I’ve never been comfortable with Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Much as I agree with his position that people can’t make up their own gender pronouns and demand others use them, under force of law, there’s something unseemly about him. Too self-promotional. Too one-note. Too . . . obvious.
Had Peterson not been an academic, no one would invite him to speak or debate. His shtick was worthy of a blog post or two, but that was as deep as it went. Still, grad student teaching assistant Lindsay Shepard saw purpose in showing a debate involving Peterson to her class. Oh no.
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.
A student, maybe more than one, complained, and Shepard was subjected to an academic inquisition for not having asserted in advance how Peterson was wrong and horrifying.
Shepherd recorded the ensuing meeting with her supervisors; you can find the complete recording and a partial transcript of the meeting here.
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.
And Rambukkana, the prof under whom she taught, dropped the bomb.
Rambukkana: This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.
There is no Godwin’s Law in Canada or academia. Because Shepard recorded the inquisition, this went public and embarrassed her school, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, and her prof, Nathan Rambukkana. He was, naturally, sorry he got caught, and wrote an apology.* After some basic Gertruding, he wrote:
TRIGGER WARNING: Rambukkana is brutally prolix. Your brain cells may die.
Second, this entire occasion, and hearing from so many with passionate views on this issue from across the political spectrum, has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting. I made the argument that first year students, not studying this topic specifically, might not have the tool kit to unpack or process a controversial view such as Dr. Peterson’s, saying that such material might be better reserved for upper-year or grad courses. While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university.
Ignoring silly jargon (the toolkit to unpack?), and the inanity of infringing on rights to hear nothing controversial, or feeling unwelcome in a learning environment by oppositional views, this suggests that Rambukkana might be coming around to the notion that maybe, just maybe, diverse views are a good thing in education. But then:
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. While I think that such a pedagogical approach must still work not to marginalize some students, I think the issues are too complex to leave as a binary with protection of students on one side and protection of speech on the other.
To the extent Rambukkana deigns to entertain diverse ideas, it’s not for “advancing social justice,” but for the purpose of “social betterment and progress as a whole.” Is he a mensch or what?
The Heterodox Academy co-founder, and guy who refuses to let me join the club, Jon Haidt, called this apology “superb and thoughtful,” a characterization with which some disagreed. Haidt responded by twitting:
Hey, come on people. President MacLatchey’s apology was bad, but Rambukkana’s is different. Amazing that a prof questioned teaching from social justice perspective. He didn’t have to do that. Let’s praise small steps, and show some forgiveness.
— Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) November 23, 2017
Should any crack in the narrative, no matter how small, how laden with qualifications, how self-serving, be praiseworthy if it questioned the social justice perspective? Should Rambukkana be shown forgiveness for an apology that merely rationalized his attack?
I appreciate that Haidt seeks to reduce the animosity and division within the Academy, and giving sweet group hugs better serves to eliminate the tensions between diverse views. But all Shepard did was play a vid of Peterson without informing students he was literally Hitler beforehand.
Rambukkana’s concession, whether sincere or not, that it was an inapt analogy does not deserve praise. Not because it wasn’t, at least on the surface, an apology, but because this is so far off the charts of rationality that it’s like acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the earth isn’t flat.
For this, he gets no hug. And if this is all that’s needed for the Heterodox Academy choir to sing Kumbaya, then they have won the battle but unconditionally surrendered the war for rational thought. This was no apology. Rambukkana deserves no praise. Haidt is far too easily satisfied.
*Rambukkana apologized via an open letter. The purpose of an open letter is to tell the world of one’s apology rather than to actually apologize.