Lindsay Shepherd and the Potential for Heterodoxy at Wilfrid Laurier University
by Raffi Grinberg | Nov 23, 2017 | Benefits of heterodoxy, Free Speech and Censorship
The audio recording of a recent meeting at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada has captured the academic world’s attention.
A teaching assistant named Lindsay Shepherd was reprimanded by her supervising professor, as well as a “manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support” and one other professor. Her crime? Screening for two sections of her communications class a recorded TV segment in which Jordan Peterson, among others, debates a recent law concerning the use of gender pronouns. Nobody in the video criticized trans people; the question discussed was whether or not the law should require Canadians to use the pronouns that other people choose for themselves (Peterson said no). Furthermore, Shepherd didn’t criticize or disparage students of any kind in any way, nor did she even endorse Peterson’s view; in fact, as she later stated, she disagreed with Peterson’s view. In her classes, she simply presented a clip without taking a stance.
It can easily be argued that there exist video clips that cross a line, and should not be presented in a classroom. But when I watch this TV segment, I see a respectful, level-headed debate with a philosophically diverse group of participants on a controversial legal topic. In a later conversation, Shepherd emphasized that this debate is currently one of the hottest issues in the national discourse and that it’s important to expose students to these differing perspectives because they will encounter them once they leave the university. (The title of the course is “Canadian Communication in Context.”) Nevertheless, at least one of Shepherd’s students filed a complaint, which initiated a bureaucratic response process.
Shepherd recorded the ensuing meeting with her supervisors; you can find the complete recording and a partial transcript of the meeting here. At times, the transcript is reminiscent of scenes from dystopian novels by George Orwell, Franz Kafka, and other writers who experienced the Soviet system.
This story, however, has a surprisingly positive ending. After the recording was made public, the President of Laurier issued an apology. Shepherd’s supervising professor Rambukkana also wrote his own open letter of apology in which he goes well beyond the minimum required, and asks whether perhaps teachers should focus less on goals of social justice and more on exposing students to multiple viewpoints.
Below, we analyze the transcript of the meeting itself, and then reflect on the apology. We conclude with suggested next steps for those involved.
In the meeting, Shepherd asserted that she was neutrally presenting a topic (the legally mandated use of new gender pronouns) that is in the current public discourse.
Shepherd: [C]an 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.
But her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, didn’t want her to remain neutral.
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.
One side of this debate has seemingly become academic orthodoxy, which precludes the possibility that students might question it and think critically about it. In the words of Orwell from 1984:
Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
Shepherd’s supervisors did not disclose any information about the complaint.
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?
Even the policy violation was unclear.
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.
These amorphous accusations are reminiscent of Kafka’s opening lines from The Trial:
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
At Laurier—and other universities—can teachers be disciplined for being anonymously accused of violating an undefinable policy? If so, this has chilling implications for teaching and learning. Teachers will have to guess at what policies might protect students’ sensibilities, and eye their classrooms with fear. Each student is a potential accuser, so teachers must plan their lectures with the most easily-offended student in mind, taking account of all topics that could cause offense. In fact, since 2015 we have been hearing many reports of teachers self-censoring, “teaching on tenterhooks,” and cutting potentially controversial materials from their syllabi.
Throughout the conversation, Shepherd continued to articulate the value of showing students conflicting ideas.
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.
The ideas are “really out there:” the clip Shepherd showed had recently aired on TV. But Rambukkana later explained that there are some perspectives for which a stance must be taken by the teacher. For example:
Rambukkana: This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.
Asserting that everyone you disagree with is Hitler is a typical application of concept creep. While it is easy to argue that Hitler’s views should not be portrayed neutrally in the classroom, can the same thing be said of Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University Toronto whose ire is directed not at trans people but at a Canadian law mandating pronoun use? Is opposing a recent law regulating language use really comparable to carrying out genocide?
(Even the question of how Hitler should be portrayed in the classroom might be worth some open debate. When I was in high school, our history class had a unit on the Holocaust in which we were shown Nazi propaganda films and asked to discuss what made them so effective. This was at a Jewish high school, in which many students’ grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust. I’d argue we benefited tremendously from that class.)
Such shielding ultimately harms the students; arguably, the greatest disservice is done to the trans students themselves, for they would most benefit from being able to discuss the merits of the bill and debate the topic with those who disagree with them.
The supervisors settled on the requirement that Shepherd submit for advance review any videos she wants to show her students. They left open the possibility that more consequences may follow, because:
Rambukkana: Frankly some of the things that we talked about are a little problematic.
