When teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd played a 3-minute clip from a television show regarding the use of gender pronouns, she likely didn’t expect she’d be the subject of an official inquiry — but that’s exactly what happened.
On November 1, Shepherd, who teaches a "language use and writing skills component" tutorial for a larger communications class at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, played a clip in which University of Toronto professor, Jordan Peterson, debates Nicholas Matte over gender pronouns on the Canadian TV show, "The Agenda."
In the clip, Peterson argues against what he calls "compelled speech" regarding transgender pronouns like "zir" and "xe."
According to Shepherd, she took a completely neutral stance, neither condemning nor applauding Peterson’s position. However, one or more of her approximately 48 students filed a complaint with the school. As a result, Shepherd was censured, and brought in for a meeting with course professor, Dr. Nathan Rambukkana, Dr. Herbert Pimlott, and Adria Joel, Acting Manager of Gendered Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and Support at the Diversity and Equity Office.
The meeting, which took place on November 8, was secretly recorded. Provided below is the transcript of the recording as well as the audio:
RAMBUKKANA: [Do you see] why that might have been seen as problematic by some of the students? Maybe even threatening?
SHEPHERD: I don't see how someone would rationally think that was threatening. I could see how it might challenge their existing ideas, but for me, that's the spirit of the university is challenging ideas that you already have, and I don't know who this came from. I would be interested to see the original complaint or complaints because, like, I don't have any context...
The thing is, can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they're 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 are creating, and this is actually – these arguments are counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code. Ever since, and I know that you've talked about C-16, ever since this passed, it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression. So bringing something like that up in class not critically, and I understand that you're trying to like —
SHEPHERD: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
RAMBUKKANA: How so? Like as in?
SHEPHERD: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
RAMBUKKANA: Okay. "In the spirit of the debate" is slightly different than being like, okay, this is, like, a problematic idea that we maybe want to unpack.
SHEPHERD: But that's taking sides.
SHEPHERD: Like, it's taking sides for me to be like: "Oh, look at this guy. Everything that comes out of his mouth is BS, but we're gonna watch anyway."
RAMBUKKANA: Okay, so, 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...
...one or multiple students who have come forward, saying that this is something that they were concerned about, and that it made them uncomfortable. You are perfectly welcome to your own opinions, 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 gonna 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.
JOEL: Can I mention the gendered violence, gender and sexual violence policy?
RAMBUKKANA: Yeah, please.
JOEL: So, under that, gendered violence doesn't just include sexual violence, but it also includes targeting folks based on gender, so that includes transphobia, biphobia, homophobia. All those sorts of things are protected under the policy, and so those are things that Laurier has upheld as values as well as the Ontario Human Rights Code. And so those are things that we are responsible for, uh, not impacting our students in that way, and not spreading transphobia in that way.
SHEPHERD: Okay, so, what I have a problem with is I didn't target anybody. Who did I target?
JOEL: Trans folks.
SHEPHERD: How? By telling them ideas that are really out there? By telling them that? By telling them? Really?
RAMBUKKANA: It's not just telling them. In legitimizing this as a valid perspective, as "this is another valid perspective on [the] issues." —
SHEPHERD: In a university, all perspectives are valid.
RAMBUKKANA: That's not necessarily true, Lindsay.
SHEPHERD: Well, this is something that's being debated in current society, and I don't feel the need to shield people from what's going on in society. Like, to imagine that this is happening in a university – it's just bad.
RAMBUKKANA: Okay, just to give you a context. Also within all of this that is happening, Laurier is being blanketed with white supremacist posters currently. There is another debate in society, which is whether or not North America should be a set of white nationalist states, and that it should be ethnically cleansed of other people. That is also a current debate in society. Would you show something in your tutorial that had white supremacists and non-white supremacists debating whether or not other people should live in North America? Is that something that you would show?
SHEPHERD: If that was related to the content of the week, and we were talking about right-wing speech bubbles, maybe. It depends on the content. If there's really ideas that are existing out there like that, then, I mean. Look, the thing is, I don't see what's transphobic about showing a video of Jordan Peterson. He's a real person. He's out there.
RAMBUKKANA: He's a real person, but he is a real person who has engaged in targeted behavior that – targeting of trans students in a particular, like, basically doxxing them - if you know the term – like, giving out their personal information so that they will be attacked, harassed, so that death threats will find them. This is something that he has done to his own students, has done to other students. And this is also something that the students are aware of. So this is basically like playing – not to kind of do the thing where everything is kind of compared to Hitler – but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos...
This is the kind of thing that departmentally, in terms of, like, critical communication studies, and in terms of the course, of what we're trying to do, is diametrically opposed to everything that we've been talking about in the lectures. Was this one of the reasons that you wanted to do this? Because it was like a reaction to the lecture content?
