Commentary, Opinion

The lesson of Lindsay Shepherd

In a Sept. 26 McGill Tribune article, I worried that Professor Andrew Potter’s hushed “resignation” last year as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada set an ominous precedent for students’ rights of free expression. Two months later, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) has made national press for attempting to quietly censor a graduate student. When teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd screened a debate on “non-traditional” pronouns that included University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson for her communication studies class, her supervisor, Professor Nathan Rambukkana, accused her of creating “a toxic climate” and committing “gendered violence.” In taking such a hardline stance against what was undisputedly an academic exercise, WLU has shown a troubling disrespect for free expression, as well as students’ critical faculties.

Shepherd disagrees with Jordan Peterson and identifies as a “leftist.” As she explained in a meeting with her supervisor and in subsequent media coverage, she presented the debate neutrally, as academic material. But, according to her supervisor, Professor Rambukkana, this was beside the point. Showing Peterson’s views was equivalent to promoting them, because students might not have the critical skills to “unpack” Peterson’s views, and come to conclusions Rambukkana finds acceptable.

“These are very young students,” Rambukkana said, “and something of that nature is not appropriate to that age of student.”

This idea is as misguided as it is condescending. Students come to university to grow as thinkers and hone their critical faculties, but this doesn’t mean they haven’t wrestled with controversial ideas before. As Rambukkana knows, Peterson has a significant following on his YouTube and Twitter channels, where his opinions aren’t accompanied by any critical context. Shepherd’s class wasn’t an “unsafe” space to discuss them—it was far safer than most, offering a guarantee that ad-hominem attacks and personal insults were off-limits. Students drawn to fields like communications studies have already shown an interest in analyzing ideas. They deserve more respect than Rambukkana’s comments show them. Banishing ideas from the classroom doesn’t make them go away. At a time when we’re beginning to realize that prohibition doesn’t always mean eradication, it’s disappointing to see such regressive policy alive and well.

Debate is not the enemy; it’s the vehicle for testing legitimacy.

The “critical toolkit” that Rambukkana mentions isn’t learned in a lecture, but in practice. Universities know this: Virtually all classes in the social sciences and humanities include tutorials, like Shepherd’s, so students can learn by doing. These skills are built by engaging with real issues. Moreover, there’s no reason to fear that the principles of inclusion and equality will be mortally wounded by critically examining a debate. They are robust principles. This is true not because of any professor’s edict, but because of the efforts of those who have listened to, argued against, and, ultimately, debunked Peterson’s views. Debate is not the enemy; it’s the vehicle for testing legitimacy. Despite the ups and downs along the way, it’s a test trans rights can—and ultimately will—pass.

The student complaint (or complaints, the number is “confidential”) that began the affair came from a student in her class who felt “threatened” by the discussion. I don’t doubt that they did. Hearing views that challenge one’s beliefs is always difficult. It’s how we’re wired. It’s no doubt even harder when those issues resonate personally. But the right response isn’t to stop having discussions. As Shepherd points out in the now-infamous meeting, people like Peterson are “really out there.” Like it or not, their ideas influence the world we live in; ignoring them won’t make them go away. And, yes, confronting them is hard—for trans people and others targeted by Peterson’s rhetoric, harder than I can fully understand—but it’s the only way to discredit them. Effectively confronting misguided ideas requires first understanding their rationale, however flawed it might be.



Keating is a U0 in the Faculty of Arts planning to study political science. He’s often found reading the news and grumbling in his bathrobe.




Share this:


  1. Good article, generally, but you may be surprised to find that Peterson’s views have not been debunked, and are not likely to be debunked. Peterson is not kicking trans students out of his classes. Nor is he planning to give them lower grades in some unequal manner. His defense of English common law should make you think. You should realize that equality is not the same thing as similarity. You should realize that equality of opportunity is not the same thing as equality of outcome. You should understand that equality of opportunity does not even mean equality of input, which is actually impossible. However, I personally appreciate your wisdom in understanding that disagreement does not mean abuse, and one person’s personal freedom may be impinged upon by another person’s assumption of personal rights, and that a reasoned balance needs to be struck.

    • Saint Emerance

      You should realize that your list of “you should realize” phrases responded to no claim in this article, are deeply patronizing and statements of the blindingly obvious. That you believe that any of what you wrote there is rebutting anything pertinent to this article is the kind of willful ignorance that allows con-men like Peterson to fleece people like you via his Patreon.

  2. The article linked that supposedly debunks Peterson’s views seems to be an interpretation of bill C-16 by someone who is no more qualified to interpret law than Peterson. Likewise, I doubt that the author of this opinion piece has a good enough understanding of law to claim that one legal interpretation debunks the other. As pointed out in a comment in the linked article, the issue will be settled when we see how C-16 is interpreted by courts and tribunals, after all it is their interpretation that matters.

    • Saint Emerance

      Here’s somebody who knows the law, very well, who says Peterson’s hypothetical, which is unmoored from any understanding of law and is therefore not a “legal interpretation” worthy of the name:

      It’s not the only one I’ve seen.

      • To clarify, my comment was not meant to imply that there are no qualified lawyers who say that Peterson’s claims are nonsense.

        I’m criticizing either the author or the editor who seems to have hastily Googled “Jordan Peterson c16 debunked”, linked the 5th result which is a blog post by a non-lawyer and confidently proclaimed that Peterson’s views have been “debunked”. I uncharitably assume that the person who linked that post would not be able to summarize the arguments made by its author.

        The link you provided might have been better, although this is the same person who debated Peterson here:
        and, as I recall, seemed hardly persuasive.

        • Saint Emerance

          If a may summarize: Working from the assumption that the author is not not an authority, you discount her statements pertaining to the validity of Peterson’s claims. The link she provided that details reasons why Peterson is incorrect does not suffice, not because of anything in its content, but because the authority of its author is not evident. (It is worth mentioning that not being an authority does not, on its own, say anything dispositive about a given individual’s correctness on a given issue, although it does help other laymen weigh a claim’s innate merit against that of an actual authority). In this case, an authority is saying that non-authority Peterson is wrong and detailing why, at which point it we are introduced to the new condition that authorities also need to meet an unarticulated standard of persuasiveness, in the highly artificial format of a staged debate, for you to concede the point. That, of course, is predicated on the unfounded assumption that you do not have other excuses to produce for that eventuality.

  3. Wow. I cannot believe there are that many idiots attending and managing Canadian universities. Just looking at some of the comments below causes me to question government education in Canada. The statist Left has a strong and authoritarian hold on power. I believe we need to send some classical liberals and the “free-Left” up to Canada to stop the insanity.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Read the latest issue