Letters to the Editor: Responding to controversy on campus
Due to the amount of letter submissions received, we have opted to publish all of them here in full.
Baffled and disappointed
I’m writing to register my disappointment and utter bafflement at the way this misguided free speech crusade has been handled at Laurier. When being respectful to a group of marginalized people seems like an assault on free speech, it only highlights how much privilege and how little conflict an individual can have. To the trans and non-binary individuals who are dealing with fallout of this situation in ways Ms Shepherd et al. will never experience, you matter. Your voices, your experiences, your contributions, and your thoughts matter. You deserve a safe and respectful community that supports you and challenges you to succeed without challenging your right to be there. You matter.
–Sarah Faber, BMusTh, 2008
Laurier has apologized, rallies have happened, and what’s next? I believe there are a few areas that are being neglected in our conversations about the Lindsay Shepherd case. I will focus, however, on employment standards. As a Laurier graduate student and employee, I am concerned by what did and did not happen in this situation.
Under the Employment Standards Act, and the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act there are provisions that if an allegation of harassment is made against an employee that an investigation must be conducted, which should include interviewing any witnesses and getting their statements as well. Further, the alleged harasser is to be informed of the allegation/s and have the opportunity to respond to the specific allegations that were made. Someone who is impartial and experienced in conducting workplace investigations should do the investigation. As far as we know, that did not happen at Laurier.
Moving forward, Laurier is obligated to facilitate employee rights by training employees as outlined in these key pieces of legislation. If we want to mitigate the chances of an incident like this one happening again, we need to have comprehensive training in place for everyone who works at the university. Employees have the right to be treated fairly under legislation and graduate student employees must be informed of their rights as workers. Further, Laurier must teach students that confronting differing opinions are an essential part of advancing critical thinking. If truth conquers all, then we can and will prove it.
– Julia Empey
To the trans community
To the trans community and the questioning students at Wilfrid Laurier University:
You are loved. You are important. You are resilient and strong even though you shouldn’t have to be. Your existence is meaningful to your family (blood, chosen or otherwise), your friends, and countless people you have yet to meet. The work you are doing to educate yourself is powerful and worthy of recognition. It is a declaration that you will not live small in a dangerous world.
No matter what course you choose in life, you are deserving of safety and joy. You are worthy of a life lived fiercely and without apology.
–Lindsay Jack, Laurier trans alumnus/alumna ‘12
Staff left off of task force
Why is Deborah MacLatchy leaving out members of staff from the task force on freedom of expression? To me, this demonstrates the lack of respect that is generally shown for them on a daily basis. Their supervisors refer to them as “my staff,” as if they were serving them personally. This manner of elitist insult is endemic. More to the point, earlier this year, staff were forced to attend a pronoun workshop, where they were pretty much told flat out that they were transphobic if they didn’t get with the program and adopt the Newspeak. This workshop wasn’t optional: Laurier shoved it down their throats. The thinking seems to be that staff are mindless cattle, despite the fact that many have advanced degrees. That said, it doesn’t require a university education to have an opinion and to deserve freedom of expression. The contempt shown toward staff at Laurier continues to appall.
Furthermore, the staff at Laurier are also subject to attacks upon their personal freedom for committing Thoughtcrimes. Human Resources and supervisors interpret harassment policy in a freestyle manner. This allows them to trespass into an employee’s personal life as they see fit. Those members of staff without union representation are particularly vulnerable to being accused of wrongdoing. And yes, members of staff who’ve been forced to engage lawyers to defend themselves against the Thought Police at Laurier would probably be vocal on a task force. These people exist. They are quiet and afraid, if they continue to work at Laurier at all. I should think, given MacLatchy’s vehement denunciation of what happened to Lindsay Shepherd, that she would welcome the voices of these individuals.
Open letter to Dr. MacLatchy
Dear Dr. MacLatchy,
We write to you today to express our sentiment and disappointment regarding the issue with the meeting between Nathan Rambukkana, Herbert Pimlott, Adria Joel, and Lindsay Shepherd, and your apology to L. Shepherd.
