Everybody familiar with the contemporary politically correct Canadian university has experienced, or at least read about, travesties similar to the one suffered by Teaching Assistant Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo last November. Most readers will be familiar with the details of these odious events so that I can progress without retelling all the particulars. Thus, this article is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the deplorable events at WLU.
Ms. Shepherd, teaching assistant for Dr. Nathan Rambukkana in a first-year Communication Studies course, had the audacity in her tutorial to present two opposing views on the currently hotly debated topic of gendered pronouns. According to the “progressive” leftists, on the one side, “transgendered” individuals should be called “zie” or “zher” in order not to offend or insult them by considering them men or women! According to the other side, traditionalists insist that men and women be called “he” or “she” respectively, without regard for their perceived “gender” of the day.
The accusation was received by the Rainbow Centre, a Waterloo LGBTQ support group. The charge was that she had presented the arguments “neutrally,” i.e. without condemning the conventional practice and thus without endorsing the faddish, newfangled notions of “gender” and “transgender.” By being fair and academically scrupulous, Lindsay Shepherd had revealed herself as a “transphobic” which is verboten. Her way of teaching has been censured because it was like presenting a speech by Hitler without explicitly denouncing it. The rhetorical introduction of Hitler, of course, was designed to intimidate her, as every and any student whose academic progress depends upon the approval of her superiors would be frightened by the language. Shepherd, deceptively, was even told that she had violated Canadian law!
An ad hoc tribunal was constituted after Dr. Rambukkana discovered what she had done. True to Laurier’s peculiar understanding of fairness and transparency, Shepherd was never told how many complainants were “uncomfortable” or made to feel “unsafe” in the tutorial. The number, it turned out, was zero; in fact, there was no complaint. Nonetheless, her supervisor judged the instructor of having created a “toxic” and “unsafe” learning environment. By using “disallowable speech” she had committed “dehumanizing” “epistemic violence.” If this is not gibberish and gobbledygook, what is? You have to be an academic to accept such pretentious drivel as language.
As in every authoritarian institution, the tutor hauled before a tribunal was told that a tutorial (or any academic lecture) in a politically correct university does not allow students to make their own judgments. Rather, they ought to be told what the correct thinking on the subject is.
What is particularly galling is the language spoken in this kerfuffle. Hardly a word is missing from the politically correct lexicon. People who disagree with the “progressive” and pseudo-liberal agenda are “homophobic” or “transphobic,” etc. Of course, universities have to give “trigger warnings” and provide “safe spaces” for the infantilized students where they can take refuge from hearing something that hurts their feelings!
How is it possible in 2017 that universities degrade themselves to such a degree as to becoming a national laughing stock? The answer lies in the fact that once a university adopts the mentality and intolerance of religious fanaticism together with merciless rigour in persecuting dissenters, it becomes a Temple of Political Correctness, with the adoration of the Unholy Trinity of Equity, Diversity and Inclusiveness, Amen. George Orwell apparently has taught these academic Lilliputians nothing. What these yahoo Trinitarians do not understand is the fact that universities are not institutions for social change, i.e. political establishments, but academic schools of research and instruction. They are schools, not Agitprops, not even for good causes.
Ms. Shepherd, however, is not completely innocent either in this theatre of the absurd. Anybody doing a Master’s in Cultural Analysis and Social Theory or teaching for the Department of Communication Studies should expect nothing but leftist propaganda and infantilization of the students from social justice warriors. Her fault was one of poor judgment and naive confidence in the integrity of the academic program, a critique, however, that should be leveled at every student in these programs.
One particular aspect of the procedures I find especially worrisome has curiously been left out of every account that I have read. Ms. Shepherd secretly recorded the dressing down that she suffered from three officials: Nathan Rambukkana, instructor; Herbert Pimlott, Communication Studies coordinator; and Adria Joel, acting manager of the Gendered and Sexual Violence Protection and Support office. Quite an array of personnel, all paid by taxpayers and donors! Ms. Shepherd’s choice of action to secretly record the abuse violates my notions of respectfulness and courtesy, and yet I am glad that she did record.
Someone familiar with Aristotelian or Catholic moral philosophy most likely would argue that in cases where strict principles of justice would deliver injustice licet epikia uti. (Summum ius, summa iniuria: rigorous law is often unjust.) Epikia (ἐπιείκεια) is the notion that a judge is justified to apply the opposite of what the law prescribes in the pursuit of justice. How does this apply to Shepherd’s “disrespectful” recording? We all know, and the authorities at WLU are suffering the pains of exposure, that Shepherd would have been immolated and the harassers confirmed in their roles of guardians of the Trinitarian Temple had Shepherd not recorded the humiliating, anti-intellectual and unethical session. In my judgment, clearly, this fact justified epikia uti since the indiscretion is a minor price to pay for the momentous gain.
I have read the insincere and somewhat ludicrous apologies from her academic and administrative superiors and listened to the Star Chamber interview during which the 22-year-old was bullied by three of her superiors. Many details are so appalling and beyond the pale, undignified of a university, that it is difficult to imagine how this institution can preserve the undeserved reputation as an academic institution without sound housecleaning.
Nathan Rambukkana, unconvincingly remorseful, admits that “maybe I have to get out of an ‘us versus them’ habit of thought.” He may be right about that, whatever it may mean. What is certain, however, is that he has to get out of the habit of abusing and bullying his students and of politicizing the classroom.
How has WLU chosen to respond to the self-inflicted calamity? Firstly, the university has opted to hire a lawyer, Robert Centa, to conduct an “independent confidential fact-finding” investigation. Nota bene, the findings will be confidential. Here again we see “transparency” at work designed to control the information should it become even more embarrassing. Further, the investigation will be “fact-finding”! What other facts do we need to know in order to judge and reform the system? The piquancy in the choice of Centa is that he appears to be an “ardent supporter of diversity” (cf. Blatchford, National Post, Dec. 16).
