November 17, 2018

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Opinion

A modest proposal for Canadian universities

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2017 (353 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Recent events at Wilfrid Laurier University have raised questions about the limits to free speech on Canadian university campuses.

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student teaching assistant, was brought before a three-person secret tribunal to address student accusations that they had been exposed to dangerous course material. She had shown a video of a debate on the use of gender-neutral pronouns between University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson and Nicolas Matte, a sexual-diversity scholar from the same university.

Shepherd, unbeknownst to her interrogators, secretly taped the meeting and later made the recording public.

Has she no shame?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2017 (353 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Recent events at Wilfrid Laurier University have raised questions about the limits to free speech on Canadian university campuses.

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student teaching assistant, was brought before a three-person secret tribunal to address student accusations that they had been exposed to dangerous course material. She had shown a video of a debate on the use of gender-neutral pronouns between University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson and Nicolas Matte, a sexual-diversity scholar from the same university.

Shepherd, unbeknownst to her interrogators, secretly taped the meeting and later made the recording public.

Has she no shame?

The offending video was shown in a communications class, which obviously is no place for a debate about communications.

Shepherd knowingly exposed her students to a set of dangerous ideas, and was chastised by her graduate supervisor for not properly contextualizing the video before showing it.

Quite right.

She failed to draw the appropriate moral equivalence between Jordan Peterson and Hitler. She thus abrogated her primary caretaker responsibility for her students: to provide a safe learning environment.

By exposing her students to the odious views of Dr. Peterson, she ran the small but non-zero risk that some students might be persuaded by his arguments.

Such breaches of fiduciary responsibility are fortunately becoming increasingly rare at Canadian universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

It is critical to protect students from contrary thinking and novel ideas that do not strictly adhere to modern concepts of social justice.

If we allowed students to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in a humanities class, we might stir atavistic capitalistic instincts causing them to engage in the commercial exploitation of babies for food.

No one wants that.

The world is a dangerous place and words can be violence. Why, just today, I began to read a piece in a university publication when I was stopped dead in my tracks: the author’s surname was "Savage."

Literally.

This brutal surname was immediately triggering.

Upon seeing it, I needed to retire to a quiet, safe place where I could enjoy a hot cup of cocoa and turn on a video of frolicking puppies to recover from the shock.

Surely I am not the only one who has noticed that surnames can be brutal, sexist, racist and, yes, hateful.

Some of these elements are intrinsic, such as: Rich (implied social inequality); Best, Bright or Good (fosters unhealthy competition); Tallman (discriminatory against short people); Strong or Savage (aggression, war-like imagery); Black or Brown (cultural appropriation).

Even the surname Green is problematic, unless the individual has a Tesla in the driveway or a verified track record of responsible composting.

Some surnames are multiply offensive. Goodman: a combination of inequality and sexism. Goodmanson is a triple threat, adding bias against non-male genders of offspring.

Hatename legislation could proscribe acceptable replacements. Goodmanson would become Averagepersonoffspring.

Other hatenames are acquired such as the name of our first prime minister — He-who-must-not-be-named, a genocidal white supremacist, according to a recent Manitoban editorial, and many others.

Quite properly, we must expunge his name from schools and other public buildings.

In the spirit of free but safe speech conducted at Canadian universities, we might debate how far to go. Within carefully proscribed limits, of course.

The argument that we should be mindful of applying modern standards of social justice to historical figures is clearly specious and can be dismissed immediately.

Rather, the surname of Prime Minister He-who-must-not-be-named is shared by many. Should all with the same offensive surname be required under human rights legislation to change it? Or just those with the given name — trigger warning — John or Jack? Should we broaden hatename coverage to similar-sounding names such as — trigger warning — McDonald? This creates an additional hamburger controversy, but we should all be vegans anyway.

We might want to discuss eliminating all prime ministerial names from public usage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a white supremacist terrorist, according to a Black Lives Matter spokesperson. Indeed, all prime ministers from He-who-must-not-be-named to the current PM have been stewards of an oppressive colonial or post-colonial heteropatriarchal power structure that has engaged in many reprehensible acts.

New hatename legislation could banish their mention in any public forum. This does create an additional problem for Wilfrid Laurier University.

Perhaps like Kentucky Fried Chicken, which rebranded itself KFC when fried food became socially unacceptable, it could become WLU.

It is quite proper to limit speech to the universal principles of social justice that we all share. While we encourage diversity of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation (religion, not so much) we must draw the line at diversity of thought.

The system evolving at Canadian universities produces greater intellectual efficiency. Critical thinking is hard. Teaching critical thinking is even harder. It is simpler, easier and just downright safer to have someone else doing the thinking for you.

Scott Forbes is an ecologist at the University of Winnipeg.

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