As it has become public, we have recently reviewed the conversation regarding the problem of a Jordan Peterson (JP) video shown in a first-year class of undergraduate students, in the context of pronoun use, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the use of pronouns but everything to do with privilege, power, and oppression. We have listened to both sides of the discussion per the audio recording, and we agree with the faculty and staff assessment – negating trans rights in the name of ‘not taking sides’ is against the Ontario Human Rights Code1 and morally inexcusable. This was not a contextual debate, and the fact that L. Shepherd admits to following JP is a red flag, though, they assert they do not agree with JP’s ideologies.
However, the insistence that they did nothing wrong may belie that point, and given their posts on social media it would be hard to argue that L. Shepherd and JP do not share similar ideologies. It is assumed by some that university classrooms are safe places to have discussion and debate around various issues in our society; however, this was not one of those times. L. Shepherd’s tutorial was gendered violence perpetuated in class, as it is perpetuated in the wider school campus and in our province and country. In their defense, L. Shepherd discussed how they wanted to open the eyes of first-year 18 and 19-year-old students who bring with them their thoughts and beliefs of how the macro and microcosms of this world should work. But we must ask if we can truly comprehend the full extent of JP’s dogma if introduced in class without full context? We see the evidence all around us on our campus in forms of violence and oppression, such as white supremacy, anti-Black racism, homo and transphobia, attacks on reproductive rights and human rights. Debate about these issues need not be had – there is no debating the violence, but what is important to teach is how views such as JP’s are harmful and toxic to students – all students, not just those marginalized.
Furthermore, returning to a debate about pronouns and the autonomy of trans students to be referred to in ways that assert their identity is a circular and damaging process that does nothing but stall progress, harm trans students, and affirm these discriminatory ideas as legitimate when they have been disproven ad infinitum. L. Shepherd departed from the goals of the tutorial by introducing the JP video and did so in a way that was detrimental to trans and non-binary students. If it not safe for students of marginalized status to come to a university for fear of being exposed to this type of discrimination and oppression, then will we continue to have student campuses populated by those of the dominant culture, that is cis-gender white people?
Taking the student perspective of the lesson, L. Shepherd felt they needed to ‘shield us’ from society, yet paradoxically was incredulous at the idea of ‘insulating and comforting’ students. Does L. Shepherd know our experiences? Can they imagine what it is like to live the life of someone on the margins? We do not need the great white saviour to swoop in to succor us. What we need is university leadership that understands the difference between the values that Laurier aspires to and the rhetorical guise of free speech/freedom of expression/academic freedom/public debate that harms those who are different or do not subscribe to the status quo of domination. And yes, those of us who do not fit that mold have the right to not be exposed to trans and homophobic dogma as we attempt to attain an education that is already prefaced by the dominant colonial discourse. It is not complex. It is not difficult. JP’s rhetoric is not up for debate – it is hateful, spiteful, and violent and exudes a gendered white supremacist ideology. Does that really have a place in an institution that names as part of its strategic plan to “Build a diverse 21st-century university by educating a larger proportion of students from outside the traditional cohort of Ontario high school graduates?”
L. Shepherd’s feels their idea of personal development is what we should be subscribing to. This is what we understand as part of the conversation. They want to make us stronger as persons… for us to challenge our beliefs. L. Shepherd implies that seeing our lived realities negated would better prepare us for life outside academia; however, they do not know the wherewithal, resolve, and tenacity we needed to get to this point of our academic careers, and the resilience and armour we will need to finish. And to note: JP and followers’ rhetoric has given license to those now emboldened to go forth without fear of repercussion – we find on Laurier campus overt acts of hate against those who do not subscribe to the ‘traditional.’ As we are not members of the dominant population, we need to work double-hard to get where L. Shepherd is today. And if they were able to empathize with us, we think they might understand how their comments and just as importantly their mindset are harmful to marginalized people. We must constantly battle to maintain our humanity, and we share with you Dr. MacLatchy, it is utterly exhausting, with outcomes for us such as disproportionate detrimental health disparities, as we must continually fight this fight on many fronts, including this one.
