A few days ago, some faculty from Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University called a meeting to rebuke a young teaching assistant in their department for showing a video of Jordan Peterson in class. In the video, Peterson challenges a new amendment to bill C-16 which would class a failure to use certain pronouns for trans people as hate speech, punishable by fines. Lindsay Shepherd, the teaching assistant in question, showed the video, together with a rebuttal of Peterson’s views, to stimulate debate. This strikes me as creative way to engage students in what sounds, on paper, like a rather dry course: on grammar use. The videos demonstrate that grammar can, in fact, be a hot topic and isn’t just a requirement imposed by tedious pedants, only of relevance when you’re writing a term paper.
I’m not going to go into Peterson’s views in detail here. Whether or not you agree with his stance is irrelevant to the subject I’m going to focus on. For the record, I personally use trans people’s preferred pronouns and, as a general rule, use they as a gender-neutral pronoun in speech and writing. I believe the deliberate use of the wrong pronouns for trans people is gratuitously rude and should be discouraged, but I agree with Peterson that it should not be criminalized. This is, in fact, the only issue on which I agree with the notorious professor of whom I am not a fan.
What is far more important here, however, is the principle of academic freedom. We need to understand of how university teaching works in arts and humanities subjects. The old-fashioned view of teaching that Shepherd’s colleagues espouse views students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. In this view, you read things in books and hear them in lectures, jot them down, learn them off by heart and reproduce them in the form of examination essays. This is the way I’m currently learning Gujarati verbs: by tireless repetition.
But university learning in the humanities is usually very unlike that. The most important learning takes place not in the lecture halls but in the seminars where ideas are discussed and, in my own case, even outside of any formal pedagogical setting, during the many long, cheap-wine-and-chocolate-Hobnob-fuelled nights of rambling discussions and furious debates among close friends.
At university, I learned to question ideas. I learned that, even if something was printed in a book, even a very respectable-looking tome from a university publisher, it might be wrong-headed. I learned to read critically, to sift and evaluate, without needing external guidance. I learned that my most treasured theories, which sounded so irrefutably brilliant in the privacy of my own head, could be mercilessly picked apart.
Some of the most powerful of those experiences came from reading a specious book or article, agreeing with it completely and coming to class aglow with enthusiasm for those ideas, only to find that, by the end of the day’s discussion, they had been completely debunked, even in my eyes. We all know that converts are the most zealous: it’s because few things make a more lasting impression than having your most deep-seated ideas challenged; or falling out of love with personalities, theories or political convictions previously dear to you. This is why autodidacts so frequently have bizarre or extreme ideas. They have never had those ideas challenged. And they are unused to challenging the ideas of others: leaving them susceptible to the influence of demagogues and authority figures, especially if they are highly reputable published authors. Books lend a deceptive weightiness to arguments: metaphorically and literally.
We can never control what people think: only what they are permitted to say and write. If they aren’t allowed to speak freely, we will never be able to convince them of anything because we will not know what ideas their minds are harboring. All we will know is the mendacious version they feel safe offering us. This is especially true of students, many of whom already feel timid about voicing their opinions in class. Stimulating a lively classroom debate is an art. Lecturing is easy: we know and love our subjects and have much to say about them. It’s getting the students to talk passionately about them that is hard. One absolutely crucial factor in this is creating a “safe space” in which students feel free to say anything they want about the topic under discussion. If they say things that are irrelevant, you can guide them back onto the subject at hand, sure. And if they hurl personal insults at each other, you can rebuke them. But, in my experience, that is very rare. It’s far easier to intimidate students and make them clam up than to encourage them to talk.
University trains us to question others and ourselves. There’s no better material on which to exercise this than the popular ideas students are likely to encounter online and in the outside world. If you really want to debunk Peterson, for example, let him make his strongest case. Don’t tell students how they are supposed to think or feel about him: they won’t obey. People are often less malleable than you might think. People are perverse. Trump’s election should have taught us that. Almost every major media outlet supported Hillary. But the voters didn’t allow the media to decide for them.
We also need to bear the differences between the hard sciences and the arts and humanities in mind here. Peer review, evidence, statistics, facts proven beyond reasonable doubt: these are important in the sciences, which is why we don’t offer cosmology courses on flat earthism or present intelligent design gibberish alongside the theory of evolution. But the arts and humanities deal with things that are subjective, ambiguous, multifaceted and subtle. We look at areas of human thought about which people have disagreed since knowledge began. There is no peer-reviewed article on earth which can settle, once and for all, how to parse a line of a Shakespeare sonnet or, indeed, which is more important: being able to use the pronouns you wish or having your personal dignity respected by obliging others to use the pronouns you’ve chosen for yourself.
In the hard sciences, lecturers only discuss theories which have been validated and proven. But, in the humanities, we also look, in great detail, at fanciful ideas about phlogiston and homunculi. We read the writings of people who thought women innately inferior to men and who believed homosexuality was a horrific disease for which electric shock treatment could provide a cure. At college, we read Das Kapital, Three Essays on Sexuality and Mein Kampf alongside The Gulag Archipelago, The Well of Loneliness and The Diary of Anne Frank. And no one felt threatened in their personhood because we were confronting people who literally dehumanized Jews, women and gays and lesbians in their work. We simply thought they were wrong and talked about why. History is full of cautionary tales: we need to heed, not ignore or gloss over them.
Unlike hard scientists, in the humanities we are interested not just in what people have been right about, but in everything they have thought, in analyzing how they have expressed those thoughts, in working out why they thought the things they did, where those ideas came from and how they have developed and changed. And most of us have left, not as fascists, but with a deep commitment to liberal and humanitarian ideals.
Shepherd was criticized, in particular, for not giving the students an introduction to Peterson, for not placing his views in context before airing the video. But, while context can be very important, being able to evaluate ideas on their own merit is a valuable skill. My own favorite class at university was Practical Criticism, in which we were given prose passages and poems to analyze and discuss, without knowing who the authors were, when they had been written or what works they had been drawn from: much less whether our teachers admired or despised their writers. The course taught me how to pay close attention to what was actually said and heightened my reading comprehension skills like no other.
Finally, there is a pattern here that we also saw in the somewhat similar cases involving Bret Weinstein, the Christakis couple, Rebecca Tuval, Alice Dreger, Laura Kipnis, Patti Adler, Michael Bonesteel, Kimberly Pierce, Maryam Namazie and more. People with real power over someone else — whether because the person is a lone individual and they are a menacing mob or because, as here, they are the employers of the accused — often use the excuse that they are defending “victims” to engage in the most shameless bullying. I’d venture to guess that Shepherd was singled out because she is a teaching assistant, bottom of the university totem pole, a young woman, on a low-income, dependent on the favor of senior faculty for both her current job and future career. She’s also vulnerable, as this episode proved, to the malicious complaints of disgruntled students whose real beef may be that she gave them a poor grade or refused an extension on a paper, rather than anything to do with Peterson and his pronouns. People who whine about victimizing others even while abusing their own power are the most hypocritical of bullies. It’s our moral duty to fight back against them. Even when they come from our own side of the political fence. Perhaps especially then.