Secondly, a Task Force on Freedom of Expression has been constituted to examine the more general question of how to reconcile freedom of speech and minority rights on campus. The underlying assumption is that these two principles are mutually exclusive and that the university has to choose. Moreover, the very question of compatibility is premised on the conviction that members of a minority (primarily sexual) are “protected” only if they never hear any criticism, not even a critical examination of their characteristics’ origin, status or ethics.
To the contrary, I see a number of different measures to be taken instead. Dr. Rambukkana as the protagonist of the tragedy should be dismissed for incompetence and excessive zealotry in the pursuit of an unacademic ideology. In addition, he is guilty of abusing his power of supervisor for hectoring a student (and likely others as well). What, however, speaks against such drastic action, in my judgment, is the fact that he did what his department expected of him. The Communication Studies program, presumably, does exactly what he did. I would not at all be surprised to find that his colleagues in the department have similar practices. Would the review and “fact-finding” investigation probe these avenues?
Wilfrid Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy, of course, has lost some or all of her lustre. Her contention that “Giving life to (principles of academic freedom and free speech) while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion, is not a simple matter” should be seen as part of her strategy to defend the indefensible and to retain her position. She should become part of the clean-up.
The resignation or dismissal of every dramatis persona implicated in this sordid affair should be the beginning. It is patently obvious that none of these functionaries has more than a smattering of concern for academic freedom and freedom of expression. Ironically, Ms. Shepherd can teach her superiors many lessons! In any dismissal procedure it should be easy to demonstrate that the officials in question are monumentally incompetent and thus unable to fulfill the functions for which they are paid. If I were a member of their ilk I would consider some sort of Maoist reeducation or sensitivity training (which will certainly follow at WLU), but I am not adhering to Political Correctness and its customs and techniques.
The university should formulate a policy mandating that candidates for academic administrative positions, above all for deanships, as part of their dossiers demonstrate that in the past they have actively and convincingly defended academic freedom. Pieties, like those formulated by MacLatchy, that, of course, the university guarantees academic freedom as one of its fundamental principles, are worthless. Ideally, although difficult to get, candidates should demonstrate that they have paid a price in their own careers for defending scholarship rather than propaganda.
The Temple should be demolished, that is diversity, equity and inclusiveness offices, officers and programs should be defunded unless they can demonstrate their academic propriety.
Correct English language should be the indispensable language of WLU. Above all, conceptual confusions should be avoided.
“Gender” is a grammatical category, not a biological one, à la rigueur a psychological characteristic. People who change their sex are “transsexuals” not “transgender.”
“Phobia” is an excessive fear, whether based on reality or imagination. Thus, “homophobia” is a misnomer for disapproval of homosexuality. “Transphobia” (as applied to Lindsay Shepherd) is a nonsensical term because it is hardly imaginable that somebody has excessive fear of transsexuals (how many are they anyway?). Here again, what is meant is disapproval of transsexuality, certainly not fear. “Islamophobia,” to the contrary, makes sense because many contemporaries fear Islam, mostly because of the relentless violence in the Koran, Muhammad’s life and Islam’s history. However, what the promoters of the term “Islamophobia” object to, is not fear, but disapproval. Here once more, a concept is used to conceal the intended target (disapproval) with a term that is unassailable (fear).
“Survivors” are those who escaped death, not those who have been hurt by some inappropriate words or unpleasant behaviors of others, nor those who are simply opportunistic claimants of monies and privilege. Former students of Indian Residential Schools, whether they have mainly benefitted or suffered abuse, are not “survivors” but simply former students of these schools. To call them “survivors” suggests that as a rule pupils died at school.
These conceptual confusions are of course partly the linguistic tools of lazy thinkers, but more importantly the tools in the mouths of propagandists and zealots.
Particularly ugly is the practice of social justice warriors to use any of the above misnomers as insults meant to silence those who disagree with them. University education should find occasions for teaching that such name calling is unbecoming for discussants of arguments.
It would be wonderful to see a new phoenix arise from the ashes of WLU. This rebirth, however, will not happen unless the members of the WLU Board, alumni and donors take decisive actions. Let us hope that non-academics will have more insight into academic matters and more courage than academics and let us hope, as well, that other universities take notice since probably every university in Canada is afflicted with the same morbidity.
At this juncture it behooves me to comment on the President’s statement re: independent fact-finder report, released on Dec. 18. Ms. Shepherd has been vindicated, of course, we knew this before Mr. Centa’s supererogatory investigation. The interrogating trio is being criticized for a “significant overreach”; however, what does that mean? Are they guilty of purposeful wrongdoing or was their misbehavior born of an ill-considered concern in good faith, of innocent incompetence? The president does not tell us, and the fact-finding report, of course, is confidential, for a reason!
Perhaps the most telling new information is the revelation that there was not even a complaining student after all. The abuse of Shepherd most likely was the brainchild of professor Rambukkana! What are the consequences of such ethical lapse? I would rather be guilty of sexual misconduct with a student than being guilty of having invented a complaint of “one student/many students,” a malicious fiction that grows into a national scandal. Did this odd claim not make the President immediately suspicious? Why does the President not tell us with whom this odious, dishonest claim has originated? The fact that she controls the information and thus protects somebody shows her lack of sincerity which constitutes unfinished housecleaning.
With the release of the President’s statement re: independent fact-finding report the investigation has come to a provisory end. The report of the task force is expected for the month of March.
I’d like to finish these reflections with a quote from Christie Blatchford: “Lindsay Shepherd... remains the singular adult in this mess” (National Post, Dec. 20).