Perhaps L. Shepherd should be concerned about their own professional development, which Professor Rambukkana attempted to improve. L. Shepherd surreptitiously recorded a conversation that was not meant to be public, knowing they could direct the conversation in a way that would favour their position. L. Shepherd was so concerned about their right to free speech that they disregarded Professor Rambukkana and the other attendees’ right to privacy. L. Shepherd’s knowledge that they were secretly recording provided them with an ability to frame their narrative succinctly and in a way that the other people in the room were unable, because they were not aware they were being recorded. As a communications student, L. Shepherd knew what they were doing and intended to transform an internal dispute with their supervisor into a national debate that framed Laurier as an oppressive institution.
Another point L. Shepherd attempted to make in their defense was that students will be exposed to this hate rhetoric when they leave university, so it is incumbent upon L. 3 Shepherd to ‘teach us’ what we may face when we leave this institution. We must note that, for Indigenous, marginalized, and racialized peoples, we do not need to leave university to be exposed to hate, bigotry, discrimination, and racism – we live it everyday, on and off campus. Thus, we do not need to be exposed further to the violence that befalls us daily when we come to school, which is supposed to be a safe place for us. This point that L. Shepherd refers to speaks to their privilege and lack of empathy. As with many of us who are marginalized, content is ‘taught’ in class that further pushes us out. The content is not taught in sensitive and empathetic context, but instead from a white dominant position. Yes, everything IS about those students who were threatened. Why can we not have a place of safety in which to learn? The fact that L. Shepherd thinks it is acceptable to create a toxic learning environment in the name of their ‘neutral right to teach’ is troubling; the fact that they think what they did was neutral is disconcerting, as well. L. Shepherd victim-blamed the students who took offence for not being open to new viewpoints – whose viewpoint? A strange statement when we consider many of us live these perspectives on the daily. Again, L. Shepherd showing but not acknowledging their privilege.
“In the university all perspectives are valid.” NO. This statement is incorrect and the crux of the problem – The equating of hate speech with free speech and freedom of expression and academic freedom in the guise of public debate. All perspectives are not valid in that those who promote violence against a person or group should not be tolerated, nor apologized to. Speech that attacks persons or groups based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or age, and propping up white supremacy is hate speech. This kind of speech has been used to harm people and worse. This is the space Dr. MacLatchy, that you are perpetuating on our campus. We have already verified examples of death threats that have been received by our fellow peers, and this is not the first time that students at this university have been terrorized due to not towing the line of what the dominant declared to be the correct course of action. Is this tolerable? Is this free speech?
The faculty and staff who were explaining to L. Shepherd why using the video without empathetic positioning and context was problematic were calm and insightful, and used many different examples to explain to L. Shepherd how their lack of framing of the issue caused harm. However, given that there were three people of position and power, facing one person alone, I can understand why L. Shepherd would be defensive and argue their points. Unfortunately, this does not lead them to understanding the hurt and unsafe circumstances of their lesson that day. This meeting was not a situation where learning for L. Shepherd could take place, given the differential power dynamics. We do hope this is one of the agenda items on the list of the enquiry, and we do hope that the voices of those trodden upon will be heard – this is not a one-sided affair, but yet again, certain voices are pushed to the margins and silenced. Free speech for some, but not for everyone. This is the climate that has been created on this campus.
