Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Modern Witch Hunt

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
-The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Thus begins one of the most disturbing and compelling novels I have ever read. It centres around a man who, even those he is arrested, is never told what the charge is, nor is he incarcerated, although he does have to appear before strange tribunals throughout the novel. His punishment is meted out only at the end of the story.

A number of interpretations have been advanced over the years; one that has a certain currency is that the novel is a foretelling of the rise of the fascist state. If you get the chance, read it and form your own conclusions.

That we live in the age of surveillance should come as a surprise to no one. What some might find shocking, however, is that it has now infected academic institutions, supposed bastions of free thought, free expression and critical thinking.

You may have read about the profoundly disturbing 'trial' at Wilfred Laurier University of Lindsay Shepherd. If you haven't, here is a brief synopsis of her 'crime'.
Shepherd is a graduate student and teaching assistant. Her sin was to show a first-year communications class a video snippet from TV Ontario of two professors debating grammar.

Some transsexual people prefer that they be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze” rather than “he” or “she.” That, in turn, has led some universities to adopt gender-neutral pronoun policies.

All of which is to say that when Shepherd ran her five-minute TVO clip featuring pronoun traditionalist Jordan Peterson debating another professor, she unleashed a storm.
Peterson’s views on pronouns are viewed by some as transphobic. So when Shepherd dared air the TVO segment featuring him, someone complained.

The teaching assistant was hauled before a three-person panel made up of her supervisor and boss, Nathan Rambukkana, another professor named Herbert Pimlott, and Adria Joel, Laurier’s acting manager of gendered violence prevention and support.
Fortunately Ms. Shepherd had the presence of mind to tape the 40-minute interrogation, which can be heard here. As well, you can read a transcript here.

It was, in fact, her recording of this kangaroo court that brought her situation to the nation's attention, something I'm sure the powers-that-be at WLU are apoplectic about, inasmuch as they tarnished the university's reputation, faced national censure, and had to apologize to Shepherd.

While The Toronto Star has lauded this apology as an opportunity for the renewal of academic freedom, the cynic in me says that the university's about-face is only because their hypocrisy was exposed, and other such incidents of free speech suppression may well occur far into the future.

Heather Mallick has an excellent piece in today's Star that, I think, does greater justice to the entire imbroglio:
The use of anonymity — in other words, cowardice — was one of the worst aspects of Wilfrid Laurier University’s ritual humiliation of a bright and thoughtful teaching assistant for the crime of WrongTeach.

So an unknown first-year student complained to Laurier about communications studies teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, though to whom and in what manner we don’t know. Then her supervisor joined an “informal” panel, including the alarmingly titled Manager of Gendered Violence and Support, to tell her that that they’d been secretly informed of her creating a “toxic” environment.
And, like Kafka's Joseph K., she was not told anything about her accuser:
Shepherd was devastated to be told about the secret complaint. “How many? Who? How many? One?” she asked. “I have no concept of how many people complained, what their complaint was, you haven’t shown me the complaint.”
“I understand you’re upset but also confidentiality matters,” her supervisor said.

“The number of people is confidential?” Shepherd asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

It went on. Shepherd welled up again. “And I’m sorry I’m crying. I’m stressed out because this to me is wrong, so wrong.”
Who among us cannot empathize with her raging sense of injustice here?

Mallick, whose capacity for allusions from both popular culture and literature never fails to impress, aptly assesses the situation:
So Laurier is less a university than a corner on The Wire. A first-year with a scarf over his face shivs a young TA, another masked gang gathers to do the same at U of T and a posse beats down Shepherd who then produces a secret recording.

There was widespread anger, another of those civil brawls bred of an airy word, as Shakespeare so aptly put it, he’s good that way. But thanks to the posse, people grow leery of speaking too freely, of leaving the house for fear of being filmed and possibly publicly humiliated, of trusting others.
Wilfrid Laurier University has behaved with egregious dishonour and cowardice.

I hope they wear their disgrace for a long, long time.


  1. As I was nearing retirement and teaching grade 13 English, we went through the whole debate on non gender specific pronouns, as required by the new APA Guidelines. All I could do was say, "These are the new rules."

    When a student asked why use "they" when the antecedent is singular, the only answer I had was, "It's crazy. But at least now you'll know before you get there."

    1. I had a hard time accepting the use of a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent, Owen, when I was teaching. it seems to me it has just become an easier form of expression that sacrifices a great deal.

  2. When I read the job title, "acting manager of gendered violence prevention and support," it seemed utterly Orwellian. A fancy title for campus rat catcher, I suppose. Where in hell is my Soma?

    1. I saw enough of the politicization of education when I was a high school teacher, Mound. The resume-polishers have clearly upped their game here.

      Don't have any Soma, but could I interest you in some mid-shelf bourbon?

  3. It makes me yearn for my law school days when faculty disagreements were sometimes, albeit infrequently, settled with fisticuffs in the staff lounge.

    1. A perhaps less politically fraught method of conflict resolution, Mound.