Gather ‘round, my friends: it is time for another sordid tale about free speech on campus. Sadly, this one seems to be a true story.
The latest horror story centres on Wilfrid Laurier University. Teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd is facing censure from her department because she showed two tutorial groups a year-old video clip of Jordan Peterson debating Nicholas Matte over the use of non-binary gender pronouns on an episode of The Agenda.
Specifically, Shepherd is being sanctioned because she failed to pre-emptively denounce Peterson’s views. According to Shepherd, her professors told her that a student had complained, and that presenting Peterson neutrally was comparable to presenting Adolf Hitler neutrally. Shepherd wasn’t sacked from her TA position, but her superiors are allegedly demanding that she submit all her lesson plans in advance, and allow them audit her classes at will.
The university has been reluctant to comment about anything specifically (I mean, look at how vague their statement was), including what was said to Shepherd. Instead they are convening a task force to look into the situation.
Unfortunately for the Laurier comms division, Shepherd clandestinely recorded her meeting with her supervisors. It is a pretty damning audio clip.
Here is a young graduate student asking her superiors for some explanation for why she is being censured and they will not tell her how many students complained, or even what the complaint was. Instead, they calmly berate her for showing a clip of Jordan Peterson without sufficiently denouncing the man, and inform her that it is akin to an act of violence that is also against the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Again, this is a teaching assistant being brought to heel by the university administration for facilitating a (delicate) discussion in a seminar. Which is her job. It goes without saying that these measures are punitive and definitely out of proportion to the situation in the classroom.
For the record: Jordan Peterson is a transphobic YouTube crank with basically nothing interesting to say about free speech or gender expression, and who very obviously has no idea what any part of the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxist” means. He is a bad political and social thinker, and many of his ideas about gender roles are genuinely dangerous. (Tabatha Southey has already written his intellectual obituary by clocking him as “the stupid person’s idea of a smart person,” which is immediately obvious to anyone who listens to his awful honking voice for more than thirty seconds.)
But the response from the administration is totally off the mark. Obviously there is a clear tension between Shepherd’s approach to pedagogy and that of her academic superiors, but that doesn’t warrant this kind of crackdown on what can or cannot be discussed in the classroom.
It’s worth telling Shepherd to consider maybe issuing a content warning prior to making students listen to a sad-sack middle-aged man get upset that the public existence of non-binary people is an unreasonable infringement of his right to be an arch asshole. The university is, after all, maintained largely by tuition, and the much-maligned “trigger warning” actually is a really good compromise between the demands of a critical education in the humanities and the genuine needs and sensitivities of students on a given day. Say what you will, but it gives sensitive students some leeway while also waiving the instructor’s liability for dealing with potentially triggering material.
Should you choose to pass beyond the content warning, the classroom—especially the seminar setting of most undergrad tutorial sessions—is a sacred place for expressing and debating any and all ideas. That is what it’s for. That is the space in which you wrestle with ambiguity and learn to dissect and reassemble arguments, where you can go as thoroughly into and through an idea to really grasp why it is good or bad, right or wrong, useful or trivial or emancipating or dangerous.
It’s mostly boring, but it can get heated or awkward or horrifying. Students should be given an out from engaging in that if for whatever reason they can’t handle it at a given time. But you have to balk at the prospect of limiting what can or cannot be said in the classroom. It is a bad idea for Laurier to martyr a grad student for her questionable taste in public intellectuals for roughly the same reasons why it is a bad idea to let Jordan Peterson go through with launching a website aimed at getting his ideological rivals doxxed and fired.
Academic freedom cuts both ways. But it is usually the left who loses when intellectual free spaces are foreclosed, precisely because the seminar room is one of the few places on earth where you can express genuinely radical ideas counter to the interests of the people who bankroll, say, right-wing semi-national newspapers or Steve Paikin’s tedious television show.
So, congratulations are in order to officials at Laurier University. You have immolated your institution’s credibility by putting Lindsay Shepherd through the wringer and, thanks to your efforts, now more people than ever will take Jordan Peterson seriously. Bravo to everybody involved. This is the reason people hate academics.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.