We believe apologies should be given for the way this meeting took place, but we do not believe that staff and faculty needed to apologize for their message; In that vein, L. Shepherd should apologize to the students they offended and apologize for offending the wider marginalized Laurier community, because now we must comfort L. Shepherd in their fragility, while not acknowledging or dismissing our own pain. Since the university apologized for the content of the discussion, then the message we hear is that L. Shepherd is right in their assertion, and that trans rights and human rights are usurped by hateful rhetoric in the guise of academic freedom, and dismisses us, as persons of intersectional identities. We did not read anywhere in your response to this situation Dr. MacLatchy, about an apology to the students who were harmed by the showing of this video. Who supports them? Faculty and staff did, but not leadership. This is evident in the very letter you sent to the student body, in which you did not provide resources or support for students that were impacted by such destructive discussion, who feel unsafe coming to campus because you do not believe the harm that has been caused, except for that of L. Shepard. You do not believe the experiences of the very students you represent; well, you believe the experiences of some students.
There is no room for white supremacy in a university setting, yet this situation is fraught with clear posturing of white supremacy. There is no room to use the guise of free speech/public debate/academic freedom to uphold white supremacy, yet white supremacy is defended. We are sorry Dr. MacLatchy, but your apology falls on the wrong side of right.
–Concerned students of Wilfrid Laurier University who remain anonymous due to fear of harm, retribution, and repercussion. As the issue has been taken up in public discourse, L. Shepherd has been using their expanded public platform and social media following to target individuals and groups who have spoken out about the harm to the trans community. Students and resource support people at Laurier have been intentional targets of doxxing attacks by L. Shepherd, which has lead to ongoing intimidation, harassment, violence, and death threats.
Open letter to Dr. MacLatchy
Dear Dr. MacLatchy, We are adding our support to the opinions expressed by our colleagues in their letter, but we are coming from the position of individuals with many privileges afforded to us. Our peers have skillfully addressed many of our shared concerns with this situation and 5 the university’s apology. We only seek to add that the current discourse taking place in the media has revolved almost exclusively around the concept of academic freedom, namely the academic freedom of L. Shepherd. However, this conversation ignores a professor’s right to control what content is presented in their course, as well as a student’s right to push back against content being taught to them. Power-sharing and the critique of course content should not stop at the Teaching Assistant (TA) level; undergraduate students are also a part of the academic institution and have a right to self-determination in their education.
We understand the immense pressure the university is under to address the current, biased media representation and we support the apology towards L. Shepherd, but only as it relates to the skewed power dynamic of three faculty and staff members confronting one student. What we do not support is an official university apology based on a supposed violation of academic freedom, at the cost of student safety. The freedom to develop tutorial content is a privilege given to some TAs – it is not an unquestioned right. We came into our own graduate TA-ships with the understanding that we were there to develop skills in becoming effective instructors, not to assume we are already qualified for leading complex discussions without proper oversight. For a professor to address complaints from their students and request that certain material not be discussed in their class without prior contextualization is not something a professor or a university need apologize for.
We urge the university to consider the students who chose to exercise their right to critique their learning by lodging a complaint against L. Shepherd. These students were done a great disservice in the last few weeks by having their concerns minimized in the interest of a larger debate about academic freedom. As well, we implore you to address and provide follow-up actions of supports for the trans student community at Laurier. An apology to L. Shepherd was given priority over explicitly addressing the harm that has been placed upon Laurier’s trans and non-binary students, not only in the tutorial content but also in the increased harassment of trans students since the first media release and in the impact of media upholding transphobic ideologies. We sincerely hope that the university chooses to empathetically address this harm to the trans community as quickly as it addressed L. Shepherd’s concerns.
–Teaching Assistants and Concerned Students of Wilfrid Laurier University who remain anonymous due to fear of harm, retribution, and repercussion.
The most terrifying reaction I had was that she was so outnumbered and overpowered in that room. To have three authoritative figures corner her emotionally, I am inspired that she summoned the courage that she did. It is so astonishing that all three of those figures cited multiple human rights codes on her, and yet they can’t even act properly towards another human being. They have the audacity to compare her to Hitler, and yet ironically, they were the ones dictating and berating. How have these staff members gotten to a place where they overlook human decency in exchange for a reminder that they hold the only way to think? If this is the path our humanity is headed, we can forget about pronouns.