Laurier TA taught the system a lesson in good communication

Earlier this month, Wilfred Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd made headlines across the province after she shared a recording with the media of her being reprimanded at the university.

During a class, Shepherd showed a brief video clip from a TVO program featuring a controversial topic—the use of non-gendered, or gender-neutral, pronouns.

The clip in question features University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, an infamous figure many associate with the political “alt-right” movement, debating his views on the use of gender neutral pronouns in an academic environment with others who defended the use of such terms.

It’s not known how many students took offense to the clip—that’s protected under the university’s privacy policy. However, at least one irate student lodged an official complaint with the school.

What was said in the complaint (or complaints) is also a mystery, but it resulted in a meeting between Shepherd and three of her superiors.

During that meeting, Shepherd was bullied, belittled, and scolded to the point of tears. On the recording, her superiors can be heard making presumptions about her character, accusing her of violating laws, including human rights laws, and comparing the Peterson clip to “a speech by Hitler.”

Shepherd defends herself honourably through the ordeal. Although she becomes emotional, she remains steadfast in her belief that she presented the clip in an unbiased way, and did not mean to cause any offence to students.

At one point, she is told showing the clip without attaching her views on the subject “is kind of the problem.”

In a moment sure to offend any student fresh out of high school, Shepherd’s supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana, informs Shepherd of how first-year university students’ minds are not well-equipped enough to assess videos like the TVO clip.

Shepherd rightly questions the panel’s view that the video was not “age-appropriate” for 18 year-old students, and counters with the simple, yet effective, “they’re adults.”

For the record, Peterson is not Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Peterson has not killed millions. No matter how abhorrent someone’s views may or may not be, unless they have committed genocide, they are not Hitler.

Most people on the Internet know this, and know recklessly throwing Hitler’s name into an argument is offensive to the victims of his atrocities.

On the recording, the university officials charged Shepherd with creating a “toxic environment.” An ironic statement, considering the sheer toxicity heard in the recording could choke a small city.

How can university officials be expected to foster a caring, socially-conscious environment by bringing together three people in positions of power to gang up on a young grad student who, in all likelihood, did not mean any harm?

So, why has it become more and more prominent in society (as it was in that fateful meeting) to close our ears to the thoughts and views of others?

In debate, it better to know what your ideological rivals believe—if only to better discredit their points—rather than take shelter from “harmful” ideas and foolishly pretend they are not out there.

Maybe when we stop talking over each other and placing labels on people, we can better come together with mutual respect. Maybe this whole month-long saga could have been avoided had the aggrieved student(s) approached Shepherd personally, rather than having taken the retaliatory measure of putting in an official complaint.

It probably would have been more impactful coming from the student(s) affected anyway.

The class that was shown the TVO clip was a communications class. Communication can be considered equal parts speaking and listening. The way the university officials failed to take Shepherd’s position into account or hear out her concerns, and their rambling, often confusing responses to questions demonstrated a clear lack of both.

The following is a direct, unedited quote from the recording, of the communications department attempting (and failing) to second-handedly explain how the anonymous student was affected by the video: “If you look at statistically the degree of suicide attempts of trans people, young people… It’s the highest of any group in society. And, you know—it’s… You go through Indigenous People and so on. There are things that have no academic credibility and I just don’t think… I personally think I have some problems, I have no problem with the fact that these things are out there and people are going to engage them but we have to think of the atmosphere also that we create for the learning process.”

Incoherent responses like this are the result of prejudicial wrath from a group of people who, although they oversee the communications department, fail to communicate their point effectively.

Shepherd should have never been disciplined for showing the video clip. Her actions were merely an effort to get students thinking about and analyzing controversial ideas without the typical knee-jerk reaction to shut out those ideas.

Unfortunately, Laurier’s own staff demonstrated a lack of listening abilities, and a failure to properly analyze and evaluate the intentions of one of their students.