During a seminar with first-year communications students, Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd screened a TVOntario debate to illustrate the sometimes-controversial politics of grammar.
The video, an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin, included University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson presenting his case against the use of non-gendered pronouns. It also included panellists taking the opposite viewpoint.
Nevertheless, after an anonymous student complained, Shepherd found herself reprimanded for violating the school’s Gendered and Sexual Violence policy. In a subsequent meeting with university officials, she was accused of creating a “toxic” and “problematic” environment that constituted violence against transgendered students. She was also falsely told that she had broken the law.
Shepherd recorded the meeting. Audio and selected transcripts are below. The voices are of Shepherd, her supervising professor Nathan Rambukkana, another professor, Herbert Pimlott, as well as Adria Joel, manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support at the school.
00:00:56 “SO YOU WEREN’T, LIKE, ONE OF JORDAN PETERSON’S STUDENTS?”
Shepherd: Obviously this person (the complainant) who had an issue did not express it to me, they just went straight to whoever, I don’t know what really happened.
Rambukkana: Just for some additional context so, you came from U of T is that right?
Shepherd: No, SFU.
Rambukkana: From SFU, okay. So you weren’t, like, one of Jordan Peterson’s students?
The meeting had just begun when Shepherd received this oblique accusation that she might be a protégé or supporter of Peterson’s. Later in the meeting, Pimlott will expound on how people like Peterson live in a fantasy world of false conspiracies. However, it should be noted that upon encountering a teaching assistant who had mentioned an unpopular idea, one of Laurier’s first assumptions was that she was somehow an agent of those ideas. Several times during the meeting, Shepherd will reiterate that her beliefs about gender had no bearing on her decision to screen the video. “I disagree with Jordan Peterson, but you people seem to think I’m pro-Jordan Peterson,” she says at one point.
00:03:10 “THESE ARGUMENTS ARE COUNTER TO THE CANADIAN HUMAN RIGHTS CODE”
Rambukkana: …[Peterson] lectures about critiquing feminism, critiquing trans rights —
Shepherd: I’m familiar. I follow him. But can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this? Like, is that what the point of this is? Because to me, that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides. I was presenting both arguments.
Rambukkana: So the thing about this is, if you’re presenting something like this, you have to think about the kind of teaching climate that you’re creating. And this is actually, these arguments are counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code. Even since … C-16, ever since this passed, it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression.
By C-16, Rambukkana is referring to a recently passed federal bill that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression. His read of it is dead wrong; it’s obviously not a violation of C-16 to screen a TVOntario program at a university. For one thing, the bill only applies to federally-regulated industries, which does not include universities. Even if it did, legal experts contacted by the National Post were extremely dubious that Shepherd’s actions constituted anything remotely resembling discrimination.
00:04:22 “IT HAS CREATED A TOXIC CLIMATE FOR SOME OF THE STUDENTS”
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rambukkana: Okay, “in the spirit of the debate” is slightly different than ‘this is a problematic idea that we might want to unpack.’
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides.
Shepherd: It’s taking sides for me to be like “oh, look at this guy, like everything that comes out of his mouth is B.S. but we’re going to watch anyway.”
Rambukkana: I understand the position that you’re coming from and your positionality, but the reality is that it has created a toxic climate for some of the students, you know, it’s great —
Shepherd: How many? Who? How many? One?
Rambukkana: May I speak?
Shepherd: I have no concept of how many people complained, what their complaint was, you haven’t shown me the complaint.
Rambukkana: I understand that this is upsetting, but also confidentiality matters.
Shepherd: The number of people is confidential?
According to Shepherd, the seminar actually went pretty well; students considered the video, and soon got to discussing the use of gender neutral terms such as “they” instead of “him” or “her.” As Shepherd explained at the opening of her meeting with supervising professors, “there were people of all opinions.” Whoever took offence, she noted, did not approach her directly or even raise their concerns in class before filing a gendered violence complaint with university officials.
00:05:58 “… CREATES AN UNSAFE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT FOR STUDENTS.”
Rambukkana: Do you see how this is something that is not intellectually neutral, that is kind of “up for debate,” I mean this is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Shepherd: But it is up for debate.
Rambukkana: You’re perfectly welcome to your own opinion, but when you’re bringing it into the context of the classroom that can become problematic, and that can become something that is, that creates an unsafe learning environment for students.
Shepherd: But when they leave the university they’re going to be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there. And I’m sorry I’m crying, I’m stressed out because this to me is so wrong, so wrong.
Joel: Can I mention the … Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy?
Once again, Rambukkana accuses Shepherd of breaking the law. But as with C-16, there is nothing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that prohibits what Shepherd did. The Charter says the exact opposite, in fact; one of the document’s four “fundamental freedoms” is the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” If someone ever launched a legal case against Shepherd for this, the Charter would be the document most likely to protect her from prosecution.
00:07:28 ALL PERSPECTIVES ARE NOT VALID.
Shepherd: What I have a problem with is, I didn’t target anybody. Who did I target?
Joel: Trans folks.
