Dr.Dawg

Everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition

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This is excruciating to hear: the ill-treatment of Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, by a panel of commissars. But, if it weren’t for the seriousness of bullying a young woman to tears in a so-called “safe” institution, this nasty episode would be the stuff of dark comedy.

When Christie Blatchford of Postmedia first broke this story, I thought it was too fantastic to be believed, and I said so on social media. I was wrong, and mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Even if we were provided only excerpts of a longer conversation, this absurd, miserable performance deserves contempt, right across the political spectrum.

Three not-so-grand inquisitors confronted Shepherd over her use of a short clip of the infamous Professor Jordan Peterson at one of her tutorials, one which, as it happens, was taken from TV Ontario’s The Agenda. Her sin—and I use the word advisedly—was not that she took his side, which, given his expressed desire to suppress academic freedom himself, and his penchant for doxxing those who dare to protest against him, would have been questionable in a university setting. It was to take no side. It was to engender debate, which no doubt it did.

It certainly did after the fact. Shepherd’s class generated a complaint, or several. The young woman was not permitted to face her accuser(s), nor to be given the actual substance of the complaint(s), nor was she even allowed to know how many complaint(s) there were. In this, the process departs from Maoism, at least, where facing accusers, usually a mob of them, was part of a ritual social cleansing. The inquisition at SWU was like an alt-right sketch of what the benighted imagine a university to be. A joint performance by Josef K. and the Three Stooges. Sounds like a grunge band, and so, in essence, it was.

And boy oh boy, did this ever play into the fashionable right-wing narrative about our universities which, judging from public commentary, is the dominant one. Havens of leftist cultism, motivated by that bizarre conflation of “cultural Marxism/postmodernism” that the unread go on about incessantly, not excluding Dr. Peterson. Indoctrination camps. The triumph of the Long March through the institutions.

Never mind that universities have, all over North America, been actively suppressing progressive thought—just ask anyone interested in Palestinian human rights. At Carleton University not so long ago, during Israeli Apartheid Week, students were sent warning emails from then-President Roseann Runte, and a poster advertising the week was banned. Scattered incidents like this have happened across Canada, but they fall outside the narrative and are usually all but ignored. Academic freedom at Canadian universities is, in fact, a bit of a myth, particularly when corporate interests are involved.

The maddening thing about this story so far is the amount of speculation that it has called forth—perforce including my own. We now have the full content of the interview with Shepherd, but we know very little about the classroom context in which the offending video—that excerpt from the TVO panel discussion—was shown. On the Right, there is the usual gnashing of teeth, but this time, unfortunately, with something to chew on. (They’ll see this eventual apology for what it’s worth, like everybody else.) On the Left, there has been some intelligent commentary, not defending the university’s incredibly heavy-handedness, but critiquing the TA’s pedagogy, as well as pointing out the gigantic deficiencies in Jordan Peterson’s knowledge. But none of us except Ms. Shepherd was in the classroom. We have little idea of the context that was set, or the ensuing discussion.

Progressive critiques have suggested that the TA was insensitive to trans students, considering their lived lives to be mere trifles to be made the object of a debate. But we don’t know that the debate was framed that way. We don’t know if trans people would object, in fact, to participating in a suitably framed discussion. We don’t even know if there were any trans students attending the class, nor should we assume that one or more of them, if present, made the complaint against Shepherd. Statistically it seems far more likely that it was someone politically, not personally, motivated, who thought they had witnessed yet another instance of transphobia and wanted to call the TA out.

(A discussion of pronouns, just incidentally, should not necessarily be taken to be transphobic on its face, despite Peterson’s general unpleasantness. There has been a certain pronominal proliferation that could prove challenging, not only to a teacher, but in common social interaction. My own ageing memory simply cannot cope.)

Peterson’s raw, angry right-wing energy is now plainly present for all to see. His fame has led him to believe that he’s some kind of polymath. But he’s really a stupid person’s idea of a smart person, speaking on a wide variety of subjects that he knows next to nothing about. One hopes that Shepherd, who stated that she was not a supporter of Peterson, will not succumb to similar political adulation and follow his route, but it may already be too late.

The witch-hunt against academe, in any case, will now be pursued with redoubled fury. And the Inquisition, while presented in only one anecdote, will once again be presented as the norm. Post-modernism? My eye. We’re living in mediaeval times.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on November 21, 2017 3:46 PM.

The media mobbing of Julie Payette: Chapter 2 was the previous entry in this blog.

My (increasingly) reluctant defence of Lindsay Shepherd is the next entry in this blog.

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