SHEPHERD: No, we were talking about gendered language, and I was asking them to structure sentences using "they" or using "his" or "her." And then we talked about the societal context of that. So I don't get why I'm being seen as transphobic by virtue, by proxy of me just saying, just stating, just exposing people to an idea. I don't get how that label is now attached to me. I really don't.
RAMBUKKANA: It's more about the effect rather than the intention. Obviously that wasn't your intention, but nevertheless, it disturbed and upset students enough.
SHEPHERD: So everything's about those students who are disturbed? Everything is catered to them?
PIMLOTT: Can I just offer a different perspective? Was this tutorial based on looking at grammar? And it was focused on the use of pronouns and the use of grammar? Is grammar not something that's not really subject to debate?
SHEPHERD: The "they," and the "his or her?" It's a huge debate right now. Can we use "they" in the singular?
PIMLOTT: But you do know that "they" has actually been used in the singular. It's grammatically —
SHEPHERD: Yeah, that was in the video I showed the class, and that's a point I made. The thing is that what's kind of funny is I disagree with Jordan Peterson. I disagree, but you guys seem to think that I'm, like, pro Jordan Peterson or something.
RAMBUKKANA: Do you understand how what happened was contrary to...gendered and sexual violence policy? Do you understand how —
SHEPHERD: Sorry, what did I violate in that policy?
JOEL: So, gender-based violence, transphobia in that policy. Causing harm to trans students by bringing their identity as invalid, or their pronouns as invalid – potentially invalid.
SHEPHERD: So I caused harm and violence?
JOEL: Which is under the Ontario Human Rights Code a protected thing, and also something that Laurier holds as a value.
SHEPHERD: Okay, 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: Okay, so that's not something that you have an issue with? The fact that that happened? Like, are you sorry that it happened?
SHEPHERD: I mean, I know in my heart and I know I expressed to the class that I'm not transphobic, and if any of them – I don't know, again, what they said, but...I don't think I gave away any political position of mine. I remained very neutral.
RAMBUKKANA: That's kind of the problem...
To recap, Rambukkana compared Shepherd remaining neutral toward Jordan Peterson to someone remaining neutral toward Adolf Hitler, the man who presided over a holocaust of more than ten million people. Adria Joel claimed that Shepherd was "causing harm" and implied that she was also inciting "violence" toward transgender students.
On November 16, Dr. Paul Jessop, Acting Vice-President: Academic, said the university was having a "third-party" investigator look into the matter:
The university is constrained from commenting on the personnel matters involved. As a responsible employer and educational institution, we are determined to gather all of the facts and then assess them in a deliberate and fair manner. To this end, we are engaging a neutral, third-party professional to speak with those involved and gather the facts of the situation.
Deborah MacLatchy, President and Vice-Chancellor, echoed Jessop in an open letter:
As a responsible employer, we are obligated to abide by government regulations, human rights legislation and our own university policies. To this end, we need to gather the facts of the situation and assess them in a deliberate, fair and respectful manner. To do this, we are in the process of engaging an impartial third-party professional. Given the personnel and privacy issues involved, this process will be confidential.
Despite there being roughly 550 full-time faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University, only about ten professors have reached out to Shepherd as of this publication. One of those professors is David M. Haskell, Associate Professor of Digital Media and Journalism, as well as Religion and Culture.
Haskell told The Daily Wire that "the censorship at Laurier is not unique." Earlier this year, attorney Danielle Robitaille was invited to give a keynote speech at the Criminology Students Association conference. However, because Robitaille had been part of a team that defended a man who was charged with sexual assault, the event was going to be "disrupted," and had to be cancelled out of concern for student safety.
Another censorship-like incident occurred in October 2016 when a pro-life campus group was harassed and intimidated.
As Shepherd mentioned in the video, she doesn’t even agree with Jordan Peterson, but she respects free speech and open dialogue:
Shepherd simply showed the video in order to "demonstrate that the structure of a language can affect the society in which it is spoken in ways people might not anticipate." Additionally, "she said she mentioned that long-standing views on gender had probably been shaped by the gender-specific pronouns that are part of English’s fundamental grammatical structure," reports The Star.
According to Shepherd, the new limitations under which she can continue to teach are if "she [agrees] to file copies of her lesson plans in advance and allow faculty members to sit in on her sessions whenever they wish..."
The official summary of Bill C-16, which was referenced by Rambukkana in the recording states:
This enactment amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.
The enactment also amends the Criminal Code to extend the protection against hate propaganda set out in that Act to any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression and to clearly set out that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration when it imposes a sentence.
There was tremendous debate regarding C-16 before it passed, with many calling it an unprecedented constraint on free speech.
Rambukkana told Shepherd that "ever since [C-16] passed, it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression," seemingly claiming that by showing the Jordan Peterson clip in her class, she was in violation of C-16 by proxy.
This type of speech control is frightening enough, but perhaps more frightening is how deeply unaware we are as the Orwellian chains are being wrapped around our own hands.
Here’s a must-watch interview with Shepherd from Global News: