Too Damn Safe (Hunting Heretics #2)

Which brings me to Lindsay Shepherd.

As you may have already heard, Shepherd is a teaching assistant in Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University who got into a bit of trouble last month. She gave a tutorial class in communications about grammar and hoped to show that even a subject so musty can be deliciously contentious - therein her cardinal offense.

She played her students a 4-minute clip from a televised debate about gendered pronouns, thinking it would make for a fructuous and exciting class. Instead, she was summoned, her job implicitly on the line, to an “informal meeting” to discuss how playing the video had created an “unsafe,” “toxic” learning environment. In addition to two professors, the meeting was to be attended by a “diversity and equity official,” Adria Joel, who supervises the school’s Gendered Violence Prevention and Support unit. It was the presence of the latter that made Shepherd leery of the upcoming farce (was she being accused of “gendered violence”?) and motivated her to record it.

“You have to think about the kind of teaching climate that you’re creating,” said Shepherd’s supervising professor Nathan Rambukkana. One word he used to describe that climate was: “Threatening.” Even putting aside the question of how a discussion about pronouns can come across as threatening, the word should bring a catch to your throat. Throughout the 40-minute meeting, Shepherd wasn’t read the actual complaints, nor told how many had in fact been filed. She was told that by playing the video she may have violated federal and provincial law. And she was denied any kind of assurance about the future of her employment.

No, we certainly wouldn’t want to create a threatening climate.

“I don’t see how someone would rationally think it was threatening,” confessed Shepherd in the meeting. “I could see how it might challenge some of their existing ideas, but to me that’s the spirit of the university.” How quaint! In a sweetly venomous tone, it was then explained to Shepherd (can diversity boards be accused of mansplaining, or is it a one-way street?) that merely by discussing gender pronouns she had in effect doubted “whether or not a trans student should have rights.”

The problem with Shepherd’s playing the video went beyond the What and into the Who. The person in the video arguing against linguistic innovations like “Zie” or the singular “They” was (of course) Jordan Peterson. A professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson has made infamy for himself by publicly impugning a recent piece of Canadian legislation meant to protect “gender identity and expression”, but which Peterson believes threatens (there’s that word again) free speech. Peterson worries that the law, C-16, gives government the power to stifle discussions around sexuality and gender-identity, no matter how detached and scientific, so long as someone finds them distressing. For this, he has been widely imputed with bigotry, and even compared with the Alt. Right.

So ubiquitous is the stigma against Peterson that, as Shepherd found out, to even give his opinions a hearing is (apparently) no different than promoting anti-trans violence. In Shepherd’s meeting, the pontificating professors (professors!) matter-of-factly lumped Peterson (and for good measure Charles Murray) along with Richard Spencer, a true and proud white supremacist. “Not to do that thing where everything is compared to Hitler,” preambled Rambukkana, before adding the inevitable: “but...”

It’s in the nature of committees and prosecutors to have in unflinching certainty what they lack in discernment.

Speaking as the legal authority in the panel, Joel (the diversity official) elaborated that Shepherd’s actions can be construed as “causing harm to trans students by bringing their identity as invalid, or their pronouns as invalid.”

Building to a crescendo of irony, Rambukkana elaborated that presenting Peterson’s arguments is “counter to the Canadian human rights code. I know that you’ve talked about C-16.” Yes, she has. Probably on whether or not C-16 might be invoked to strangle free speech.

After the meeting’s recording came out, a number of University officials, Rambukkana included, issued apologies. They emphasized that C-16 didn’t apply in any way in Shepherd’s case. That the panel did in fact repeatedly reference C-16 must therefore be seen as either a high-handed scare tactic or merely ignorance asserted as fact. Neither option speaks of a sterling academic character.

There has been a lot of media overreaction in the aftermath, most of it predictable, partisan and tiresome. So let’s put things in proportion: Shepherd is no martyr, and her superiors sound more like nasty HR reps than Stasi interrogators (or academics, for that matter). Nevertheless, the Laurier University debacle should probably unnerve you.

Remember The League of St. Alexander? In Part I I mentioned that Philip Pullman, in his recent novel the Book of Dust, has unleashed this new specter into the world of His Dark Materials: A shadowy youth movement training students in the art of snitching, rewarding them for finding blame in their fellow school goers, from friends to teachers. The genius of The League of St. Alexander is that it undermines schools by realigning their incentives. For the kids who join The League, going to school is no longer about learning, debating with friends, or being challenged. The rich, complex experience is replaced with a single, addictive moral duty: hunting heretics.

There’s a Utopian underpinning here: The world is just a few purges away from becoming just, equal and safe.

This pursuit of purity - not from sin, but from offensiveness - is being carried in North American academies for decades. Over the years, I had met with multiple professors in leading academies who would grouse about what they viewed as the undoing of their institutions, but feared too much for their job to go on the record. Their concern has never been the fragility of students. A student might genuinely find a conversation in class offensive or distressing. Nobody would deny that such a student should receive special attention. The problem is with universities helping students not to cope with their grievances, but to weaponize them.

There are some true believers in university boards - people who want to build the utopia, who genuinely think that a healthy and just curriculum is one expurgated of the likes of Peterson and Murray. But there are also more calculating fellow travelers who, fearing that an offended student might drop out (or worse - sue), opt for preemptive self-censorship (no one, regrettably, gets sued for inanity). Between the faithful and the fundraisers, the message to professors is unmistakable: stay away from anything provocative. Texts that in the past have been considered appetizers - from Euripides to Freud - are now either bowdlerized or removed from class entirely if they contain but a trace of controversial themes (like sexuality, justice, identity, race); themes inherent, it should be said, to any work of philosophy, literature or science worthy of our time.

Lindsay Shepherd said in several interviews that the most merciless attacks against her came from PhD students. In the eyes of many, she has betrayed her university. She will be fine; her newfound celebrity shields her from any backlash from Laurier University. But the pursuit of purity goes on. Like The League of St. Alexander, it makes teachers wary of heterodoxy and open debate - the very things they should celebrate. It puts students on the watch for moral offenses. It undermines the heart of higher education, and makes our lecture halls and seminar rooms less interesting, less heretical, and too damn safe.

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