Are all perspectives valid in a debate?
At Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, there are some viewpoints which aren’t.
The question came up after a Lindsay Shepherd, a T.A. and a master’s student, played a controversial YouTube clip during a debate about gender-neutral pronouns in her tutorial.
The clip in question featured University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who has famously refused to use gender pronouns other than “he” or “she,” defending his position against a professor who argued it was necessary to use the pronouns that a person prefers to be called.
She was called into a meeting in which Laurier faculty and administration told her that playing the clip without condemnation legitimizes the viewpoint, which they don’t support.
“In a university, all perspectives are valid,” she said in the meeting, which took place at the beginning of November.
“That’s not necessarily true,” a staff member responded.
The meeting, which Shepherd secretly recorded, left her in tears after staff said playing the clip created a toxic environment for transgender students and called her transphobic.
Shepherd defended her position saying she wanted to expose her students to opinions which are in the real world.
“I don’t get how exposing people to the idea makes me transphobic,” Shepherd said in the meeting.
LISTEN: Excerpts from secretly recorded meeting between Wilfrid Laurier University grad student and faculty
Shepherd said the clip of Peterson debating another U of T professor, Nicholas Matte, was meant to demonstrate ways in which the existence of gender-specific pronouns has caused controversy.
Shepherd said she presented the clip of the debate neutrally and without bias, but she was told her approach to the clip was tantamount to remaining neutral on other objectionable views such as those of Adolf Hitler. She was told that she should have provided more background on Peterson’s views, including his connections to the alt-right and Canada’s Rebel Media, and condemned him.
“The thing is, when you start off saying ‘This guy sucks don’t listen to anything he says,’ there’s people right there who are not going to say anything, you’ve silenced them,” Shepherd explained.
WATCH: Wilfrid Laurier TA says University censored her for showing clip on gender pronouns
While the university said the meeting took place, they didn’t comment on it or respond to a request for interview from Global News. In a statement released by the president and vice-chancellor, Deborah MacLatchy, she said that the university champions “The civil debate of competing ideas, free speech, and freedom of expression.”
“The real question, however, is how do we encourage and implement these fundamental ideals in a world that’s more aware of the importance of inclusivity and yet, at the same time, is growing more polarized?” she wrote in the statement.
Support for Shepherd is growing, with people saying the issue is close to censorship.
“If we as a university really believed in free speech, and if we’d been underlining that all the way along, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but increasingly here at Laurier and at other universities, we are censoring students,” Sociology professor David Haskell told Global News.
He also took exception to the comparison to Hitler, saying people use the argument to “silence others.”
“I see increasingly many of my colleagues using those kind of dramatic comparisons to Hitler, to other totalitarian regimes, but they do it in order to silence others,” he said.
WATCH: Wilfrid Laurier Professor comes to defence of censored TA Lindsay Shepherd
Katherine Fierlbeck, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told the Canadian Press that she encourages genuine debate in the classroom.
She said failure to do so not only shortchanges students by leaving them without the skills to think critically in real-life debates, but may also drive those who feel their views are not welcome to seek out more receptive audiences, such as communities of online agitators or active proponents of hate.
Shepherd’s approach of neutrally presenting a debate to prompt further discussion was exemplary, she said, adding it was in keeping with the true spirit of academic freedom.
“Some … understand academic freedom to mean that they can say anything about anybody at any time, but that’s certainly not the case,” she said. “It has to be germane to your area, and there has to be a good reason offered for what you are doing.”
Shepherd now has to put forth her lesson plans to her supervisor before her tutorials, and faculty members will be monitoring her lesson plans going forward.
*With files from the Canadian Press
LISTEN: Lindsay Shepherd with Newstalk 770’s Rob Breakenridge