The committee didn’t seem content to let Shepherd maintain her stance. Throughout the conversation you can feel their drive to convert her; they cannot accept that someone would want to maintain a view of intellectual freedom that they consider “problematic.” As in 1984:
“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Let us take the views espoused in this meeting and carry them to their logical end: Students at Laurier will graduate without ever having even heard ideas that run contrary to their own. When they do encounter people in the post-college world who hold those ideas, they will attribute bad intentions; they’ll assume that such people must either be insane, or as evil as Hitler. And thus when they, in turn, become supervising professors, they will make sure their TAs do not inflict any such views on their students, to shield them from insanity and evil. And so on. Until, perhaps, one defiant TA challenges them…
As mentioned earlier, this incident has taken a positive turn. Because of overwhelming negative media attention, the university president, Deborah MacLatchy, issued an apology to Shepherd on behalf of the university. It was minimal and pro forma; it reads like the apology of someone calculating political costs. It pivots away from the university’s bad treatment of Shepherd to condemn people on social media who targeted those involved “with extreme vitriol.” It ends by proposing a task force to look into a broad array of issues, including diversity and inclusion.
But Shepherd’s supervising professor did much better. Rambukkana went beyond the minimum necessary (apologizing for his mistreatment of Shepherd). Rather, he gave her the honor of actually listening to her arguments. He questioned whether it is appropriate for him to teach from a partisan social justice perspective, or whether it might be better for professors to be less heavy-handed and more open to “diversity of thought:”
Finally there is the question of teaching from a social justice perspective, which my course does attempt to do. I write elsewhere about reaching across the aisle to former alt-right figures as possible unexpected allies in the struggle to create a better more just society for all. But hearing all of the feedback from people and looking at the polarized response I am beginning to rethink so limited an approach. 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. 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.
This willingness to question whether professors should teach from a particular political perspective is rare and commendable. Rambukkana recognizes that partisan teaching reinforces an “us versus them” mindset that is antithetical both to the pursuit of truth and to the pursuit of good public policy. Bravo to Professor Rambukkana.
We close with a few suggestions that might help turn this whole episode into something positive—something that makes Wilfrid Laurier University, and the academy in general, better able to live up to their stated principles:
1) We invite Lindsay Shepherd and Professor Rambukkana to join Heterodox Academy, a community of more than 1,300 scholars likewise committed to viewpoint diversity.
2) We suggest that Professor Rambukkana, and the other professors and teachers at Laurier, use the OpenMind platform to help depolarize their classrooms and foster mutual understanding.
3) Per Shepherd’s own recommendation, we encourage President MacLatchy and the Laurier administration to endorse The Chicago Principles to enshrine their assurance of freedom of expression.
4) We invite all readers of this essay to share their own stories of constructive disagreement; specifically, when a diversity of viewpoints led to productive outcomes. (Please share in the comments below, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It isn’t easy to stand up to your boss—and maintain such level-headedness while doing so—especially when your career might be at stake. At the time, Shepherd couldn’t have predicted that this would be the outcome. So, just in time for (the American) Thanksgiving, we express our thanks to Lindsay Shepherd for her integrity, bravery, and sanity under the pressure of the orthodoxy.
It also isn’t easy to admit your mistakes, especially publicly; and it’s even harder to truly listen to another’s perspective and change your mind as a result. We give thanks to Professor Rambukkana for demonstrating humility and openness, as well as a commitment to improve Laurier’s learning environment for many students to come.
One last quote from 1984:
Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.
As this incident shows, individual actions of brave sanity will add up to a braver, saner academy.
Aside from the fact that the transcript of this interrogation could’ve been ripped directly from the pages of Brave New World, 1984 or Atlas Shrugged, I believe we are missing one of the major problems that has been created as a result of our coddling and subsequent infantilization of our youth; no responsibility!
The byproduct of shielding our kids from the true reality of living and solving their own problems in the service of systematically propping up their “self-esteem”, is an ever ignorant and anti-intellectual populace at the exact time that we truly require an open critical thinking apparatus to solve those very problems we’ve created. I hear an Einstein quote yelling at me in my head…
With little knowledge comes little responsibility, and with it little awareness of the broader perspective. We’ve traded shortsighted apparent certainties, or convenient adopted tribal ideologies and ways of thinking, for real knowledge of ourselves and truth.
“The Psychology of Partisanship”
From The Atlantic (November 10 2010), written by Lane Wallace
In his press conference following last week’s election, President Obama told a questioning reporter that he “didn’t believe people carried around with them a fixed ideology”–that if you’d asked most people on Election Day, they would have said that there were some things they agreed with Democrats on and some things they agreed with Republicans on. In a column over the weekend, New York Timeswriter Charles M. Blow disagreed with the President’s assessment, presenting results of national election surveys dating back to 1982 that showed a significant and relatively steady decline in the percentage of self-described conservative and liberal voters who had voted for any candidates of the opposing party. “In the Obama land of open minds and collegial cooperation,” Blow wrote, people might not cling to fixed ideology, “but in the real world, that’s what most do.”
Sadly, psychological researchers tend to agree with Blow. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has been studying the architecture of people’s beliefs for almost 20 years. And he says that humans are far more inclined to attach themselves to rigid ideology than they are to navigate the unmapped and complex world of the open-minded center.
“Life is really complicated,” Peterson explains. “We’re surrounded by problems whose magnitude exceeds our computational complexity. So much so that we often don’t even know what the actual problem is. For example, when you’re buying a car, what problem are you solving? Status? Financial? Getting to work? Emissions going to destroy the planet? All those and a bunch more that you’re not even really aware of. And every decision is complex like that.