Shepherd: By telling them ideas that are really out there? Telling them that? By telling them? Really?
Rambukkana: It’s not just telling them. In legitimizing this as a valid perspective—
Shepherd: In a university all perspectives are valid.
Rambukkana: That’s not necessarily true, Lindsay.
The tug-of-war between Shepherd and her supervising professor basically boiled down to single point. Shepherd argued the case that ideas, however controversial, deserve mention in the classroom. Rambukkana, however, held fast to the notion that some ideas are “problematic” and cannot be raised without being clearly labeled as such. In this, arguing against gender-neutral pronouns was compared to banning women’s suffrage or claiming that cigarettes are harmless. Using a rhetorical tactic typically more at home on Reddit forums, Rambukkana and Pimlott would also thrice use the example of Nazi Germany. “This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler,” Rambukkana said at one point.
00:17:19 “THE NAZIS ACTUALLY USED … ISSUES AROUND THE FREE SPEECH IDEA.”
Pimlott: I would find it problematic if my tutorial leaders were representing positions that didn’t have any substantial academic credibility to that evidence.
Shepherd: But he’s still a public figure … this was on a TV show. He’s still a public figure.
Pimlott: He’s a public figure, and a lot of people there like (American white supremacist) Richard Spencer of, I don’t like calling them alt-right, it gives them too much legitimacy, but Richard Spencer, right? The Nazis actually used, this is a historic—issues around the free speech idea in the 1920s in Weimar Germany as an issue around which which is what they’re using now. 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. I agree that there are public figures out there that bring people, uh, bring hatred, target groups and if you look at statistically the degree of suicide attempts of trans people, young people, it’s the highest of any group in society. And, you know, it’s, you go through — Indigenous people — and so on. There are things that don’t have academic credibility and I just don’t think—I personally think I have some problems, I have no problems with the fact that these things are out there and people are going to engage them but we have to think of the atmosphere that we also create for the learning process.
It’s worth reiterating that this whole debacle happened within Wilfrid Laurier University’s communications department. The program’s whole job is to teach students how to legibly convey ideas. Despite this, the rambling semi-coherent answer above is quite typical of the other 43 minutes of the recording. Pimlott’s mention of “academic credibility” is notable. It’s not like the group is discussing an issue like climate change or evolution, in which there’s a pretty clear scientific consensus on the truth. They’re discussing language, and Laurier appears to be telling Shepherd to ignore the language ideas of any “public figure” who doesn’t have appropriate academic credentials. Such a broad definition could presumably include anyone from William Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling.
00:22:06 YOUR NEUTRALITY IS “KIND OF THE PROBLEM”
Rambukkana: Do you understand how what happened was contrary to, sorry Adria, what was the policy?
Joel: Gendered and Sexual Violence.
Rambukkana: — Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. Do you understand how —
Shepherd: Sorry, what did I violate in that policy.
Joel: Um, so, gender-based violence, transphobia, in that policy. Causing harm, um, to trans students by, uh, bringing their identity as invalid. Their pronouns as invalid — potentially invalid.
Shepherd: So I caused harm?
Joel: — which is, under the Ontario Human Rights Code a protected thing so something that Laurier holds as a value.
Shepherd: Ok, so by proxy me showing a YouTube video I’m transphobic and I caused harm and violence? So be it. I can’t do anything to control that.
Rambukkana: Ok, so that’s not something that you have an issue with? The fact that that happened? Are you sorry that it happened?
Shepherd: I know in my heart, and I expressed to the class, that I’m not transphobic and if any of them — again, I don’t know what they said — but I don’t think I gave away any kind of political position of mine. I remained very neutral, and uh—
Rambukkana: —that’s kind of the problem.
Unlike with C-16 and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is much more believable that Shepherd actually did violate the schools’ Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. The document is quite broad, and defines gendered violence as “an act or actions that reinforce gender inequalities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic or mental harm.” The policy further stipulates that the“violence” can take the form of graffiti or text messages. Under these parameters, a YouTube video that made a student feel uncomfortable would seem to amply qualify.
00:25:16 STUDENTS DON’T HAVE THE “CRITICAL TOOLKIT” TO UNDERSTAND THESE THINGS
Rambukkana: These are very young students, and something of that nature is not appropriate to that age of student, because they don’t have …
Shepherd: They’re adults.
Rambukkana: Yes, but they’re very young adults. they don’t have the critical toolkit to be able to pick it apart yet. This is one of the things we’re teaching them, so this is why it becomes something that has to be done with a bit more care.
This is a theme that Pimlott takes up later in the recording; that Wilfrid Laurier University is bringing in young naïfs from a prejudice-filled society who aren’t yet ready to handle complex ideas without proper training. He said it takes a while to properly challenge “the faith-based, family and other types of structures in society that they’ve been inculcated with for years.” The meeting concludes, by the way, with a note that Shepherd must now run her seminar notes past Rambukkana and obtain specific approval for any future media she intends to show. “I’ll ask you not to play any more Jordan Peterson videos, or anything of the like,” Rambukkana said.
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