Freedom of Expression

Lindsay Shepherd and the Jordan Peterson controversy

Lindsay Shepherd is a teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada.  She hit the headlines after showing a clip (taken from this programme) in one of her classes featuring controversial Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson discussing gender pronoun choices. Shepherd was then hauled in for an interview with three senior colleagues which she recorded.   Based on what I’ve seen and read of Jordan Peterson his main beef seems to be with certain gender neutral pronouns such as ‘zhe’. I infer that he would not, for example, insist on calling a transgender woman ‘he’, and (although accused of abuse by a fellow panellist) does not use abusive language.

There are all kinds of problems with the Shepherd interview (which you can listen to here).  For example, Peterson is described as ‘alt-right’ (2:27) which simply doesn’t seem accurate, and the main interviewer, Nathan Rambukkana, suggests that showing the clip amounted to saying that trans students should not have rights (5:40), an assertion that seems to rest on an exaggerated view of Peterson’s words and views. It was quite right that this caused widespread outrage, and appropriate that she has now received an apology (albeit a rather mealy mouthed one).

However, not for the first time, Douglas Murray’s response to this incident seems a bit overegged to me.

As I say, it really is worth hearing the above in full because it includes several classic examples of modern heresy-hunting. Such as the response to Shepherd’s insistence that ‘In a university all perspectives are valid’. After a brief pause her inquisitor replies, ‘That’s not necessarily true.’

Rambukkana’s comment didn’t seem so unambiguously sinister to me.  I believe Shepherd does not agree with Peterson but thinks his position is something reasonable people might agree with, and framed the clip in that spirit.  This seems fair enough – but I’d be less sanguine if she introduced, say, Gilad Atzmon in the same way, or Richard Spenser.  (It would have been useful if Shepherd had gone into the detail of what Peterson actually said, and asserted that his perspective, while not one she agrees with, does not seem extreme.) In other words, I am inclined to agree with Rambukkana in the abstract, but not with his application of this principle to the case of Peterson.

Murray goes on:

Having tried to tar her as a ‘Transphobe’ there is an inevitable effort also to portray Shepherd as a ‘white supremacist’. This is done by the insistence that there is an effort currently underway to ethnically cleanse the north American states of everybody who is not white. Would she agree with that?  The hope is clearly that Shepherd will walk into the laid trap and expose herself as a white supremacist. This she does not do.

The interviewer, Rambukkana, did not seem to be doing anything of the sort (8:35). In fact his strategy here depended on the assumption that she was not a white supremacist in order to persuade her to rethink her assertion that ‘in a university all perspectives are valid.’  The problem here was in implying some kind of parity between Peterson and white supremacists.  Rambukkana has now acknowledged this himself.

I tried to make a point about the need to contextualize difficult material, and drew on the example of playing a speech by Hitler to do it. This was, obviously, a poorly chosen example. I meant to use it to drive home a point about context by saying here was material that would definitely need to be contextualized rather than presented neutrally, and instead I implied that Dr. Peterson is like Hitler, which is untrue and was never my intention. While I disagree strongly with many of Dr. Peterson’s academic positions and actions, the tired analogy does him a disservice and was the opposite of useful in our discussion.

Shepherd has responded.

Speaking to the National Post, Shepherd welcomed the apologies and said she felt Rambukkana’s shows self-reflection. But she also noted the university seemed forced into it, perhaps because of the numerous threats she’d seen from alumni to pull their funding.

“They’re embarrassed, obviously, and they had to do something about it,” she said, adding that she would have preferred a much clearer statement about protecting the right to debate controversial issues.

She also said the outpouring of support — including offers to crowd-fund her, which she’s turned down — has been heartening and shows how much people care about freedom of speech, even if much of the support came from people with different political views than her own.

“Obviously the vast majority are right wing, and that’s fine,” she said. “But my question is, why doesn’t it matter for people like me who are left wing, or left-leaning, but still believe in being reasonable?”

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