervisor, Prof. Rambukkana, told her, “That’s kind of part of the problem.”
You can hear this below.What a bunch of sanctimonious twits and bullies those three interrogators are! I’m so proud of Shepherd for standing up for herself in the face of these head-thumpers, even though she was brought to tears several times.
Here are the two professors who went after her:
Now had Shepherd not recorded this session, and then decided to release it to the news, she undoubtedly would have been sanctioned, or even removed from teaching that class. But her interrogation was so nasty, so insensitive, so oblivious to the purposes of free discussion in a college education, that its release proved completely embarrassing for the university. There was a public uproar, and President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy was forced to issue a public apology to Shepherd. Fine, but the apology was hedged, for it includes this (my emphasis):
Through the media, we have now had the opportunity to hear the full recording of the meeting that took place at Wilfrid Laurier University.
After listening to this recording, an apology is in order. The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd. I will convey my apology to her directly. Professor Rambukkana has also chosen to apologize to Lindsay Shepherd about the way the meeting was conducted.
I remain troubled by the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol. Supports are in place at the university to support them through this situation.
She’s troubled not just by how Shepherd was treated, but by the way “the faculty, staff, and students involved in this situation” were “targeted with extreme vitriol”. Well, they should have been! So long as they were criticized for their sniveling cowardice and snowflake-ness, as well for bullying Shepherd, and not threatened personally, vitriol is the appropriate response. What MacLatchy is trying to do is apologize to everybody so she doesn’t have to take a stand. Her cowardice is also reflected in what she’s doing to “fix” the situation:
The university has engaged an independent party to assess the facts of the matter including a review of related processes going forward. The review is intended to support improvement in our processes. The university is committed to ensuring that the vitally important role of Teaching Assistant supports an enriched learning environment for all students.
Let me be clear by stating that Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Yeah, right! They surely weren’t espousing those principles in the meeting with Shepherd. MacLatchy has also convened a “task force” to “delve into these issues.” Seriously? Why can’t she just adopt the University of Chicago’s free speech principles and be done with it?
Professor Rambukkana has also issued an apology to Shepherd, and it’s more or less the craven, insincere document you’d expect. All of a sudden he’s backed off hectoring of his own student and has completely rethought his principles—in only a few days. What really happened is that he’s simply embarrassed at being the butt of public anger.
I suppose all this has ended well, though I’m not keen on President MacLatchy’s blanket apology to everyone. What we see here, though, is what happens all the time in American and Canadian universities; we simply don’t know about it because it isn’t recorded. This is what happens in Title IX inquiries, where accusations and accusers remain anonymous and those accused aren’t allowed to confront the accusers or even have a lawyer. While the U.S. is succumbing to a lunatic, right-wing President, our universities are succumbing to a Regressive Leftism that gives lip service to free speech but suppresses it when such speech becomes ideologically inconvenient.
I’ll give the last word to Ms. Shepherd, and I wish her well. We have here a brave young woman who stands up for her principles under enormous pressure, and I hope she achieves great things. She seems to know more about what education is about than either of the bullying professors or the University President herself.
Moral of the story: A university must be repeatedly publicly shamed, internationally, in order to apologize (oh, but keep the task force & investigation). Even then, ambiguous about free speech. Also, make sure to secretly record all meetings or they won't take you seriously.
— Lindsay Shepherd (@NewWorldHominin) November 21, 2017
h/t: Merilee, Diana