“And the way people shield themselves from that complexity is by identifying more or less arbitrarily with a set of opinions and then sticking to those things like glue. People barricade themselves inside fortresses of knowledge. They’re very territorial about their ideological structures. And they like to be in there with a bunch of other people who think like they do.” Hence the immense popularity of highly polarized and politicized cable news shows.
To be fair, there is an evolutionary benefit to our inclination to join with others of like minds. It helps us to generate cooperative action toward a common goal. If a group of us all believe the river should be saved, we are more likely to join together to clean it up. The problem arises when we follow that impulse too far, into a rigid need to have our group’s view be the only “right” view.
“Everyone has to have knowledge and opinions,” Peterson says. “The question is what attitude you have about that knowledge. One attitude is, ‘Well, hopefully I know some useful things. But if I shut up and listen, I might learn some other useful things.'” But another (and more common) attitude is, “‘I’d bloody well better be right, because the world is a complex place, and if I’m not right, I’m screwed.’ Being ‘right’ is like being inside a fortress,” Peterson explains. “You might starve in there, but you’re safe.”
And just to complicate things, that need to “be right” is also intensified by our need for hierarchical status.
“Humans are very status conscious creatures,” Peterson says. “They hate [losing status] more than just about anything. So if I’m trying to score points off of you [by proving I’m right], we’re not having a discussion or trying to solve a problem, we’re engaged in a primate hierarchical dispute.”
In other words, there are lots of motivations for us to gravitate toward one corner or the other and stay there, shouting down the opposition–especially as the economy languishes in an alarming recession, the complexity of international trade and threats increases, and the pace of change itself accelerates in ways many people find disturbing. Camping out in rigid ideological corners gives us the comfort of seemingly clear answers and the status bump and security of feeling “right.” It also explains why voters this time around seemed to respond to messages of “take no prisoners” from candidates. Compromise and cooperative efforts take place in an uncharted, messy and uncomfortable middle ground where there’s no status from victory, and no comfort to be derived from clear ideological structures.
But, Peterson cautions, there is danger in giving in to the comfort of ideological certainty and the pleasure of “being right.” For one thing, he says, “it turns out that most sets of opinions are pretty blunt tools. They’re not really designed for the kind of detailed problem solving that would aid you in life.” Worldview, in other words, can get in the way of seeing clearly, or seeing creative, unconventional options and possibilities that might exist. In addition, the more time we spend in our ideological fortresses, Peterson says, the less able we become to ever leave them.
“When you start to question your fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world,” he explains, “you end up in a place that you don’t understand very well. And when you’re in that place you don’t understand very well, you have to be confident that you can find your way. And you’re not confident that you can find your way unless you’ve practiced doing that. So what happens to people is exactly what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said happens to them. They obliterate their ability to operate in the territory that exists outside of their own certainty, because they don’t have any confidence left.”
What’s more, as the world changes and becomes more complex, there are fewer places and situations where those in rigid ideological corners–on both sides of the aisle–can feel comfortable or “right,” leaving them feeling increasingly cornered. And the dangers of that extend far beyond a stalemated Congress. While acknowledging that it’s an extreme example, Peterson points to psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic treatise on the appeal of totalitarianism, Escape from Freedom, which Fromm wrote in 1941 after observing the Nazi party’s rise to power in an economically ravaged Germany.
“The fact that people tilt toward totalitarianism is … a terrible, murderous problem,” Peterson says gravely. “Millions of people died in the 20th century because people had to be right. It’s awful. It’s arguably the worst problem we have.”
So, one feels compelled to ask, is there any hope of solving such a seemingly intractable and instinct-driven problem? Yes, Peterson says, although he acknowledges that the solutions are not easy. When people despair of changing the current slide toward more and more polarized camps in America, he says, it comes from “an impoverished view of human potential.”
Humans, Peterson says, are far more powerful than people realize–if they are willing to lead by example. He points to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in the Gulag Archipelago that one man who stops lying can bring down tyranny.
“If you realize that people like to stay in their own little territory, but there is a place that is not mapped, the next thing you do is show people how to operate in unmapped territory,” he says. “To live that way has more effect than people realize. Gandhi was a good example. Vaclev Havel in Czechoslovakia. Mandela in South Africa. Solzhenitsyn in Russia. What you do is live your life outside of ideology. That IS the right answer.”
That answer, of course, takes a lot of courage. Leading by example often has a cost attached to it–beyond mere discomfort, in the case of elected officials. Congressional moderates may not face imprisonment by an authoritarian regime, but one after another has lost their bids for re-election–in no small part because they eschewed gaining valuable status points by playing hierarchical status games and proving their opponents “wrong,” and because they required voters to contemplate the discomforting, unmapped zone outside of clear and unyielding ideology.
And yet, we can’t blame it all on the politicians, or even the cable news networks. Blow’s review also revealed that voters identifying themselves as moderates stayed home on election day in record numbers, ceding the ground and the day to more ideologically extreme views. So if we really want moderation back on our politics, we need to demand more than just leaders who will lead by example. We need to make a greater effort to lead by example, ourselves.