When an academic debate goes off the rails

Sharing nonconformist ideas shouldn't be cause for censure, but at Wilfrid Laurier University, that seems to be the case

A new episode of The Twilight Zone is playing at Wilfrid Laurier University. It features a young woman charged with spreading sedition. It’s a cliffhanger. Will our heroine genuflect and apologize or will her inquisitors execute her?

This little summary of the drama at Laurier isn’t a stretch.

The longer version, for those who missed it, involves graduate student Lindsay Shepherd, who faced an interrogation by her boss, assistant professor Nathan Rambukkana, and two other administrators, after she played a clip from TV Ontario’s current affairs show The Agenda in a tutorial.

Airing The Agenda wasn’t a crime in and of itself. But according to Rambukkana, what was scandalous – and worthy of a disciplinary hearing – was Jordan Peterson’s appearance on the video.

Peterson is the University of Toronto clinical psychologist loathed in certain corners for his protests against identity politics, postmodernist philosophy and restrictions on free speech.

He’s so loathed, in fact, that Rambukkana told Shepherd that “neutrally” playing a video of Peterson in her class was like “neutrally” showing a video of Adolf Hitler to her students.

We know Rambukkana said this because Shepherd secretly recorded the meeting and shared the tape with national media.

Peterson may be abrasive and his language comically apocalyptic at times, but he isn’t Hitler. Any comparison between this over-exposed psychology prof and the most violent anti-Semite in history is moronic.

But watching this drama unfold led me to an interesting question: At what point do bad ideas disqualify a person from academic debate?

Based on what I heard on the tape, Rambukkana and his colleagues believe Peterson should be dropped from university discussions because he holds views that run contrary to the views of people like Rambukkana and his colleagues. In other words, they seem to be saying Peterson is a nonconformist.

The other reason for censoring Peterson’s views is because, as Rambukkana said in the meeting, they are “harmful.”

This claim, more than any other, deserves questioning.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept that ideas can cause harm. If that’s the case, then Peterson is far less harmful than many cultural theorists and cultural theories peddled in communications classes.

Take a scoundrel like György Lukács, who early in his career counselled his fellow communists to act “wickedly” to ensure the destruction of capitalism. Or the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who concluded that all language is meaningless, a philosophical manoeuvre that built a freeway to nowhere. Alain Badiou is a Maoist who once wished a cultural revolution for the West. Michel Foucault’s philosophy is amoral. Martin Heidegger sided with Hitler. Louis Althusser murdered his wife. And, in case you think I’m picking on philosophers, stroll over to the English department, where the poet and Fascist propagandist Ezra Pound is still read and discussed.

Peterson, by comparison, espouses fairly mainstream conservative views on things like gender and the family. In that respect, he’s prosaic. He’s radical only in orthodoxies that consider competing views threatening and “not up for discussion.”

Peterson can be obnoxious, a good portion of his fans are losers and some of his ideas are objectionable. But he is nowhere near as socially destructive, intellectually defective or broadly influential as some of the most garlanded thinkers of the last century.

If there’s space in the academy for murderers and apologists for totalitarian regimes, surely there’s room in a communications tutorial to show a snippet of public television featuring Peterson.

Lindsay Shepherd did nothing wrong in her tutorial. She should be congratulated for trying to provoke discussion and for standing up to workplace intimidation.

Rambukkana and his colleagues, on the other hand, were wrong to discipline her, just as they are wrong about education and what the university classroom is for.

Laurier should work quickly to ensure such errors are never repeated.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

academic debate, wilfrid laurier, academic freedom

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